If you're an avid reader of McSweeney's Internet Tendency, or find yourself gravitating to humor pieces in magazines, you're probably familiar with the archly absurdist writings of Mike Sacks, a prolific contributor to a number of publications in the ghettoized world of prose humor. On the editorial staff at Vanity Fair, Sacks has just released a compendium of interviews with comic luminaries, from Dick Cavett to David Sedaris, called And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers About Their Craft.
As a frequent collaborator with Sacks, I decided to turn the tables and interview him about his own craft, his theory about OCD and comedy, and, inevitably, Milton Berle's penis.
When did you get started writing humor?
In high school, but I didn't get anything published until just after college. Actually, the reason I started writing is because I wanted to switch out of chemistry in 11th grade and the only other options were gym and creative writing. I loved sports, just not the thought of undressing in front of teachers nicknamed "Mitch." So I took the creative writing class. To this day, I'm a whiz at dactylic hexameter.
Of the 21 writers you interviewed for your book, who was the quickest wit? (I've heard screenwriter and Marx Brothers scribe Irv Brecher was one of the all-time greats.)
Irv Brecher was fantastic. He was 93 when I interviewed him and he was still incredibly sharp. He still remembered his phone number from 80 years ago. Circle 71294. They don't make phone numbers like that anymore. Also, he has a very vivid memory of the girth of Milton Berle's cock. Sadly, Irv died not long after we spoke, at the age of 94.
I think I have a very repressed memory of Berle's anatomy. What are your favorite kinds of humor pieces to write?
Ones that are hopefully funny and that are tethered to some type of character. Also, I like pieces that contain the word "yummy."
Why do you think so many writers who are funny people never attempt to inject humor into their work?
They don't? If a writer is funny, it'll come out in their writing. The problem is that humor is incredibly difficult to pull off, especially for print. And once you're known as being funny, perhaps there's too much pressure to continue to be funny, which can be maddening.
Conversely, why are so many comedy writers humorless in person?
Because they're "away from the office" and might not to want to even think in those terms. Also, I don't necessarily think they're humorless, per se, but they do tend to have higher "humor IQs" and it's more difficult to amuse them--they've heard everything before, in one form or another.
In a few of your interviews, you posit that a disproportionate percentage of comedy writers have OCD. Why do you think that's the case? Also, shouldn't we always spell out OCD when we mean "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder" because it could be easily confused with "Over-the-Counter Drugs," "Office of Civil Defense," "Offshore Centre Denmark," and 51 other phrases found here? (On a side note: Your emails are always perfectly capitalized and punctuated. Is that your own OCD rearing its head?)
Yes, I have OCD, and it does come through in emails (and elsewhere). That's the reason I asked the interviewees that specific question. I was curious to see if OCD has affected their writing at all. I would say that at least half of those I interviewed have OCD. I actually contacted Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, beyond the mental illness factor) about a connection between OCD and humor, and he was unaware of one. But I definitely do think there is a strong connection.
Maybe it has something to do with a skewed view of the world and a compulsion to unburden all those anxieties. On a happier note, you and your wife just had your first child. Can we expect a hokey dad-humor memoir from you soon?
Yes, I love that sort of thing. A lot of jokes about diapers, midnight feedings, and daycare mishaps. Actually, if I were to never write a joke about a diaper I'd be the happiest daddy in the world.
I hear you're working on a humor book about sex next for Broadway Books.
Right, I'm co-writing the book with some friends from "The Daily Show," "The Tonight Show," and The Onion. It'll be a parody of a sex manual and I will be on the cover. My wife has so far refused, but the night is still young and the digital camera is still warm.
Who is your absolute favorite writer to collaborate with?
Teddy Wayne. He's a good man. Except for his nervous tic (screaming "I am the Lizard King!"). Why does he do that? And why do people, especially me, listen? His hotness?
A) Because he had an embarrassing fondness for the Doors in high school, and b) yes.