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Poking a Dead Frog

“We had to air two episodes back-to-back. The first was scheduled to be the biggest episode we’d ever donethe wedding of Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, years in the making, very emotional, and obviously and benchmark episode for the show. The second onescheduled originally to air a week laterwas a regular episode about Leslie attending a luncheon with members of the local media. So, obviously, this was upsetting.” (35)

Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and The Office are all NBC hits, featuring lovable (and not so lovable) characters, ridiculous situations, and often, heartwarming endings. Besides their popular and hilarious content,, these shows don’t seem to have much in common, besides Mike Schur. Schur is a comedy writer who’s worked on all of these hits. He’s also featured in Poking a Dead Frog, by Mike Sacks, a collection of interviews with comedy writers like Amy Poehler, who’s also known to many viewers as Leslie Knope, her character on Parks and Recreation, as the opening quote notes. Others include Bill Hader, Todd Levin, and Henry Beard, just in the first half of the book.

Poking a Dead Frog is a very different kind of non-fiction than what most books are like. The writers in this book include interviews with the author, Sacks, as well as other samples of their own writing, like advice and examples of sketches or ideas. While this makes analysis a little harder, each writer provides insight into what they think comedy is truly about.

For Henry Beard, it’s about pushing the boundaries. As an editor of the National Lampoon, a comedy magazine known for parodying anything, even the Kennedy assassination, he had to push the boundaries. “Beard has been described as the magazines “calm center,” especially during moments of crisis, which were constant. Beard recounted how the National Lampoon received multiple death threats, including nine sticks of dynamite sent from Utah.” Despite the costs, he published what he wanted, which may have been the logic that lead to the publication of his book, Bored of the Rings. His book parody of The Lord of the Rings is one of the best known in it’s genre, being that it is the one that started it. Others like The Hunger Pains, a book by the Harvard Lampoon, parodying The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, have followed, but not to its caliber.

Other writers in this book, like Bill Hader, gives a list. It’s a list of his personal, favorite movies that he thinks every comedy writer should watch. It has everything from Back to the Future to The Incredibles to Sullivan’s Travels. Todd Levin, writer for Conan, provided his submission packet for when Conan was Late Night with Conan O’Brien. With pieces joking about a stripper jihadist and wizards who pee Cheez Whiz, Levin clearly agrees with Beard’s advice to push boundaries. By grading each piece by it’s ability to go on air, he also notes that even when it’s not perfect material, still write. Still others provide advice, like Kay Cannon.

Cannon is a writer and producer for shows like 30 Rock and New Girl, as well as huge movies like Pitch Perfect. With such a resume, she provides advice. “It goes back to you just really having to be passionate about what it is that you’re writing. I actually have a love-hate relationship with writing. I kind of hate it. But you have to tell yourself, ‘I get to do this.’”

A common theme for these writers is that comedy is not a steady profession. There’s not much money when you start, and it’s a hard business to crack into. For new writers, work can be repetitive and seen as common. However, all these writers have a similar message: write. Write constantly, from a young age, even when you don’t want to. This has gotten all these writers where they are, through censorship and criticism.

Terry Jones was a writer for Monty Python, and recounted his first joke: “My family and I were sitting around a table. My granny asked all of us, ‘Does anybody want more custard?’ I raised my hand, but instead of giving her my plate, I handed over my table mat. She poured the custard all over the mat. Everybody turned to me and said, ‘You silly boy! What did you do that for?’ It taught me at a very young age that comedy is a dangerous business.” This anecdote goes back to the censorship and criticism, every for five year old Terry Jones. The advice from almost every comic is to push through it, and continue to try until you’ve made it.

Without this advice, shows like Parks and Recreation wouldn’t exist. The writers talk about pushing the boundary, and without shows with new and original ideas, we wouldn’t even have the essential part of life that it is now: Netflix. Without these daring ideas, Leslie and Ben wouldn’t be married, and these writers wouldn’t be in Poking a Dead Frog.

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  • “People quit because it’s really hard. It’s hard not to have a house, hard not to have money, hard not to have insurance, hard not to be married, hard to have your parents ask you every day what you’re going to do with your life. It’s hard to wait tables while you’re doing improv shows. It’s hard to get up onstage and bomb. It’s hard to submit things that get rejected.” -Amy Poehler (234)

    Rejection is something every single person faces. It’s how you deal with it that makes or breaks a person. For comedy, this is a particularly common occurrence. Many comedians come from poverty, hardship, and troubled lives, so the advice given in Poking a Dead Frog, by Mike Sacks, is to continue no matter what trouble is thrown at you, like in the words of Amy Poehler.

