Savvy readers of online comedy are no doubt already familiar with the name Mike Sacks. And even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, you may well recognize him by his work.
Perhaps you’ve read “Geoff Sarkin is Using Twitter!”, originally published in The New Yorker, where a man ducks away from his wedding and honeymoon to fire off 140-character opinions in real time.
Maybe you’ve forwarded “The Rejection of Anne Frank”, wherein an oblivious book editor rejects a manuscript that he thinks is both premature (“a memoir from a 15-year-old is a bit much”) and trails off at the end.
Or possibly you’ve come across the numerous other lists, delusional monologues, FAQs, email threads, and Kama Sutra amendments that have earned the Virginian-born Sacks his reputation over the years. Then there’s the books: he’s the author of And Here’s the Kicker, a compendium of interviews with comedy writers, as well as one of the co-writers of last year’s Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk.
Now Sacks’s short humour pieces—from McSweeney’s, Esquire, and The New Yorker, among others—have been compiled, in the just-released Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason (Tin House, 272 pp, $13.95). Sacks recently answered a few questionsabout the book via email.
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You both write comedy and write about comedy—book reviews, interviews with comedians, etc. Which of these modes came first?
Mike Sacks: When I first started to write in college, it was only humour. Later I got into journalism, but humour was (and is) my first love. I only got into journalism and more “serious” topics because I needed to make money. But I’ve ended up concentrating on humour and pop culture when I do end up writing non-fiction pieces.
In the end, I never try to write anything that would bore me—if it bores me, it’ll most likely bore the reader, too.
Were you known as a funny kid growing up, or was it something that developed later on in life?
MS: No, I don’t think I was known to be any funnier than the rest of my friends. I don’t think anyone had any idea I’d be doing this, most of all me. It’s just something that I worked on and practiced.
I think part of that has to do with a lack of a social life. You don’t find too many really, really popular people getting into humour writing. Maybe performing, but not working behind the scenes. They’re usually geeks like myself who have nothing better to do on a Friday night than stay at home and try to write jokes. Yeah, I know, sad.
Few, if any, of the pieces in Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason are more than 1,000 words long. What appeals to you about short humour pieces, as a form?
MS: I like writing pieces where every line and word matters. I hate any extraneous substance. The reason these pieces are so short is that usually they don’t have to be any longer. Plus, I don’t have the desire to work on something longer. I like that a piece is short and that the reader can then move on to another one. It’s like a short pop song, versus a 30-minute free-form jam—or just an 11-minute song by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The bulk of the pieces were previously published in magazines and on various humour websites. Why did you decide to compile them into a book?
MS: I always loved compilations when I was growing up, such as Woody Allen’s Without Feathers or books by David Sedaris. The problem is that it’s difficult to get these types of books published if there are no consistent themes from story to story. Publishers are obsessed with that. It took years to get this book published. But I love the fact
that I have all the pieces (or a lot, not all) in one convenient package. I just like having something to place on a shelf and to hold in my hand. It has weight to it.
A lot of the pieces in the book were co-written with other humour writers—which is a system I’ve always been fascinated with. How does that collaborative process work for you? Do you write drafts individually, and send notes to each other via email? Do you sit in the same room together?
MS: We never write together in the same room. Someone has an idea and they come up with an initial draft. It’s then sent to the next person, who punches it up, and then back to the first person. It goes back and forth until we’re both happy with it.
I think it’s fair to say that there’s more humour content, freely available and instantly accessible, now than ever before. Does that pressure to distinguish yourself affect how you write jokes? What, if anything, do you do to make sure your stuff stands out?
MS: It doesn’t change how I write jokes, per se, but I do have to be cognizant of how much competition there is. And that’s one of the reasons I make each piece shorter rather than longer, I guess. If you’re an author, it’s great to have such easy access to so many readers. It’s never been easier in the history of publishing. Writers should definitely take advantage of that fact.
(Interview also appeared in Vue Weekly, June 2, 2011)