18 Things You Learn After Interviewing 80 or So Comedy Writers
(Originally appeared on Vulture, June 24, 2014)
In 2009, I published a compilation of interviews with comedy writers called And Here’s the Kicker. Badly in need of a large sum of money to pay for a recent cosmetic surgery (I had my Adam’s apple shaved to appear less frightening to my child), I decided last year to write a sequel to that first book of interviews, this one to be called Poking a Dead Frog. Let me explain the title. It has to do with comedy and how people in the comedy world like frogs. It might sound complicated, but it isn’t, and it’s all explained in the book, which comes out today.
In honor of this historic event, I’ve chosen to take a few minutes away from blasting The Dennis Miller Show at full volume while tooling around in my Toyota RAV4 to write down some of the things I’ve learned in the past few years about this mysterious breed of human called “comedy writers.”
1. Comedy writers tend to suffer from depression. And Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And anxiety. And everything else. Then again, so does every other person who works in any other profession. We just tend to hear about it more from comedy writers.
2. Comedy writers are still mighty pissed off about not being popular in high school. To the average adult, this might not sound like such a big deal, but did you spend prom night at home alone watching a bootleg video of Black Adder? You did? Them, too. Maybe you should have hooked up.
3. Comedy writers do not suffer fools gladly. If you do have the opportunity to interview a comedy writer, be on your toes. At all times.
4. The act of writing comedy never gets any easier, no matter the amount of time spent writing comedy. This is why so many comedy writers go insane.
5. Another reason they go insane: They have to produce comedy every day, regardless of their mood. They got in a fight with their wife or husband? Who cares? Their dog just ran off with the neighbor’s cat? Are they upset about all that? Sure, who wouldn’t be? But now they still have to write 50 jokes about Obama’s Health Care Act before noon. Tell me you wouldn’t go insane.
6. No comedy writer gets into the biz for the money. If they do, they’ll most likely end up with one credit to their IMDB page, and that credit will be for a cable movie featuring a hot-air balloon and an elephant. No one who’s successful became a comedy writer to strike it rich. Leave the money to the assholes who work in office parks off I-270 and who think Two and a Half Men is really, really funny.
7. All comedy writers have been inspired by basically the same ten comedic inspirations. Here they are: Monty Python, SNL, Mr. Show, Bob & Ray, Mad magazine, National Lampoon, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and … one other genius whose name I’m forgetting. Oh yeah, the guy who created the 1980s sitcom Small Wonder.
8. The best comedy is always produced without network interference: The Simpsons, The Onion, and Mr. Show are good examples of this. Do whatever the fuck you want, however the fuck you want to do it, and avoid the suggestions from the “experts” who laugh at puns and wear bow ties.
9. And yet … you do have to play the game. In short: Be nice. No one wants to work with an asshole, even if you are a genius, and you’re probably not. If an expert in a bow tie suggests that you insert a pun into your script, just do it. Is it gonna kill you?
10. The quickest way to success? Surround yourself with like-minded talented friends. Where are these potential friends? Probably also sitting at home watching television. Get your ass out of the house.
11. Like most skills in life, comedy is something that you have to teach yourself. No one’s going to teach it to you. No books, including mine, will “show you the way.” No courses will make you into a great success. So why should you buy my book? Didn’t I tell you earlier about the frog quote?
12. Dick Cavett’s garbage man while growing up as a kid in Nebraska was Charles Starkweather, later the inspiration for the Martin Sheen character in the 1973 movie Badlands. Not sure what this signifies, but it fascinates me.
13. He’s not the only comedy writer I interviewed to have a brush with a murderer. Marshall Brickman, the co-writer of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Sleeper, came close to attending the party at Terry Melcher’s house the night of the Manson murders in August 1969. Brickman decided, instead, to head down to the Malibu beach in order to watch a colony of phosphorescent plankton that had drifted in from the Pacific Ocean. Bruce Jay Friedman, the great novelist and screenwriter, was nearly killed the night “Crazy” Joey Gallo was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam House in New York City, in 1971. Again, not sure what all this signifies, but it fascinates me.
14. Okay, just one more horror story, and this one is also true: 32-year-old Dan Guterman, who’s written for The Onion, The Colbert Report, and Community, was — as an 11-year-old — savagely attacked by a bald eagle at the Birds of Prey Exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. Again, means nothing, I suppose.
15. Big names don’t necessarily make for big interviews. I won’t use specific names, but just because you’re a comedic legend does not mean that the resulting interview will be worth reading. Sad, but true.
16. Comedy writers are usually the quiet ones you knew in high school and college, rather than the class clowns. They’re usually still the quiet ones. Comedy writers aren’t usually “on.” As Conan O’Brien — who actually might be more “on” than most writers — once said, “I was not the class clown … I’ve always maintained that the class clown, the guy [who] when the teacher is out of the room sets the clock back, makes noise, throws water balloons around the room, those kids … grow up and they’re killed in a motel shoot-out.”
17. Comedy writers are just like everyone else, only funnier. How did they become funnier than everyone else? They started off funny, yes, but they also worked incredibly hard at honing their craft, in some cases for more than 70 years. Just look at 88-year-old Mel Brooks, still as busy as he was at 28. Or Peg Lynch, 97 years old and still writing comedy every day. Writing comedy is like any other skill set: It has to be constantly practiced until you can pull it off effortlessly, much like playing the piano or faking your laugh while listening to your libertarian uncle tell jokes about the government at Thanksgiving.
18. In the end, very few — if any — successful comedy writers ever truly know how exactly they became successful … and it’s almost as if they don’t want to know. It’s always kind of a mystery. Everyone has to figure it out for themselves. This will be painful, but what can you do? You can only put your head down and never stop.