There is glory to be found in the writers’ room, but also an almost-familial warmth. “You are sharing 14 hours a day with the same people, and having the same conversation all day long. You need to learn what role you play every single day in that configuration,” says Kay Cannon, a 30 Rock writer. The ecstatic way in which writers talk about the community that forms in the writers’ room reminded me, oddly, of Occupy Wall Street and the idea that the encampment at Zuccotti Park was a test-tube utopia, the one tiny space in the big, horrible world where things work roughly according to how they would in the best possible world. In the writers’ room you become a better person while you help other people be better, and you all work to create something great. Damn. I’m tearing up just writing about it.
The promise of the writers’ room is so strong that it seeps into all the interviews of Poking a Dead Frog. The writers in Poking a Dead Frog are noticeably happier than the ones in And Here’s the Kicker, Sacks’ first book. Kicker focused mainly on comedy writers who came up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s; in those decades, Saturday Night Live, Late Night With David Letterman, and The Simpsons boasted the most prestigious writers’ rooms. Tracking the shifting comedy of the past decade, Poking moves the emphasis from SNL to smart sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Community, and from Late Night to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Many of the writers in the older book seemed locked in a mortal struggle with the industry. Quality TV was produced in spite of the system. Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of the cult sketch show Mr. Show, scoffed at the low standards of TV audiences: “I think people are looking at entertainment not for ideas; they are looking at it for an easy kind of distraction. They want to sit back and watch the same people do the same thing they did last week. That’s what TV exists for—it exists to be a mild sedative.” George Meyer, the legendary Simpsons writer who created the cult zine Army Man, had beef with the advertising that cuts into The Simpsons’ running time: “Advertising always has a coarsening effect, and its inane monkey chatter makes your story less coherent.” There was also the Onion editor Todd Hanson’s acerbic response to the question of whether the failed attempt to make an Onion movie had soured him on Hollywood: “The answer is not only yes; the answer is ‘fuck yes.’ The answer is even more than ‘fuck yes.’ ”
But the new generation of comedy writers in Poking a Dead Frog appears more at ease with the system and convinced of its ultimate benevolence, despite its hurdles. These writers seem to agree with the oft-repeated assertion that we are in a Golden Age of TV. “Television is not about quantity anymore, it’s very much about quality,” says Schur. “It’s being treated, as it should be, like an art form worthy of criticism and discussion.”
Did comedy writers really get happier over the past 10 years? I can think of a few explanations for the sunnier attitude of Sacks’ second book. It features younger and less-experienced writers who might not have the standing to fire off broadsides the way Bob Odenkirk did. Or maybe comedy writing has truly become more creatively fulfilling. But the upbeat attitude could also reflect a less positive trend in the industry: The growing need for content even as competition from low-budget reality TV forces networks to cut corners on writing staffs. These pressures, combined with an influx of aspiring writers willing to work for next-to-nothing, have resulted in an increasing reliance on freelancers, non-union employees, and other precariously employed writers.
I was one of them. At the Onion News Network, I earned $50 for each idea accepted. On an extremely good week they might have bought three ideas, but very often it was zero. Still, I was thrilled to just be connected to the Onion. I could have subsisted on the fumes of this enthusiasm alone.
The increasing pressure on writers to produce more for less imploded in April 2013 with the ongoing writers’ strike at Joan Rivers’ E! show Fashion Police. Writers complained of being paid $500 a week to churn out hundreds of jokes in 17-hour writing marathons and walked off after their bid to join the Writers Guild of America was denied. If you’ve managed to avoid the fate of Fashion Police writers, you might be a bit more equivocal in an interview about the downsides of your job.
Which leads to my main complaint about Poking a Dead Frog. I know the book is about celebrating the best in comedy writing, but Poking a Dead Frog should have at least superficially addressed more of the industry’s pitfalls. The book does a good job showing how important it is to a writer’s career to get into the right writers’ room, but it never addresses those who aren’t there: women and minorities. As far as I can tell, out of 44 interviews in Poking a Dead Frog, there are no people of color. There are seven women. This isn’t just a matter of head counting. The stats undermine the democratic ethos of the writers’ room, and the meritocratic way people talk about comedy, where doing good work is the most surefire way to get noticed.
Diversity is also one of the few industry issues that people who have no interest in writing comedy get interested in. To combat the whiteness of writing staffs, many shows have a “diversity staff writer” who is hired specifically because he or she comes from an underrepresented minority. When I first read about these programs last year I experienced a twinge of regret: Maybe I could have been the minority writer that got hired over a similarly qualified white person! But I’d long ago turned away from comedy. After nearly two years contributing to the Onion News Network I took a full-time job at Gawker. I tried to keep writing comedy, but it’s hard to get enthusiastic about writing jokes that would probably die on the page when I could just publish them myself in a blog post. In this way, I guess I did come across a second bit of useful comedy advice, following Jack Handey on horizontal writing, in Poking a Dead Frog: “If you can do anything else with your life and still be happy,” says Conan writer Andrés du Bouchet, “do it, for crying out loud.”
Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks. Penguin.
Read an excerpt from Poking a Dead Frog: Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks Show Bible.