National Post

(Originally appeared July 27 2009)

And Here’s the Kicker
Interview with comedy writing expert Mike Sacks. By Ben Kaplan

Mike Sacks is a New York-based journalist who’s written the bonafide comedy writer’s handbook called And Here’s the Kicker. A cross between a how-to manual, gag reel and 21 mini-biographies, the book features such writers as Buck Henry, Al Jaffee, Marshall Brickman, Harold Ramis and Dave Barry delving into their most famous works, which includes everything from The Graduate to stories in The New Yorker to launching The Onion to writing for The Simpsons, Bruno and Annie Hall. And Here’s the Kicker is presented as 21 Q&A’s, so Ben Kaplan subjected the 40-year-old Tulane-graduate to a similar ordeal.

Who would you want writing the Mike Sacks story and why?

David Sedaris would be nice. If he ever wanted to write a story about my life, he’d be more than free to do so. Hear that, David? Get on it.

How did you decide Larry Gelbart would make a better interview than Chris Rock?

The life of a humour writer has always interested me: who are the nameless, faceless people behind the scenes writing the jokes that the performers will tell in front of audiences (and get all the credit for)? How did they get there? What’s their job like? Are they okay with being nameless and faceless, and not getting the credit that they deserve?

Irving Brecher wrote for Groucho Marx and died 13 months after your interview. What can you tell us about him?

Irv was incredibly sharp, even at the age of 93, and had fabulous stories about writing for the Marx Brothers, working on the screenplay for Wizard of Oz and having a first-hand look at the size of Milton Berle’s penis. He compared it to a “salami chub.” One doesn’t hear references to “salami chubs” much anymore, at least in reference to my own penis.

TV writers are given a lot of territory. Aren’t screenplays every comedy writer’s dream?

When you look at The Simpsons, Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development, you can see some of the sharpest humour writing of the past 25 years. The Simpsons Movie didn’t come close to the TV show in terms of being funny and sharp.

What advice would you give an aspiring comedy writer?

Network as much as possible with like-minded people, write every day (or as much as you can), and never give up–unless you really stink. How do you know if you stink? Check out page 254 of my book.

In the book, you show off an encyclopedic knowledge of comic history. Where did your own fascinations begin and how much research did you do for the 21 interviews?

Truthfully, I’m no more an expert on comedy than anyone else, I just did a tremendous amount of preparation for each interview–up to 30 hours or so. And I also deleted any questions that made me sound like an idiot. But I always was a fan of comedy, dating back to Late Night with David Letterman. I thought that show was brilliant, and I was a particular fan of the bits that Chris Elliott would perform on the show. His characters were bizarre and scary and funny and wonderful. I think he was brilliant when he was on that show.

What was the hardest part about trying to line-up your subjects?

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, most of the writers who didn’t get back to me were women.

If God granted you one wish, and you chose to use it on securing one last interview, who would that person be?

Jean Shepherd. He wrote the stories that the movie A Christmas Story is based on. I loved his writing and, beyond that, he was an amazing story teller (he appeared on overnight radio for more than thirty years). He died about six years ago.

Which interview most closely resembled pulling teeth?

It’s funny you should say that because my father is a dentist. But, yes, more than a few interviews didn’t go so well. I interviewed 40 writers total, and 21 made the final cut. Perhaps one day you’ll hear the interviews on some sort of blooper reel.

What was the funniest thing the funniest person you interviewed told you?

David Sedaris told me a story about having written an episode for Seinfeld. He’d never seen the show before. The producer liked David’s work and asked him to contribute. So David wrote an episode that had to do with Elaine babysitting her psychiatrist’s dog, who just happens to have elephantitis of the testicles. Obviously, the show never made it to air. I told David that I actually saw that very episode on Full House, but he didn’t believe me.

Was there a common thread between subjects?

OCD cropped up with the majority of these writers. I only asked because I, too, suffer from OCD. I actually contacted Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness) to ask if there was a connection between being humour writing and suffering from OCD, but he said he knew of none. Depression was also a common factor, not too surprisingly. If a reader thinks that writing humour is all fun and games, then maybe this book won’t be for them. There’s a lot of sadness that surrounds humour, that’s always been the case–at least with the best humour.

So, unfortunately, not every one of our readers is going to buy this book. Give us the book’s second best joke.

As far as the second best joke, here it is. It’s a “Deep Thought” written by Jack Handey: You know what would make a good story? Something about a clown who makes people happy, but inside he’s really sad. Also, he has severe diarrhea.