Poking A Dead Frog: 22 Awesome Bits Of Career Advice from Top TV Comedy Writers

Poking A Dead Frog book cover Mike SacksPoking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks is a New York Times best-seller and a Best Book of the Year by NPR.

Poking A Dead From has great insight about how to write comedy, how to be a TV comedy writer, and of course, lots of funny anecdotes.

Mike Sacks wrote Poking A Dead Frog for the person, “Interested in understanding the art and business behind comedy; of what it takes, exactly, to make a career out of attempting to induce laughter from complete strangers with only the words or images that you create.”

In my opinion, Poking A Dead Frog succeeds. Here are my favorite quotes:

1. Identify The Problem, Then Let Go And Just Write

James L. Brooks“If you know the questions you are asking and know exactly the problem you are attacking, then the writing process – even if it’s really slow, even if nothing gets on paper – becomes a genuine process [where] there are no mistakes…. Just write. Lose yourself. And when you look up, maybe you’ll be somewhere you always wanted to be.”

James Brooks – The Simpsons, As Good As It Gets

James Brooks Quote

2. Learn To Write Spit Drafts

Megan Ganz“The best thing I ever learned about script writing has come from working on Community. The creator, Dan Harmon, had us write these things called ‘spit drafts,’ [using] dummy dialogue that you’ll later replace with actual jokes. For instance, the character Jeff walks into the room, and Jeff says, ‘Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich.’ And then the character of Annie will say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ And then the other character will say, ‘I have a joke here.’ You can have them do whatever you want, but you just have to get through the scene and have all of what needs to happen in that scene baldly stated.”

Megan Ganz – Modern Family, The Pick-Up Line

3. Use All Of Yourself

George Saunders“I think one trick as a writer is to let all of [what] you are come to the table. In me, there’s a maudlin part and a funny part and a dark part and an optimist, a pessimist, a part that loves sci-fi, a part that loves lean language.”

George Saunders – Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation

4. Get Feedback On Your Material ASAP

Andres Du Bouchet“There are many more tools and institutions in place to facilitate the pursuit of comedy as a career. Between the ability to take classes at UCB, network on Facebook and Twitter, post your own videos on YouTube and Funny or Die, and the endless avalanche of blogs and Tumblrs, aspiring comics can instantly begin creating comedy, finding an audience, and receiving feedback on their material.”

Andres Du Bouchet – Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Conan

5. Watch A LOT Of TV And Movies

Kay Cannon“If you want to write for television, I strongly suggest that you watch a lot of television. Like, a lot. If you want to write movies, I strongly suggest watching a ton of movies. When someone says they are a TV writer and they don’t own a TV, I just want to roll my eyes until they get stuck that way.”

Kay Cannon – New Girl, Pitch Perfect

6. Use A Two-Prong Approach

Carol Kolb“Take a two-prong approach – learn how to write for other people but also, in a separate project, find an original voice.”

Carol Kolb – Community, The Onion

Carol Kolb Quote

7. Focus On Your Original Ideas

 

“Though I’ve been hired to write studio projects, everything I’ve ever gotten produced has been an original script that I just wanted to write on my own.”

Diablo Cody – United States Of Tara, Juno

8. Build Your Network With Creative People

Paul F Thompson“Networking is extremely important. Socialize and find like-minded people and either work for them or have conversations with them about creativity. Networking does not have to be, ‘How can I get someone to give me a job?’ It’s, ‘How do I establish relationships with like-minded people that will eventually lead to work?’”

Paul F. Tompkins – Anchorman, There Will Be Blood

9. Tweet Jokes Every Day

Megan Amran“I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry, but as it happens, there are some people who are really into trolling Twitter for new talent…. I kept tweeting for a few months. I was really [working] hard at writing jokes. And then, in maybe one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me, I had this meeting with writer and comic Jordan Rubin, who had emailed me. He told me, ‘I have a thing that I’m working on. I might want you as a writer.’ He was the head writer of the Oscars.”

Megan Amran – Parks And Recreation, Ant Farm

10. Just Jump In And Start Doing It

Adam McKay“It’s not about who you know at all [initially]. It’s really about jumping in and doing it, just starting to write, make sketches and movies, and putting them up on the internet no matter who or where you are. You just have to start doing it. Funny or Die has workers that only look for funny videos. If you’re good, they will find you. If you’re funny, believe me, Funny or Die will find you.”

