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Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers

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Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, Adam McKay, George Saunders, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, and many more take us deep inside the mysterious world of comedy in this fascinating, laugh-out-loud-funny book. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories—from a day in the writers’ room at The Onion to why a sketch does or doesn’t make it onto Saturday Night Live to how the BBC nearly erased the entire first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—Poking a Dead Frog is a must-read for comedy buffs, writers and pop culture junkies alike.

475 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 24, 2014

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Mike Sacks

22 books38 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews
Profile Image for Seymour Glass.
203 reviews24 followers
April 7, 2020
Arrrgh, I have a lot of frustration about this one and I'm conflicted about how to rate/review it. On the one hand, it has some extremely valuable insights from some very accomplished writers; the actual verbatim packet of sketches that got someone hired on a late night show, Paul Feig's Bible from 'Freaks and Geeks', and real industry knowledge and tips. Also opens up the minds of a lot of cool people that not even extreme comedy nerds would know about - Peg Lynch, for example.
BUT. Like 'And Here's the Kicker', the little instances of misogyny really pissed me off. James Downey who was head writer at SNL for ages makes a 'joke' about women having had their senses of humour removed at birth in THE FIRST CHAPTER. That massively turned me off. Then when some dude (I don't know who, they all blend into one after a while) talked about how Andy Kaufman made a girl strip for him in his office, again 'as a joke', he said he'd probably think it was funny if it had happened to someone else because it was funny in theory. Nah, bro.
It probably didn't help that I read this book in the week that the Harvey Weinstein shitstorm happened and the #metoo stuff was going around social media so I was inundated with stories of male repugnance all round.
Also, as always, NOT ENUFF LAYDEEZ. Amy Poehler is cited as an interviewee on both the front and back covers but her contribution amounts to one page of a 467 page book. Peg Lynch and Carol Kolb were great interview subjects and I liked the little bits from Megan Amram as well but...it's not enough. There are TONNES of amazing female writers and performers out there - Samantha Irby, Jessica Williams, Megan Ganz, Samantha Bee, and Kate McKinnon just to name some of the American ones. He could even scrape the barrel with the over-exposed Lena Dunham who, rightfully-derided as she is, has created some amazing comedy over the last few years.

Urgh, I don't know, man. I learned a lot from this book but it also made me pretty angry. It's whatever. Read it if you really want to get into comedy writing and need some tips. Avoid it if you just can't take any more Dude Dumbness.
Profile Image for Sunil.
933 reviews118 followers
January 31, 2018
The wonderful thing about birthday gifts is you end up reading books you never would have picked up on your own, so I am extremely grateful my friend, who knew that I loved both comedy and writing, guessed that I might enjoy a book of interviews with and advice from comedy writers. Though the title Poking a Dead Frog refers to a quote implying that attempting to dissect humor is an unwise endeavor, I found this book fascinating and inspiring.

Mike Sacks presents the words of dozens of comedy writers here, many of whom I had never heard of, even though I knew their work (and some whose work I didn't know either). Some offer Pure, Hard-Core Advice, which read as short personal essays focused on one or two bits of advice for aspiring comedy writers. Few of these are revolutionary (write a lot, network well, write what you know, etc), but they're nice reads because of how they're tied to the writer's personal experience. And it's a testament to the writers that even when the same advice gets brought up multiple times throughout the book, it serves to reinforce in new ways rather than becoming annoyingly repetitive. A more interesting segment is Ultraspecific Comedy Knowledge, which, as the name implies, takes a deeper dive into something like writing for award shows or finding an agent. They offer really cool behind-the-scenes tidbits like excerpts from the Freaks and Geeks series bible or an actual submission packet for Late Night with Conan O'Brien (with commentary).

And there are the interviews. My God, I did not realize how much interviewing was a real skill until I encountered a man with real skills at interviews. Mike Sacks does extensive research on his subjects and asks them questions they've never been asked. He gets the most incredible stories and anecdotes out of them. As I said, I'd never heard of some of these people or their work but I loved reading interviews with them and now I want to seek out their work. Hell, I wish the whole book had just been extensive interviews with every single person (some of the Ultraspecific Comedy Knowledge pieces are shorter, more focused interviews).

