⥒ Read any  ᏼ Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers  ⦊ Kindle Ebook Author Mike Sacks 䔲 ⥒ Read any ᏼ Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers ⦊ Kindle Ebook Author Mike Sacks 䔲 INTRODUCTIONThe late comedy writer Jerry Belson, a veteran of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Odd Couple, and The Drew Carey Show, among other classic sitcoms, wrote a joke that became one of the most well known, and most retold, in the history of television Its from a 1973 episode of The Odd Couple Never ASSUME Because when you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.The joke is undeniably great But perhaps the best and most effective joke that Belson ever wroteand he wrote untold thousandsis the inscription that he wanted engraved on his tombstone I DID IT THEIR WAYIn other words Hollywoods way The executives way The wrong way.Belsons tombstone epitaph never made it beyond the first draft stage, but regardless, one would think that Belson had done it his way Plenty of credits Plenty of money Plenty of respect from those within the industry And yet, if theres one motif evident in the lives of comedy writers, its the nagging feeling that one can never have it his or her own way That a comedy writer must always genuflect to those with the power, with the moneythose who deem themselves arbiters of What Is Funny.Whether through executive negligence or creative bartering on the part of the writers, the most beloved comedies of our time have avoided this trap When Monty Python created their four season television series, Flying Circus, they did so with minimal help from the BBC In fact, as one of the Pythons, Terry Jones, explains in this book, BBC executives were disinterested in the resultuntil they saw the final product Then they came terribly close to erasing the entirety of Monty Pythons first season for the grand purpose of reusing the tapes to record serious entertainment.The creators of The Simpsons made it clear from the shows inception that there would be no executive meddling James L Brooks, also interviewed in this book, declared, in essence, Stay away from our jokes, and we will produce a show for the ages Actually, Brooks might have hired a lawyer to say as much in very clear legalese, rather than in essence Whatever the case, Brooks saved the show and helped to create a classic.The creators of the U.K version of The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, flew so low under the radar that by the time executives became even vaguely aware of what their money had wrought, it was too late Due to this neglect, the show set an influential precedent for its combination documentary style format and cringe inducing humor.Its clear then All great comedy has managed to circumnavigate executive meddling But this is easier said than done.Since at least the fifth century B.C., when the playwright Aristophanes needed the financial help of a chorgos, or rich benefactor, to help stage his comedies, writers have had to rely on others The creative have never been fully in control of the marketing and distribution of their creativity Playwrights have needed sponsors and performance space Screenwriters have required even wealthier sponsors than the playwrights Hollywood production studios Humor writers for print have needed the acceptance, and then distribution, provided by magazines and publishing houses The keys to the kingdom have been controlled by the less creative.Until now.I cannot overstate that there has never been a better time for writers of comedyor, for that matter, writers of anything A twenty one year old in her room in Oklahoma who writes hilarious jokes on Twitter is potentially just as important or influential as any professional comedy writer for The New Yorker A teen making funny videos in his suburban garage can reach just as many peoplecertainly, just as many of the right peoplethan any director of a movie to be distributed by the large studios.We are now all on equal ground If you want to write comedy, you can Theres no one to stop you And theres no one to tell you what to do This can be bad Its far too easy to create sloppy, forgettable work On the other hand, its no longer a requirement to work on The Harvard Lampoon to eventually earn a professional living writing jokes That can only be a good thing.It is also so much easier to communicate with our peers and mentors than ever before We can access material in a few seconds and reach out to others almost instantly I have fond memories of growing up in suburban Maryland, biking to the local library to look for inspiration, and staying up late to watchLetterman and whatever obscure, random shows that might air in the wee hours I compiled dozens of files of clippings and took them with me when I went to college and everywhere else I eventually moved Many of these clips were written by comedy writers others were in depth interviews with comedy writers I pored over the mastheads of my favorite humor publications and the credits for the shows that I thought were the funniest I occasionally wrote to these writers, seeking advice or attempting to sell jokes.This book is really an extension of my youthful attempts to contact those in the business whom I admired most If there is a common trait among those I chose to interview for this book, its that each of these writers has always done it his or her own way and no one elses Each came to this business primarily because he or she wanted to create the sort of comedy that they themselves enjoyed the most For all of thembe they writers of sketches, graphic novels, screenplays, New Yorker cartoons, fiction, nonfiction, television, stand up, the radiosuccess was a by product, not the goal.I am no humor expert I dont think anyone is If something makes you laugh, its good But if there is anything about which I am certain, its that we are now living in a comedic Golden Age.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 By the time my five year old daughter reaches my age, most, if not all, of the young writers in this book will have already become the comedy legends of the next generation Who are these writers How did they choose this very odd profession What do they want to accomplish How exactly do they do what they do And, perhaps most important, why One of the reasons I wrote this book was to find out and to share what I learned with others who might find all this of interest, too.Luckily, there also still exist a good number of elder statespersons of classic TV comedies, film, and radio Soon this ratio will be tipped toward the young, and a bridge to another time will no longer exist This is another reason I decided to write this book How do these older writers want to be remembered How do they think they changed the industry Who influenced them I feel lucky to have been able to connect with these older comedy writers, some of whom have not been interviewed in many years or at all.The writers in this book have played major parts in everything from creating whats been called the first ever sitcom to coining the term black humor to writing for Monty Python, Cheers, The Office both the U.K and U.S versions , Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Onion, The Colbert Report,Parks and Recreation, National Lampoon, The New Yorker, Seinfeld, Mr Show, Bobs Burgers, 30 Rock, Anchorman, Juno, Ghost World, Get a Life, Cabin Boy, Late Night, Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show, and A writer or two may have even written the jokes you read this very morning online.Interspersed throughout this book, between the fifteen full length interviews, are Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge and Pure, Hard Core Advice The former includes specialized materials and information that might appeal to the comedy geek Pure, Hard Core Advice, as you may have guessed, contains straight adviceno muss, no fussfrom successful comedy writers or those within the industry, such as agents, that might prove helpful to writers just starting out or for those writers wanting to improve their standing in the industry.If youre not familiar with some or even most of these writers, I hope that you will find them as interesting as I do and seek out their work If you arefamiliar with these writers, I hope you might learn something new about their writing, their careers, their livesand their humor.As E B White once wrote for The New Yorker Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind Humor wont stand much poking It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect This bit of wisdom is often misquoted or, at least, cut short, with the second half making no appearance Yes, its true that the poor frog dies and as the owner of five dearly departed African clawed water frogs, this strikes particularly close to home But the crux is that the process can be fascinating to a certain type of person.Not the type who wants comedy dissected to the point of death, necessarily, but the type interested in understanding the art and business behind comedy of what it takes, exactly, to make a career out of attempting to induce laughter from complete strangers with only the words or images that you create It is a fragile art And as you will read here, it is a tough, yet fascinating life These are writers who do it their way and always have , and the rest of us, as well as the world of comedy, are much better off for their efforts.MIKE SACKSJAMES DOWNEYSaturday Night Live has employed hundreds of comedy writers in its four decades on the air, but no writer has been associated with