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Laugh In

A new book about comedy writing is the latest in a ‘how to be funny’ genre

by
Saul Austerlitz
January 22, 2015
(Tablet Magazine; main photo: Shutterstock)

When the writer and filmmaker Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) was a boy, the movie Airplane! changed his life. In one montage scene, a series of newspapers spin into the screen; the first two have headlines about the imperiled airline flight. The third headline, though, takes an entirely different tack: “Boy Trapped in Refrigerator Eats Own Foot.” “That was the first time I ever saw anything like that,” McKay tells Mike Sacks in his new interview collection with comedy writers, Poking a Dead Frog. “That joke was just so out of left field, and yet it still made sense. It was one of the first times I ever saw something where I felt, ‘Oh, my God, you can do whatever you want with this form!’ ”

Poking a Dead Frog, compiling interviews with the likes of McKay, Diablo Cody, James L. Brooks, George Saunders, and radio pioneer Peg Lynch, is subtitled Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, but its mission is broader than might be indicated. To begin with, as the inclusion of figures like Saunders and Lynch might hint, Sacks is defining “comedy writer” to include more than just screenwriters and the alumni of sitcom writers’ rooms. Literary fiction, cartooning, and children’s books also fall under the rubric of comedy writing. Moreover, Sacks structures his book to provide bursts of “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” and “Pure, Hard-Core Advice,” intended to educate students of comedy looking for a leg up in their careers.

But can comedy be taught, or does it require an “aha!” moment akin to McKay’s? Is it a discipline with clear rules and preferred techniques, like law or medicine? Or is it an art, whose practitioners must possess a certain gift before being capable of being further educated? Poking a Dead Frog is not the first book to offer advice and words of encouragement (or discouragement; these are comedians, after all) to aspirants. A quick glance at such efforts, past and present, reveals some common ground, as well as some profound nodes of disagreement. Sacks’ book is simultaneously a layman’s guide to the mysterious alchemy of comedy and a semi-practical manual to the profession. Reading it prompted the perhaps-inevitable question: Is there such a thing as being taught how to be funny?

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Past comedy-writing manuals have leaned toward the presentation of easy-to-remember rules of thumb and hidden secrets of comedians. Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets (1987; updated 2005) suggests a worldwide conspiracy on the part of successful comedians: “Out of fear that discovery of their superficial tricks will be evaluated rather than laughed at, many famous humorists have sponsored an insupportable fiction that comedians must be born funny … Hogwash!” Helitzer lays out a step-by-step program to sharpening and perfecting comedy routines, from the power of POW (plays on words) to the theory of THREES (target, hostility, realism; exaggeration, emotion, surprise).

Comedy Writing Secrets is a workbook, complete with exercises, suggested routines to complete, and wildly dubious statistics. (Are double entendres really 40 percent of all cliché-related humor? How could this possibly be calculated?) Helitzer’s take on comedy occasionally feels fusty and misguided. Referring to Richard Pryor’s audience as “mostly young black militants” is both odd and entirely wrong. Quoting your own jokes alongside the likes of Steve Martin and Steven Wright seems, shall we say, aspirational. But some of the book provides suitable advice for the up-and-coming comic. Helitzer breaks down a haiku-like Mitch Hedberg joke by offering a series of slightly longer, and distinctly less funny, variations on Hedberg’s “I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it” to illustrate his credo that “less is better.”

Larry Wilde’s 1976 book How the Great Comedy Writers Create Laughter similarly prods his subjects, including Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, to be specific about any rules of thumb they follow in their work, or words of guidance for aspiring writers. Brooks suggests that “turkey” is a funnier word than “salmon,” and that “whatever is funny is in,” regardless of its deficiencies of taste or accessibility. Abe Burrows suggests tweaking the rhythm of a joke for maximal impact: “The longer you delay the audience from laughing at certain spots, the bigger the explosion will be—if you do it properly.”

But most of the interviewees retain a sense of pessimism about providing any real assistance to aspiring comics. “If you have to ask questions on how you go about it,” Jack Douglas tells him, “I don’t think you’re ever going to make it.” Comedy is a matter of instinct, and these men and women simply have it. “I’ve got a mechanism in my belly,” says Norman Lear (All in the Family). “My belly says this is funny; my belly says this is in good taste, and this is in bad taste.”

Gene Perret’s The New Comedy Writing Step by Step (1982; updated 2007) breaks down the preparatory work of the aspiring comedy writer, from collecting others’ jokes in order to study their form to free-associating on a selected subject. Perret suggests thinking of a routine as being composed of peaks and valleys, in which surefire punchlines are tempered by droll asides, allowing the audience to stay amused while the performer builds back up to another winner. Perret’s bite-size The Ten Commandments of Comedy (2013) echoes The New Comedy Writing, offering God-given strictures of being funny such as “Thou Shalt Be Current” and “Thou Shalt Be Concise.”