Poking a Dead Frog is full of inside comedy knowledge, and at times I was surprised to learn about comedy classics or comedy history that was presented as obvious absolute fact that everyone in the comedy world was familiar with (like the fact that people love Cabin Boy and Chris Elliott?). But I enjoyed that peek into the perspective, especially hearing from so many comedy writers I admired like Mike Schur and Mel Brooks and Amy Poehler and Kay Cannon. If you enjoy consuming or writing comedy, this book is a must-read.
Profile Image for David Katzman.
Author 3 books451 followers
February 19, 2017
Eh. A lot of gossip and very little writerly advice. I became bored halfway through.
Profile Image for Kerry.
234 reviews11 followers
August 22, 2016
Whilst comedy is something that we all enjoy (and if you don't, I'm afraid we'll never be Bosom Buddies - Golden Girls maybe - remember how missionary Dorothy was??) this book is really all about the background of the industry and what it takes to break into it.

Long story short - it sucks. You have to beg, grovel, sell your soul and your body (here's lookin at you Chris Farley - one word: Chippendales).

It warrants some merit for the insider stories, but basically it comes down to write, write, write then write some more, then bust your arse with anything from stand-up to improv to dancing on tabletops (well honestly, you're welcome to do that regardless if you want to go into comedy - I wholeheartedly encourage it!).

Overall, it's a bit of a sad and boring read - bc really the vast majority of comediennes don't make it. Pretty much my life story right there... until you see my re-make of that Chippendales sketch...
239 reviews13 followers
February 8, 2017
The title of this book refers to the old quotation about how analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog, in that the frog dies and nobody laughs. Unfortunately, the book lives up to that premise, in that is neither funny nor very insightful about comedy.

The chapters include interviews with various writers and performers, most of which are not that interesting on their own. The chapters labelled "pure, hardcore advice are mislabelled. The ones categorized as "ultra specific comedic knowledge" are no more insightful and the interviews with people associated with various shows and websites are mostly pretty dull.

The grim insight of this book is that even people who have done great work in comedy, dazzling us with their material, sometimes come across as no more interesting when discussing their craft than, say, pro athletes, who have great skill but are mostly not compelling interviews.
Profile Image for Anita.
12 reviews2 followers
July 6, 2014
Loved this book. 'Make yourself laugh' and 'you have to love it' are repeated over and over by these writers. Inspiring and a must for comedy nerds.
Profile Image for Dillon Harris.
76 reviews
December 14, 2020
For anybody who’s interested in comedy writing, or even just writing as a whole, Poking a Dead Frog is an absolute must. Full of sage advice and some mind blowing observations, I truly feel like I know more about the craft after reading this, and I wouldn’t really say that about most other books I have read about writing.

It’s for anyone who’s interested in comedy. You may assume it’s just for writing on tv, nope. Interviews on writing books, film, stand-up and even radio are included.

It’s full of insights from people who love what they do and never get pretentious about it. It’s constantly honest and pure. A personal favourite I can easily see myself coming back to often.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
134 reviews
April 15, 2022
I really enjoyed the array of insights in this book but my only critique is how long it is. While I knew many of the names on the cover, it’s only a small subset and most of the rest I did not know. Would recommend but only to people who love reading anything from comedy writers.
Profile Image for Nicki Escudero.
112 reviews4 followers
August 18, 2022
If you have any interest in working in comedy, or you're simply a fan and want to learn what goes on behind the scenes in your favorite types of comedy entertainment formats, you should read Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks. Sacks presents interviews with dozens of comedy professionals, including writers for everything from movie screenplays, to sitcom series, to novels, comics, radio shows and magazine satires.

Every interview I read, it was evident how much time Sacks dedicated to research before the interview. The interviews are amazingly insightful conversations that dive deep into each person interviewed. I was really impressed by how well Sacks seemed to know each person's work, which made the book that much more valuable to the reader.

I loved learning more about the writing process on some of my favorite shows, like SNL. It was fascinating to learn about the partner writers' rooms on The Colbert Report. I found myself looking up each writer interviewed to learn more about their work while reading. The book inspired me to watch black-and-white TV sketches inspired by early radio comedy shows and read humorous essays from the '90s. I discovered so much about an array of comedy genres, including longform radio shows and comedy in children's books.

From Seinfeld, to The Office, to Stepbrothers, to Bridesmaids, I found the creators of my favorite comedy titles represented in this book. My favorite standup comedian, Anthony Jeselnik, was also featured. But even cooler was learning about the names whose work I was familiar with, but those I hadn't gotten to know yet.