the show longeror had of a lasting impactthan James Woodward Downey If Lorne Michaels is the face of Saturday Night Live, Downey is its behind the scenes creative force.Downey first began to consider the possibility of making a living as a writer while at Harvard, where he served as president of the Harvard Lampoon There he caught the attention of writers Michael ODonoghue and Doug Kenney both already stars at The National Lampoon , who suggested he come work with them in New York But after graduating in 1974, with a major in Russian studies, he decided instead to accept a fellowship to tour Eastern Europe by way of ship and train After a few run ins with the KGB, and after meeting a Hungarian who partly inspired the Wild and Crazy Guys sketches he would later co write with Marilyn Miller and Dan Aykroyd, Downey headed back to the U.S and saw, for the first time, a new televised comedy show that he had only heard about through friends As soon as I saw it, I thought, Oh, this is hilarious, Downey says I would love to be a part of that.After submitting a ten page packet to Michaels that included a short piece about his pet peevesI guess my biggest pet peeve is when youre just sitting there, waiting for a bus, and a guy runs up with one of those fileting knives and opens up your intestines and takes one end of it and runs down the street screaming, Ha ha Got your entrails Downey was hired by Lorne based on instinct, I have to believe, than on the packet itself He became one of the first Harvard Lampoon writers to break into TV comedy writing, setting a precedent that would change comedy writing rooms thereafter Jim Downey is Patient Zero, said Mike Reiss, a former Harvard Lampooner and long time Simpsons show runner.After finding his feet, Downeythe shows youngest writerbegan to make a deep impact on Saturday Night Live, working closely with, among others, Bill Murray with whom he shared an office for four years , Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman For the last four decades, Downey has worked with and written for every star the show has produced, including Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Norm Macdonald, Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, and dozens of others Downey is one consistent on a show that has experienced an untold amount of changes, and has throughout earned a reputation as being a kind, patient mentor to countless young writers most of whom he personally hired , including Jack Handey, George Meyer, Robert Smigel, and Conan OBrien If anyone taught all of the young writers how to properly write a sketch, Smigel says, it was Jim Downey.Called by Michaels the best political humorist alive, Downey has been responsible for most of the political centered pieces during Saturday Night Lives run many of which he co wrote with now Senator Al Franken , starting with Jimmy Carter in the mid 70s and ending, five administrations later, with Barack Obama The power of Downeys political comedy extends beyond laughs impressively, his work has influenced the actual political landscape In 2008during a live, televised debate seen by millionsHillary Clinton referred to one of Downeys recent sketches to make her point that perhaps the press was going just a bit too easy on her opponent I just find it curious, she said, if anybody saw Saturday Night Live maybe we should ask Barack if hes comfortable and needs another pillow In 2013, after working on SNL off and on for thirty three of its thirty eight seasonsand serving as head writer for Late Night with David Letterman in 1982 for two years where he created the Top Ten List Downey retired from the show, and now divides his time between New York City and rural upstate New York, where he hopes to achieve his goal of harmless eccentric.Do you have any comedy pet peeves What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls clapter Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few whoops thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasnt funny enough to actually make them laugh.Bill Maher is a funny guy, but he seems to prefer clapter instead of laughs A lot of his material runs to the white people are lame and stupid and racist trope It congratulates itself on its edginess, but its just the ass kissiest kind of comedy going, reassuring his status anxious audience that there are some people theyre smarter than.My own politics are sort of all over the place in terms of issues, but as far as the writing goes, the only important thing is that its funny, and that its an original comment That the audience agrees with me isnt necessary and probably isnt even a good thing Its so easy to coast by, just hitting the same familiar notes you know are popular and have been pretested for effectiveness The audience will always at least applaud, so you never have to risk silence.How about pet peeves specific to Saturday Night Live Celebrity walk ons bother me I remember there was a piece from the final show in 2009Will Ferrell was hostingand hes sitting in a restaurant with a few buddies, one was Bill Hader, and they were talking about Wills experience in Vietnam And Will starts singing the Billy Joel song Goodnight Saigon It ends with the lyrics, And wed all go down together And wed all go down together What started out as a comedy sketch quickly became a vehicle for name droppy celebrity walk ons And by airtime there were about thirty five celebrities in that piece It became a massive wankathon, star fucking extravaganza Some of the other writers had predicted the piece wouldnt survive dress, and I would have said the same thing after read through, but when I learned that Anne Hathaway, Tom Hanks, Paul Rudd, and so on were going to appear, I knew it would be the least likely piece to go I absolutely flat guarantee you the piece will make air, and if the show starts to spread, that piece will be protected It is a pure display of star fucking power.And sure enough it ran, even though funnier pieces were cut to make room for it, including a great sketch by the same writer I suppose its all part of the business, but, to me, that seemed almost like a commercial But, hey, it pays the bills.How about appearances by such quasi celebrities as Monica Lewinsky or Paris Hilton I found it especially embarrassing when Paris Hilton hosted the show in 2005 What was really humiliating was that, on that very same week, South Park was doing that brilliant Stupid Spoiled Whore Off piece that just annihilated her The contrast was dramatic and not to our advantage.And then when Monica Lewinsky was on the show in May 1999, that was the week poor Cuba Gooding Jr was hosting, and apparently he became increasingly annoyed as the shape of the show became of a cohosting thing With Cuba Gooding and Monica Lewinsky And I dont blame the guy at all.I wrote something for Monica Lewinsky that week that she refused to do It was hardly a savage piece, just one of those C Span histories about presidential inaugurations in this case, the history of the presidential knee pads How during the Andrew Jackson administration there were knee pads made of hickory and leather, forged by harness makers and so on And we were working our way through history up to Monica In the piece, all she had to do was stand there, and Kenny G played by Jimmy Fallonwas going to serenade Monica with a creepy saxophone solo I watched her read the piece and she was like, No, not interested, rather contemptuously, as if it werent up to her standard You know, the Monica Lewinsky standard.I thought the piece was funny in and of itself, but Id also add that it would have helped her, and us, by letting her do some penance, by acknowledging that we booked her for her scandal value.This, to me, was a real indicator that the show was well past the days when we could book strange types of hosts and music acts like old timey guitarist and singer Leon Redbone or 70s punk group Fear, just because we thought it might be interesting When the show was coming to its last year of the original cast and writers, in 1980, as sort of a graduation present Lorne said that each of us could pick either a musical or a guest host Just imagine that I chose Strother Martin, a character actor Id been obsessed with since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in which he played a boss at a Bolivian mine He was also in Sam Peckinpah westerns, and was the prison warden in 1967s Cool Hand Luke He was a great, great host.The notion that we could ever in the modern era book anyone like Strother Martin again is unthinkable These were just people we liked and wanted to present to the public The issue of ratings never came up, and the episodes that did get smash ratings at the time were sort of unpredictable.Over the years, have you noticed any specific traits that a performer must have in order to successfully host the show When the hosts come in, they can either be walking premisescertain hosts can just bring certain ideas to audiences, like NFL quarterback Tom Brady or Senator John McCainor they can be just really funny people who are not necessarily great actors but have great comedic mindsConan OBrien or Jon Stewart Or they can be really brilliant actors who arent necessarily known for being funny but can be wonderful with the right script.One host, in particular, I just loved was Nicolas Cage, who was there in 1992 He played this kind of passion, this innocence, so beautifully He was great in everything he did Jeff Goldblum was like that, too He was a brilliant comic performerperhaps not the funniest guy to hang out withbut he