At its best, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers creates a kind of alternate timeline of America in the past century.
The book collects interviews by Vanity Fair editor Mike Sacks along with short bursts of advice, all by comedy writers. It’s a super-impressive list: James L. Brooks, Adam McKay, Bruce Vilanch, Marc Maron, George Saunders, Tom Scharpling, Amy Poehler, Roz Chast, Patton Oswalt, Daniel Clowes, Daniel Handler, and Mel Brooks are just some of the most exciting. Much of the advice segments feel generic, and that’s probably because generic advice is typically correct: go out and write a lot. Meet people and don’t be obnoxious to them. Challenge yourself. I’m saying don’t get too excited about Poehler or Oswalt because that’s the kind of stuff they say. This book would be a great read for someone interested in a career in comedy, but its contributors also reinforce the idea that reading books about writing comedy won’t get you anywhere: what matters is you go out there and write comedy.
So you should enjoy the book for what it is, whatever your ambitions. Sacks is a great interviewer because he does extensive research on each writer, seems personally invested in everyone, yet simultaneously remains laid-back in his questioning until something really wild and unexpected, or something really specific to his interests, comes up. This style allows great stories to come out but also lets blowhards stew in their own juices: the first interview is with SNL writer James Downey, who bellyaches about political correctness a lot, but many of the sketch ideas of his that he discusses are hacky. Downey also does the lame Hollywood thing of referring to “Chris Guest” and “Marty Short”– if he can send me a piece of paper signed by Martin Short promising that Short actually has his close, personal friends call him “Marty,” I will apologize for calling him out.
The title comes from an E.B. White quote: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process… It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect.” Will Tracy, Editor-in-Chief at The Onion, does the best job at actually taking apart humor surgically like that when he explains five rejected headline submissions and five that got in (“Instagram Photo Very Unique, Sources Agree” would be “the same joke that everyone is making,” but “Torrent of Soap Issues from Wildly Unexpected Part of Dispenser” is part of a “cherished Onion subgenre of Small Made Big” in the vein of “Rubber Band Needed.”) Sacks interviews a few people from The Onion and they’re all fascinating.
A lot of the best moments in this book come from writers revealing what got cut from shows or movies they worked on, and what was inspired by real life– George Saunders provides a pretty shocking example of the latter.
Some of my favorite parts of this book make the subtitle “Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers” only about halfway true: the interview with Peg Lynch, creator of ’40’s and ’50’s radio-show-cum-sitcom-I’d-never-heard-of Ethel and Albert, is worth the price of the book. She’s ninety-six, makes a Hemingway dick joke, probably had a huge influence on Seinfeld but has never watched it. She was basically the Peggy Olson of comedy. I don’t want to spoil too much, but to illustrate my idea of this book as a representation of recent and not-very-recent American history: National Lampoon writer Henry Beard, whom Sacks interviews, knew somebody who was on the Titanic. Throughout the book there are encounters with Lou Gehrig, JFK, the mafia, Clinton, Andy Kaufman. There’s Mel Brooks working the stage in the Catskills, Bruce Vilanch at every Oscars, Megan Amram breaking into the sitcom world by making an effort to write great jokes every day on Twitter.
The only real issue I have with this book is something that’s pretty sensitive to talk about: it’s too white. You can argue that the comedy world is itself too white, and that’s probably true, but the most entitled white male part of me is still just very interested, not out of some altruism, just out of interest, in how a Kevin Hart’s experience writing and performing comedy would have differed from everybody else’s. Or Chris Rock, W. Kamau Bell, Maya Rudolph, Kumail Nanjiani, Margaret Cho, Key and Peele, Aisha Tyler. And who gives a better interview than JB Smoove? Maybe none of these people or their agents called Sacks back, but either way, it hurts the book, especially given that its best quality is in creating a historical narrative of comedy.
Regardless, I strongly recommend this book, especially if you’re like me and you’re a big fan of comedy and oral histories and like to hear people telling amazing stories about great humorous works. It comes out June 24th.