The only people who think writing humor is easy are those who have never tried it—and I’ll omit all comparisons to brain surgery, rocket science, and dying. But a lot of people think they want to do it so there’s quite a few guides and handbooks on the market which purport to teach you how to succeed at being funny.
Most people can always use a good laugh, but judging from the general level of comedy writing (speaking for America, although it may be the same elsewhere) I’d say the prescriptive approach has mixed success. That leaves room for an alternative such as that provided by And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft. As the subtitle implies, author Mike Sacks interviews an assortment of humor writers about their approach to comedy and the path their careers have taken.
The book doesn’t tell you what to do, but shares insights from people who have succeeded as comedy writers. Most of the interviews contain a mix of biography, insider information (why was the original version of The Office shot in documentary style? How long does it take to develop each fold-in for Mad?), analysis of why material does or doesn’t work, and advice to those hoping to break into the field.
All the interviews are a good read, and the range of writers included is impressive. Veterans like Irving Brecher (who worked with the Marx Brothers and Milton Berle in the ‘30s) and Buck Henry (who was touring in Life with Fatherin the ‘40s) appear alongside younger talents like Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the BBC series The Office) and Dan Mazer (one of the authors of the screenplay for Borat).
What screenplay for Borat, you may ask. Contrary to popular belief, the movie was not improvised, although the writers worked hard to make it seem that way. Mazer estimates that 75-80 percent of each of Simon Baron-Cohen’s comedy segments is scripted and the situations are carefully scouted so the star and his crew have a good idea what’s going to happen before they start filming. But this preparation is camouflaged so the interactions in Borat seem “real” to the audience, a decision adopted after an earlier Baron-Cohen movie Ali G Indahouse was criticized as too obviously scripted. This illustrates one of the ironies of successful writing: if you do it really well people may not realize that its been done at all, because it seems so natural and spontaneous.
What do you need to make it as a comedy writer? The common threads among the interviewees are determination, flexibility, talent and luck, although perhaps not always in that order. It’s also wise to make friends early on with people with similar interests: school is as important for the people you meet as for the courses you take. Cases in point: Dan Mazer and Simon Baron-Cohen met at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and did amateur shows at Cambridge University, Todd Hanson started The Onion with friends at the University of Wisconsin, and Al Jaffee attended New York’s High School of Music and Art with a number of future Mad staffers as well as founder Harvey Kurtzman.
Obviously there’s no single path to comedic stardom. Harold Ramis started as joke editor for Playboy—after working in a mental institution, which he says was “good training for when I went to Hollywood to work with actors.” Merrill Markoe studied art and wrote for the ill-fated revival of Laugh-In (without Rowan and Martin) before becoming head writer for David Letterman, and later branched out to print publications. Paul Feig won $29,000 on a game show which allowed him to spend six months working as a stand-up comedian: during that he wrote so much material about his school years that he began a memoir which was never published but informed his writing on the television program Freaks and Geeks.
Sandwiched between the interviews are lists of often-asked questions with answers by those in the know. Topics covered include publishing in humor magazines (if The Onion is your goal, expect to pitch headlines for years before they buy one—and they start with the headline and write the story to fit), getting into The New Yorker (they receive about 100 submissions each week for the Shouts & Murmurs section, and even Woody Allen has been rejected—but they also discover a number of new writers this way) and getting an agent or manager for your script (try younger agents and those who have just been promoted, and send your submission by postal mail).
And Here’s the Kicker is loaded with information for people interested in comedy, not just those who want to work in the business. I learned things which will be useful in writing film and theatre reviews, and even people who just enjoy going to comedy clubs will gain an appreciation of how much work lies behind an apparently spontaneous performance.