approached it as an actor Whats my motivation How do I do this And then he goes out and hes perfect Justin Timberlake is another favorite He started off as mainly a cool presence, but as hes matured, hes become a very funny actor and performer And he brings that straight line with him, the lady killer.But of course some of them turn out to be better live performers than others As a host, you do have to surrender control to us the writers , which is why we always feel a sense of responsibility for anyone willing to put himself in such a vulnerable position We have a thing about not bad mouthing them, although some people have occasionally broken that rule here and there Its like Alcoholics Anonymous What goes on in private, when youre here, stays here.With that said, there have been some terrible hosts over the years, including an infamously bad 1991 show with actor Steven Seagal at the helm.Yes, that was a case where it was all we could do not to talk about what a douchebag he was.What was his specific problem Did he refuse to do what was necessary to put on a good show Well, I guess now it can be told He was just so fucking stupid Rob Schneider had the funniest idea for a monologue It was Seagal coming out and doing the You know, Ive obviously made my career with action pictures, like Hard to Kill and Out for Justice and so on Applause, applause I dont want to apologize for them, I think they were good But the fact is Ive moved past that To me, its all about the music now Then he was going to pick up a guitar and perform a very moving version of the 1974 hit song by Carl Douglas Kung Fu Fighting Not a rockin one, but playing it like it was Amazing Grace or something Real slowly Everybody was kung fu fighting Those cats those cats were fast as fast as lightning And I thought it was a really hilarious idea So of course, Seagal steps out on stage and decides to go with his instincts, which were to play it loud and badass, like a Hollywood actor with his own band Its like when you go to a barbecue joint and realize, Oh fuck, we came on blues night Damn And you cant have a conversation because the fifty five year old guy is really rocking out.You worked at SNL longer than any other writer in the shows history And yet as respected as you are, you were actually fired by NBC for a season, beginning in 1998.Well, that was all due to then NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer Norm Macdonald, the anchor for Weekend Update, and I were writing a lot of jokes about O.J Simpson, and we had been doing so for than three years Don, being good friends with O.J., had just had enough.Your O.J jokes were not light taps on the head These were jokes that would often end with Because O.J murdered two people.Yeah, we werent holding back Laughs Thats the thing I kind of liked about Don, actually His friendship with O.J was so old school It was so un showbizzy He ended up firing me, as well as Norm, but I cant honestly say that a part of me doesnt respect Don for his loyalty Most people in show business would sell out anyone in their lives, for any reason at all, including for practice Don was the opposite He threw a party for the jurors after the 1995 acquittal And he stuck with O.J through it all.I dont know that Norm enjoyed the experience of the firing quite as much as I did, but to me it was exciting It was certainly the best press I ever received We got tremendous support from people I really admire, some of whom are friends and some I didnt really know that well, but who stepped up and called me It was a fun time.You had been on the show for twenty years Being fired must have stung a little.To tell you the truth, Norm and I had done Update for three and a half seasons I felt like we had made our point What I did like about the way we approached Update was that it was akin to what the punk movement was for music just real stripped down We did whatever we wanted, and there was nothing there that we considered to be a form of cheating We werent cuddly, we werent adorable, we werent warm We werent going to do easy, political jokes that played for clapter and let the audience know we were all on the same side We were going to be mean and, to an extent, anarchists.Shouldnt there be some connection with the audience Can you be a complete anarchist when it comes to humor Yeah, well, thats Norm Macdonald He does things for the experience of doing it, and he doesnt fear silence at all Take his performance at the 2008 Bob Saget roast where he did jokes that could have come out of a 1920s toastmasters manual Comedian Greg Giraldo is here He has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds Actress Susie Essman is famous for being a vegetarian Hey She may be a vegetarian, but shes still full of bologna in my book One summer, when SNL was on hiatus, Norm and I read a story about a newspaper published by and for the homeless We were improvising around that idea, doing the tough newspaper editor handing out assignments to his homeless reporters Edwards I want a thousand words on going to the bathroom in your pants You Davis How about a human interest feature on urine stained mattresses Bernstein Can you give me a long think piece on people whose brains are being monitored by the CIA I had forgotten all about this conversation, but the first SNL episode back that fall, Norm says to me, Hey, Downey Remember that homeless idea we had About the newspaper by and for the homeless Well, I was out in LA, you know And I was doing this benefit for the homeless And Im thinking, Oh no .And he says, Yeah, I did that bit for the audience at this benefit, you know And they hated it Hes just the most courageous performer Norm would sometimes hang on an Update joke because he wanted to make it clear to the audience that yes, the joke was over, but we still thought it was funny He didnt make the panic move of quickly jumping to the next joke so he didnt have to hear the silence He wanted to give people a chance.Im not sure how big a fan Lorne was of our Update I think it was probably too mean for his sensibility, and he didnt like the deadpan aspect of it But he supported us as long as he could, bless his heart And I stand by it Im proud of what we did there Nearly all of those Update segments have been edited out of repeats, by the way.Over the years, critics have had a strange relationship with SNL They take very personally what they perceive as the shows low points, almost as if a good friend has let them down.I rememberthere was the most cretinous review of the show in the fall of 84 I will never forget this It was a new cast with Chris Guest and Marty Short, and there was a review in People disparaging the show Now my idea of the lowest rung in hell is to be surrounded and condescended to by idiots In fact, I tried to write a sketch one time about that It was Galileo getting teased by other astronomers at the seventeenth century Papal Court Hed be surrounded by these other scientists, whod be like Oh, geez, Galileo Im getting sick to my stomach It must be all this spinning from the earth rotating on its axis Awww, Im just ribbin ya Galileo would be getting this constantly and hed be losing his mind.Anyway, in the People review, the critic was talking about the October 1984 Synchronized Swimming bit with Chris Guest, Harry Shearer, and Marty Short It was about two guys training for the Olympics as male synchronized swimmers And Chris did this brilliant turn as a not very funny, inarticulate gay choreographer Ive been directing regional theater and if I ever do that again, Im just going to kill myself with a Veg O Matic So the People review says, How bad is the new SNL They do Veg O Matic jokes Which, of course, misses the entire point of the reference The lame Veg O Matic reference was a character joke, you fucking moron.It seems that the sensibility of many TV critics rarely matches those found in professional humor writers There seems to be a disconnect.Well, I think most of them have terrible senses of humor Tom Feran, a guy I knew in college, was the critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and had a great sense of humor He always championed smart, funny stuff and always tried to get it noticed He wasnt mean, but he wasnt the kind of easy mark for fake genius that gets pushed on you all the time Most critics, though, have no sense of humor And all of the mean ones have crates filled with humor pieces rejected by The New Yorker.There also sometimes seems to be a disconnect between the censors for SNL and the writers Over the years, have there been many instances in which youve written sketches that youve loved but were ultimately not allowed to air I can think of two One was a commercial parody written by me, Jack Handey, Al Franken, Robert Smigel, and probably some others It was one of the few times all of us have worked on the same piece, one that was gang written It was for a car called the DWI, the only car built expressly for driving drunk We wanted to get James Earl Jones to do the voice over It Is A Drunk Driving Machine One of the jokes was that the car keys would be gigantic I dont remember the rest But I do remember the network saying Absolutely not And I honestly did not understand There was nothing dirty in this piece This was not making light of drunk driving It was making fun of people who drive drunk It was holding them up to ridicule it was fighting the good fight as far as that goes But their attitude was, Nope, we dont want any letters along the lines of I wish I could laugh, but, you see, I lost my fifteen year old