Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks
~post by Steve(n)
It is a paradoxical testament to the excellence and effectiveness of Mike Sachs’s captivating new writing guide Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers that it is all but impossible to read it uninterrupted for any appreciable amount of time. Anyone who aspires to be creative can confirm that a fine balance must be struck between consumption and generation of media, and Poking a Dead Frog, as a reference, is so overwhelmingly inspirational, that it forces a skew in the equilibrium of productivity. Read any amount of this book, and you won’t be able to help yourself. Well before you’ve reached a logical stopping point in the chapter, you will have unconsciously grabbed a pen, found a long-overlooked composition notebook, ignored any inhibitions or nagging self doubts, and just started making some art.
In this serious take on playfulness, Mike Sachs has ventured into the often misunderstood realm of professional comedy writing, interviewing a diverse cast of literary dark horses, directors, show runners, cartoonists, actors, stand-ups, radio personalities, agents, wizards, enchantresses, and pariahs – all of whom have managed to make a living by writing and telling jokes – to pinpoint the spark that ignites humor’s internal combustion engine and explore the world of possibility that awaits anyone daring or desperate enough to take the wheel of their ramshackle ambitions and drive them down an ambiguous and bumpy career path. Poking a Dead Frog provides, if not a Rand McNally-grade guide to guaranteed treasure for comedy writing hopefuls, then at least a tattered, pirate’s map fraught with rumors and superstition that may help clueless explorers avoid pitfalls on their journey where there be monsters.
Each interview is uniquely enlightening in its own way, providing singular insight into a specific facet of the growing comedy world. Longtime writer for Saturday Night Live James Downey weighs the pros and cons of spending every waking hour locked in a room with sweatily competitive comedy nerds. Show-runner Mike Schur admits the extent, to which he has allowed Infinite Jest to influence the writing on Parks and Recreation. Radio icon Peg Lynch looses some golden age Hollywood gossip as she recalls the dizzying highs and crushing lows of being the de facto first woman of comedy. Paul Feig gets into the excruciating details of creating a “series bible” for Freaks and Geeks. Todd Levin tells you how to submit a packet for Conan. Roz Chast explains the eccentricity of her cartooning career. Bill Hader lists two hundred movies every comedy writer should see. Amy Poehler, hero that she is, delivers the deathblow when she unleashes the bucket of truth, “Keep doing it, even though all your stuff is going to be pretty bad. But don’t be discouraged by its imperfections; embrace it if it’s half good. Fake it ’til you make it. Put things up. If they’re sloppy, keep trying.”
Poking a Dead Frog is more than a writing manual. It’s better than a book of advice. Mike Sachs has documented the triumph of whimsy over severity, and, in so doing, he has shed some light on the essentially nonsensical foundation of the world.