Recently a childhood friend posted on Facebook that he was struggling to find the humor in Parks and Recreation, a show all his friends had told him was worth watching. After I recovered from my various levels of disbelief (You’re just now watching Parks and Recreation? You don’t find the character of Ron Swanson hilarious? Leslie Knope bothers you?), I thought about that most elemental of questions: What is Funny? The answer (other than farts, of course) may be unknowable, but Mike Sacks provides us with some of the smartest thinking about the question in his impressive Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers.
The title comes from E.B. White, as Sacks shares in his introduction:
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind...[Humor] won’t stand much poking. It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect.”
Far from dying in the process, comedy in general and comedy writing in particular emerge in a depth I had never considered until reading Sack’s collection of comedy writers’ advice and analysis of comedy through interviews, “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge,” and “Pure Hard-Core Advice.” The subtitle is also something of a misnomer: Though we do hear from numerous contemporary comic voices, we also hear from classic comedy voices, such as Mel Brooks, Bob Elliot from Bob & Ray, and Peg Lynch, who wrote for and performed in the radio show Ethel and Albert beginning in the 1940s.
Lynch’s interview was a highlight, a voice from the past and a voice previously unknown to me. A contemporary highlight was Paul Feig, probably best known as the director of Bridesmaids, but first known to me as the creator of the beloved Freaks and Geeks. Feig shares part of his dauntingly comprehensive show bible, evidence of the vast and detailed world creation behind Freaks and Geeks. A third highlight was Todd Levin sharing, and then critiquing with the benefit of experience, his submission packet for Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Sacks shares voices from radio, television, film, graphic novels, magazines, and online media. He is a wonderful interviewer, asking probing questions yet allowing his subjects and their responses to guide the flow of the interview. And most importantly, Poking a Dead Frog clears the first hurdle of any book about comedy and comedy writing: It is consistently funny, mostly by stepping out of the way and allowing these comedy voices to do what they do (and this is not as easy as it might sound).