Comedy Writing: How To Be Funny

When it comes to writing comedy, every syllable counts. Host Scott Simon talks to Mike Sacks, author of And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers On Their Craft, and writer and director Harold Ramis about the art of being funny.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Analyzing why something is funny is a little bit like trying to fathom why people fall in love. You might be able to do it, but by the time you do, you feel just a little foolish about falling for that person, or that joke. There's a new book, "And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers On Their Craft."

Mike Sacks, a veteran magazine writer, who's now on staff at Vanity Fair, poses questions to old comedy hands, including Larry Gelbart, who co-wrote "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," as well as wrote the television show "M.A.S.H.," to new hands like Steven Merchant, who invented "The Office" with Ricky Gervais, Tom Hanson of The Onion, and classical comedy writers, including Dave Barry, David Sedaris, Allison Silverman, and Harold Ramis.

Mike Sacks joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MIKE SACKS (Author): Thank you.

SIMON: And from Martha's Vineyard, Harold Ramis of Second City, SCTV, "Ghostbusters," director of "Groundhog Day," "Analyze This," other classics of comedy. His current film is "Year One." Thank you very much for being back with us.

Mr. HAROLD RAMIS (Writer-Director): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Harold, I guess you've talked about this over the years, but among the revelations in this book is that you, right after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, you had a job you find particularly instructive for someone who wants to go into comedy and theater.

Mr. RAMIS: You might be referring to working in a locked psychiatric hospital.

SIMON: Yes.

Mr. RAMIS: Yes. That was interesting. So I did seven months in a psych ward of a general hospital, actually.

SIMON: As a staff member.

Mr. RAMIS: As a staff member, yeah.

SIMON: But I'm interested because you don't mean to be funny when you say this was good preparation for theater and films.

Mr. RAMIS: Well, actually, I had two jobs back-to-back. I worked in the psych ward, then I taught school in the crowdest square mile in the inner city of Chicago - Robert Taylor Homes. And it was 1968, I was teaching the year Martin Luther King was assassinated. And it seemed like those two jobs back-to-back woke me up to aspects of human behavior and the human experience that I might not have been exposed to coming from a, you know, a nice Jewish family and going to a nice suburban college.

But I saw extremes of behavior and extremes of poverty and political agitation that I could have only have experienced vicariously if I hadn't had these jobs.

SIMON: Mike Sacks…

Mr. SACKS: Yes.

SIMON: …your interview with Buck Henry…

Mr. SACKS: Yes.

SIMON: …the classic line among so many, I guess we should say, from "The Graduate": plastics - sounds like it could've been almost anything else.

Mr. SACKS: It could have been, but the reason he used the word plastics is because a college professor of his used to use it all the time, and he was thinking back on his college years and remembered that, and just put it in. He said he had no idea it would become such an iconic line.

SIMON: Why is plastics funny and, say, nylon isn't, or stocks and bonds isn't?

Mr. SACKS: You want to answer that, Harold?

Mr. RAMIS: I've sat in rooms with well-paid comedy writers trying to think of the funniest candy bar name or the funniest soft drink, you know? There's a moment in "Caddyshack" where Ted Knight offers Danny the Caddy: How 'bout a Fresca?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAMIS: Fresca is funnier than Coke, it's funnier than 7-Up or Pepsi, you know?

SIMON: And is Yoo-Hoo too funny or too obvious?

Mr. RAMIS: Yoo-Hoo's trying too hard.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. RAMIS: Yeah. But, you know, we make these judgments. And grown people, educated people have long debates about these things. And I'm sure plastics just sounds funnier.

SIMON: Harold, can I get you to talk about t-t-timing?

Mr. RAMIS: Well, you know the old joke about timing. You pretend I'm the great old comedian. You ask me, what is the secret of your success? Go ahead, do it.

SIMON: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I can't believe I'm walking into this.

Mr. RAMIS: Go ahead.

SIMON: But, Harold, what's the secret to comedy?

Mr. RAMIS: Timing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Ouch.

Mr. RAMIS: But it's true, and some of the actors I've worked with, some people score - there's a conventional rhythm, it's almost like classical music, where you watch a sitcom. You don't even have to listen to the words. It could be in a different language. You know when the punch line's coming and you know when the audience will laugh.

But then you work with people who resist any hint of conventional timing. Bill Murray's one of those actors who will always, he'll never do what you expect. And it's not just timing, it's dynamics too. And timing is one of the mechanical dynamics of comedy. But Bill was an actor who would always defy your sense of it. Lisa Kudrow has that too. She'll always read a line different, in different rhythm.

