Mike Sacks
Poking a Dead Frog
Penguin Books

By Nick A. Zaino III

Rating: ★★★★

Mike Sacks’s second book of interviews with comedy writers operates on a few different levels. For the casual comedy fan, there are plenty of big names like Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Mel Brooks, Amy Poehler and Patton Oswalt. There are behind-the-scenes looks at Saturday Night Live and The Onion; a lot of great nuggets from people creating popular comedy. But there’s also a very intimate aspect of this book. Comedy writing isn’t just a paycheck for Sacks’s subjects, it’s an extension of their personalities that often starts when they are very young (for Jones, writing sad poetry and long essays as a child fed his writing habit; for Bob Elliott of Bob & Ray, it was dreaming of a life on the radio).

poking a dead frog

Another level still is the professional level. Some interviews are labeled “Pure, Hard-core Advice” and “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” to refine the focus a bit for those who might be looking to become comedy writers themselves. It must be encouraging for the aspiring writer to see such a diverse group with so much success—short story writer and novelist George Saunders, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, The Simpsons’ James L. Brooks, graphic novelist Daniel Clowes.

But that variety of experience also emphasizes that there is no clear roadmap to becoming a paid, professional comedy writer. Videogum founder Gabe Delahaye puts it plainly in his “Hard-core Advice” offering: “No one who’s successful knows exactly how their path has led to their success.”

In his introduction, Sacks contends that this is a golden age for comedy. “Never before have there been as many comedy writers in the early stages of their careers producing the type of work that means the most to them and to others,” he writes. There is also a nexus between these young upstarts and old-school comedy writers that will soon disappear by mortal attrition. This is a time when old hands like SNL’s James Downey and National Lampoon’s Henry Beard can appear in a book as peers with Anthony Jeselnik and Kay Cannon.

One other claim from the Introduction is worth addressing. The impact of technology on entertainment has become a ubiquitous discussion. “We are now all on equal ground,” Sacks writes. “If you want to write comedy, you can.” It’s a good thing that anyone can garner an audience for what they do through the Internet; the downside being that it’s easier “to create sloppy, forgettable work.” I would only add that the proliferation of that sloppy, forgettable work makes it harder for the good stuff to break through the noise.

The best thing about Poking a Dead Frog: Coversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers is that Sacks is a skillful interviewer. Comedy writing is the cohesive thread throughout the book, but it can be read and enjoyed by any comedy fan. He sets his history, he’s done his research, and he has pulled some wonderful detail from his subjects. He talks to Carl Kolb (The Onion, Community) about her time working at a psychiatric institute and how that gave her a thicker skin, which seems all the more relevant later on when they talk about the Onion’s 9/11 issue.

It’s inspirational to read that Chast has “thousands and thousands” of unsold cartoons, and that she’ll revisit her personal slush pile to rework what she calls “raw material.” When Mel Brooks mentions that the writers never tossed a usable idea, a contrast to his son Max’s experience on SNL, Sacks is quick to point out, “That’s a very Depression Era mentality.” It’s a nifty observation, contrasting generations of comedy.

It’s a wonderful circus of ideas, this book. It lets comedy creators speak for themselves. It is their voices that make the idea of the book viable in the first place, and Sacks is a worthy shepherd for this particular flock.

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