A few weeks ago I added Andy Borowitz’s The 50 Funniest Writers to this website’s esteemed list of Great Books About Humor Writing. I read the other books on that list before I launched this site, which means I have not written about them. So let’s change that. I’ll start with one of my favorites.
In And Here’s The Kicker journalist Mike Sacks interviews 21 top humor writers about humor writing. Sacks did his homework. As a result, the conversations are enlightening and entertaining and the interview subjects are forthcoming. The 21 interviewed are Buck Henry, Stephen Merchant, Harold Ramis, Dan Mazer, Merrill Markoe, Paul Feig, Irving Brecher, Bob Odenkirk, Todd Hanson, Marshall Brickman, Mitch Hurwitz, David Sedaris, George Meyer, Al Jaffee, Allison Silverman, Robert Smigel, Dave Barry, Dick Cavett, Larry Wilmore, Jack Handey and Larry Gelbart.
Not coincidentally, Barry, Sedaris, Handey and Wilmore all have pieces in The 50 Funniest Writers.
And Here’s the Kicker was published in 2009, but its stories are timeless. Most of the writers work primarily in television or film. The exceptions are Barry, Sedaris, Hanson and Jaffee, all of whom built careers out of entertaining people via the written word or, in Jaffee’s case, illustration.
A lot of what is discussed in the book regarding the mechanics of writing humor is well-known. In the book Barry makes a point that Bruce Cameron recently made on this website–that there is a technical skill to humor writing that must be learned and perfected.
Said Barry, “It’s a lot like a magic trick, in that there’s a very mechanical way in which it’s done. There are a lot of obvious and basic structural things you do with a sentence and with a joke and how you set it up on a page. And the trick is to do it in such a way that it doesn’t look like there was any effort at all–that it’s somehow magic.
“When a good stand-up comic is performing, he gives you the illusion that he’s thinking of these things as he’s speaking–every now and then this may be true, but generally it’s not. Usually, he’s practiced every single joke, every single pause, every inflection, every facial expression, and found the ones that work the best. And when he does this quickly, it’s hilarious. To him, it’s executing something. And I think that’s what humor writing is sort of like. There’s a certain amount of inspiration, but there’s also a fair amount of work and repetition and practice and mechanics that are involved in making it look like it’s just happening magically, right then and there.”
Even though the advice in the book is known, it’s nice to hear it from the most talented writers in the world.
Sedaris told Sacks that it can take him years to write a story. He called the second draft a depressing experience, which is similar to something Barry says as well. Like Barry, Sedaris rewrites his copy repeatedly, draft after draft, until it’s good. Hanson says it’s the same at The Onion. The headlines are chosen first, and then the stories are written. Hanson estimates that 500 headlines are thrown away for every one that gets selected. In other words, humor writing is a lot of work and most of it ends up in the wastebasket–if you’re any good.
But the book is more than just comedy writing advice. It is filled with insider stories on how Borat was made, how The Onion dealt with 9/11, how Arrested Development did not deliver what viewers wanted and how the original version of The Office was created.
Brickman quotes Tom Stoppard in the book, and it’s a great quote. Stoppard said, “I think of laughter as the sound of comprehension.” Brickman said this in regards to Woody Allen, but he could have meant any of the interview subjects in this book, because these are 21 writers who have mastered the skill of anticipating what will make an audience laugh and delivering it. Their insight is valuable.
Check out the book here.