What makes something funny? And, more important, how can you get your screenplay made? Park Slope writer Mike Sacks wanted to know the answer to both questions, so he called up dozens of our top humor writers — from TV, movies, books, stories and even Kazakhstan (we’re kidding!) — and asked them. From the great Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”) to Marx Brothers writer Irving Brecher to Woody Allen’s pal Marshall Brickman to “Borat” co-writer Dan Mazer, laughmeisters offered tips, secrets and stories from their years at the top. This week, Sacks checked in with Editor (and failed playwright) Gersh Kuntzman (“SUV: The Musical”) on the eve of the publication of his book, “And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft.”
Gersh Kuntzman: Your book is an awesome compendium of interviews with some really big names in comedy, but it’s also very sad, too. It’s filled with a lot of pessimism. If I was a writer just starting out, I’d probably hang myself.
Mike Sacks: Well, you have to remember that the personality of comedy writers is that they’re never completely happy with themselves or their careers. Even Larry Gelbart still thinks he needs to achieve something to be a success. He doesn’t feel like he’s made it. Larry Gelbart! I was working in a record store until I was 25. That’s truly “not making it.”
GK: But I mean, a lot of the interviews make it seem impossible to become a top comedy writer, even if you’re good.
MS: I definitely did not want to discourage people from going into it. All of the people I interviewed had a very different path to success, but the good thing is that there do seem to be some basics: network like hell, keep writing innovative stuff, create comedy that’s based on characters.
GK: Innovative stuff? But most of the movies and TV shows that get made are complete crap — and I say that as someone in newspapers, which, as you know, are infallible!
MS: Yes, many shows are not good, but all of the people working on those shots are playing the game and writing more-innovative, interesting stuff on the side, waiting to get into a group or a situation that will respect it. And remember, if you’re truly unique, it’s hard in any profession, not just writing.
GK: And networking is hard. How can you get to know the people you need to get to know when you don’t know anyone?
MS: A good way to do that is to do what I did: interview them. If you call up someone and say, “Can I have some advice about getting into the business,” they won’t have time for you. But if you ask them to talk about themselves and their craft, suddenly, they have the time.
GK: My favorite story in the book is how Buck Henry came up with the “plastics” line in “The Graduate.” He said it could’ve just as easily been “mohair.” I love how that punctured part of the mystery of writing a classic.
MS: My favorite is Irv Brecher, who recently died, talking about how he got hired by Milton Berle in 1933. And, of course, he tells about seeing Berle’s c–.
GK: Everyone saw Berle’s c–. I even saw it when I interviewed him once. He shows up at the door of his hotel room bottomless. It’s like he wanted everyone to see it.
MS: Is the rumor true?
GK: It’s no rumor, my friend. It was massive. It really was.
MS: (pause for reflection)
GK: This is a very modern book. How do you think it would have been different if you interviewed writers from the earlier Golden Age of Comedy, say in the 1950s?
MS: Brecher and Gelbart both said that the difference today is that you can write anything, which is not necessarily a good thing. The parameters are gone, and having so much freedom makes it harder. And Gelbart also talked about how hungry his generation of writers, a lot of them sons of immigrants, were to make people laugh. They had street smarts whereas today, you can take courses in Harvard.
GK: Another thread that comes through in the book is how nuts some of these people are. Do you have to be crazy to be a great humorist?
MS: It doesn’t hurt. Think about it: in order to stand out as a writer, you have to think differently from normal people. Then, to be at the top, you have to be thinking differently from the other people who are thinking differently. You can go mad. Steve Martin is not your normal guy. Albert Brooks, not normal.
GK: Many of the writers talk about not fitting in as kids. Man, you should’ve seen my hair back then. I definitely didn’t fit in. Yet I never became great. That’s not, by the way, a question that you need to answer.
MS: It is true that not too many people in TV were incredibly popular as teenagers. At some point, they didn’t fit in, which put them outside the mainstream and forced them to figure out what they do well. It’s like learning an instrument. You can’t learn it and do it well without devoting a lot of time to it. And that means you’ll be a bit isolated.
GK: They seem a bit sad, too.
MS: Well, writing comedy all day long is a job. If you do anything all day every day, you’d get bored. Even if you were f–ing all day, you’d get bored.
GK: Sounds like you were interviewing my old girlfriends, too.
Mike Sacks’s book, “And Here’s the Kicker” (Writer’s Digest Books), is available at BookCourt [163 Court St., between Pacific and Dean streets in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677]. Visit www.andheresthekicker.com for news about readings and appearances.