daughter to a drunk driver So its that defensive thing.The other piece in 1990 was called Pussywhipped Jan Hooks was playing the host of a talk show and there were a few male guests, one of whom was Tom Hanks, and they had to keep excusing themselves to go call their girlfriends The piece did run, but the censors absolutely would not let us use the title Pussywhipped And I kept saying, Cmon, it doesnt mean vagina It means female dominated But thats where the NBC standards lady says, Well, as a woman Which was her way of reminding me that her sense of humor had been removed at birth.And so I lost that one, and we called it P Whipped or something I always hate it when you have to do a lame euphemism that no normal person would ever use.Overall, though, I never really chafed under the restrictions, even when sometimes they got really crazy One of the points I pride myself on is that I avoid anything I feel is a cheap laugh based on shock or just being dirty You can always get a laugh, but you dont want it to come at the price of your dignity.You wrote a sketch for an October 1990 SNL episode thats often listed as an all time favorite from fans a very fit Patrick Swayze and a very unfit Chris Farley compete with each other for the last spot on the Chippendales male exotic dance team But as much as fans love it, there have been some comedy writers who have taken offense to the sketch, thinking that it was demeaning to Farleys true character.Well, I dont think they understood what I thought was funny about it, and what the audience liked about it I think they read it as just making fun of the fat guy dancing But, to me, what was crucial was that Farley wasnt the least bit embarrassed To me, it was all about the reactions from the judges The whole point was that not only did they make Chris audition in the first place, but then the judges took the time to patiently explain, at great length, why they were going to choose Swayze over him.Does it upset you when other comedy writers are critical of your pieces No, not really We disagree sometimes I know there was another piece I wrote with Jack Handey that a few writers hated it was the one that aired in October 1989 about Dracula, played by James Woods It was the one piece we ever did on the show that dealt, however indirectly, with AIDS Dracula would engage his female victims in conversation, subtly sounding them out about their sexual histories before he sucked their blood If I remember the specific objection, it was the kind of instance when writers dont like an idea because they can imagine a hack version of that idea I suppose you can conjure up a vision of a bad comic out there doing Hey, how about Dracula What with AIDS, hes probably asking to get a blood test Am I right But thats not what this piece was You can turn any idea into a hack version of itself, but sometimes comedy writers just go crazy with overthinking these things.Sometimes the audience just wants to laugh.They do, thats right But sometimes writers overlook this Not performers, though If the audience is laughing, theyre happy.Do writers and performers on SNL tend to write different styles of sketches I think so Writers tend to write ordinary people in weird situations Performers tend to write weird people in ordinary situations Thats a broad generalization, but its fairly true.With a performer written sketch, often the criticism that will come from a writer is that the situation is something the audience has seen a million times And it often bothers the pure writer that audiences dont seem to mind As writers, we get so frustrated Why dont those peoplethat is, the audienceobject Writers are much interested, and maybe even obsessed, with originality We sometimes treat comedy as a science, where advances are made, and we must always move forward, never backward So that once something has been done, it should perhaps be built upon, but never, ever repeated For performers, the fact that something has been done before is, I think, neither here nor there For writers, its a real problem, and sometimes we can tie ourselves up in knots worrying, Is this too similar to that other thing As for me, I wish originality were prized highly by audiences than it is, but I have to say it doesnt seem to be that important to them I think we need to be ahead of our audiences, but not so much that we lose them Figuring out the right balance is everything.I suppose it can always be taken too far in the other extreme the repetition of characters to the point of overkill.Writers tend to be very resistant to repeating characters We always feel that its somehow unethical, that its cheating I did that piece already What Im going to do the second version of the same piece Generally speaking, you do the best jokes the first time around Now, its true that over the course of the following three months, youll think of jokes that if youd thought of them at the time you would have put in the first versionbut theres usually only one or two of those From a writers standpoint, not enough of a reason to do it again.I havent written a lot of those recurring pieces in my career Most of what I do is topical one off things I have written tons of presidential addresses, but they never involved the same comedy premiseat least, I hope some of them didnt.One idea I did write a few times was The Chris Farley Show That was basically putting Chris Farley, the real Chris Farley, on stage in a structured way I did it the first time when Jeff Daniels was guest host in 1991 , and Lorne kept asking for another one But it seemed to me such a one off thing Lorne finally said, Well, if you wont do it, Ill ask someone else And I said, No, I want to at least control it So we did it two times, once with Martin Scorsese and again with Paul McCartney, in 1993.I must say, none of this seems to bother performers at all Theyll tend to go and go and go with essentially the same sketch until someone makes them stop Weve all seen repeat pieces on the show that are basically the same sketch spray painted a different color, but with the same dynamic, same jokes.As a writer, I would love to say its all about the writing But like the way good pitching beats good hitting, good performing can lift a mediocre premise, and bad performing can sink the best written piece.Lorne Michaels has called you the best political humorist alive In 2000, you coined the George W Bushism strategery, which many people mistakenly came to believe was actually uttered by the president himself But theres been some criticism over the years that you lean right than left I think it goes without saying, of course, that this criticism tends to come from those on the left.In the political sketches I write, I think I just go where the comedy takes me I honestly never want a political agenda to be the leading edge of the piece I want the piece to be funny, but only because its based on an observation that I think is fair to make and that no one else is making I dont think anyone could ever accuse me of going for clapter And whats sometimes even better than the laughter is making audiences laugh when they dont particularly want to, or when theyre not sure that they should.Can you give me a specific example Well, in 2007, I did a couple of debate pieces with Hillary Clinton and Obama that were generally perceived as being pro Hillary Our audience, meanwhile, was probably 95 percent pro Obama.One fellow SNL writer, who shall go unnamed, criticized you for that particular sketch He thought that you were promoting Hillary over Obama.To me, what was funny about that situation was that, for years, Hillary had been very much the official candidate of the media, even right up to the announcement of her candidacy She was like the wife who put them through dental school, and suddenly they dumped her for the hot, young hygienist, Obama, the trophy wife And the change in the media was so quick and so extreme To me, what was funny was Hillary thinking, What the fuck Two months ago everyone loved me It was like the media was doing to Obama what Monica Lewinsky had done to Bill Clinton And now Hillary was in the same spot all over again When I write these sketches, I want them to be fresh in comedy terms but also something that resonates Thats true, thats true As opposed to something I know damn well reflects the viewpoint of 90 percent of the audience but what would feel to me like cheating or ass kissing Well, about time someone took on Big Oil I like to think that unless youre making an observation, and that observation is trueand I hope freshits not worth writing a piece Im not saying that I always have a particularly original observation to make, which is why if I had my druthers, Id write fewer political pieces For me, this is about the characters in politics than politics itself Its about the human aspect of these people we dont usually get to see the way a person would react in these situations if they were in any field but politics.Can you give me some examples of sketches, political or otherwise, youve written over the years that you thought would kill with an audience but ended up bombing There was one 1985 piece I wrote with Jack Handey that absolutely destroyed at the table and then just played to exquisite silence from the audience It was called The Life of Vlad the Impaler And it was fifteenth century ruler Vlad the Impalers wife, Madonna, gently trying to explain to Vlad why he was so unpopular with his subjects This came as a terrible shock to him, and he was really stunned and hurt He couldnt understand why And her theory was, I