Mike Sacks (http://www NULL.mikesacks NULL.com/) is a comedy writer who has done a good thing. After spending years writing words (both funny and serious) for Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Vice, among others, he interviewed twenty-six comedy writing greats and packaged the result into a book–a terrific book of incredible genius, may we add. And Here’s the Kicker (http://www NULL.andheresthekicker NULL.com/) is full of only the best advice interviews can give. Those interviewed include Al Jaffee from Mad Magazine, Todd Hanson from The Onion, George Meyer from The Simpsons, and many others, who, if you would like, are available for you to peruse here (http://www NULL.andheresthekicker NULL.com/). We at Junior thought it might be interesting to see if any of this advice had rubbed off on Mike, which it clearly had, and the resulting interview quickly became a favourite in our office. We don’t even need to mention that the advice is pertinent for any creative industry. Except architecture. There’s nothing here for you*.
Jr: And Here’s the Kicker (http://www NULL.andheresthekicker NULL.com/) was such a great read! Every interview we read became a new favourite. Many of the guys you interviewed must have been your idols growing up. What was the interview process like? Fun? A party? Time consuming?
Mike: Yeah, it was fun, but it was also a lot of work. The finished product might have sounded like a casual conversation between two friends, but a tremendous amount of preparation went into each interview – up to 25 hours per conversation. There was also some pressure from my standpoint to make the interviews really work, because I knew that I often wouldn’t have a second chance with a lot of these writers.
With that said, the whole experience was great, but I’d never want to do it again. It took two years. It’s time to concentrate on something else: my next book will be a humor book. It’s a parody of a sex manual called Our Bodies, Our Junk.
Jr: Ha! Sounds hilarious already. One of our favourite quotes from your current book was from John Hodgman (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=8W51H1croBw) (Editors note: The PC!), who said that comedy writers shouldn’t worry about being funny. They should just concentrate on being the best writer they can be. And that the comedy will come from the truth. Do you have any similar bits of advice that have helped you in your career?
M: I think that’s a great piece of advice, too. When you look at the writers in the book, all of them can write in any genre, not just humor. David Sedaris (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=YBdymtyXt8Y) is a brilliant writer of anything, not just humor. You have to learn the chops of how to write before you even attempt to be funny.
As far as my own advice, I would say the following:
Network and surround yourself with as many talented people as possible. Don’t look at it as being a competition. It’s hard enough to make it alone, and it’ll only help to go through the process with others. More opportunities will open for you.
Write every day. Or try to.
I would be wary of classes. They’re usually taught by academics or by writers who haven’t been too successful themselves. I think you’re going to have to teach yourself in the end, anyway.
Read as much as possible, both the good and the bad. Sometimes it’s more important to know what not to write.
Don’t limit yourself to reading humour. Read non-fiction, on all sorts of topics.
Experience as much as possible.
If you do receive advice from someone, don’t be upset. Then again, it could be bad advice. Show your work to someone whose comedic sensibility you trust.
Jr: Gosh Mike! Such good succinct advice. You’ve almost answered all our questions in one hit! But we’ll keep going, because, well, we can. So what’s the best training in your view for a writer? Is it on the job? Trying to get your scripts up at an ad agency? Pitching to a magazine? Starting your own publication/site?
M: I think it depends on what type of writing you want to do. But no matter the medium, it’s very important to just do it. Write as much as possible, write what you want to write (and not what you think will interest those in Hollywood), and just keep on improving. You have to assume that no one’s going to really help you succeed. It’s up to you: not only to write, but to promote yourself and your work.
Jr: Creative types often seem to have a lot of talents. In our experience they sit on the generalist side of things more often than say, the guy who always knew he wanted to be an accountant. Do you ever get the urge to try your hand at anything else other than funny words on paper? Your IKEA gag in Esquire (http://www NULL.mikesacks NULL.com/wp/ikea-instructions/) for instance, isn’t so much a gag about the written word. A comic maybe? A hint at a directing career perhaps?
M: I wish I could draw and I wish I could direct, but I’m happy just trying to improve myself as a writer. But I do like to think of different type of ideas, such as the IKEA piece. In such a case, I try to work with really talented people who can pull off the visual look of a piece. I think that’s really important: work with the best people you can find. They’ll make you look really good in return.
Jr: What are your thoughts on the web as a creative medium? Web comics for instance seem to be full of some burgeoning, surrealist talent, like The Perry Bible Fellowship (http://pbfcomics NULL.com/?comic=random). Do you think the web will produce new ways of making people laugh beyond putting clips on laptops?
