“We had to air two episodes back-to-back. The first was scheduled to be the biggest episode we’d ever done—the wedding of Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, years in the making, very emotional, and obviously and benchmark episode for the show. The second one—scheduled originally to air a week later—was 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.