The Onion’s AV Club
(Originally published August 11 2009)
After devouring And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers On Their Craft, a compulsively readable dissection of the comic mind by Vanity Fair staffer Mike Sacks, I want to give its author the highest praise any writer can give another: His book made me insanely fucking jealous, and not just because he’s kicking ass on Amazon.
Sacks has written a book I wanted to write myself. Even more unforgivably, he’s done a better job than I probably would have. A few years back, I thought about writing a book of interviews about the craft of comedy to be called Dying Is Easy. (As in, “but comedy is hard.”) Like many of my ideas, it never made it past the daydreaming stage.
I’ve always found the creative process fascinating, especially where comedy is concerned. But I wondered whether delving deep into the mechanics of comedy would be edifying or tedious. Would traveling deep inside the comic mind be a Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory-like journey through a wondrous and fantastical sphere, or a dispiriting field trip to the hot-dog factory? Does analyzing comedy drain the joy out of it?
Kicker answers that last question with a defiant, “Oh God no, Fuckface.” One of the many things I loved about Kicker is its A.V. Club sensibility. Back in the day, The A.V. Club interviewed a lot of obscure/random folks because we didn’t have access to big names. This worked out well, as Mr. T and Herschell Gordon Lewis had a lot more to say than the hot actress of the day. Similarly, Sacks didn’t get Stephen Colbert or Sacha Baron Cohen or David Letterman or Ricky Gervais to spend five hours delving deep into their work, but he did snag Colbert Report producer Allison Silverman, longtime Cohen collaborator Dan Mazer, Letterman writer Merrill Markoe, and Gervais partner Stephen Merchant. Silverman, Mazer, Markoe, and Merchant deliver fascinating insights into the methods and processes of Colbert, Cohen, Letterman, and Gervais respectively.
I knew of Markoe by reputation, but after reading Kicker, I feel like I’ve spent a few hours picking her brain over dinner. In one of my favorite passages, Markoe says she was attracted to Letterman—her longtime boyfriend—in no small part because she was impressed by his choice of nouns. How fucking beautiful is that? Is there anything more geekily romantic than word-selection-based mating? The interviews have a casual intimacy that’s enormously winning. Sacks (who, full disclosure, interviewed me for an upcoming Vanity Fair online piece), followed Jack Paar’s advice to a young Dick Cavett: “Kid, don’t make it an interview. Interviews have clipboards, and you’re like David Frost. Make it a conversation.” Appropriately enough, Sacks gets some great stuff out of his freewheeling conversation with Dick Cavett, from an anecdote about being on a dinner date with Marlon Brando, and getting propositioned by a woman eager to be the meat in a Dick Cavett/Marlon Brando sex sandwich (incidentally, Dick Cavett Marlon Brando Sex Sandwich is so going to be the name of my new ska band) to a blackly comic story about a guest—a health buff, no less—who literally dropped dead of a heart attack while Cavett was interviewing him.
As with Markoe, I knew M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart only by reputation, as a respected comedy veteran. Now I feel like I know him as a writer and a man. In fact, I kind of want him to be my grandfather. Gelbart gets one of the book’s best and most surprising lines when he argues that what comedy is really missing these days is Judaism. That’s like saying the NBA desperately lacks tall black men, and musical theater is in dire need of gay men. Gelbart says comedy has lost the scruffy underdog vitality Jews historically brought to it, that it’s become too whitebread and WASPy. I don’t agree with him at all. In my mind, Jewish comedy is American comedy; it’s had such an enormous effect on the mainstream that it almost doesn’t make sense to delineate between Jewish and non-Jewish comedy. But it takes balls to decry the lack of Judaism in comedy. Now that I think about it, what comedy is really missing is Harvard Lampoon alumni. When are those guys finally going to make their presence felt?
The greatest of Sacks’ finds is Irving Brecher, an ancient, now-deceased old fogey who wrote for Bob Hope and the Marx brothers while barely old enough to shave. In a perfect world, Brecher would be treated like an American treasure. Journalists would line up to pick his brain and mine the wisdom and experience he’s accrued. In this imperfect world, we’re lucky Sacks took advantage of his decades of juicy anecdotes while there was still time.
It would be easy for interviews about the craft of comedy to come off as dry or academic; Kicker is anything but. These are funny fucking people. An unspoken spirit of friendly competition and one-upmanship courses through these interviews: Nobody wanted to be the stiff of the bunch, especially in such distinguished company. So Kicker is filled with exchanges that linger in the mind. Here’s my favorite, from an interview with Mad Magazine fold-in guru Al Jaffee:
Sacks: Was there a sense of camaraderie in the golden age of Mad, say from the early sixties through the mid-seventies?
