Wednesday , April 24 2024
A serious look at what makes humor funny.

Book Review: And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks

Author Mike Sacks is a staff writer at Vanity Fair, and his byline in all the best magazines inspires envy in most writers. Here he gathers up 21 of America’s funniest writers, accompanied by great drawings showing the often hidden character behind the humor.

As analysis of humor goes, And Here's the Kicker is a reference book at its funniest. Turn it inside out and it's still funny. But you'll also get a dose of inspiration and learn how these well-respected writers can sit around and tease a few words until they result in spontaneous laughter.

Unlike interviewers who get in the way, Sacks holds his questions to one-liners and then steps aside, so the comedy writers are tricked into revealing the truth about their art.

The variety of these illuminating interviews gives us a broad sense of the art of humor through the decades.

When Dick Cavett started out in the 1960s, he finally got the chance to perform on the Ed Sullivan show. “And as I stood in the wings, it felt as if I had come through the looking glass. It felt like my younger self was lying down on a couch in the basement of my house in Lincoln, Nebraska, with some peanut butter and graham crackers, watching my older self perform on television. It was like an out-of-body experience.”

Buck Henry, creator of original TV shows in the 1970s and screenplays for The Graduate and Catch 22, also wrote for Saturday Night Live in its greatest years.

When asked if luck played a big part in his career, he reflects: “In spite of what’s said, there is a great writer out there whose work no one has discovered, and there is a great painter out there whose work nobody has seen or will see. But, for the most part, if you’re talented, I think somebody will find you."

Sacks gives us the inside story of The Office, a hit show where funny is what happened in the silence, and we learned the mundane could be very very funny. “Every silence was an emotional gulf that the most carefully chosen words could not begin to bridge,” says Stephen Merchant. The Office was first shown to test audiences in Britain and received the lowest score ever, just above women’s lawn bowling. Yet, this hit show was and is funny both in the UK and the US.

Reading through the decades, and being old enough to remember many of these gifted writers, it's interesting to see the extent of crossover in their jobs. To keep working, writers often moved from scriptwriting to film, TV, and print. We learn a lot about how the delivery of humor varies in different genres, and how adept these folks were. When is the last time you had to be creative on demand, testing new material, delivering it under pressure, and writing jokes minutes before they were needed?

One writer, Merrill Markoe, originally found television writing to be frustrating, but later, became one of only a few women with any visibility. In comedy, she found success using her talents to create David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks. Now, as an author of several books and articles, Markoe says she finds reward in her writing  work: “A piece of writing on the page is by you,” though she’s quick to point out it’s not as lucrative as big time TV writing.

And Here's the Kicker includes two other useful surprises: Some clever "Famous Last Word of Advice" and “Quick and Painless Advice" tips interspersed among the interviews with great pointers on how to get published, find an agent, and get a job writing for late-night TV.

My favorite among the 21 writers is David Sedaris, who’s been described as Garrison Keillor’s evil twin. Sedaris’ essays in The New Yorker and his openness to telling everything have earned him thousands of fans. You know what I mean if you’ve read some of his memoirs and essays: Naked, Santaland Diaries and Barrel Fever. Sedaris can see the dark side of anything and then spin it around until it's funny. He has a unique voice, both on and off the page. If you’ve heard him on public radio or in live performances, you can’t forget him.

Yet for all his great wit, he talks a great deal about the importance of reading, the power of the page, and the subjectivity of the reader’s interpretation. These insights are why Sacks' book makes such a great reading experience, for writers and fans of comedy, yesterday and today.

Sacks’ interviews coax out some particularly funny stories. He talks with Al Jaffee about his Superman parody, entitled “Inferior Man,” which is how Jaffe got started, by drawing comics. Just a few years later he was making three times as much money as his father, a postal worker. Jaffe later became a writer for Mad Magazine, and relates a hilarious story about Mad’s publisher taking the staff on a trip. One year, they went to Haiti to find out why the only Mad subscriber in Haiti canceled his subscription.

Writer Dave Barry likens humor to magic, because the trick in humor writing “is to do it in such a way that it doesn’t look like there was any effort involved… that it’s somehow magic.” The illusion however is backed by inspiration, work, practice, and mechanics involved.

Barry gets the last laugh, too, in explaining what humor writing really is: “I’m funny because you laugh.”

And you will, reading And Here's the Kicker.

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