For his first book, Mike Sacks got to talk to a lot of funny people.
He talked about what made them funny.
What they think is funny.
And how you can be funny, too.
Actually, he discussed with them how to write funny, be it a joke, improvisation or a character sketch.
Sack’s first book, “And Here’s the Kicker” is a conversation with 21 of the most successful humor writers alive — men and women who have written for the big and small screens, radio, live stage and magazines, for everyone for the Marx Brothers to Sacha Baron Cohen.
In short, his interviews document the evolution of comedy writing from “Horse Feathers” to “Borat.”
Such a broad statement may make you ask: just how did he choose which writers to interview?
“I had carte blanche; I could choose anyone I wanted,” said Sacks, who currently writes for Vanity Fair.
However, “It came down to those whose writing I admired and those who were willing to talk to me.”
Some writers were not. “I think if some of the writers I talked to knew how long the process was they wouldn’t have acquiesced either.”
His subjects ranged from Irving Brecher, who wrote for the Marx Brothers at the height of their movie careers; to Dan Mazer, who co-wrote “Borat,” a film some think redefined the comedy genre.
Many of the writers were Jewish, as Sacks is himself. Though not all of them credited their Jewishness for their development as humor writers, some did, though not always in ways that were flattering.
For instance, Mazer, who was a childhood friend of “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen, recalled the two of them going to a private school outside London:
“The school was full of very smart, but very cowardly, Jewish boys,” he told Sacks in their interview. “If we had gone to the local school, or, say, a less Jewish school, we would have spent a lot of time sharpening our instincts for fighting or avoiding fights. But we were all such nice, weak Jewish boys who were afraid to fight that we would spend most of our time honing our verbal instincts. Instead of pugilism, we’d resort to puns.”
From another generation, Al Jaffee, a longtime writer for Mad magazine, whom Sacks dubbed “the elder statesman of adolescent humor,” found his original training for the job in not-so-funny situations — growing up in Lithuania.
“There was a great deal of anti-Semitism, which was a source of humor for me — dark humor,” Jaffee told Sacks. “I’d sit around with my friends in their houses and listen to the grown-ups talk about the latest prohibition against Jewish commerce, or whatever. They would take it seriously, but they would also ridicule and make fun of it.”
“I don’t think humor is just here to tickle people,” Jaffee added. “Humor has much deeper roots than that.”
Indeed, one thing most humor writers have in common, Sacks suggested, is that they didn’t grow up happy. They were the outsiders.
“No one who is beautiful or extremely popular in high school gets into humor,” he told The Chronicle. “It’s always someone who’s alone at home on Saturday night who has nothing to do but watch movies or practice his writing.”
Which may account for why Sacks’ book is more than just a compilation of interviews with humor writers; it is also spiced with advice columns on how to get into the business, the dos and don’ts of pitching scripts or jokes — things he says just aren’t taught in schools.
Asked if his book is a primer for aspiring humor writers, Sacks said, “My perfect imaginary reader is someone skipping math class and reading this in the library. That would be me, I can tell you that.”
A native of the D.C. area, Sacks actually has connections to Pittsburgh. His mother is from Squirrel Hill and his cousins attended Taylor Allderdice. He himself recalls walking to the newsstand on Murray Avenue during visits here to pick up the latest humor magazines, something he said he couldn’t do in his suburban hometown.
He went on to write for such publications as Esquire, GQ, Maxim, and the New Yorker, as well as online sites like Salon and McSweeney’s.
In fact, he says the next generation of humor writers will cut their teeth at online publications or social Web sites, using the newest media such as the social networks sites.
Could that mean some future Buck Henry or Larry Gelbart is already tweeting his jokes to a wireless audience?
Possibly, Sacks said, though he warned there is a downside.
“Everyone is blogging. I think more people are blogging than are reading blogs,” he said. “I think it has changed humor in that people have much less patience for things.”
He recalled one editor from the online humor magazine, The Onion, lamenting that his readers barely have enough patience to finish reading stories at his site, which are not long at all.
“I think this is a schism now between the old and the new writers and people who are using it now (the new media) will be using it in the future.”
Perhaps, but there’s no schism in Sacks’ book, just lots of funny people speaking intimately about how they got that way.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)