Thank you to Mike Sacks for this incredible tome on comedy writing. I'm grateful for all the inspiration I drew from this book and for learning more about my favorite comedians, as well as several new ones whose work I always admired, but was able to discover more about from this book.
Profile Image for Mike Kowis.
Author 7 books30 followers
September 7, 2017
An excellent book for aspiring comedy writers as well as fans of classic comedy TV and movies! This book has great, in depth interviews with some of the greatest comedy writers of all times, such as Mel Brooks. It also contains interviews with writers that, quite frankly, I've never heard of, but their shows/movies are legendary, including writers for Monty Python, SNL, Cheers, Seinfeld, David Letterman, etc. It also includes valuable career advice from today's popular stand-up comedians/comedy writers, such as Anthony Jeselnik and Amy Poehler. Bottom line: If you are an aspiring comedy writer or just a big fan of comedy TV/movies, this book is a must have!
Profile Image for Biblio Files (takingadayoff).
572 reviews289 followers
May 1, 2014
Even if you aren't an aspiring comedy writer, you just might enjoy Poking a Dead Frog. There's a lot of material here, and you may not click with every interview, but at over 400 pages, there's plenty here for any comedy fan. The interviews are in three different formats, a traditional question and answer, Ultraspecific Comedy Knowledge, and pure hard-core advice. The interviews are longer and give the subject opportunity to reminisce and expound. The other two formats are short, only a page or two, about the comedy business -- how to get a literary agent (don't bother), writing jokes for the Oscars show, and so on. Much of the advice is no surprise -- keep at it and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

I have no career aspirations, so I was able to enjoy this book for the laughs. In fact, if you don't read anything else in the book, read the interview with Peg Lynch. I had not heard of Peg -- she is over 90 years old and got her start doing interviews on the radio before World War II. She transitioned to comedy almost by chance, and then to TV without much difficulty. That's all quite impressive, but what had me in stitches was her extravagant name-dropping. Her first interview was with "the baseball player who retired before his time? Gary Cooper played him in the movie." Lou Gehrig?! She goes on to offhandedly mention Knute Rockne, James Thurber, John Cheever, and on and on. It's hysterical.

Amy Poehler, Glen Charles, Mel Brooks, Roz Chast, and a couple dozen more do interviews as well, and they're all entertaining. Bob Elliott's interview is also great.
Profile Image for Anthony.
33 reviews
February 27, 2016
I read Mike Sacks previous book, Now Here's The Kicker, on an airplane and it definitely entertained me. Reading about these figures in comedy, both in front and behind the camera, was an amazing insight into the industry and how some of my favorite shows are made.

So of course I picked this up.
To me it had just as great a selection of interviewees as the prior book, mixing stand-up with long time writers (of Articles, Websites, Radio, Television, Movies) both new and old.
It's a thick book to read front-to-back like I did, but worth the read no matter how you tackle it if you're interested in the topic of Comedy. The advice given throughout the interviews can vary, but you will notice when it starte to overlap, so if so many influential people think the same thing it must be true!
Profile Image for Steve Garriott.
Author 1 book11 followers
September 10, 2016
A great collection of modern and past comedy writers talking about what they do and how they do it. The first 100 or so pages are worth the read, but after that, it's pretty repetitive. The tips for writing comedy are pretty much the same rules you should apply to anything you want to get good at. I won't spoil them, but you probably already know. I was disappointed that there weren't more stories associated with these people, but then that probably wasn't the point. The interviews with veterans Bob Elliott (of Bob & Ray) and Mel Brooks should be on your list of interviews to read. The take-away: Writing is hard, no matter what kind you're doing.
Profile Image for Jen.
Author 5 books21 followers
November 18, 2015
Wow! If you are a writer or a fan of comedy (or both), you won't be able to put this down. Sacks interviews comedy legends like Mel Brooks or Cheers co-creator Glen Charles, or shares "Pure, Hard-Core Advice" from talents like Amy Poehler, or "Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge: Writing for Monty Python" by Terry Jones. Paul Feig shares the "character bible" for Freaks and Geeks. SNL's Bill Hader suggests 200 movies every comedy writer should see. The scope of the project is incredible and he executes it flawlessly.
Profile Image for John G..
222 reviews14 followers
January 9, 2016
Absolutely the best book I've ever read on comedy writing and one of the best about comedy and humor in general. I've read his other book on comedy writing and was kinda meh, not so with this one. This is a warm, loving, kind hearted book with a wealth of knowledge about comedy history and each individual's take on comedy and their par there. I found this book very inspirational and enlightening. It has just a smattering of stand-up comics, which is my background, and it just has totally expanded my conception and understanding of the comedy and humor worlds. Loved this book!
Profile Image for JZ.
679 reviews89 followers
July 9, 2019
So many good stories and tips in this compendium of interviews with everyone from Mel Brooks to the youngest writer on The Onion.

