Crafting comedy isn't funny business. Between writing "And Here's The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft" and his new book "Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today's Top Comedy Writers," Mike Sacks has learned that humor writers are pretty peculiar.
"I'm not sure if [humor writers] are more obsessive than people in other professions, but they can be obsessive about writing and getting better," Sacks tells us. "If you want to be a success, you have to be obsessive. It's not like Mel Brooks stopped working. There's an obsessiveness within him of wanting to succeed after others may view him as having achieved all there is to achieve."
Besides Mel Brooks, some other comedians Sacks interviewed for "Poking A Dead Frog" include Bill Hader, Will Tracy (who writes headlines for The Onion), Amy Poehler, Paul Feig ("Freaks and Geeks," "Arrested Development," "Bridesmaids"), James Downey ("Saturday Night Live") and many, many more.
On top of being obsessive, Sacks has found humor writers to be extremely sensitive, which is interesting considering they make themselves completely vulnerable in their chosen career field. "If someone doesn't laugh at what you do, it's like pointing out that you're ugly. It's very, very hurtful," Sacks says.
Of all the humor writers and comedians Sacks has interviewed over the years, the person who surprised him the most was 97-year-old Peg Lynch, who wrote for a popular radio show called "Ethel and Albert" in the 1940s and 1950s. "I basically just stumbled across her name, located her in a small town in Massachusetts and found her phone number by calling the town hall," he says. "I called her out of the blue and we spent two hours talking. She was absolutely fascinating and after doing more research, I found out she actually invented the sitcom form." Lynch's mother worked at the Mayo Clinic and Lynch made her own radio show by interviewing the celebrities who would come in, including Lou Gehrig, whose interview was one of the last he ever did.
But whether it's writing for a radio show in the 1940s or penning the opening dialogues for today's late night chat shows, Sacks says some things about humor writing have stayed the same. "The basics are still there. You have to surprise the audience by connecting with the character. And the character hasn't changed. It's humans acting as humans and us laughing at the foibles."
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Mike Sacks and Bill Hader
July 12, 6 p.m.
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