Behind the Laughter
As I was browsing the new nonfiction books looking for something light to read on the bus, I came across And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks. This collection of relaxed and revealing interviews features comedy writers for print, television, radio, and film.
By listening in on these conversations, readers can compare the methods of veterans like Irving Brecher, who wrote for Groucho Marx, with those of contemporaries like Allison Silverman, who writes material for Stephen Colbert. Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Kick Me, Superstud) talks about the importance of truth when relating mortifying personal stories, while David Sedaris defends himself against charges of unscrupulously sharing details about his family.
Dan Mazer, who co-created the characters Ali G and Borat, talks about the lengths that Sacha Baron Cohen will go to maintain character authenticity. Want to know how many times the police were called on the Borat film crew? It's in here.
Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) both discuss the realities of making a network comedy show, and how their most famous successes were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. George Meyer, a long-running head writer for The Simpsons, reveals that the groundbreaking show has a clause in its contract limiting network executives from objecting to material except on legal grounds. Now I know how it is that so many cracks at Fox make it into the show.
A common question raised in many of the interviews is about the mystery of humor itself. What is funny, and how do you know when you are being funny? Surprisingly, many of the writers say that they have no idea exactly why something is inherently funny. Much of the time you find out what gets a laugh through experimentation with timing and delivery. One writer proposes that humor is directly related to sadness, that laughter is a way of coping with both mundane everyday reality, and with extraordinary tragedy. With that in mind, Todd Hanson remembers how he and other head writers for The Onion knew that they had to put out an issue the week after the September 11 massacre-- because it was branded onto everyone's consciousness, and it needed to be addressed.
Whether you read it cover to cover, or just skim a few interviews, and whether you are interested in writing comedy or merely enjoying it, And Here's the Kicker is a great book to pick up at the library. You can even read some interview excerpts online.
Chris Gray is an Extra Help Librarian. When he's not reading science fiction, comics, or cookbooks, he likes to listen to all kinds of music, hang out in parks looking for animals, cook, and make abstract video art.