I like the approach of each interview dealing with different aspects of comedy writing. It's not a technical book, but it certainly takes aim at how to do things from a comedy pov. Several good quotes, all boiling down to:

Write what makes you laugh
Write more of that.
Share it around.
Write more stuff that makes you laugh, and give it away for free until someone wants to pay you.

Now you know. lol
Profile Image for Jake.
326 reviews26 followers
July 21, 2014
This book is worth it just for the 20-page interview with Jim Downey. Everything else is gravy. Pretty good goddamn gravy.
Profile Image for Corbett Buchly.
Author 4 books17 followers
January 3, 2017
Although this book is really just a series of anecdotes about writers' experiences in the business, I did enjoy it. I found the final interview with Mel Brooks brilliant fun.
Profile Image for Pixie.
488 reviews4 followers
November 29, 2018
These are interesting interviews about comedy writing in various mediums. Some were living history, and the reader feels grateful that the author did the interviews before everyone from those eras died out. Before the longer interviews the author gives overviews of the writers' careers, and those stories are also interesting.
Many interviews were current at time of publication, 2014. The reader will be relieved to know that many of the writers and their shows are still familiar; some are still on the air. So, the book does not feel "dated" to read. These are interviews and advice about work, not necessarily a book trying to be funny. But the last sentence on the last page is very funny (if you have watched the same shows I have over the years). Don't miss it.

I just want to add a note about something that triggered me in one of the interviews (I'm looking at you, Dan Handler). A writer had complained to him about the cost of getting her work self-published. He recalled stealing toner cartridges from his employer when he worked for a dying man, and basically said if you can't find a way to steal paper or whatever from your day job you don't deserve to be a writer. I wonder if he thinks that way now that he is successful and possibly has an assistant. It reminded me of Just Kids where Patti Smith reminisced about stealing art supplies. Would that mean if you can't afford art supplies and won't steal that you don't deserve to be an artist? Screw that. There is no excuse. Stealing is not noble or romantic. It really annoys me that someone would think a thief is more deserving than an honest person.

Btw, most of the interviewees are very clear about how much luck is involved in their business, that they know many deserving people who don't get a break. They all seem very grateful for their breaks and all the people who helped them along the way. Which is to say, this is not just a book of disparate interviews. It all coheres since they are all talking about the same business and more or less know all the same people, even if they don't all work in the same medium.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,519 reviews102 followers
March 11, 2017
YOU MUST READ the interview with Peg Lynch. She was so funny and accomplished and groundbreaking that I thought Mike Sacks made her up. But no, The New York Times tells me that she was a real person. Lynch wrote and starred in Ethel and Albert, a long-running radio drama that transitioned to television. Lynch basically invented the sitcom. ("In one episode, Ethel challenges Albert's assertion that he could go the entire day by just using his peripheral vision.")

Some useful advice:

"Find a way to remove that anxiety and pressure. Just do your best, the same way that you would try to do your best with anything, like making spaghetti. Basically, I think life is way more knuckle-headed than people make it out to be. It's making spaghetti, and then it's sitting with someone and having spaghetti. That's basically all life is." --Dave Hill

"A problem never comes without a gift in its hand." --Tom Scharpling

Sacks includes interviews with some people I don't consider humorists, such as the artist Daniel Clowes. But all the interviews are well-researched and illuminating.
355 reviews9 followers
July 9, 2020
The follow-on to Sacks “And Here’s the Kicker,” this book has a more in-depth examination of comedy. There are 44 interviews and Sacks is as well-prepared to talk about his subjects’ work as in his first book.

But this time he digs in Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge; Pure, Hard-Core Advice; how to make submissions to publications; how to write sit-coms; how to engage and use an agent. Being five years later than his first set of interviews on comedy writing, there’s a lot more on contemporary shows. A couple old-timers are in here as well: Bob Elliott on writing for radio (Bob & Ray) and Mel Brooks.

It’s a wonderful read. But if you’re in the TL;DR category, try Mike Sacks essay, “18 Things You Learn After Interviewing 80 or So Comedy Writers,” https://www.mikesacks.com/18-things-y...

