In his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans explained his desire to become a producer was in seeing the power they held; producers worked behind the scenes to make everything on the silver screen come alive. Mike Sacks had similar wonderings while growing up in Washington D.C. While many people dream of being on David Letterman or hosting Saturday Night Live, Mike wondered who wrote all the jokes and sketches he was enjoying. Following his inquisitive nature through college led Mike down a path of freelance writing humor pieces and eventually landed him an editorial position at Vanity Fair. From there, he became a member of The Pleasure Syndicate, a humor writing group consisting of Scott Jacobson of The Daily Show, Todd Levin from The Tonight Show, Jason Roeder of The Onion, and Ted Travelstea, a writer for Esquire.
Rooftop had Nathan Timmel give Mike a call to discuss his interest in comedy writing.
NT: What made you pick New Orleans/Tulane University?
MS: Mostly just the weather, quite frankly. I didn’t get into too many schools, and Tulane was just one that happened to accept me. I wanted to head down south rather than up north. I used to vacation down south when I was a kid, so that’s what I was used to.
NT: What did you study while there, journalism?
MS: English Literature.
NT: Which is actually my background, too, only you took your degree and write with it, where I stand on stage and talk about my penis.
MS: Well, it’s not too different, really. I never did take any journalism courses, actually.
NT: Really? That’s interesting. How did you take a background in English and translate it into what could be considered a journalistic trade, working in the editorial department of Vanity Fair?
MS: I just needed jobs to support myself while I was freelance writing, and the way it worked out kinda was lucky. I was working in retail for four or five years—I worked in a record store—and then I got my first editing job for an association in D.C. From there I went to Knight Ridder, which is a wire service, from there I went to The Washington Post, and after that ended up at Vanity Fair. Nothing was really planned, it just happened that way. And I never considered myself a journalist, what I wanted to do was just to write humor. But to support yourself doing that is really tough, so this is just what I ended up doing rather than working at a record store.
NT: On that note, do you then feel you should sue Nick Hornby for using your character in the book (and then movie) High Fidelity?
MS: I actually get a lot of questions about High Fidelity; people think that my retail days were similar to that movie, where I’d hang out with a couple buddies and go down top ten lists of my favorite things. In reality, I worked in New Orleans and later in Maryland, and in Maryland the record store was behind a government housing project and we’d get robbed about once a month. It was really very bleak; it was nowhere near as interesting as the movie.
NT: I think what’s interesting is no one usually thinks of a record store when thinking of robberies; banks and gas stations get all the attention. But when you’re looking for money for drugs, anything will do. Plus, record stores are probably really easy to hold up, I would suspect.
MS: Yeah, it’s very easy. We were making a lot of money at the time off the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston, so we always had a lot of cash, and I think people knew that. A path led to our store in this mini-mall, so the record store was one of the first places they would hit as they made their way around the mall.
NT: You’re part of The Pleasure Syndicate, a humor-writing group. People hear a lot about sketch comedy, or improv troupes, but humor-writing groups are less common. Give me a little background on the Pleasure Syndicate.
MS: Well, the group writing process for humor is done a lot when writing for TV and for movies, and I always wondered why that couldn’t be done for print. What I discovered is one of the reasons it’s not done is because there’s very little money in print. But, if you can pull it off, if you can get a good deal, and get a group of writers that work well together, then the product is going to be better for it.
We had worked together, not all five of us, but at one time or another two or three of us, for projects for Esquire or The New Yorker. Ultimately we worked on a back-page humor piece for Radar, which was a monthly list, just 101 jokes, like “Worst Places to Die,” or “Things Not to Say at a Job Interview.” We worked really well together on that, and decided to work on a bigger project, which was a book project. We were only going to do it if we could sell it for enough money to be worth it, and we were lucky as it hadn’t been done before, and was interesting enough to various publishers. There was a bit of a bidding war, which Random House ultimately won, which gave us four months to write it.
Because we had all worked together before, everything went very smoothly, and I do think the book turned out better because of the group process. If it had been just me writing, or me and one other person… we had the benefit of going with the best jokes among the five of us, rather than just settling for something than just one of us might have come up with. We’re actually in the process right now of pitching a second book, which is an employee manual for a Wal Mart type company. It’s something you’d receive on your first day, and exposes what the company is about, its history and the rules for working there. So hopefully that will sell, and we can start working on that.
NT: And what was the title of the first book?
MS: Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is the one that’s out right now.
NT: You also have a book of your own out, a book of interviews.
MS: Right, that’s called And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers. I interviewed about forty humor writers, and twenty-one made the cut. Although, the electronic version has twenty-five, I think. Those are lengthy interviews with humor writers about the process, how they made it, and what they would recommend to those just starting out or those wanting to improve their careers.
NT: Did you want to talk to these people specifically to write a book, or was there an amount of simple personal interest in just wanting to talk to them?
MS: A little of both, I mean, it was an excuse to talk to these guys, who I grew up admiring. I was always much more interested in behind the scenes, wondering who the writers were for Saturday Night Live or David Letterman, and how did they get there. I couldn’t find any books from the viewpoint of writers; books were always from producers, or actors, or directors, not from the writer’s standpoint. I thought it would be interesting to see how one becomes a writer for late night TV, or becomes a humor writer. So it was partly realizing that viewpoint wasn’t out there, and partly just wanting to talk for five to ten hours a day to David Sedaris, Merril Markoe of Late Night With David Letterman, and Harold Ramis, and Larry Gelbart. It was a fun thing to do, and if I were young, and in high school now, it’s the kind of book I’d be interested in reading, to see how one makes it in this crazy business.
NT: And you also have a book coming out next year, a compilation of your writings…
MS: Yeah! This a collection of short humor pieces from New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Time, Radar and other places. They’re all independent humor pieces, which is surprisingly difficult to get published these days. Editors and publishers are always looking for a link between stories, an over arching theme. So I was lucky to have sold this to Tin House, out in Oregon.
NT: And what’s the title?
MS: Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason, and that comes out in March of 2011.
And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers, and Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk are both available in bookstores nationwide as well as on line.