Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers

By Mike Sacks

(Penguin Books,  $18, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Mike Sacks is a journalist and author with excellent credentials as an interpreter of pop culture, especially if it involves humor. He has written three other books, including  “And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft,” for which he interviewed such comedy writers and performers as  Harold Ramis, Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Stephen Merchant, David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Robert Smigel and Daniel Clowes. Sacks, who was born in Virginia, grew up in Maryland and went to Tulane University in New Orleans, is on staff at Vanity Fair, and his other credits include writing for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, GQ,  McSweeney’s, Vice, Salon and, unsurprisingly, MAD.

What is this book about?                 

Anyone can make a joke. But not everyone, not by a longshot, can write the kind of gut-busting, mind-tweaking, zeitgeist-revealing comedy that Sacks explores in the interviews that make up this book. He talked with a diverse group of comedy writers for print, websites, stand-up, TV and movies and with  directors and performers as well, including Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, Adam McKay, George Saunders, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, West Hartford’s Michael Schur (of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame)  and many more. Here you will learn what it is like to work in a writers’ room, why a sketch may not make it on Saturday Night Live and many secrets of the humor-writing trade.

Why you’ll like it:

This book performs a rare service: it explains – you could even say dissects — the art of comedy, but does this without killing the humor being examined, despite the title. Sacks gets what comedy is all about and how hard it is to create it, which is basic for any writer of this kind of book, but he also is able to convey it to the reader, a much more difficult task.  The book’s stories are funny, but the subject is serious and the interviewing and writing is skillful. This is an insightful and delightful book, as well as a helpful guide to anyone considering matching wits for a living.

What others are saying:                    

“A series of rich, intimate conversations about the ins and outs of turning funny ideas into real-world art….[Sacks] dives deep with everyone from Saturday Night Live lifer James Downey to Cheers creator Glen Charles to Mel Brooks, and every interview is refreshingly candid. Sacks asks the right questions…to inspire lively conversations….As a sort of expert witness to comedy’s history, he’s reverent, though his subjects are also clearly chosen because they understand the absurdity of their own vocation. He pokes and prods just enough to reveal some guts, and most of the time they’re just as fascinating as what’s on the surface,” says The Onion’s A.V. Club.

From Barnes & Noble: “When Mel Brooks, Amy Poehler, Diablo Cody, Michael Schur (The Office; Parks and Recreation), Glen Charles (Cheers; Taxi) and other comedy writers share stories, unbridled hilarity and instruction ensues. Mike Sacks, the author of And Here Is the Kicker, here returns with another VIP pass into the mysterious world of comedy-making. These behind-the-scenes stories take sitcom buffs into the inner workings of sketch writing teams at Saturday Night Live, The Onion, Seinfeld, The Colbert Report and other hit shows, films, and even Twitter. (P.S. This paperback and NOOK Book original also contain sections of “Pure, Hard-Core advice” and “Ultra Specific Comedic Knowledge” culled from hundreds of pages of interviews with comedy writers.)

Says Publishers Weekly:  “In this excellent book, Sacks follows up on his Conversations with 21 Humor Writers and once again displays his ability to get fascinating and honest interviews from comic luminaries such as long-time Saturday Night Live writer James Downey (“Most of the people who have been in the cast of SNL did their best work on SNL”); “Anchorman” director Adam McKay (“The biggest mistake is that people go into comedy solely for the money. It’s just a dead end—always”); and the legendary Mel Brooks (“Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve started with characters. I learn what they want, what they need”). But interspersed with 15 full-length interviews are insights from 30 more comedy writers in two shorter categories: “Pure, Hard-Core Advice” (Patton Oswalt: “When you’re writing something, and it makes you laugh, don’t judge that”) and “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” (Conan writer Todd Levin on “Writing a Submission Packet for Late Night TV”). While Sacks writes that he is no “humor expert,” his book more than proves his contention that “we are now living in a comedic Golden Age.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Vanity Fair writer Sacks’s follow-up to his 2009 book And Here’s the Kicker is a compendium of 40-plus interviews, short pieces, and advice from comedy writers. The title comes from an E.B. White New Yorker quote: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Aside from fascinating interviews with some comedic heavy hitters such as Glen Charles, Dan Guterman, and Mel Brooks, there are also sections of advice for aspiring writers—although much of it can be summed up thusly: if you can do something else, then do it. But if you can’t do anything but comedy, then just don’t give up. Ever. The collection is full of great moments that are funny, thought provoking, and poignant. VERDICT If a casual humor enthusiast can appreciate the work this much, the book is going to be snapped up by comedy writers and aficionados. Title, contents, author photos: it’s all great.”

“The true usefulness of Poking a Dead Frog to an aspiring comedy writer is in its clear-eyed picture of the gritty inner workings of the comedy industry….Reading about how a joke goes from the mind of a writer to an episode of Community is like watching a magician reveal his secrets: Sure, it dispels some of the magic, but it inspires new reverence for the real skill that went into producing the effect, says Slate.”

When is it available?

Don’t laugh this one off. It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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