“Poking A Dead Frog” Quotes

I recently read “Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers” by Mike Sacks. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. (Since this is an interview book, the person saying it is the underlined name above the quote). If you like the quotes, please buy the full book here.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 12.40.35 PM“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” -Teller

“All great comedy has managed to circumnavigate executive meddling. But this is easier said than done.” (xiv)

“Each came to this business primarily because he or she wanted to create the sort of comedy that they themselves enjoyed the most. For all of them – be they writers of sketches, graphic novels, screenplays, New Yorker cartoons, fiction, nonfiction, television, stand-up, the radio – success was a by-product, not the goal.” (xv)

James Downey
“I avoid anything I feel is a cheap laugh based on shock or just being dirty. You can always get a laugh, but you don’t want it to come at the price of your dignity.” (11)

(Sometimes the audience just wants to laugh.) “They do, that’s right. But sometimes writers overlook this. Not performers, though. If the audience is laughing, they’re happy.” (12)

“Writers are much more interested, and maybe even obsessed, with originality. We sometimes treat comedy as a science, where advances are made, and we must always move forward, never backward. So that once something has been done, it should perhaps be built upon, but never, ever repeated. For performers, the fact that something has been done before is, I think, neither here nor there. For writers, it’s a real problem, and sometimes we can tie ourselves up in knots worrying, ‘Is this too similar to that other thing?’” (12)

“I think we need to be ahead of our audiences, but not so much that we lose them.” (12)

“Unless you’re making an observation, and that observation is true – and I hope fresh – it’s not worth writing a piece.” (14)

“I’m less worried about a bad piece than about missing a great one.” (22)

Terry Jones
“We made it a point to end sketches when they might have just been beginning on other shows.” (25)

Diablo Cody
“Always be working on your own material. Write specs! Though I’ve been hired to write studio projects, everything I’ve ever gotten produced has been an original spec script that I just wanted to write on my own. I wasn’t being paid for them. Other people’s ideas are never as important as yours.” (31)

Mike Schur
“TV comedy writing is a team sport. That’s just the deal.” (34)

“Something David Mamet once said sums it up perfectly: ‘Doing a movie or a play is like running a marathon. Doing a television show is like running until you die.’” (35)

“The number of people watching TV on their own schedule, through Hulu or iTunes or whichever platform they prefer, is rising exponentially. And it’s never going back the other way.” (36)

“TV comedies only work long-term if the characters are three-dimensional and great.” (42)

“Shows get picked up based on their pilots, which is directly analogous to judging a book by its first ten pages.” (42)

“TV is about presenting an inviting world in which audiences want to invest their time, regularly, over many years. Jokes help because, you know, they make people happy. But what makes people love a show, and get attached to it, is great characters having great adventures.” (43)

“Television is not about quantity anymore; it’s very much about quality – and specificity.” (44)

“The most valuable and unteachable asset in a comedy writer is a unique voice. That is my top priority in hiring people-does this person sound like everyone else, or is there something about how he or she puts words and sentences and ideas together that sticks out?” (47)

“Complacency is a classic mistake. Some people get to a certain point and go, ‘Okay, I’ve figured it out!’ Writing isn’t a thing you figure out – ever. My favorite things I’ve ever written, I hate.” (47)

“To stay vibrant and successful, you can’t ever feel like you know what you’re doing. Your attitude has to constantly be, ‘Who is this rank amateur, and how can I teach him how to write?’” (48)

“No writer should ever breathe easy. You should constantly figure out how to write better stories and better jokes, more three-dimensional characters, how to change what isn’t work. If you don’t, you’re gonna lose your touch.” (48)

Todd Levin
“A desk piece must be generic enough to accommodate all kinds of jokes, familiar enough to require very little setup, and fresh enough that it hasn’t already been attempted in more than a half century of late night comedy.” (52)

“Never underestimate the importance of carefully weaving your own voice into your submission well enough that it cannot easily be separated from your ideas. That’s the balance that I think is important to strike: supplying something familiar that no one ever saw coming.” (57)

Henry Beard
“You hate to admit it, but it’s all luck. It’s just really all luck.” (73)