really think its the impalings What Yeah, they really hate them Are you sure You know, Vlad, they try to tell you You dont listen.God, it bombed Absolute silence We figured, Well, maybe they dont know the story of Vlad the Impaler Laughs Maybe they dont know whatimpaling means Anyway, Larry David called to say how much he liked the piece, which was enough for me.Heres another one It was when Bob Newhart hosted in May 1980 and he loved the piece, which was also enough for me The sketch began with one of those Civil War scenes youve seen a million times I saw it as recently as Black Hawk Down Officers are walking through the wounded tent, and theres a boy soldier dying Youre going to be okay, son Youll be back with your regiment in no time You dont have to lie to me, Major Im gut shot I know Im a goner But I want to ask you one thing Will you write my mother and tell her that I did my duty, that I was a good soldier Everyones tearing up The music is somber, and the officer, played by Newhart, says, Ill do that, son Dont you worry And then the kid dies and you dissolve to a series of Civil Warera photographs and music, with the graphic Three Weeks Later When we come back, were in Newharts tent, which he shares with Bill Murray, a fellow officer And Murray asks, Hey, did you ever write that kids mother And Newhart sheepishly says, Not yet, but Im going to Geez, its been like a month Ill get to it, Ill get to it And the rest of the piece was dissolves to Three Weeks Later, Six Weeks Later, and so on, and Newhart still hadnt written the letter By now, Bob is suffering from writers block See the problem is, Ive waited so long that now I cant just write Your son was a great soldier He died a hero Its got to be better than that He was trying to come up with good ideas It was like someone putting off a term paper.I think the opening of the sketch with someone dying, particularly a young person, chilled the audience from the start.One thing Ive noticed over the years is that when SNL airs sketches with graphicsparticularly graphics that express the passage of time, such as Three Weeks Later, One Day Later, whatever it may bethese sketches tend to confuse the audience At least, the audience in the studio.It does take the audience out of the sketch The only way the studio audience for the Civil War piece could know about the passage of time would be to see the graphics on the monitors But there was nothing about that piece that suggested to the audience they had to watch the monitors and not the stage There were no special effects, so most watched the live action.Do you think the home audience responded differently to that sketch I think the home audience would have liked that piece a lot But I still think the biggest factor was that the audience felt, Ooooh, a sixteen year old kid died.Is it true that you discovered the legendary and reclusive comedy writer John Swartzwelder, who later wrote episodes of The Simpsonsfifty ninethan anyone else Hes the Thomas Pynchon of the comedy world I think there are only a few known photographs of him.I was head writer for Letterman at the time 1983 , and we would read unsolicited joke submissions Producer Merrill Markoe showed me this small postcard and it was from Swartzwelder It had just a single joke on it It went something like Mike Flynns much publicized attempt to break every record in the Guinness Book of Records got off to a rocky start this week when his recording of White Christmas sold only five copies.I just loved the shape of that joke I became obsessed with it John had signed the card but had left no address Nothing, just his name and a Chicago postmark So I began a desperate attempt to track him down He wasnt in the Chicago directory, and this was way before the Internet So I went to the New York Public Library and looked up big city phone books for Swartzwelders, figuring that there couldnt be that many I found his mothers number in Seattle She said, Yes, thats my son, John Hes at an ad agency in Chicago.I got in touch with John and set up a meeting with him and Letterman, and it was one of the most spectacularly awful interviews in history.What happened Swartzwelder shows up just as we finished taping for the day Chris Elliott says to me, Hey, this guy is here to see you I went to say hi to JohnI had never seen him beforeand hes a really imposing figure, about six foot eight, standing there in a navy peacoat, like Randy Quaid in The Last Detail At the time he looked like a combination mountain man biker Edmund Kemper 1960s and 70s necrophiliac serial killer He had a droopy mustache and long, greasy hair, and he was just a real presence He was carrying a little 1930s style hip flask And he asks, Is there a kitchen here Yeah, down the hall I gotta run and do something, but Ill be right back I took longer than I thought, and when I come back Swartzwelder is gone Chris tells me, I think hes in with Dave Oh, no, no, no, no, no No, I needed to talk to him first Dave is a wonderful guy, but hes a very private person, and its important that people be warned not to come on too strong when meeting him.So I ask Chris, How long has he been in there I dont know, about five minutes I run back to Daves office and Swartzwelder is sitting there, making himself completely at home I want to say he had his feet up on Daves desk, but Im not sure I am sure, however, that he was both smoking and drinking, a move not recommended in the Dress for Success guidebooks Meanwhile, Dave is sitting there stiffly, like an orderly at a mental institution trapped alone with a patient Swartzwelder is holding forth, as I recall, about his views on television, which amounted to everything on television was shitincluding, I think, much of what we had done on our show Dave looks over at me and his eyes tell me no way.He wasnt hired at Letterman, but we did bring him to SNL for a year in 1985 , and then he went on to do legendary work at The Simpsons Im sure that he preferred the freedom of writing for animation over writing for live action Hes a brilliant guy, although I havent seen him in twenty years.Have you ever felt constrained within the parameters of the sketch form Have you ever had the desire to write for the big screen or, perhaps, long form television No, not really I kept retooling myself and changing the kinds of things I did I wrote SNL sketches and then I did Letterman for a few years, which is a totally different thing, and then I returned to SNL and was writing new types of pieces Then Update was something different all together More recently, I was just writing political material and it was a change because I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted Within that, I also had the chance to write filmed pieces or live performance or whatever.I really am conscious of the fact that I have been very fortunate There are certain moments when I felt that better decisions could have been made on the show, but in the big picture I feel I have been treated very well, a couple of firings aside Because SNL is a variety show and because its ninety minutes long, there is always plenty of room to maneuver I never got bored with doing the same thing or getting stuck in a rut I could always go back and retool Like certain bands do when they just emerge with a totally new kind of sound.Your attitude seems to be a rarity It seems that most TV comedy writers constantly yearn to write for the movies Its almost as if they have a chip on their shoulder, that television is too small.Actually, Im glad you said that because I honestly feel that TV is a better form for being funny, generally speaking, than movies I have never really seen what it is that movies give you that makes things funnier I think that the smallness and the immediacy of TVwhere you can do something on Saturday based on an event that happened on Wednesday, and where the important elements arent overwhelmed by the scale and productionis great There are limitations that TV has compared with moviesespecially live TVbut I dont think theyre the important ones in the scheme of things.If you look at movies many SNL performers have participated in over the years, you cant help but wonder why theres any appeal at all Is it purely the money I guess its just that for their whole lives some people think you do TV in order to get to movies, and that therefore any movie is better than everytelevision show.I think its fair to sayas a general matterthat most of the people who have been in the cast of SNL did their best work on SNL Or they do good movies, but it isnt any better than what they did on the show For example, I think Will Ferrell is brilliant, and I love him in his movies, but I dont think he is any funnier than he was on the show Same with Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, or Eddie Murphy And, of course, some people have done much worse than they did on the show.I think youre always going to see odd, original comedy on TV than you will in a movie I love the Hangover films, but weird, eccentrically funny stuff is usually going to appear on TV or online Tim and Eric Portlandia Reno 911 Stephen Merchants HBO series Hello Ladies Brilliant.When have you laughed the hardest over the years at SNL Um, lets see Damon Wayans audition in the fall of 1985 He was doing two kids on a playground Your mother is so fat you have to grease her up to get her through the front door And the other kids responses keep getting and deadly serious Yeah, well, your sister had a baby when she was only eleven Ben Stiller pitching me a sketch idea in the spring of 1989 I was