In comedy, much like in business, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Often, entrepreneurs spend years working to build their businesses, dealing with success and failure along the way.
We spoke with Mike Sacks, author of Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, to find out what the brains behind our favorite comedies (Saturday Night Live, Cheers, The Producers, The Colbert Report, Anchorman) have in common with successful entrepreneurs. Here’s what he said:
Of the more than 40 writers Sacks interviewed, a common theme that emerged was the need for independence. “Each of these people are their own bosses,” he says. “[They] cannot work in a typical office environment. They have to be on their own, wending their way through life,” Sacks says. “Most are Type A, in control of their career.”
“Being a comedian means you are anti-authority or subversive at heart,” writes Bob Newhart in his book, I Shouldn’t Even Be Telling You This and Other Things That Strike Me as Funny. Newhart was an accountant and attended law school for a year and a half before changing course to pursue comedy.
One interview in particular stands out to Sacks as offering a great business lesson. Mel Brooks says he’s learned more from his failures than he learned from his successes.
After working with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, Brooks wrote a pilot for ABC called Inside Danny Baker, about a young, Walter Mitty-like character. It wasn’t a success. According to Sacks, Brooks said the show was “too personal,” and that he related too strongly to the kid.
In other words, he was writing for himself as opposed to the audience. “In the end, we just have to be funny,” Brooks says. He took that experience with him to write Blazing Saddles and Get Smart, and has delighted audiences ever since.
Sacks points to Mel Brooks (The Producers, Blazing Saddles) and Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), who each helm their own production companies as being particularly adept at knowing what audiences like.
“They know what people want to see and give it to them. That’s very, very rare,” he says. “They do the work, day in, day out.” At 88 years old, when most people are slowing down to enjoy the fruits of their labor, Brooks “still has the hunger to achieve and create and get his work out there. He’s not resting on his laurels,” Sacks notes.
Louis CK spent decades on the comedy circuit before earning accolades for his work in Louie and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Sacks says a compilation Louis CK released more than a decade ago didn’t do well, and his film, Pootie Tang, didn’t perform well at the box office, either. Undeterred, he kept working. “He found his voice and people caught up with him,” Sacks says.