Not to say that Perret’s book is a bit outdated, but the number of times Phyllis Diller is mentioned suggests that Perret’s comic sensibility might be slightly out of step with the era of Broad City and Key & Peele. Still, Perret offers the most helpful structural advice of all for aspiring comedy writers: “A good joke is a series of words that ends in a paycheck.”

Josh Lambert, Tablet contributing editor and author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2013) is skeptical about the value of any such rules of thumb regarding comedy: “The rule of THREES, or stuff about which letters are funnier than other letters. People say that all the time. I don’t see any real value in it, or any real truth in it.” Lambert does have fond memories of an introductory lecture for newcomers to the legendary comedy magazine the Harvard Lampoon that was primarily a compendium of what not to do. “One of the things the Lampoon staff would say was: no high-low switcheroos,” says Lambert. “There’s a whole structure of jokes that’s just taking something fancy and something debased and putting them together, or juxtaposing two things that are opposites and then hoping the humor will emerge from that.”

Most comedy writers agree, though, that comedy stands apart from most other genres by virtue of its elemental simplicity. McKay argues in Dead Frog that the closest genres to comedy are pornography and horror: “If you’re not feeling the tingle that’s promised by the genre, you know it’s bullshit.” Lambert agrees. “I think of them as the body genres,” he writes. “The genres that are about your body reacting. If you ever go to a poetry reading or a serious literary fiction reading, no matter how good the serious poem or the serious short story is, there’s a sense of deadness in the room. Whereas if someone’s reading a funny poem and getting people to laugh, it’s obvious that people are having a good time and enjoying it and engaging with the work.”

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Sacks, for one, leans toward the definition of comedy as instinctual. “I think you can be taught to go a certain distance, but I think it would be like teaching someone who didn’t have an ear for music to play the piano,” he said in an interview. “They could get up to a certain level, but they would never exceed that. The thing is, nobody knows how good they’re going to be anyway. It’s always a leap of faith on their own part. They think they’re funny, and they might be. But are they funny enough to make a career out of it? It’s really the issue.”

Agreement on a smooth career track for aspiring comedians is hard to come by. Sacks’ book is the record of a rolling argument between established comic writers. Should TV writers watch as much TV as they can, as a form of study? Kay Cannon, a writer for 30 Rock and The New Girl, emphatically argues, in Poking a Dead Frog, in favor of binge-watching. “When someone says they’re a TV writer and they don’t own a TV, I just want to roll my eyes until they get stuck that way,” she says. Carol Kolb of Kroll Show and Community argues the opposite, suggesting that TV writers can close the spigot of their creativity by watching too much of others’ work.

TV on or off, writing comedy is a form of play—a process emphasized by Peter Desberg and Jerry Davis’ Show Me the Funny!: At the Writers’ Table With Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers (2010). Desberg and Lewis supply a loose story idea—widow Molly moves in with her adult daughter Sarah upon finding herself penniless after her husband’s death—and allow their interviewees to putter with the idea as they see fit. Some subjects reject it outright. Dennis Klein of The Larry Sanders Show describes it as “with all due respect, bogus,” and cracks, “I keep trying not to cast Diane Keaton as the mother.”

Most, though, gamely attempt to play along. Walt Bennett pictures Molly’s bursting in the morning after a rare one-night stand of Sarah’s sleeps over and quizzing her on whose shoes are under her bed. Heather Hach suggests that mother and daughter collaborate on running a Pilates company, allowing for the introduction of a new strand of workplace humor and a steady stream of quirky characters. Along the way, Peter Casey of Cheers remembers how the show’s creators, Glen and Les Charles, “didn’t settle for the first thing that was pitched,” and Ed Decter (There’s Something About Mary) reminds aspiring writers that “every single word makes a difference because it’s taking away from another word.” Not every interview is equally successful, but Show Me the Funny! bypasses biography, for the most part, in favor of direct immersion in the process of creation.

Asked for his own recommendations for young comedy writers, Sacks suggests that the idea of a formula—10 steps to funnier routines!—is ultimately an illusion. “There are rules across the board that one shouldn’t do, or one should do,” he said. “You should reach out to people, you should work hard, you should write all the time, you should do this, you should do that. But beyond that, you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself. And no book, including mine, is going to tell you. These aren’t math equations, where you’re going to give me the problem, and I’m going to give you the answer. There’s really no answer, and I think by seeing that they’re different answers, and they’re different pieces of advice, it shows to the reader that it’s really up to them.”

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