Jaffee: Oh, a great deal. Absolutely! Mad’s publisher, Bill Gaines, did something very clever: He would take the whole staff on an annual trip abroad. And we lived together for anywhere from seven to seventeen days. We hung out together. We all went out to restaurants together.
These trips were also an inducement to produce more material; if you didn’t hit your cutoff each year, you weren’t allowed on the trips. In the beginning, it was 20 pages of published material, and later you had to produce 25 every year. The trip was a reward for increased contributions. I was one of a few contributors who was on every single trip. I never missed the cutoff.
Our first vacation was to Haiti in 1960.
Sacks: Why Haiti?
Jaffee: We went there to pay a visit to the one and only Haitian subscriber to Mad. On the entire island, there was only that one subscriber, and he had let his subscription lapse. So when we got there, Bill Gaines took a bunch of writers and illustrators over to this guy’s house and knocked on the door. When the guy answered, Bill offered him the gift of a renewal.
In exchanges like these, Sacks conjures up an entire world lost to the ages. The image of the entire Usual Gang Of Idiots descending upon Haiti to offer a renewal to a single gobsmacked subscriber is one I will cherish. How can the world be an altogether cruel and detestable place when it contains stories like that? The Haiti anecdote follows an even more fascinating exchange about “The Lighter Side Of…” creator Dave Berg:
Sacks: What was Dave Berg like as a person?
Jaffee: Dave had a messianic complex of some sort. He was battling… he had good and evil inside of him, clashing all the time. It was sad, in a sense, because he wanted to be taken very seriously, and, you know, the staffers at Mad just didn’t take anybody seriously. Most of all, ourselves.
Sacks: Do you think Dave Berg’s inner battle later expressed itself in his strip “The Lighter Side Of…”
Jaffee: It came out in a lot of things he did. He had a very moralistic personality. I mean, he moralized all the time. And his gags were very suburban middle-class America. Plus, he was very religious. He wrote a book called My Friend God. And, of course, if you write a book like that, you know that the Mad staff is going to make fun of you. We would ask him questions like, “Dave, when did you and God become such good friends? Did you go to college together, or what?”
I think Dave had a feeling that his contribution to the success of Mad wasn’t appreciated enough. And I think this bothered him. He once told a staff member that he received so much fan mail that they had to hide it from him. And he really believed this. Naturally, most of us would just roll our eyes, because we didn’t expect tons and tons of fan mail; and if there was fan mail we always received it. I guess Dave felt he was carrying the whole magazine, and he should have been treated royally.
Of course, not everyone is fascinated by accounts of the tormented psyches of legendary Mad writers. I sure am, and I suspect that a lot of A.V. Club readers feel the same way. In fact, I’ll go even further: if you aren’t fascinated by stories of Dave Berg’s existential angst and God complex, then buy yourself a suit and a nice wooden box, ’cause you’re dead to me. Harsh? Maybe.
Kicker has a dual audience: It’s for comedy geeks who can’t get enough information about their favorite shows, movies, and performers (like Paul Feig’s plans for Freaks And Geeks, had it survived to a second season, or the exact number of times Cohen was pulled over by the cops while shooting Borat) but it’s also very clearly pitched to aspiring comedy writers. It’s filled with great advice on how to make it in an insanely difficult field. If someone were to ask me how to break into comedy writing, I would encourage them to read this book and previous Show-Biz Book Club entry Born Standing Up.
Kicker builds to a funny, sad, tremendously insightful group portrait of the comic mind. It’s an almost sociological dissection of the strange creature that is the comedy writer. In his glorious extended ramble through the minds of comedy greats, Sacks finds a number of common denominators, like depression, self-doubt, raging insecurity, a predilection toward obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a borderline pathological need to entertain.
It’s enormously comforting to realize that some of the most gifted writers in the world (other Kicker subjects include David Sedaris, Harold Ramis, Buck Henry, Mitch Hurwitz, Robert Smigel, Dave Barry, Bob Odenkirk, George Meyer, and The Onion’s great Todd Hanson) wrestle with the same demons we do. They are a fucked-up, wondrous breed of misfit. They’re not normal; they’re better than normal. They’re lucky to have a gifted chronicler like Sacks documenting their curious ways and odd customs for posterity.