    Money is one of these troubles for most comedians. Shockingly, money isn’t great in a starting position in the performance industry. One question for this book is, “Why should you pursue the career when the paycheck is only getting smaller?” The advice given in Poking a Dead Frog is that if you’re in it for the money, you’re in the wrong job. As Gabe Delahaye puts it, “If you aren’t willing to do something for free at first, no one is going to pay you for it later. It is called ‘paying your dues’ for a reason. Truth be told, you might never get paid, but how is that different from no one paying you now? Besides, if this is about money for you, you are very confused about where all the money is hidden.” (303) It does get difficult when you are living paycheck to paycheck, but if you truly love something you have to be able to make sacrifices.

    In my internship class, we talk a lot about job satisfaction versus the paycheck. Ultimately, once you’re stable enough to not worry about money anymore, you worry more about how happy you are at your job. Once money isn’t a problem and you aren’t facing rejection, the biggest problem is waking up every day to go to a job you hate. For these comedians, they took a risk and gambled by taking job satisfaction over the money they make. Of course, they aren’t worried about money anymore since they’re all successful enough to be interviewed in a book about famous comedians. But the thought is that if you love what you do and work hard at it because you’re passionate, the money will follow.

    Another question asked was, “How is being a comedic writer differ from writers of other types?” This is discussed by many writers in Poking a Dead Frog, who believe that comedy writers are able to transfer into other genres, but other genres can’t transfer into comedy. One writer commented that comedy is like O type blood, it’s universal, and can change to any other genre. I understand what this writer was getting at, that comedy can be inserted into other genres, but I think other writers can writer comedy. Everyone has a sense of humor, and that can be put into writing.

    On the other hand, being a comedy writer is difficult, like Gabe Delahaye said, “Write what you think is funny. This does not mean anyone else will agree, but if you write what you hope others will think is funny, you have already alienated at least some readers.” (204) Not everyone is going to agree that a writer is funny, even the most famous and popular writers have critics, no matter what genre you’re in, but it’s especially true in comedy. That goes back to my original point about rejection. To become a great comic, it requires someone with tough skin and the perseverance to continue, even when things get tough. This requires genuinity, an audience can tell when you’re faking it, or don’t believe in what you’re saying or writing. Like Delahaye says, if you write to please, you won’t please anyone. Being yourself is the best tip anyone can give to be successful in comedy, and also the most difficult tip to follow. The voice and style of writing is what makes it unique, and comedian Glen Charles says, “Every show has a voice. The better the show, the better the voice.” (228)

    My last question was, “Comedy writing (and comedy acting) rarely are accorded the same respect as "serious" writing (and dramatic acting). Why might this be so?” Anchorman and Twelve Years a Slave aren’t going to be given the same kind of reaction, for obvious reasons. They receive different reactions, and often people think quality can’t be humor. Glen Charles was a creator of the television series Cheers, which inspired television shows for years and years. He told a story in Poking a Dead Frog about the possibility of doing an episode talking about AIDS, which was a huge topic at the time, and was considered an epidemic. They tried to write the episode where one of the main character’s girlfriends told him she was HIV positive, but they struggled to find the comedy in it. Then one writer asked why people can’t go to their favorite television show and, for thirty minutes, live in a world where things like AIDS don’t exist. This is one of the things that makes comedy different. In dramas, horrors, and other more “serious” writings, they thrive on the dark aspects of life. So comedy gives people a break from the dark things in life.

    That’s the main theme of this book, that comedy is a break from the dark parts of life, an escape for people. It’s why TV shows like The Office succeed, finding the light in average life makes people want to keep watching. George Saunders said, “The thing is, writing is really just the process of charming someone via prose – compelling them to keep reading.” (260)
  • Comedy writing (and comedy acting) rarely are accorded the same respect as "serious" writing (and dramatic acting). Why might this be so?
  • Why should you pursue the career when the paycheck is only getting smaller?
  • How might being a comedic writer differ from writers of other types?
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