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Creatively Speaking: Mike Sacks

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I first discovered Mike Sacks on McSweeney's. He's a hilarious writer, who's also penned pieces for mags like The New Yorker and Esquire.

Today, Writer's Digest Books is releasing a new book he's put together: And Here's the Kicker, 21 interviews with some of the funniest writers alive, like David Sedaris and Buck Henry. As usual, the _floss has scored a couple copies of the book, which can be yours, IF, you send me an e-mail begging for one. No, IF, you answer the question correctly at the end of my interview with Mike. Now, on with the show"¦

DI: Humorists and comedians aren't often funny when they're not 'performing.' Be honest: of all the people you interviewed in this great, new reference book you've created, who was the funniest in person?

MS: That's true. I think most people who work in professional comedy aren't that funny "away from the office." It's too exhausting to be "on," and, typically, they've heard every joke anyway. Their "humor IQ" is higher. That said, most of them have a very dry wit in person, usually quite cutting. The funniest person I interviewed was probably 93-year-old Irv Brecher, who started his career writing for Milton Berle and then wrote for The Marx Brothers. Irv was incredibly funny, and had a fantastic memory. He even remembered his phone number from 70 years ago: Circle 71294. They don't make phone numbers like that anymore. Sadly, Irv died not long after we spoke at the age of 94.

DI: How'd you pick the 21 writers who wound up in this collection? What was the criteria?

MS: I had carte blanche, which was great. I only asked those writers whose writing I really like and respect. Also, quite frankly, a lot had to do with the willingness of the interviewee to sit down and talk with for a total of five to ten hours (not necessarily consecutively, but over a period of a few days or weeks). There were a few writers I'd love to get for the second volume (if there is another volume).

DI: One of my favorite interviews in the book is the one you did with Dan Mazer, who has worked with Sacha Baron Cohen on all the big hits. As Bruno is opening this week, I thought it would be timely if you'd share a little anecdote from the Mazer interview re: Borat.

MS: Sure, here's my favorite anecdote: Sacha Baron Cohen is a huge perfectionist and very much into authenticity. When he was playing the Borat character for the movie, he felt that the character would never change his clothes. So Sacha refused to change his suit and underwear for months. It was never washed. Also, his underwear had a Russian tag on it, just on the off chance that someone happened to see it. Chances were slim, but he didn't want to take any chance whatsoever.

DI: You quote E.B. White in the book as saying "analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." (I'd add something in there about reeking of formaldehyde, too.) And maybe that's why the book is categorized as a reference book. But people seem to like behind the scenes docs and such things. Why is it, then, that the poor frog MUST die?

MS: I think it all depends on how the frog is handled. If you man-handle the frog, it's going to die. If you treat it gently, it probably won't. So, back in the non-metaphor world, if you don't approach the subject of humor in a scientific way, but let the experts explain their processes and experiences and advice in their own words, the book will be better off for it. I think, too, that a lot of people who write non-fiction books about humor haven't necessarily been in that world, themselves. And I think that it shows.

DI: I've read a good bit of your writing, and I think you're pretty damn funny, too (funnier than some of the folk in your book). Did YOU learn anything interviewing these so-called masters?

MS: Thanks, David. I don't care what Oprah says: you're not a weirdo at all. Sure, I learned a lot. One of the most important things was that writers at all levels struggle. I think that's a vital lesson for beginning writers to learn. The craft of writing is so difficult that one shouldn't feel bad if things aren't going well. All writers, at every level, have a hard time, and all writers are edited. Nothing to be ashamed of; it's just part of the difficult process.

DI: In the book, David Sedaris talks about his OCD tendencies. I was expecting to hear some OCD-ish stories from some of the other writers, but you didn't go there. Were there any patterns that started to develop as you got to know these writers? Things a few had in common?

MS: Well, the only reason I asked about OCD is because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that at least half of the writers suffer from OCD, in some form or another. This was a surprise to me. I actually contacted Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus mental illness) to see if there was a connection between OCD and humor writing, but he said he wasn't aware of any. The other obvious connection is, of course, depression, which a very large percentage of humor writers suffer from.

DI: For those of our readers looking to get into comedy writing, or to market the humor they've already penned, what advice can you point to from the masters in the book that might help them along?

MS: Network. Write as much as possible. Read as much as you can. Get involved with people who share a similar interest. Be stubborn, but not obnoxious. Don't refer to yourself in the third person. Trust Mike Sacks on this one.

DI: What's next for you Mike? What are you working on these days?

MS: I just sold a pitch to Broadway Books this week. It will be a humor book about sex that I'm co-writing with friends from Daily Show, Tonight Show and The Onion. It'll be released next summer. I will be on the book's cover, nude except for black socks and a straw boater. This is not what I want, but supposedly it'll greatly improve sales.

Win a copy of Mike's new book! We're giving away two copies, totally at random! All you have to do is e-mail us the answer to the following question, and we'll pluck a couple and send you the book:

In the Q&A above, an author is mentioned who goes by two initials, plus his surname. What do those two initials stand for? Let us know via e-mail.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy
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Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin
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Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.

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