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TBTS Reviews: And Here’s the Kicker

October 29, 2009

Almost every culture in the world adores its merrymakers, from the ragtag clowns of Russian culture to the buffoonery of the French farce. Asian comics are fond of screaming, the Brits keep it upper-crust and clever, and one can learn from watching Telemundo that a popular trend in Mexican comedy is to dress a grown man like a child. But here in the United States, our comedians are our superstars. Many of our culture’s most beloved screen idols have been comics; names like Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny and Eddie Murphy will forever be synonymous with the jokes and characters which made them famous. 

In playwriting, the author gets his or her name in lights: Chekov, Kushner, Mamet. Screenwriters get credit as well: Darabont, Haggis, Goldman. In these venues, the writer is the creator. In comedy, however, the performer is by and large is attributed all of his jokes. The writer falls by the wayside, a means to an end. 

Thankfully, then, we have author Mike Sacks to take us behind the curtain and introduce us to some of the world’s greatest living comedy writers in And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft. 

The book is constructed as a series of in-depth interviews with, largely, the lesser-known figures behind our favorite comedy and television programming. That’s not to say you won’t recognize the names — names like Odenkirk, Ramis, Cavett, Handy — but take a moment and you’ll realize that outside of a familiarity you think you have with these people, you likely actually know very little about them, much less their process for writing the things which keep us laughing.

Take Al Jaffee, for instance. Jaffee, as any red-blooded American male who was once aged twelve can tell you, is the mastermind behind Mad Magazine’s infamous “fold-ins” and the perennial magazine segment “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Revealed in his interview, however, is the story of how a Jewish boy from the Lithuanian ghetto came to rise through the then-booming world of comic books and parody the Playboy fold-out to classic effect. 

Ex-pat humorist David Sedaris admits the extent to which he invents portions of his NPR and New Yorker-classic essays, speaking to the obstacles of writing with OCD and the perils of writing about family members and friends. Stephen Merchant, one-half of the duo who created the BBC original The Office (Gervais gets most of the facetime), waxes on how each name in the cast was chosen specifically for the sociological group he or she was meant to represent. And Buck Henry reveals that writing The Graduate from its literary source was much simpler than people may realize, although he did create the infamous “plastics” line.

And Here’s the Kicker finally gives the almighty joke writer his spotlight. Many of the interviews are as engaging as the material the writers have produced (Mr. Show‘s Bob Odenkirk details the rigid hurdles of sketchwriting) and some strangely prognosticative (one-time Letterman writer Merrill Markoe details the ins-and-outs of writing for Dave, whom she was dating at the time). Some fall a bit flat — Todd Hanson of The Onion seems like an especially dour fellow —  but others, like Irving Brecher, offer us the rare glimpse into writing for a great like Groucho Marx and Milton Berle. 

Many books are written on comedy, but few delve into the dynamic intricacies of the genre. Sacks has created a book which is not only a must-have for anyone interested in the art of the joke, but necessary reading for anyone who can appreciate the content over the character. The clown on-stage may continue to get the laugh, but for once the writers’ room finally gets its due.

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