Mike Sacks’ first collection of interviews with comedy writers—2009’s And Here’s The Kicker—was less a laugh-out-loud read and more a funny, frequently pointed dissection of craft. Its sequel takes that dissection metaphor into its title. Poking A Dead Frog is a riff on an E.B. White quote about the idea of picking apart humor, which he claims “won’t stand much poking.” Sacks once again proves White wrong—not an easy task—with a series of rich, intimate conversations about the ins and outs of turning funny ideas into real-world art.
Though he had lots of great names the first time around, there were plenty left for round two: In Dead Frog, Sacks—an editor at Vanity Fair—dives deep with everyone from Saturday Night Live lifer James Downey to Cheers creator Glen Charles to Mel Brooks, and every interview is refreshingly candid. Sacks asks the right questions—a diehard comedy fan, he knows his stuff—to inspire lively conversations. The running themes: If you want to write comedy, you’ve got to write what you think is funny, and do it until you’re good at it (which can be a long time). Daniel Clowes takes it further: “If somebody asks me, I always say not to do it unless you can’t not do it.” Daniel Handler offers, “I’d avoid reading interviews with writers. None of us know what we’re doing.”
Beyond that sort of overarching career advice—and there are also first-person pieces just called “pure, hard-core advice”—Dead Frog delivers plenty of anecdotes: SNL’s Downey jokes about trying not to acknowledge what a douche Steven Seagal was; Charles talks about Andy Kaufman’s annoying Taxi antics (“Tony Clifton was once kicked off the set, and he returned with a gun”). Its other diversions are slightly less engaging: Pieces subtitled “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” will appeal mostly to those treating Dead Frog as a gateway to their own career. Then again, one of those pieces also features one of the book’s most interesting (and specific) entries: excerpts from Paul Feig’s Freaks And Geeks show bible, including a list of bands, specifically whether they’re enjoyed by freaks, geeks, or both. (Example: “Meat Loaf—geeks; The Steve Miller Band—freaks and geeks.”)
At every turn, Sacks takes this material exactly as seriously as it should be taken. As a sort of expert witness to comedy’s history, he’s reverent, though his subjects are also clearly chosen because they understand the absurdity of their own vocation. He pokes and prods just enough to reveal some guts, and most of the time they’re just as fascinating as what’s on the surface.