Even though you talked to dozens of funny writers in researching this book, it aggressively favors analysis over jokes. Was there a lot of goofing around on either end of the interviews?
Definitely not. They were all serious. And they appreciated the fact that I didn't want them to be clowns. You know, just because you can write funny doesn't mean you're "on." In fact, usually it means just the opposite.
What determined the kinds of questions you did wind up asking?
It was just basically avoiding the questions they'd been asked a million times. In a lot of cases I'd come across one reference to something [in my research] and it was never mentioned again, but it was fascinating. When I interviewed Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Annie Hall and Manhattan, I read close to 30 interviews, and in this one interview he mentioned that he almost attended Sharon Tate's house the night of the Manson Murders.
That's like Family Guy's Seth Macfarlane almost boarding Flight 11 [which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11]. Is there a pattern you've noticed of comedians having these close calls with tragedy?
I think there is, yes. When Dick Cavett was growing up in Nebraska, his garbage man was the serial killer Charles Starkweather. Charles was the inspiration for the Martin Sheen character in the movie Badlands He was a serial killer that Dick Cavett's father befriended, and the murders were committed just around the corner from where Dick Cavett was. And there was another case: [novelist] Bruce Jay Friedman, who coined the term "black humor," was planning on eating at a Little Italy restaurant the night that a Mafioso was murdered. A friend, though, told Bruce that it wasn't an "intellignet thing to do", and he never went.
And he's the dude who wrote Splash!
You can either become a victim of a serial killer or a writer, I guess.
Do you think these encounters with serial killers and terrorists directly influenced the comedieans' decisions to get into comedy?
No. These stories about narrowly avoiding disaster are just bragging stories you can tell later. The real stories that affect them are the parents that die. The tragedies that affect them personally.
Did most of the comedians you interviewed experience that kind of personal tragedy at a young age?
I wouldn't say tragic. It was just this feeling of not quite fitting in. I asked Dan Mazer this question. He thinks the majority of [comedians] have Aspergers. They all had the same type of childhood. Not necessarily unhappy, but lonely. And he felt that if you had this type of upbringing that you sort of go into your own head, and that you can hone your humor this way and create your own unique point of view.
Does that relief last? Do they remain excited about comedy, or does that initial excitement fade?
That's the negative thing about going into something full time. You look at it differently. The joy that they felt listening to Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy records as a kid, they don't feel that anymore, because this is their profession. And this is all they know. And they're experts at it. They dissect jokes like a doctor diagnosing whether a tumor is cancerous or non-malignant. I think that's why a lot of these people are so miserable. That joy they felt when they were kids just doesn't exist anymore.
And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft is in stores now. You can find out more and order it here.