book review: And Here’s the Kicker

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with Top Humor Writers About Their Craft
by Mike Sacks
2009 • Writer’s Digest Books

Even if you’ve never written a kicker, you’ve definitely laughed at one.

In comedy, a kicker is an extra one-liner thrown in after the punchline to get a laugh on top of a laugh. In his book, journalist Mike Sacks has made a solid hit out of chronicling 21 writers at the top of their field. (Or at the bottom of their glass, which is definitely half-full… of hot air.)

An entertaining read, And Here’s the Kicker confirms what you might assume:
• if you’re good at writing it, comedy pays well,
• many comedy writers have OCD (or like to think that they do), and
• most comedians’ ‘lucky breaks’ come only after years of working hard on their craft.

Allison Silverman, the co-head writer/co-executive producer for The Colbert Report (who’s also written for Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien,) describes the complexity of her job:

“You’re writing on a lot of levels. Stephen Colbert is a person who plays himself. So, as a writer, you have to consider what you want the character to say. You also have to figure out what the real Stephen is saying. And how the audience will react to all of it. And how the guests will respond. It can be overwhelming.”

As one of TV comedy’s most influential female writers, you can see that she’s up for the task when she describes her typical day on the show. Writing starts at 9:30 after having read the papers and watched news shows. By 1:00 the writer’s scripts are in and editing begins. Final drafts are done by 4:00 and rehearsals starting at about 5:30. Until roughly 6:30 the jokes are refined even more before taping begins at 7:00.

The next day, they do it all over again. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

But even with those kinds of timelines, writers shouldn’t be too hard on themselves if they have an off day. As Simpsons’ writer George Meyer says, “I used to berate myself if I couldn’t think of a killer joke for every spot, but I gradually eased up on that. You can’t keep bitch-slapping your creativity or it’ll run away and find a new pimp.”

Sacks’ book also demonstrates how comedic sensibilities have changed over the years. When Jack Paar helmed The Tonight Show, Dick Cavett was the staff writer who penned his now-famous guest intro: “Ladies and gentlemen, here they are… Jayne Mansfield!” That joke killed in 1962, but wouldn’t fly now. Now the joke is the person saying inappropriate things, as in Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais’ The Office and Extras.

Humor is a complex task and Saskc’ fascinating history of the genre interviews greats like:

• Harold Ramis,
• David Sedaris,
• Dick Cavett, who explains how his politically-charged humor brought forth the wrath of Richard Nixon,
• Irving Brecher, who talks about writing for the Marx Brothers after penning a little something called The Wizard of Oz,
• Larry Gelbart, who describes his start in radio at age 16 writing for Bob Hope and Sid Ceasar and reveals the thing he hated most about MASH. Gelbart explains that he came from a comedic household, but his parents’ comedic sensibilities were very different: “My father would tell a joke like, ‘A bum came up to me and asked for a bite, so I bit him.’ My mother would probably have just made some smart-ass comment like ‘Anybody can be a bum today.’”
• Mitch Herwitz (creator of Arrested Development,)
• Dave Barry,
• Larry Wilmore (The Daily Show’s ‘Senior Black Correspondent’,)
• Dan Mazer, co-writer of Borat, Ali G, and Brüno. He explains the two keys to comedy; “One is character…jokes are one thing but without a convincing protagonist and somebody you care about, your comedy is on a path to nowhere. Number two is to have a voice. Have an opinion. You should try and say something.” He praises Sacha Baron Cohen’s ability to never break character, even faced with arrest—which on Borat alone was 36 times.
• Al Jaffee of (Mad Magazine),
• Todd Hanson from (The Onion), and finally
• George Meyer, head writer on (The Simpsons) who confesses that he watched a lot of TV as a kid, but didn’t find it thrilling. “It was like a piece of gum that you’d been chewing for a while but were too lazy to spit out.”

Meyer sums it all up when he tells writers to “Experience as much as you can and absorb a lot of reality. Otherwise, your writing will have the force of a Wiffle ball.”

And Here’s the Kicker has more force than a bowling ball. (Fewer holes, but so much more to love.)

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