114 reviews1 follower
August 29, 2021
Interesting read. I initially picked up the book on the assumption that it would be a compilation of humorous stories and anecdotes. From that point of view, I got bogged down, and the book wound up sitting on the shelf for several years because of that.

Surprisingly, the book that this comes closest to is 'Market Wizards', By Alan Schwager. The book is filled with a combination of professional stories and professional advice about comedy writing. The industry insights and advice are comparable to those in Market Wizards, but for those interested in entering the field. Once that insight clicked, the book was a fascinating read about the various travels and experiences of a number of successful professionals and masters of their craft over the past near-century. On that basis, it was well worth the read.

Profile Image for Les Simpson.
89 reviews2 followers
January 23, 2022
Comedy Dissected

This deep safari into the minds of comedy writers is fascinating.

Each interviewee is their own kingdom with unique laws, customs, and folkways, their own methods and magics for conjuring comedy. No two could agree on the exact definition or process of creating something funny, though all can agree that comedy really can’t be taught. It is almost a zen space, something that simply is or is not. There are no hidden secrets, just lots of work and time spent perfecting a craft that each artist feels is innately a part of themselves. Ultimately, each is writing for themselves and, when they feel it is good enough (or their deadline has been reached), they share it with the rest of us.

Do not read this book expecting a specific destination. This is all about the journey.
Profile Image for Dave Allen.
175 reviews1 follower
November 5, 2019
I admit that I sort of skipped around and skimmed parts of this one. The "ultraspecific comedy knowledge" and "hardcore comedy advice" were often super deep dives, not really for a general audience, but there were a few that really stood out, especially the short, smart and personal bit from Megan Amram. There were also quite a few writers featured whose work I was not familiar with. My favorite parts were the Mel Brooks interview, which closes the book (the man is a treasure, one of our country's greatest, smartest and funniest people); Michael Schur talking about David Foster Wallace and the interviews with Jim Downey (emerging from retirement/semi-obscurity) and George Saunders (a different, literary slant on comedy, and someone whom I'd read talking about practically anything).
Profile Image for Doug.
148 reviews
May 30, 2020
There are some excellent gems in here, both from the most obvious comic legends (Mel Brooks, Adam McKay) and less well known geniuses like Peg Lynch. Perhaps my favorite take - because it felt the least typical - was the conversation with George Saunders. There are some sour notes and some flat notes, but they don't last for very long. As a few of these minds noted, reading about comedy won't get you any closer to doing comedy if you're not also doing it. By far the most common advice given: just do it, do a lot of it, and be ready to do it for free for a long time. That wasn't revelatory, but it was fascinating to see how truly diverse the backgrounds and attitudes of these people are. Oh and it seems folks from The Onion are the saddest by far.
Profile Image for Neil Pasricha.
Author 26 books823 followers
May 12, 2022
This is the ugly cousin to Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head. Apatow’s book features can’t miss interviews from people like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Steve Martin. This book goes the other way and interviews the hilarious people you’ve never heard of who write for late-night sketch shows and sitcoms. Felt like it was written only for other people breaking into those industries. He includes great pieces like advice from all-star literary agent Byrd Leavell on getting your work noticed and Conan writer Todd Levin sharing the writing package that got him hired. A bit too micro-focused for me but there are gems like an inspiring essay by Juno writer Diablo Cody. I wanted to be a comedy writer in my early 20s and wish I’d had resources like this around.
425 reviews11 followers
November 19, 2019
En este libro, Mike Sacks entrevista, reseña o edita a varios de los mejores cómicos anglosajones de cualquier medio (radio, cine, viñetas, televisión...) para que se explayen y expliquen qué es para ellos el humor, cómo llegaron a donde están, qué le recomiendan a alguien que quiera ser cómico, etc. Los nombres que salen son bastante conocidos si estás al tanto de la comedia estadounidense, y resulta interesante ver cómo no existe un patrón que haga que alguien se dedique al humor. Cada persona es un mundo y queda claro en este entretenido y divertido (en ocasiones) libro.
Profile Image for Matt.
164 reviews5 followers
November 27, 2020
Thoroughly enjoyed this book.
I’m not sur I can sit down and say that if you need to read this if you’re an aspiring comedian, but getting an insight behind a writer of your favourite sitcom, or even one of the most successful sitcoms ever, is a wonderful thing to read about.
Sitcoms have been my favourite thing to watch since I was about 16, and the calibre these days is simply unbelievable, but with this book you get to hear from the people who helped pioneer this genre to the people who hold the high standards it has today.

Really interesting read. 4 stars.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews

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