laughing so hard I fell on the floor He was improvising a character, a college kid on spring break in Floridahis name was Jordobeing interviewed on MTV, asking his parents for money Phil Hartman at a table read doing Mace, his psychotic ex con character with a hair trigger temper I couldnt breathe I was laughing so hard.All of those examples took place off the air.Funny, I never thought of that Theres something about being right there, seeing it fresh before makeup and wardrobe And seeing it for the first time After that its only the audience that gets to see it that way.As for moments on the show, Id say Dan Aykroyd doing Julia Child Bill Murray doing Nick Rails, the entertainer on the auto train to Orlando, Florida Eddie Murphy doing James Browns Celebrity Hot Tub Party Fred Armisens character, Nicholas Fehn, the political comedian with no material Maya Rudolph doing the national anthem at the World Series with every conceivable grace note and gimmick And Will Ferrell doing his Get off the shed guy.How about beyond Saturday Night Live Probably Team America, the British Office, or The Simpsons Sarah Silverman The stand up of Chris Rock Any number of Monty Python or Phil Hendrie bits S Clay Wilson, a seventies comic artist known for disgusting but hilarious sex and violence And any phone conversation with Jack Handey or Andy Breckman, whos written for SNL and Letterman and created Monk.You just mentioned Phil Hendrie Can you talk a bit about who he is Phil Hendrie had a syndicated radio show based in Los Angeles which, in its golden age, from 2000 to 2006, was to me the most consistently brilliant and original comedy of the last generation.Hendrie did about forty different voice characters so beautifully performed that he could interview himself in character on radio with half the listening audience unaware that only one person was talking The fake guests would be involved in outrageous situations which would get angry listeners phoning in to complain, and a brilliant three way conversation would ensue with Phil playing the voice of reason and refereeing the fights between the callers and himself in character The performance, the writing, and the improvised elements together made some of the best comedy I have ever heard.Bill Murray is a fan The Simpsons writers are huge fansIm told they would stop their rewrite sessions to listen to the show Eric Clapton is a gigantic fan Phil Hendrie is my comedy hero.What advice would you give to young writers hoping to make a career out of writing sketch comedy for television Comedy is a hard thing to teach, and the work aspect of it is not fair in many ways I mean, you can spend hours and hours and focus and hard work and pain, and a piece will still not be good Theres no equation where the result is in proportion to the effort But it has to start with a funny take on something, one thats special, that youve never seen before Ive known funny people who dont write particularly well The non comedy parts of the writing may not be all that fresh or interesting, the grammar and vocabulary may be shaky, but all that can be handled later That can be handled later Its just mechanics What you must have is a funny sensibility You also need confidence to communicate what it is you do thats different from what everyone else is doing.And then its a matter of exercising the muscles, hanging out with like minded people, being out in the world and having experiences Its not that you have to stand to the side and observe, but everyone notices things as they go through life and everyone has experiences All of these will matter at some point in some way.Id also say to writers that when youre starting out it probably helps to work with other people Choose a group where you can make a contribution while they get to know you, as opposed to doing it all by yourself and just walking in with the finished product Thats the entrepreneurs way Ill own it, itll be a hundred percent me But because of that it may have flaws that limit its acceptance As an approach, its probably better to be collaborative Also, its good for your confidence, and for others confidence in you, because they begin to think, Oh this guys good.It can all be nerve racking There are few things in white collar life where youre vulnerable than when you drop a ten page script on a table and its read cold by a room full of people and the piece eats it Its terrifying to go through, especially when people are trying to be nice And you always get that one guy, that one wiseass, who says, Ooooh That one rolled foul That kind of thing I dont want to say it toughens you up, but I respect anyone who goes through it.Which is why I think its importantand Im going to sound like an industrial psychologist herebut I think its vital for a show to create a zone where writers can try different ideas out without the fear of being made fun of or even giving a shit And thats why, when I used to read writing submissions, I would ask a writer to give me three pieces, and make one of them something that only he thought was funny The other two could be something everybody liked Just make one piece something that youve been unable to convince anyone else is funny but that you believe in I want writers eventually to produce work that no one has seen before and that is definitely only them.A good writing staff is one where you can look around the room and say, This guy does this thing better than anyone else and She does that thing better than anyone else Its not necessary that everyone scores the same amount of points on every outing But at the end of the year everybody on the show has had some success, something that could not have happened without themwhether they wrote it all by themselves or just contributed I dont mind taking chances, and Im less worried about a bad piece than about missing a great one.Writing comedy is like the high jump, where you get three tries at each height and the misses arent held against you, or shouldnt be So youre judged by the best youre capable of You have to figure out how to clear that height each and every time.Most of the time Laughs ULTRASPECIFIC COMEDIC KNOWLEDGETERRY JONESWriting for Monty PythonCan you remember the first joke you wrote The first joke I can remember coming up with by myselfnot necessarily writing, but creatingwas when I was about four or five My family and I were sitting around a table My granny asked all of us, Does anybody want custard I raised my hand, but instead of giving her my plate, I handed over my table mat She poured the custard all over the mat Everybody turned to me and said, You silly boy What did you do that for It taught me at a very young age that comedy is dangerous business If you try to make people laugh and they dont, they can become very, very angry People do not become angry if youre writing a tragedy and you dont do a good job But people get extremely angry when you create comedy that isnt funnyor, at the least, with the comedy they dont find funny.Did you always know you wanted to write Yes, since about the age of seven I was always writing poetry, which tended to be terribly gloomy I think my family got worried at some point I was a compulsive writer Ive got essays I wrote when I was very young my granny kept them I used to write poems and huge, long essays for that age Just writing, all the time There was a wonderful teacher at school, Mr Martin, who would read out my essays to the class I loved that That gave me a great base It gave me confidence But Mr Martin left, and it was then that I began to hear different things from teachers I would be told, You cant make a living as a writer The best you can hope for is to become a teacher.Do you think theres a connection between poetry and comedy writing I think there is a great connection, actually The nineteenth century poet Robert Browning, in essence, said that you can take three separate ideas, and from those three, you produce not a fourth idea, but a star Ive always found that lovely Its a somewhat similar theory with comedy But the difference is that with comedy you take different ideas and put them together and you produce not a star, but a laugh Theres a magical element to it.Can you give me an example from Python where vastly different ideas were combined to produce a laugh Mike Palin wrote a 1970 TV sketch called The Spanish Inquisition I think thats a very good example of taking separate ideastwentieth century locations and Spanish Inquisition priestsand producing a star How did Mike go from England in 1911 to then having three torturers from the fifteenth century burst into the sitting room and announce, Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition Where did he make that connection And how did he make it work In the end, you get a laugh But when you reverse engineer it, its quite hard to follow how he came up with the original spark, the original idea And yet it still works.Now that I think about it, theres another similarity between poetry and comedy distillation Both have to be distilled For both poetry and comedy, the words, the concepts have to be boiled down, and the essence is what you want to say.It was tremendously difficult to keep up that level of quality with Python We made it a point to end sketches when they might have just been beginning on other shows Writing was very serious business we took it very seriously But it did take a lot out of us.Michael Palin has said that the six members of Monty Python worked together to produce a harmony that they couldnt have produced individually This reminded me of something