Who Gets a Place in the Writers’ Rooms of TV Comedy?

Reading between the lines.
July 9 2014 10:20 AM

How to Get Into the Writers’ Room

Interviews with Adam McKay, Amy Poehler, Mike Schur, and other top comedy writers.

Comedy writers Paul F. Tompkins, Marc Maron, Mike Schur, Patton Oswalt, and Adam McKay.
Paul F. Tompkins, Marc Maron, Mike Schur, Patton Oswalt, and Adam McKay.

Photos by (left to right): Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images, Angela Weiss/Getty Images, Maury Phillips/Getty Images for WGAw, Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images, Rob Kim/Getty Images

Poking a Dead Frog, Mike Sacks’ new book of conversations with successful comedy writers, turns on its head the old chestnut that comedy disproportionately attracts miserable people. Reading the book, you begin to realize that comedy writers are disproportionately miserable because of comedy. Here is how professional comedy writing works, according to the book: A talented and funny person’s brain is under constant assault from insane deadlines, fickle audiences, humorless executives, and the constant threat of abject failure. Most of the writers featured in Poking a Dead Frog say they love their horrifically stressful jobs. Still, simply reading about the manic pace James Downey, Mike Schur, Adam McKay, and the other writers in the book keep up for months on end nearly gave me a panic attack. Immersing myself in professional comedy writing for all 453 pages of Poking a Dead Frog in a row was as harrowing as it was jealousy-inducing.

I might have been suffering flashbacks from my own brief professional comedy-writing career. From 2009 to 2010, I contributed to the Onion News Network, the Onion’s first online video series (later a short-lived TV show on IFC). I had to come up with roughly 15 ideas for video segments each week, written in the dry Onion headline style, and email them in. (Some of my ideas that actually got made: “DEA Recruits Lil Wayne to Use Up All Drugs in Mexico”; “Boy’s Tragic Death Could Have Happened to Any Family With 20-Foot Pet Python”; “Study: Americans Get Majority of Exercise While Drunk.”) I hadn’t seriously contemplated a career in comedy before I improbably landed the gig through a blind submission to the Onion’s website. I had never even seen an episode of Cheers. So I began to study comedy like chemistry. One of my most valued desk references, along with Woody Allen’s Without Feathers and Jack Handey’s Saturday Night Live scripts, was Mike Sacks’ first book of interviews with comedy writers, And Here’s the Kicker.

That book, published in 2009, contains no useful tips on “how to be funny,” and neither does its sequel. Anyone approaching Poking a Dead Frog as a comedy manual is going to be sorely disappointed. Advice in the book mostly consists of vague bumper sticker slogans—“Just keep writing,” says Diablo Cody. Cool, thanks!—or completely contradicts another writer’s advice. Even the idea of what comedy is differs wildly from one interviewee to the next. Terry Jones, of Monty Python, likens comedy to the ineffable magic of poetry: “For both poetry and comedy, the concepts have to be boiled down, and the essence is what you want to say.” No, says Tom Scharpling, creator of The Best Show on WFMU: Comedy is a cold, hard “math problem,” and the writer’s job is to fill in a familiar pattern.

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Suggestions for writing techniques are just as widely varied. Longtime SNL writer James Downey argues sustained effort does not necessarily lead to good comedy: “You can spend hours and hours and focus and hard work and pain, and a piece will still not be good.” But for Mel Brooks, creating a script is akin to painstakingly chipping a figure out of marble. “Rewriting is writing,” he says. “It’s everything.” And both Brooks’ and Downey’s takes ring true to me. Most of my Onion News Network ideas were won through long hours lying on my bedroom floor mulling hundreds of premises while one of the best things I’ve ever written, this McSweeney’s piece, simply popped into my mind one day, almost fully-formed.

