Mike Sacks

Penguin Books


480pp/$18.00/June 2014

Poking a Dead Frog

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Mike Sacks conducted numerous interviews with a wide range of writers to produce the evocatively titled Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers.  Rather than just focus on one type of writer, Sacks reached out to sitcom writers, screenwriters, satirists, writers for magazines, and even stand up comics.  What the book shows is that there are as many different ways to write comedy as there are writers who write comedy.

The book does show some commonalities.  Many, but certainly not all, of the writers interview have a strong sense of the history of the field.  There are repeated references to classic comedians, such as Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and Johnny Carson, as well as references to comedians of the past whose names are not as well known, like Paul Henning, who worked on The Beverly Hillbillies and wrote Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  Similarly, the writers interviewed range from the world famous, such as Mel Brooks or Amy Poehler, to those whose names can sometimes be glimpsed in the credits, like Scott Jacobson or Megan Amram.  What is, perhaps most interesting is that many of the interviews with the easily recognizable names are short and vague and something of a let-down.  It is the longer interviews, often conducted with relative unknowns, that really get to the meat of comedy.

And that meat isn't always the same.  Although Adam McKay comments that "comedy tends to travel. If someone laughs at something, they'll laugh at it in South Carolina and they'll laugh about it on the Upper East Side of New York," there are different kinds of comedy and not everyone finds all attempts at humor funny.  McKay notes that himself when he refers to people who don't understand his own form of comedy.  That sort of disconnect also occurs throughout the book when a writers is talking about something they worked on and is clearly describing it in a manner which indicates that think it is comedic gold, and yet it is a work that leaves the reader unamused.

The shear scope of the book means that, even leaving Bill Hader's list of 200 films to watch aside, anyone reading the book will find unfamiliar comedic references to search out, whether it is the radio series written by Peg Lynch (Ethel and Albert) or Bruce Jay Friedman's novel Stern. Poking a Dead Frog is a treasure trove of comedic references, both in the work of the interviewees and those they refer to, some of which is no longer available as such, but when discussing training from Chicago improv master Del Close, his theories and techniques can be widely seen in many of today's comics, even those who never knew Close.  

The insights and personalities which are displayed in the interviews and articles in Poking a Dead Frog provide an excellent look at the state of comedy in the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Writers pay homage to the comics who came before them, on the written page, stage, and screens (large and small).  At the same time, these comics talk about the way the internet is changing the way comedy is perceived, with the rise of Twitter and websites like Funny or Die offering up-and-coming comedians and writers unprecedented access to the traditional gatekeepers, and well as direct lines to the comedy watching public. The book is essential for anyone interested in a career in comedy and also wonderful for anyone who just enjoys to laugh.

James Downey Joel Begleiter
Terry Jones Marc Maron
Diablo Cody George Saunders
Mike Schur Byrd Leavell
Todd Levin Dave Hill
Andrés du Bouchet Tom Scharpling
Henry Beard Bob Elliott
James L. Brooks Amy Poehler
Megan Amram Roz Chast
Peg Lynch Henry Alford
Peter Mehlman Patton Oswalt
Paul F. Tompkins Daniel Clowes
Adam McKay Daniel Handler
Bill Hader Anthony Jeselnik
Scott Jacobson Adam Resnick
Bruce Jay Friedman Paul Feig
Bruce Vilanch Stephen Merchant
Kay Canyon Dan Guterman
Carol Kolb Alan Spencer
Will Tracy Mike Decenzo
Gabe Delahaye Mel Brooks
Glen Charles Edward Jessen

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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