I once read about the 1960s vocal group the Mamas almost another distinctive voicewhich they nicknamed Harpy.Thats a good image, actually I think thats true The six of us produced a harmony that was somebody else Wed write together, and we were almost writing for this seventh voice There was always that image of another voice that was there It was the Python voice, really And it couldnt quite be duplicated with any other combinationor alone With Python, we had a lot of different minds at work, and we worked very well together.I rewatched some of the early Python TV episodes from 1970, and I noticed that the crowd was very quiet for the first few episodes and only seemed to grow and animated as the series went on.For the very first show, the audience consisted of a lot of old age pensioners who actually thought they were coming to see a real circus They were a bit puzzled By the end of the second and third series, two years later, we actually had to take a lot of clapping and laughter out of the shows We had to speed up the shows I think people got used to it by the end of the first season There was a great doubt whether the BBC would actually commission another series season We were lucky they did, actually They hated the showuntil they were told it was funny and it was good.That wouldnt happen todayexecutives not being happy with a show, but leaving it completely alone and providing the show time to find its feet.With Python, the writers were completely in charge, and this was very unique We were the only people writing for us, so we had a certain strength We knew what we could perform We knew what we couldnt.With the BBC, we didnt start off with any problems, but we soon faced some difficulty with the censors We wrote a sketch for the third series called The All England Summarize Proust Competition It was about a beauty pageant where contestants, instead of impressing judges with singing or flute playing, would attempt to summarize the works and philosophy of Proust And this was one of the first instances, if not the very first time, that the word masturbation was ever used on television Graham Chapman was playing a contestant The host of the pageant, played by me, asked Graham what his hobbies were, and he said, Well, strangling animals, golf, and masturbation.The BBC edited out masturbation Keep in mind, the BBC was okay with strangling cats But masturbation was definitely out Laughs If you watch the edited sketch, theres a lag time after Graham says golf His lips move but you cant hear him say masturbation And then theres a huge laugh from the live audience But this is puzzling to the home viewers It sounds like the studio audience is laughing at strangling animals It becomes even stranger.Would Python overwrite For instance, Ive heard that the original script for The Holy Grail was much longer, and that only about 10 percent of the first draft appears in the movie.Yes, wed usually write a lot of material, or at least pitch material, and then cut down The first draft of Holy Grail was much longer The first half took place in the present day Arthur and the rest of the knights found that the Holy Grail was being sold at Harrods department store, in London You could findanything there But we ultimately decided to have the entire film only take place in the Middle Ages.For Life of Brian, we had a few scenes that were cut One of the original ideas was for it to be the story of the thirteenth apostle who missed the last supper because his wife had invited friends over to eat back at their house That was changed We spent a lot of time on rewrites Not so much for Meaning of Life, but certainly for the first two films.We were talking earlier about how comedy is often created by bringing disparate ideas together You wrote a scene for The Meaning of Life that might just be one of the strangest scenes in the history of filmat least for a comedy Im thinking of the Mr Creosote scene, played by you in what I would assume, and truly hope, was heavy makeup A gigantic man, dining in a very fancy restaurant, vomits until he explodes. Laughs Well, for that one, I just sat down and wrote a sketch in the worst possible taste In fact, at the top of the paper it read Sketch in the Worst Possible Taste The first time I ever read that in front of the rest of Python, we had just eaten lunch No one liked it That was not the time to do it It was decisively rejected But then a month later John Cleese rang me up and said, Im going to change my mind about this I think he spotted that the waiter could be very funny It was John who came up with the wafer thin line and to offer the mint to Mr Creosote just before he explodes Thats the only sketch I ever co wrote with John.The Mr Creosote scene took four days to shoot On the fifth day, a wedding took place in the ballroom where we shot it That wasnt a set The fake vomit was Russian salad dressing, and some other food ingredients By the fifth day you can imagine the smell And the poor people getting married had to come into that stench Not a good way to start off the married life.Fellow Python Eric Idle has called The Meaning of Life a kind of a punk film Do you agree with that I think so I think that might be accurate But it was really no different from how we always wrote We werent concerned with making anyone but ourselves laugh And thats clear in the Mr Creosote sketch I mean, we certainly werent pandering with that sketch.Nor with the Fishy, Fishy sketch, also in The Meaning of Life The sketch consists of you, dressed in a tuxedo, with drawn whiskers on your chin, waving large double jointed arms Meanwhile, Graham Chapman is dressed as a drag queen And theres another character wearing an elephant head All are looking directly at the camera, asking the audience for help in finding a fishy.I was surprised with that one I pitched it and was shocked after it was voted in I was totally surprised by that vote Each of us had different styles of comedy Mike and I would write, I suppose, zany sketches John would write bits having to do with character and human nature This sketch was silly, with no greater purpose So it was sort of extreme, and we didnt always agree on extremes But when we did fight, it was always over the material It was never personal Or mostly never personal.Whats amazing about Monty Pythons Flying Circus is just how close those original TV shows came to being erased by the BBC.Thats true The BBC came very close to erasing all of the original Python tapes, at least from the first season What happened was that we got word from our editor that the BBC was about to wipe all the tapes to use for serious entertainmentballet and opera and the like So we smuggled out the tapes and recorded them onto a Philips VCR home system For a long time, these were the only copies of Pythons first season to exist anywhere If these were lost, they were lost for good.This happened quite often with BBC comedy shows from the sixties It happened with Spike Milligans show from the late 1960s, Q5 All those shows are goneor mostly gone It happened with Alan Bennetts 1966 show, On the Margin It happened with a British TV comedy series from the late sixties,Broaden Your Mind, a show I worked on before Pythons Flying Circus All these tapes are gone They were taped over in order to record sporting events.Comedy shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies were often erased in order to save money It happened in the U.S with the first eight years of, as well as with shows featuring the comedian Ernie Kovacs And it happened, as you were just saying, in the U.K with many BBC comedies But how much, exactly, was the BBC saving when they would reuse these tapes I dont know I would guess around one hundred pounds per tape reel.So to save roughly 150in todays money, at leastthe BBC was willing to erase original comedy that could never again be duplicated If theyd been wiped, I dont think wed be talking now, actually Python wouldnt have been discovered in America And we might not have made as many series for TV And we may not have created any movies It goes to show how tenuous history is It can go in any direction.Which direction would you recommend young comedy writers head If you want to create comedy, try to make people laugh If you can make people laugh, head in that direction If nobody laughs well, thats not good news Laughs Head in the opposite direction.PURE, HARD CORE ADVICEDIABLO CODYScreenwriter Director, Juno, Young Adult, Time and a Half, Sweet Valley HighI couldnt have grown up less connected to Hollywood I lived in a very conservative Polish Catholic community in the south suburbs of Chicago I went to Mass and received communion six mornings a week The idea of a professional writer was a fantasy My parents told me that I couldnt write for a living, that it was just a hobby some people had outside of their real jobs I love my folks, but theyre the two most practical, risk averse people Ive ever met As a result, I truly appreciate Hollywood Its full of grandiose, insane dreamers with entitlement complexes Some people find that obnoxious, but to me, its fun I never knew characters like that growing up I never knew anyone who said, I deserve to be famous In Hollywood, thats every other person you meet God bless these douchebags.Im really lazy, and Im not proud of that Im usually just thinking about what Im going to have for dinner People say, Theres no way youre lazy you have such a steady output of work But writing isnt work for me I enjoy it If it felt like work, I wouldnt get past page two Thats why I have difficulty