James L. Brooks
“If it’s good, you will be noticed. If you’re an actor, you need other people in order to act; a director needs other people in order to direct. But writers can be alone in a room and do what they do, without any help. It’s all in their hands. And sooner or later, someone will give it a read.” (82)

Peter Mehlman
“The (Seinfeld) writers would come up with their own storylines, and then we’d pass them to Jerry and Larry, who would either accept or reject them. If you couldn’t come up with story lines, you were let go. But there was no one room in which the writers had to sit and write and pitch out ideas.
You know, having a writers’ room is very conducive to getting nothing done. You get a lot of people in there and you go off on tangents and people are going to the bathroom and going out and getting coffee. Everybody just wants to get out of that room.” (109)

Paul F. Tompkins
“If you approach everything from a pure creative angle, the work and employment will take care of itself.” (113)

“Just be around and engage people in a pure way and you’re going to get more work that way.” (113)

Adam McKay
“We always try to make our movies one-third satire, one-third parody, and one-third original storytelling.” (118)

“Del Close had a key tenant: always go to your third thought.” (123)

“Now, filmmakers can record the laughs from a test audience at a screening, and we can then cut to the rhythm of those laughs, the rhythm of the audience. We synchronize the laughs with the film. We can really get our timing down to a hundredth of a second.” (130)

“There’s no greater comedy killer than receiving a note that says a character’s not likable enough. The second you see someone write that, you know they don’t know a thing about comedy. The entire game is to make your character as awful and irresponsible as possible, while still keeping at oe in the pool of his still being a human being. I mean, that’s the game. That’s the game you’re playing. The more despicable your guy can get away with behaving while still remaining on the side of the audience, the funnier it’ll be. Seinfeld is the greatest example of that ever.” (131)

“I wasn’t as obsessed with “Why didn’t aht sketch get in?” Your first couple years, you think everything should be perfect. Once you let that go, it’s a really fun show to work on.” (134)

Bruce Jay Friedman
“A more accurate term (instead of black humor) would have been tense comedy-there’s much to laugh at on the surface, but with streaks of agony running beneath.” (151)

“I’m hesitant to begin a short story unless I know the last line, or a close approximation of it.” (170)

Gabe Delahaye
“I was once told, ‘You aren’t good at writing, but if you can get over that, then one day maybe you will be okay at writing.’” (203)

“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)

“If you are lucky enough to get an audience for your comedy, be nice to that audience. You are lucky to have them.” (204)

Glen Charles
“There’s a sadness to all the characters. Someone once described Taxi as being a show about hell. All of the characters were essentially stuck in a very bleak environment, struggling to get out.” (216)

“We had a rule that if writers were pitching jokes and two writers came up with the same punch line at once, it was gone.” (221)

“Every show has a voice. The better the show, the better the voice.” (228)

Joel Begleiter
“I think it’s easier to get one of those gigs on pure merit (late night writer) than it is to get a traditional sitcom writing job.” (231)

“We receive SPAM e-mails all day long at the major agencies from writers who have bought e-mail address lists. They are deleted immediately. There’s not even the slightest consideration. I don’t read the letters. When a client has referred a friend of theirs, the letter is not necessary.” (233)

Marc Maron
“You never know when success is going to happen. It’s not a meritocracy; so much of it is about some weird shit aligning that’s usually out of your control, and you catch your break. And a lot of people don’t ever catch it.” (237)

George Saunders
“At the highest level, revision is about anticipating what most writers would do and then asking: Well, is there anything deeper or better or livelier that I could make happen?” (251)

“Start with the idea that all of our enemies get up in the morning feeling like they’re out to serve good. That’s a more realistic and effective view of evil, I think, even just in terms of how it actually occurs and also how one might start to defend oneself or work against that evil.” (255)

“The thing is, writing is really just the process of charming someone via prose – compelling them to keep reading.” (260)

Byrd Leavell
“Don’t even submit to an agent. you are just going to get rejected anyway. Because these days the idea isn’t enough. Going to publishers with ‘I’ve got a great idea for a humor book’ is about as useful as tweeting your breakfast menu. No one cares. Especially not publishers. All they care about is platform. They care if you’ve written something really, really funny and it’s gone viral and five thousand people have commented on it. They care that your product is the perfect thing to turn into a book that works in the market. They care how many readers you can make aware of your book when it is finally published. You have to show agents that you can do all of these things, and then, and only then, do you get to show them how good your book is.” (264)

