Time Out Chicago

(Originally appeared in July 23 2009)

In Mike Sacks’s new book, 21 scribes discuss the art of comedy writing. By Jonathan Messinger

Elvis Costello once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. What then would writing about comedy writing be?

Turns out, as evidenced by Mike Sacks’s new book, And Here’s the Kicker (Writer’s Digest Books, $17.99), it’s pretty funny. Sacks interviewed 21 of the country’s top comic scribblers, including Onion editor Todd Hanson, essayist David Sedaris, director Harold Ramis, SNL host and Daily Show contributor Buck Henry, and SNL and Conan O’Brien writer Robert Smigel (best known, perhaps, as the man with his hand up Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). Sacks, an editor for Vanity Fair, geared the book toward the aspiring writer looking to break into sitcoms with “quick and painless advice” from industry experts. That’s not to say comedy aficionados won’t enjoy the book: The candid, behind-the-scenes interviews dig deep into the arcana of some of our favorite shows and careers.

Fans of the much-mourned sitcom Arrested Development would be surprised to find out from creator Mitch Hurwitz that around the time Fox was canceling the show, Hurwitz was on his way to burning out. Cult hero Bob Odenkirk (The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show) talks about his days as a writer for Saturday Night Live, feeling creatively stifled by the way ideas were dismissed out of hand. And Smigel dishes about the apocryphal sitcom pilot he cocreated with O’Brien, Lookwell.

Sacks also sat down with industry veterans, such as Marx Brothers writer Irving Brecher and talk-show stalwart Dick Cavett, who have seen comedy change dramatically over the years. “[Brecher] couldn’t deal with certain subjects,” Sacks says via telephone. “He couldn’t even use the word damn. But he liked having constrictions, whereas someone like Dan Mazer has absolutely no limitations.”

In his interview with Mazer, a writer for satirist Sacha Baron Cohen vehicles Da Ali G Show, Borat and Brüno, Sacks reveals the amount of preparation that goes into creating what appear to be spontaneous scenes. Mazer says he and a few others write about 75 to 80 percent of each segment beforehand, trying to predict how people will respond and feed Baron Cohen the appropriate jokes to steer the conversation. “We probably have a file of scripts and jokes that extends to about 3,000 pages,” Mazer says.

“There is that feeling of authenticity that people like: It’s funnier the more real it seems, even if it’s heavily prepared for,” Sacks says. “But you still have to have someone like Sacha Baron Cohen who can hold all of that in his head, and who’s totally fearless.”

If there’s a drawback to And Here’s the Kicker, it’s the lack of women voices. Comedy has always been a male-dominated industry. The only two women included here are Letterman writer Merrill Markoe and Daily Show scribe Allison Silverman. Markoe, for her part, explains that not many women worked for Letterman because not many women could replicate his voice. In our interview, Sacks expresses frustration over the lack of women interviewees. He says he tried all of the top names, including Amy Poehler and Amy Sedaris, and even tried Tina Fey for two years. “You need a tremendous ego to talk about yourself and your craft, so maybe they’re lacking that,” Sacks says. “Or, you know, they’re so successful, maybe they just didn’t feel the need to sit down.”

A humor writer in his own right (his essays on Mcsweeneys.net are some of the best the humor site has ever published), Sacks says he started putting together the book largely so he could meet some of the writers he most admired. And aside from the dirt and the backstage scuttlebutt, he managed to learn about the business, too.

“Everyone at every level struggles,” he says. “It’s a very important lesson to beginning writers. Larry Gelbart [M*A*S*H, Tootsie] can still express frustration with the business, so know that everyone goes through that.”

And Here’s the Kicker is out now.