March 2011

Andrew Stout

features

An Interview with Mike Sacks

In her introduction to The Most of S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker wrote, "It is a strange force that compels a writer to be a humorist." Fifty years later, the force is stranger still for Mike Sacks. In a time saturated with comedy on TV and the web, Sacks has dedicated himself to being funny on the page. For a humorist, print is a savage medium -- medieval in its origins and medieval in the punishment it inflicts on a writer's ego.

Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason (Tin House) collects over fifty stories Sacks has written for such publications as The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and Vanity Fair, where Sacks is a contributing editor. He spoke to me over the phone from his New York office one unseasonably warm winter afternoon last month. His resonant voice and precise diction betrayed his days spent as a disc-jockey at Tulane University, while his penchant for metaphor revealed the compulsive pattern-seeking habit necessary for writing comedy, day-in and day-out.

I'd like to understand -- as throughly as you're willing to explain it -- how you work. I was hoping we could take one of the stories from the book as a sort of case study. My vote goes to "My Parents, Enid and Sal, Used to Be Famous Porn Stars."

That's a good example because it took me forever to get the sensibility right. I don't know why it is but some of them are easy and some of them are hard. I worked on that one off-and-on for about a year. And I sent it off to The New Yorker not thinking much about it. And they ended up taking it, which surprised me. Because usually the more you work on a piece, the more flop-sweat you can see on it.

Do you remember the moment the idea came to you?

I'd like to be cool and say it happened while I was watching a porno film but...

[Laughs.] Is that cool?

Yeah, not really since I'm married -- and I don't know if it was ever cool, really. [Laughs.] It happened more by witnessing what happened when people came up to my parents' front door. You know, porn stars are always so eager to open it, unlike parents. Parents are just the opposite.

So you have the idea. Do you jot the idea down or do you immediately go to work on the idea? What happened once you made that observation about your parents reluctance to answer the door?

That went down in an idea file -- a Microsoft Word file -- and I'll put it away for awhile. Because usually if I leave it for a few days, I'll come back to it and it doesn't work at all. Some ideas sit around for years and then i just happen to get in the mood to write that certain piece. Once I start it I try to write as much as possible. Then I keep on rewriting it, which is what I do a lot -- rewrite after rewrite -- until it's right.

What prompts you to return to an idea once you've put it away?

I don't know. I think it just depends on what I'm interested in writing. Like the porn piece returned to when I was in the mood to write porn dialogue. So it depends on my mood, really.

What was the most challenging part of executing the porn idea?

For that specific piece it had to hew really closely to porn films, while also not being too creepy because it involved my parents. And it had to sound cliché without sounding too cliché. So for some reason those parameters were difficult for me.  

Once you submitted this story and it was accepted by The New Yorker, what was the editing process like?

Well, the editing down there is amazing. The editor, Susan Morrison, is great. A lot of editors aren't good at humor, but she's great. She'll get rid of jokes that don't work. But she'll never ruin a joke like other editors might by adding their two cents. And beyond that, the copy editing is amazing. So for that specific piece, the copy editing came back with a suggestion that I make all the porn titles the same. Before that they were different, they were more innuendo. And so we ended up doing it so all the porn titles are based on my parents -- "It's Too Cold in This Hospital Room," or whatever.

Let's move into the "This is Your Life" portion of our talk. When did your interest in humor and comedy begin?

As far as me wanting to do it, I just loved comedy so much I wanted to be part of it somehow. I was a fan of David Letterman and Merril Markoe and Chris Elliot -- they were my favorites. And Woody Allen. And then, later, David Sedaris. I started writing for print so I could be discovered and start writing for TV. I thought it was like a minor league system where I could get called up. But the more I wrote for print the more I enjoyed it and now I don't think I'd want to write for TV -- this is what I enjoy writing the most.

Letterman was the first guy I saw who really made me think about comedy, too -- as sort of a discrete thing.

I think for a whole generation he was. I don't know any humor writer out there who grew up at a certain time who isn't a Letterman fan or hasn't been hugely influenced by Letterman's writing staff and Merril Markoe. Their whole sensibility was hugely influential. Partly because it looked easier than it was. Everyone thinks they can do it because they think it's just sarcasm.

You know, let me pull back a bit before we continue. I'm going to continue doing this awkward he/she thing if we don't nail this now: do you make a distinction between humor and comedy?

No.

Well, I'll keep referring to our subject as "comedy" because it's more inclusive. So, moving on: how old were you when you started writing comedy for print?

I started late. As far as trying to get published,  I started near the end of college. I never wrote for the school newspaper or literary magazine. So I started out submitting to the various national magazines, which is a nice thing to do. But I started to write for Cracked magazine and they read what I sent them. No one else did. Then later I wrote for Mad. Then I wrote for others as years went by.

You said you were a late starter. Was it fear that halted you early on?

I think so. For me, it was a very mysterious world. I didn't know any writers and I didn't know anyone who knew any writers. So the whole publishing and magazine industry might as well have been on the moon. I just had no idea how to do it. So it was definitely intimidating.

What did you learn about writing comedy from Cracked and Mad?

Well, you have to write for the magazine. I couldn't send Mad or Cracked ideas that would be good for Penthouse or Playboy. You have to send a magazine what they want to see. But more than the writing itself, I learned about the business of humor writing. So, how to send a query -- what to include and what not to include. You know, all the stuff that should be taught in writing classes but isn't.

Let's go back to your new book. I know humor writers can be particularly savage in judging their own work. So I wonder if you revised these stories much before including them in this volume?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Humor writers are like architects and really critical of other people's work, too. For that reason alone, I like to make it as good as I can. Some of these pieces have been in various incarnations for years. I'm in no rush to send any of these out. They're evergreen, anyway -- their subject matter is never going to go bad, which is one of the reasons I like to spend more time on it and deal with those types of subjects, because they won't spoil easily. Some of the pieces in the book I worked with off-and-on, even though they can be really short. I just wanted to make it perfect.

So do you find yourself rejecting ideas you get that may be too timely or topical?

Yeah, the problem is magazine editors like pieces that are connected in some way to a current story and those are easier to sell, but they don't really age well. If you've ever read a humor book that was really based in the news -- say, Art Buchwald, or whomever -- if you come across those books, they are really, really dated. I'd rather have a story be character-based, where it isn't tethered to any specific news story. Every story will age somewhat eventually, you can't help that. But you can certainly extend the story's life a bit.