Growing up, writer Mike Sacks always wanted to read a book of interviews with contemporary humor writers. Sadly, he could never find one. He was forced to be content with the same stale stacks, books containing interviews with writers from the fifties, sixties, or seventies, mostly scribes for Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. “Which was fine,” says Sacks, “but how many books can you read about Your Show of Shows or SNL already?”
Just as so many novelists seek to create the story they always wanted to read, Sacks took this void in the humor canon as his mission and began conducting interviews and collecting them in his new book,And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft.
“The writers interviewed for this book will be the legendary humor writers of the future,” he says. “I thought it would be best to interview them in their prime, before they died or hosted a PBS special on comedy.”
Sacks has worked at The Washington Post and currently works on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair magazine. He has written humor and nonfiction for The Believer, Esquire, GQ, Maxim, McSweeney's, The New Yorker, Premiere, Radar, Salon, Time, Time Out, Vanity Fair, and Women's Health. He took time out from his exhausting schedule—as being hilarious and surrounding oneself with hilarious people is a full-time job—to talk about the making of his book and his own feelings about comedy writing. For more information on And Here’s the Kicker, including excerpts, visit andheresthekicker.com.
What is it about the psyche or perspective of a humor writer that deserves attention from other writers and readers in general?
To write funny is so difficult and such a bizarre talent that I think all writers can benefit from the advice found inside the book. It’s a mystery for everyone, but the real successful humor writers have taught themselves tricks and methods that may help others.
How did you choose the subjects for your interviews?
I did a lot of preparation for each interview, up to twenty to thirty hours. When it came time for the interview, I tried to ask questions that the subjects might not have been asked before. I then edited down the hundred or so pages of single-spaced dialogue to get rid of any excess fat. I’m making it sound difficult, but I really enjoyed the whole process.
What was your most memorable or poignant interview moment?
I was one of the last to interview Irv Brecher, who wrote for the Marx Brothers. He was ninety-four years old, and, when we ended the interview, I said, “I hope to talk to you again one day.” He responded, “Don’t wait too long.” I never did get to talk with him again—he died not long thereafter.
What was your favorite aspect of authoring this book?
The book was a great excuse to talk to all of my favorite humor writers, sometimes for up to fifteen hours or so. Just the fact that I could speak to David Sedaris (and the rest of the interviewees) made it all worthwhile. They were all incredibly gracious and generous with their time. (Reminder: I must send them all a fruit basket!)
What were some commonalities or differences in the writers profiled that surprised you?
Most of the writers suffer from depression, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was that a majority of the writers also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. I only asked them about this because I, too, suffer from OCD.
I think there might be a link between OCD and humor writing, although it’s never been proven. I contacted Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation) about this, but he had never heard of any connection. Perhaps it’s a topic for another book. A very unfunny one.
What do you, as a humor writer yourself, think makes successful comedy?
Just an intelligence and a sharpness apparent in the writing. And a strong voice, which is not so easy to acquire. It’s tough, humor. But when it clicks, it seems to make a stronger impression than other styles or genres.
What are your own comedic pet peeves?
I’m not such a fan of humor pieces that begin with a quote from the NY Times or other newspapers. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. I think the reader either knows the idea behind the concept or she doesn’t.
I think 99 percent of newspaper comics are insufferable.
I don’t like political humor when it’s performed in song. I come from the D.C. area, and this style of humor is popular there. For instance, the lyrics to pop songs will be “tweaked” to reflect current trends or stories.
Also, I’m not a huge fan of videos where men get hit in the testicles, unless I’m the one doing the hitting.
What’s the best piece of humor-writing advice you’ve ever received?
Well, I didn’t receive it personally, but I did read it in an article. Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H and Tootsie fame) said that one’s style is formed by what one can’t do. I think this is important for writers. Not all writers are going to be equally adept at all styles of writing.
In other words, some humor writers may be particularly talented when it comes to graphic novels. Another writer might be talented when it comes to writing monologue jokes. Another might be more adept with the short humor piece. There is no wrong specialty. Concentrate on whatever works for you.
If you could encapsulate what you hope readers will take away from the book in a sentence or two, what would it be?
This business isn’t as mysterious as you might think. There are ways to succeed, and they should be open for everyone, not just for graduates of The Harvard Lampoon.
What are you working on now?
A funny book on sex, co-written with friends from The Daily Show, Tonight Show, and Esquire.
If you could change one thing about the humor-publishing market, what would it be?
Better pay and younger groupies.
Any final thoughts for aspiring humor writers?
Check out page 321 of my book, second paragraph, third sentence. You will receive a bit of advice so powerful that I can’t even describe it here. I just made that up.
Work at the top of your talent, network with as many people as possible, and never give up—unless you’re bad. How will you know if you’re bad? Check out page 256, first paragraph, second sentence ...
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