Dave Hill
“Because I wrote only for wanting to crack up my friends, and I was cracking myself up in the process, it worked. It was the first writing packet I ever wrote that I had any fun doing, and that’s why I was able to make it good. Normally, you put pressure on yourself. And as soon as you think that you absolutely have to do a good job on it, you’re in trouble.” (266)

“Once I was truly at the point where I was not trying to get anyone’s attention, that’s when I got everything I wanted, including a manager.” (266)

“It’s going back to not really giving a shit. Do your best to entertain yourself. Or entertaining the fifteen-year-old in you. Or just creating something that you want to see exist.” (267)

Tom Scharpling
“If you know how to build jokes, you can write any other genre, including mystery and horror.” (272)

“They weren’t attempting to win a huge audience. But they stuck with it, they eventually found their audience, and it’s what they needed to do. You have to trust what you’re doing. There’s something running through everybody that others will eventually respond to.” (279)

“Look, you couldn’t pay me to listen to their music, but I still feel like I have more in common with Insane Clown Posse than I do with someone who just sits on the sidelines and shits on other people’s work and who never puts themselves on the line.” (284)

“”TV and movies are such collaborative mediums. You have to be ready to not have everything go your way – even if you’re in the top position.” (285)

“You have to appreciate the journey. You can’t control where you’re going to end up. You better appreciate the experience; otherwise you’ll never be happy.” (289)

Jon Wurster
We’re so ingrained to think that we have to do things the exact way of the status quo, but 80 percent of the status quo is miserable, you know? Everything came together for me when I stopped caring about it.” (287)

Patton Oswalt
“Have trust in amusing yourself.” (326)

“Just keep going onstage.” (326)

Daniel Clowes
“I’ll receive a lot more of a reaction when something appears on a small website than I will when something’s published in a major magazine or newspaper. The easier it is for a reader to contact you, the more responses you receive.” (334)

“The people who make the decisions in Hollywood are never the oddballs or creative types, so you have to tell them what they want to hear. It didn’t take long for us to start saying things like, ‘We want to make another There’s Something About Mary.’ We had no intention of doing that, but you must at least make the effort to be reassuring.” (343)

“I learned to get rid of everything that doesn’t work, even though I might have spent a long time on it.” (346)

Adam Resnick
“It was done for the wrong reasons-by everybody. And it was a valuable lesson – never do anything just for the opportunity. Always go with your gut – your original instinct. But then again, my gut fails me constantly, so maybe there is no lesson.” (381)

“You can’t think logically when it comes to something you’re passionate about. All you can do is keep trying. And write a lot of projects you’re not passionate about to pay the bills.” (386)

“If you’re in this business and you can cover your overhead by writing exactly what you want, you’re living the dream. And if you’re getting rich by writing what you want, you’re in an enviable position. But for most writers, it’s usually a compromise.” (387)

“What the show really hangs on are the characters and what kind of a life they have. I’d much rather see a writer come up with, ‘I knew somebody like this.’ Or, ‘What would it be like if these three people got mixed together?’ At that point, you can then ask, ‘Okay, what’s the best context for them to be in? What situation?’” (391)

Dan Guterman
“The nice thing about working aloud, where you’re basically talking out every line of a script, is that it kept the show from sounding overly written. When you write alone, and have all the time in the world, you end up rewording sentences, editing and re-editing clauses, playing around with syntax-and your jokes tend to stiffen up as a result. They sound labored over. Your writing is more prone to feeling unnatural. The oral process at Colbert was great at preventing that.” (413)

Alan Spencer
“Now the marketing people come in and tell the executive what projects to make.” (425)

Mel Brooks
“Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve started with characters. I learn what they want, what they need. Where they need to go and how they have to go about achieving that. I listen to them. You can’t just have pure action.” (438)

“Movies to me were much more lasting. TV happens too quickly, and most is never remembered.” (444)

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