Chicago Tribune

(Originally published August 15 2009)

THE SAD TALES OF COMEDY WRITERS, by Christopher Borrelli

And Here’s the Kicker, by Mike Sacks

I made the mistake of reading Mike Sacks’ new big book of interviews with comedy writers, And Here’s the Kicker (Writer’s Digest, $17.99), just after reading all 693 pages of The Stories of John Cheever, and while you might think the light Q&A format and subject of the latter would be a welcome relief after the loathing and suburban dislocation of the former, you would be wrong. Comedy writers are horrible individuals–no, “horrible” is wrong. Comedy writers are truly miserable people.

Funnier than the philanderers and alienated blue bloods of Cheever, but more self-aware in their misery, comedy writers are doomed to stare headlong into it, while making fun of it. The professional comedy writer, as And Here’s the Kicker provides fascinating evidence, is simply unable to enjoy–the best of them are deficient of a bright side.

Which is why comedy comes in–it serves as a kind of fleeting placebo, offering the briefest illusion of relief.

Or as the deeply pessimistic Simpsons writer George Meyer tells Sacks, comedy “kept me alive” and “showed me an alternative to the grim worldview of thwarted adults.” He may have written many of the best-loved installments of that classic, but taken as a whole, his episodes–Homer quits church, Bart quits Thanksgiving, Lisa loses trust in government–suggest a man fixated squarely on the meaninglessness of existence. Sounds familiar.

Sacks’s talk with Todd Hanson chips away at a profound sadness you may have been laughing too hard to notice in The Onion. Hanson, who helped establish the satirical newspaper at the University of Wisconsin in 1989, has been its head writer for 20 years, a remarkable length of time to churn out one dark headline after another. But Hanson says he has a rule: “I don’t find jokes funny if they’re not honest.” Which is as quietly insightful as any a description of that wincing laugh you’ve suffered from Hanson’s best work. He’s the guy behind “Local Man Might as Well Give Up” and “Utter Failure to Spend the Rest of Day in Bed.” (Indeed, for that last one, Hanson was the guy pictured in bed.)