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Know what’s funny?

The 21 comic writers interviewed in Here’s the Kicker sure do

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Mike Sacks will be along to chat about his new book in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at this thing, the interview collection And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and the Industry. Scan the list of big shots on the cover: Buck Henry, Al Jaffee, Bob Odenkirk, Paul Feig, Merrill Markoe, Larry Gelbart, Harold Ramis, David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Larry Wilmore. That’s a lot of funny business for one book.

These aren’t cursory interviews, either; Sacks goes deep with each subject, gathering career anecdotes, illuminating each writer’s creative process, getting the back stories.

Now, ladies and germs, welcome Mike Sacks, here to answer a few questions:

Who was the flat-out most fun of these subjects to interview?

There are two, and they’re both Brits. Stephen Merchant, who created The Office, and Dan Mazer, who’s a writer for Sacha Baron Cohen—he helped create Brüno, Ali G and Borat. Both of these guys are so knowledgeable when it comes to American humor—humor in general, but specifically American humor—that it’s almost like they’re academics, but in a good sense. They just know everything about it, they’ve studied it on their own, they have amazing theories on comedy going back to silent movies. These guys just knew their stuff. And they’re willing to talk about it, where some of the Americans just gave me answers that were one or two sentences.

The Details

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and the Industry
Mike Sacks
Writers Digest Books, $18.
Beyond the Weekly
And Here's the Kicker
Amazon: And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and the Industry

Who proved to be the most difficult to interview?

Well, I interviewed 40 people; 21 made the final cut. I interviewed some people who were just dreadful. One, an original writer for Saturday Night Live, was dreadful, horrible; just rude and awful. After 15 minutes she asked me if I was done. You know, with these interviews, off and on, some of them lasted for five to 10 hours. So 15 minutes got me nowhere, obviously.

Some of them were okay, but they weren’t very chatty. I don’t know if it was lack of ego or what it was. I think you need a bit of an ego to talk about yourself for that many hours, and some people may not have had that.

Who were you most excited to get?

David Sedaris. I thought he was a bit reclusive. It turns out he really isn’t; he’s just difficult to get a hold of. But once I did, he was fantastic and talked to me for five hours straight, from Paris. When we ended, it was 3 a.m. his time. He couldn’t have been nicer.

It was a big thrill to get Irving Brecher, who wrote for the Marx Brothers, who was 94 when I interviewed him. He started when he was 18. His memory was astonishing; he remembered his phone number from 70 years ago. Just to talk to a guy who knew S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker and the Marx Brothers—it was really a bridge to another time, and it was amazing.

Where there any uncomfortable moments? For example, with Sedaris, was it uncomfortable to press him on the factuality issue, and Alex Heard’s allegations [in a famous New Republic article that sought to uncover exaggerations and outright fictions in work Sedaris presented as nonfiction]?

I was planning on asking him that, but then the interview was going so well I thought, ugh, I don’t even want to get into that now, maybe during another follow-up interview … but he brought it up. It took very little prodding; I think it was on his mind, and he wanted to talk about it. And I wanted him to talk about it, too, because I think that the article Alex wrote was a bit unfair. So I did want David to deal with it head-on, which he did.

A lot of interviewers might have been satisfied with one or two questions on the subject, but it seems like you pressed it a little more.

I was kind of nervous that it would come off as me being obnoxious or that it would come off as me bickering with Alex. But I read a lot of articles about this, and all the questions I read about the situation, I wanted him to answer. And he had no problem doing that.

I know he was mad about those allegations, and I don’t think he ever went public—I don’t think he ever wrote an article about those allegations. In fact, I don’t even think he read the complete article until just before talking with me. His sister had read some of it to him over the phone, but he hadn’t read the whole thing until recently. I think it really upset him.

Was there anyone you wanted to interview but weren’t able to?

Oh yeah. I asked 10-15 top female writers if they wanted to be interviewed, and they all just said no or didn’t get back to me. Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling. I don’t know what it was; maybe that lack of ego thing. They just weren’t interested.

I was also trying to get Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Judd Apatow. They were all just too busy or weren’t interested.

What got you started on this?

Well, there were just no books, that I found, that dealt with contemporary humor writers. It was mostly Your Show of Shows and other early writing—Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. But nothing really about those writers I grew up liking or like now. It was just really an excuse to talk to these people, and pick their brains about their writing process and how they made it, and if they had any advice for those who are coming up.

A lot of these writing-advice books, especially humor books, are written by people who haven’t really made it, who might just teach a course on humor at a community college or something. I’ve never understood that. Why not just go to the people at the top of the profession?

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