M: Oh, definitely. And I think it’s fantastic that anyone now can produce something creative without leaving their bedroom. In years past, one had to have access to an expensive camera or computer program or recording equipment, etc. Now, if you’re talented, you can easily find the way to create (and also distribute) your work. Which should give you less of an excuse to not work really hard. Anyone can do it now! Not just the sons and daughters of the Hollywood rich.
Jr: A common theme amongst creative types seems to be how hard-working they are. But then we also hear things like, ‘if you don’t have fun writing it, no one will have fun reading it’. How do you resolve the two in your mind?
M: Good question. I can only say that sometimes the process is rewarding, whereas not every moment is really that fun. I don’t think that a writer has to be screaming with laughter in order to produce a work that will be thought of as funny. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s similar to producing a piece of jewelery or creating a wood table in your woodworking shop. You know what you have to do and then you do it.
I think what most writers are talking about are the instances of it being tortuous. The reader will usually notice because the piece might be clunky or a little stiff. Some of the best writing usually happens very easily, but that’s not to say that it’s going to be easy every time. Everyone has a difficult time at one point or another, even those who have been in it for sixty years, such as Larry Gelbart (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=5MivXSpxkYY) or Irv Brecher (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=B1NeihzlBHo).
Jr: Larry and Irv are kings! Everyone should take advice from them. But the modern day game has changed! Things seem to be in a flux. We’re in a world where content creation is becoming more and more of a hazardous way to make money. Much of the print media like The New York Times and so many other newspapers and magazines are struggling. For folks whose livelihood depends on a vehicle, say a magazine column to flourish, what is the way forward? Do you think good writing will find new ways to thrive in the cracks or do you envision a world where cheaper and easier content like reality TV is all we have left?
M: I think there’s always going to be a need for quality work. The problem might exist more for the reader. There are just so many options now (millions of internet blogs and sites, hundred of cable channels, etc.) Where will one go? A reader might hit 30 places each day, as opposed to just one or two. I do think that the major newspapers and magazines are in trouble… Unless they drastically change their ways. I never understood why newspapers and magazines gave away content for free. It doesn’t make sense to me. If they want to retain quality writers, they’re going to have to charge for their services. And I don’t think readers will have much of a problem paying a nominal fee for a yearly on-line subscription to The NY Times or The New Yorker or any other great publication.
Jr: How much does geography matter when trying to make it as a writer?
M: I think networking is very important. If you want to write TV for Hollywood, it’s vital to know a lot of Hollywood people. If you want to write late-night TV in New York, you should be in New York. Once you’re established, I think it matters less, especially if you write books and articles and so forth. But if you’re just starting out, I would definitely recommend surrounding yourself with like-minded people. It can only help your career in the future. And it’s more healthy to go through the process and struggle together. Not to mention more fun.
Jr: So many comedy writers are from Ivy League schools (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Category:Harvard_Lampoon_members). Especially out of Harvard Lampoon fame (http://harvardlampoon NULL.com/). Why? Is it all about the connections?
M: I think a lot of Ivy Leaguers are obviously very intelligent, but I do think a lot of it has to do with connections. There almost seems to be a gateway from Harvard to Hollywood. I think it’s more difficult if you happen to come from a non-Ivy school, such as myself. I knew no one who was a writer, and actually, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who was a writer. The more connections you have, the easier it’s going to be. But it can be done if you work really hard and have some semblance of talent.
Jr: If you had a son or daughter who wanted to get into writing, what would you say to them?
M: Well, I have a daughter, and I’d love for her to get into writing, but not necessarily as a career. With that said, all careers are difficult in their own ways. And writing is a hell of a lot more fun than most jobs I’ve had, or could have had. I think it’s important to just know what you’re in for, though. Which is why I’m going to force my daughter to read my book, after she pays full purchase price, of course.
Jr: What’s the funniest thing in the world?
M: Anyone or anything who isn’t aware of their funniness, such as a dog, a monkey or a drunk person. The more aware you are of your cleverness or potential to amuse, the less clever and amusing you’re going to be.
Jr: What are you waiting for young comedy writers? Buy the book! (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Heres-Kicker-Conversations-Writers-Industry/dp/1582975051/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1225450095&sr=8-4)
Interview by: Pete Majarich (http://petermajarich NULL.com NULL.au/)
*Ha! Joke’s on you architects! It IS relevent. Read and weep.