And it could be frustrating when you've written something in a very conventional rhythm and you have an actor who doesn't do that, because they're real actors and they're actually trying to create meaning instead of just trying to create timing.

Mr. SACKS: A lot of the writers did compare joke writing to writing a tune where the joke itself would be the melody. And when it feels right, when it sounds right, you just know it.

SIMON: We asked people for some questions for the both of you. May I share them with you?

Mr. SACKS: Yes.

SIMON: I guess this goes to you first, Mr. Sacks, but again, Harold, any reflection on it. Are there any generalizations you can make about comedy writers? I mean, childhoods, happy, unhappy?

Mr. SACKS: Yeah, it seemed that a lot of them spent a lot of time alone as kids. They lived inward lives. They lived in their head. They weren't necessarily out on the weekends partying. They were either at home watching comedies, reading comedy or practicing their own writing.

But what was interesting too, I found a link - only because I too suffer from this - I asked all the writers if they suffer from OCD, and I would say 70 percent said that they did, which was surprising for me.

Mr. RAMIS: I have several - I wouldn't say they rise to a psychiatric disorder, but I'm fairly compulsive. Sometimes I think just having the discipline to turn out real writing is in itself a kind of compulsion and requires a certain fierce order.

But the thing you said about this alienation is interesting to me, that they're alone in their rooms. Sometimes, you know, humor becomes like, you know, my son's a good basketball player, that's the way he attracts people to him. You know, I told jokes. It could come from a kind of loneliness.

And also I think a certain amount of alienation is helpful for a comic posture, for developing a comic view of the world. It's easier as an outsider than someone in the mainstream. You know, I used to talk about Rodney Dangerfield's no respect thing and how honestly he came by that. And you know, I, unfortunately, never did standup because I thought I could not develop a persona based on I get too much respect, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAMIS: You need to feel like an outsider and a bit of a loser to get up there and so assertively express your own shortcomings and talk about your body parts or your most painful and difficult relationships.

SIMON: A listener named Jay Shea asks: how do you know something you write is really funny? And I'll explain parenthetically: when you're making films, for example, Harold, you have to have a pretty good that something in a script is funny before you have a thousand extras and a Mercedes Benz on the set.

Mr. RAMIS: Yeah, and how surprising it is when you get all that together…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAMIS: …and you realize, wow, that's not funny, or that's not as funny as we thought or hoped. On the market research surveys they do with recruited audiences to test movies, the audience is ask to check an adjective that describes the movie. And they're given a list and funny is on the list. And when a comedy has 30 percent of the people checking funny, it's considered that's the norm.

So you know, 30 percent - that's three out of 10 people thinking it's funny. It's not a lot.

Mr. SACKS: It's interesting. Steven Merchant mentioned that when he was making "The Office," right after he finished they showed it to test audiences and it scored very, very low. In fact, he said the second-lowest in history next to "Women's Lawn bowling."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now, that was a funny show.

Mr. SACKS: Originally it was, then it became (unintelligible).

Mr. RAMIS: Larry David, in his - the powder room in his house in California, has a letter from NBC telling him how bad "Seinfeld" tested and they don't think they should pick up the show.

Mr. SACKS: I guess if something sticks out to such a degree and makes, you know, is so different from what came before it, audiences may not be used to it.

SIMON: John B. Thomas asks, what's the funniest clean word in the English language?

Mr. SACKS: You got one?

Mr. RAMIS: I'm thinking. I have some blue ones but not a clean one.

Mr. SACKS: The funniest clean word, wow, that's tough. I'd need a panel of comedy writers, and we do have to pay them a lot. I could probably find that out for a thousand bucks.

SIMON: Well, I mean, for example, is Hoboken funny because it's Hoboken or because…

Mr. SACKS: It's a K in it.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SACKS: You know, there's that thing about Ks from "Sunshine Boys."

SIMON: Right.

Mr. SACKS: Ks are funny - Hoboken. Plastics has a K sound, Fresca.

Mr. RAMIS: Sacks.

SIMON: Kangaroo.

Mr. RAMIS: Kangaroo.

SIMON: That's, I think, the funniest zoo animal.

Mr. RAMIS: Rodney Dangerfield improvised a line in "Caddyshack." There's a gopher that's plaguing the golf course and at one point the gopher puppet steals Rodney's golf ball. And Rodney improvises: Hey, that kangaroo just stole my ball. Calling a small rodent a kangaroo is hysterical to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Gentlemen, it's been very nice talking to both of you. Thank you so much.

Mr. RAMIS: Same here, Scott.

Mr. SACKS: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Mike Sacks and Harold Ramis. Mr. Ramis, of course, one of the comedy creators who appears in a new book organized by Mike Sacks. It's called "And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers On Their Craft."

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