The bottom line is you cannot teach someone how to be funny. (This point is also frequently made in the book, in between all the advice on how to be funny.) Comedy writing is a lot like knocking down a wasp’s nest with a tennis racket. You just have to get really drunk and start doing it. If your blows land and your body can absorb the toxins of hundreds upon hundreds of excruciating stings, you may wake up from your pain-induced coma one day and find that you are a comedy writer. Or you limp away, hideously disfigured, and become a journalist.

In my studies, I discovered only one useful comedy-writing tip ever. Jack Handey told The New Yorker that he wrote his brilliant “Deep Thoughts” by lying on the ground and repeatedly throwing a rubber ball at the ceiling in a trance. After reading this I ran out and bought a foam football and began writing all my jokes horizontally. I did get slightly funnier.

The true usefulness of Poking a Dead Frog to an aspiring comedy writer is in its clear-eyed picture of the gritty inner workings of the comedy industry. (I’m talking mainly about TV and movies, which dominate Sacks’ books, as they do today’s comedy landscape.) Reading about how a joke goes from the mind of a writer to an episode of Community is like watching a magician reveal his secrets: Sure, it dispels some of the magic, but it inspires new reverence for the real skill that went into producing the effect. These interviews disabuse the aspiring comedy writer of any overly precious ideas that comedy has much use outside of being hammered into a usable product. When I began writing jokes I had just graduated from college and held this romantic idea of comedy as a kind of search for truth, which I’d lifted from a freshman classics seminar. I was a huge Aristophanes fan, not only because the dick jokes in Lysistrata are hilarious, but because I figured that anything an ancient Greek dude did was automatically timeless and important. By writing my own dick jokes for the Onion News Network I imagined I was quaffing of the same golden chalice as Aristophanes, plucking penis-shaped truths from the ether. I even remember getting excited about how court jesters were the only ones who could criticize the king in medieval courts, or some crap like that.

But reading battle-scarred comedy writers talking about their work makes it quite clear that comedy is a business more than anything. Comedy writing is probably the most totally commoditized form of creative writing outside of advertising copy. “It’s a strange business,” says Parks and Recreation writer Mike Schur in the book.  “It’s really where the rubber meets the road—the rubber being art and the road being commerce.” Nobody’s pondering the difference between the relief and incongruity theories of humor. They’re too busy pulling all-nighters to stuff more jokes into a script before shooting begins the next day.

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Television requires such huge amounts of new content that the system has to run like a factory, endlessly shoveling jokes, plotlines, characters, and premises into the consumer’s slack-jawed face. “You’re doing this very creative, often very personal thing, but you’re expected to produce in this totally noncreative way,” says Dan Guterman, a writer for Community and The Colbert Report. “My job is to churn out comedy, which is this intangible and temperamental thing, but at the rate and consistency of an assembly-line worker.” Holding too tight to any lofty ideals about comedy guarantees you will be crushed and relegated forever to the role of cautionary tale: the “funny friend who didn’t make it” that every comedy writer seems to offer up.

The only way comedy writers can produce such an inhuman amount of material without going insane is through the alchemical power of the writers’ room. The writers’ room has taken its place alongside NASA’s control room and the New York Stock Exchange trading floor as one of the sacred spaces of American ingenuity, thanks to that one This American Life episode about the Onion, and also 30 Rock. Poking a Dead Frog further bolsters the idea of the writers’ room as a temple of creativity—a glorious combination of gladiatorial arena, group therapy session, and nuclear bunker. A bunch of funny people locked in a room trying to make each other laugh and getting paid for it—what could be better than that? When I read Parks and Recreation’s Mike Schur explaining the thrill of a good joke “clicking” and sending a roomful of veteran writers into window-shaking laughter, I wanted to drop the book and get back to work on my spec script.

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.”

Mike Sacks.
Author Mike Sacks.

Photo by Justin Bishop

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.”

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Read an excerpt from Poking a Dead Frog: Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks Show Bible.

Amazon.com: Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers eBook: Mike Sacks: Kindle Store

Adrian Chen is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry.

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