Here’s a test for you: go to the bookstore (the big one, not Labyrinth) and see how many “How to … Write!” books you can find. Then go and check out — hey, what’s that? More writing books!
Do we really need so many books on how to write? While writers and wannabes love to give advice (e.g.: X writes for The New Yorker — total, 2 articles — and has written six books on how to get published), it remains difficult for the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So when you glance at “And Here’s The Kicker,” a book that advertises itself as a helping hand for humour writers, you might want to say “chaff” or “I don’t read books like this” — Mike Sacks has written for all the requisite publications and he’s even an editor for Vanity Fair. This Book Will Help You Write Better and Lead To Monies and Happiness. Yawn.
But wait. The core of the book is not advice (there is a fair amount of advice, but it feels half-hearted), but interviews. And we’re talking very big dogs: Buck Henry, David Sedaris and Jack Handley among them.
Most of the interviews chart their subjects’ rise to fame and acclaim and give us some idea of their views on how good humour writing is done. And it works — one certainly gets a humourous glimpse of what it is like to break into the humour-writing world and live as a humour writer.
Sacks’ style works best when he is not star struck — his conversation with Stephen Marchant, creator of “The [English] Office,” is funny and really addresses the questions of what humour writing actually is and how it functions. Marchant describes the thought processes behind the show’s creation as well as the “documentary” style in which it is filmed. He is intelligent without being too clever, he doesn’t give shout-outs to everybody he met along the way, he doesn’t talk about himself, he criticises the industry.
And he’s funny:
“[A happy ending] almost hits a pleasure centre in the brain, like a good melody,” he explains at one point. “When you listen to a song, you don’t say, ‘I can’t believe it! Another song with a chorus and a verse and then the chorus again, what a cliché!’ No, you think, that’s a great song. It’s very primal.”
Just as the Marchant interview is galvanised by its analysis and opinions, the interview with the now-late Irving Brecher is fueled by its story. Brecher wrote for the Marx brothers in the 1930s, and his descriptions of them are wholly riveting — one feels carried along by this grand homme of American Humor. Brecher’s tone is touching, but at the same time amazing for the depth and precision with which a 94-year-old man charts his life.
Most of the writers are men (the exception is Allison Silverman ’94, who talks about being a scientifically inclined humanities major at Yale and how being an Ex!t player helped her humour writing), but Sacks gives us a broad spectrum of modern comedy — from comics to screenwriters, sitcoms to long-form creative nonfiction. Although he becomes unnecessarily ass-kissy at times — his interview with David Sedaris is way too fawning — Sacks’s book is a good introduction to modern humour for the casual reader.