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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]