relating to a lot of comedy writers They might seem rebellious on the surface, but a lot of them went to Ivy League schools and are ambitious people pleasers at their core Ive always been straight up lazy and defiant I wouldnt last a week at Harvard, or at SNL for that matter It would be like, What can I write that Lorne will really hate When I first decided to try screenwriting, I was seeking inspiration from small, offbeat films I think this is a good way to start I knew if I read the script for say, Armageddon, it wasnt going to connect I was a nerdy, chubby chick on the fringes, so of course the 2001 comedy film Ghost World appealed to me As I started experimenting with my own voice, I found myself interested in suburban misfits like Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World and like those characters in Napoleon Dynamite and Lester Burnham the Kevin Spacey character from American Beauty They didnt have to save the planet to be interesting Their stories were accessible to me And Ghost World was funny, but also melancholy in a way that resonated with me I think that tone has informed a lot of the stuff Ive tried to write.Always be working on your own material Write specs non commissioned, unsolicited screenplays Though Ive been hired to write studio projects, everything Ive ever gotten produced has been an original spec script that I just wanted to write on my own I wasnt being paid for them Other peoples ideas are never as important as yours I wrote Young Adult while I was supposed to be working on a shitty studio movie, and Im so glad I prioritized my own idea Make everything as personal and specific as you can Sometimes people bitch about, for example, certain screenwriters who make their writing too specific to their own lives, not realizing that thats why it works The specificity is what makes it brilliant.Were lucky enough to live in an era where you can write, produce, publish, and distribute your own writing through the magic of the Internet, so theres no excuse not to be creating Just keep writing If you really love it, youll keep doing it even if youre not successful If you dont love it, you dont belong here.MIKE SCHURIf you want to understand the creative nuts and bolts of Michael Schura writer for such NBC comedy institutions as Saturday Night Live, The Office, andParks and Recreationyou should probably read novelist David Foster Wallaces 1996 novel, Infinite Jest At least the first thousand or so pages of it.Schur didnt just enjoy Infinite Jest Its in his bloodstream While a student at Harvard University, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the novel and somehow persuaded Wallace to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to receive an award from the Harvard Lampoon More on that later In 2011, Schur directed a video for the Decemberists Calamity Song, which featured teens playing the fictional game Eschaton, a reference to Infinite Jest And an episode from Parks and Recreation written by SchurPartridge, which aired April 4, 2013was brimming with Infinite Jest references Schur also owns the Infinite Jest film rights So you can rest assured that if theres ever a movie adaptation of the least filmable book ever written, Schur will be at least somehow involved.Schur has a popularity that extends beyond those who read the closing credits of sitcoms and enjoy excessive footnotes Most people would recognize him first as Mose Schrute, the quiet, bearded cousin of Dwight on NBCs The Office Mose co owns a beet farm with Dwight, thinks its fun to throw manure, loves Jurassic Park he has a pair of Jurassic Park pajamas to prove it , and has suffered from recurring nightmares ever since the storm Mose is Schurs creationhe named the character after Mose Gingerich, one of the stars of the 2004 reality series Amish in the Cityand one that, for better or worse, has become his most visible mainstream identity.But theres another, entirely different audience for Schur Mindy Kaling, a writer and actress who collaborated with Schur for many years on The Office, knows a very different man than most of the world has seen The greatest gift you can give Mike Schur is a Swedish dictionary, she said Because he just loves nonsense words, which is like a toddler sensibility for a guy who is an Emmy nominated writer and one of the most well read, serious guys Schur enjoys broad comedy, Kaling said as proof, she pointed to one of her favorite Schur penned Office episodesDunder Mifflin Infinity, October 4, 2007in which Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, blindly follows his GPS and maneuvers his rental car straight into Lake Scranton.A series of rich, intimate conversations about the ins and outs of turning funny ideas into real world art Sacks dives deep with everyone from Saturday Night Live lifer James Downey to Cheerscreator Glen Charles to Mel Brooks, and every interview is refreshingly candid Sacks asks the right questionsto inspire lively conversations.As a sort of expert witness to comedys history, hes reverent, though his subjects are also clearly chosen because they understand the absurdity of their own vocation He pokes and prods just enough to reveal some guts, and most of the time theyre just as fascinating as whats on the surface.A.V Club, The OnionA fascinating look into the ways stand up comedians, directors, and even short stories authors write funny.An absolute must.FlavorwireA greater look into the craft and business of comedy writing than you can find anywhere else.A comedy nerd bible.SplitsiderFilled with intelligent conversations Even if you re not interested in a comedy writing career, at least you ll get great suggestions for your Netflix queue.NPR, 2014s Great Reads A pleasingly thick work, born to be well thumbed Los Angeles Times Mike Sacks conversations with humorists poke at some fundamental concepts of comedy without chloroforming any frogs More revealingly, the book examines what kind of person comes to make a living putting funny words on paper Wall Street JournalShort chapters offering Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledgeshould be of particular interest to anyone thinking about pursuing a career in comedy The longer interviews should be of interest to pretty much anybody The New York Times Book ReviewThe true usefulness of Poking a Dead Frog to an aspiring comedy writer is in its clear eyed picture of the gritty inner workings of the comedy industry.Reading about how a joke goes from the mind of a writer to an episode of Communityis like watching a magician reveal his secrets Sure, it dispels some of the magic, but it inspires new reverence for the real skill that went into producing the effect SlateAn effort to understand what elicits the guffaw and an investigation of the comedic mind and how it works Poking a Dead Frogalso surprises as a how to get in the business kind of book, a thread that holds valid entertainment value.Amid these stories of wild successes, we get insights into whatis funny, whyit is funny, and just how hardit is to write the perfect joke.If you have members of your family who dream of being a comedy writer, give them this book Paste Unusually insightfulSacks teases deep wisdom from comedy titans Departures These intimate discussions of comedy in all its forms are engaging, and Sacks s obvious passion is contagious Whether writers themselves or just fans of funny, humor loving readers will relish Poking a Dead Frog ShelfAwarenessFascinating interviews with some comedic heavy hittersfull of great moments that are funny, thought provoking, and poignant If a casual humor enthusiast can appreciate the work this much, the book is going to be snapped up by comedy writers and aficionados Library Journal, starred review An excellent book Sacks once again displays his ability to get fascinating and honest interviews from comic luminaries Publishers WeeklyIf youre a fan of funny and who isnt youre sure to find something of interest in Sacks follow up to And Heres the Kicker New York PostNo one generates interesting, revealing, entertaining interviews than Mike Sacks His love and knowledge of comedy are apparent, and, as a result, the fascinating and sometimes tight lipped comedy greats open up to him in ways they rarely do Poking a Dead Frogis a classic.Bob Odenkirk, co creator of Mr Showandformer writer, Saturday Night LiveThis book is what I really look forward to in a book about humor rich with words and humor, and funny stories with words Thank you for your time.Will FerrellThese interviews go to dark depths and offer useful, applicable insight into how excellent comedy is written If you read it, you re going to be better at writing comedy and may even wind up in a position where you can take jobs away from the younger interviewees I specify the younger interview subjects because some of the older ones will die soon.Rob DelaneyI wish I d had a book like this when I was trying to break in Also, a book on personal hygiene.Jack Handey, author of Deep Thoughtsand The Stench of HonoluluThere are few better interviewers than Mike Sacks Poking a Dead Frogis a must read for any comedy nerd or fan of pop culture history.Dana Brown, Vanity Fair Poke definition of poke by The Free Dictionary Word History A pig in a is colorful vernacular expression used to describe something offered manner that conceals its true nature or value Naturally, buyer cannot inspect the if it covered is, bag sack word meaning not confined just American South many parts Scotland, still little paper for I 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