Adam McKay – Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Saturday Night Live

11. Publish Jokes Every Day On A Blog

Anthony Jeselnik“No one cares how you dress in the interview. It’s like a comedian who hands you their business card. If you’re a comedian, be a comedian. Start a blog and write monologue jokes every day. People don’t want to hear that [because] to them, it just seems like you’re just throwing stuff in the air. But I know Josh Comers got hired on Conan that way. He had a blog where he’d write monologue jokes every day, and they hired him off that.”

Anthony Jeselnik – Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Jeselnik Offensive

Anthony Jeselnik Quote

12. Stay Away From Pierce Brosnan

Bruce Jay Friedman“Hollywood is something. The name-dropping that goes on there is incredible. I had a friend who was an actor, and he called me one day. I could tell he had a cough. When I asked if he was okay, he told me that he had caught Pierce Brosnan’s cold.“

Bruce Jay Friedman – Splash, The Heartbreak Kid

13. Do It For Free

Gabe Delahaye“If you aren’t willing to do something for free at first, no one is going to pay you for it later. It is called ‘paying your dues’ for a reason. Truth be told, you might never get paid, but how is that different from no one paying you now? Besides, if this is about money for you, you are very confused about where all the money is hidden.”

Gabe Delahaye – Gabe and Max Need Help, Love In The Time Of Robots

Gabe Delahaye Quote

14. Take An Acting Class

Glen Charles“I’d advise anyone interested in screenwriting of any kind to do some acting, maybe take an acting class. It’ll help you understand that the words you write on paper are meant to be spoken. You’ll hear your writing.”

Glen Charles – Pushing Tin, Cheers

15. Even Established Pros Get Frustrated By The System

Mike Schur“It frustrates me sometimes, because shows get picked up based on their pilots, which is directly analogous to judging a book by its first ten pages. And then critics weigh in on pilots when they air, which contributes in some way to shows’ being successful or not successful in the long term. In the perfect world, no one would discuss a new TV show until it had aired eight episodes, and the creative team had already worked out the kinks.  Sadly, the world – and you might not know this – is imperfect.”

Mike Schur – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office

16. Education Can Give You An Advantage

Joel Begleiter“After you graduate, the heads of [educational] programs will call agencies and say, ‘This guy or woman just came through and they’re exceptional and you should think about hiring them.’ There are incentives in place for studios to hire [you]. So your odds of getting a job are significantly higher than the odds of almost anybody else at your level around town.”

Joel Begleiter – United Talent Agency Agent

17. Stick With It

Byrd Leavell“No one really gives my client Hustin Halpern any credit. In 2009, Justin started a Twitter feed called Shitmydadsays. Shortly after that I signed him and sold the book at auction for a pretty reasonable advance. Then Justin wrote the book and it ended up selling over a million copies in one year. Which is ridiculous. But everyone seemed to focus on how lucky Justin was, and no one seemed to focus at all on the fact that Justin had been out there [writing] for years.”

Byrd Leavell – Waxman Leavell Literary Agency Agent

18. Plan To Do It On Your Own

“When I was first starting, I called someone who is my current manager, and I couldn’t even make it past the receptionist. So I was like, ‘I’m on my own. I’m going to do my own thing.’ And once I did that, once I was truly at the point where I was not trying to get anyone’s attention, that’s when I got everything I wanted, including a manager.”

Dave Hill – The New  York Times, This American Life

Dave Hill Quote

19. Expect That It Will Be Hard

Amy Poehler“People quit because its really hard. It’s hard not to have a house, hard not to have money, hard not to have insurance, hard not to be married, hard to have your parents ask you every day what you’re going to do with your life. It’s hard to wait tables while you’re doing improv shows. It’s hard to get up onstage and bomb. It’s hard to submit things that get rejected.”

Amy Poehler – Mean Girls, Parks and Recreation

20. Get Good And Let The Right Agent Find You

Patton Oswalt“The right agent will find you when you’re ready. I know that doesn’t sound like I’m being very helpful, but trust me, I’m being extremely helpful right now.”

Patton Oswalt – Feelin’ Kind of Patton, Big Fan

21. Pitch The Right Comparison Project

Daniel Clowes“Both Terry and I were so green when we were pitching [Ghost World]. We would tell executives that we wanted to make another King of Comedy [1982] or Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989]. Big mistake. The executives would look at us as if we were insane. It’s like saying, ‘We’d like to take $6 million of your money and shred it for an art project that we’re doing.’ It didn’t take long for us to start saying things like, ‘We want to make another There’s Something About Mary.’ We had no intention of doing that, but you must at least make an effort to be reassuring.”

Daniel Clowes – Ghost World, Art School Confidential

22. Help Your Friends

Mike Dicenzo“If you get any success in comedy, help out your friends who are trying to do the same but who might not have a job yet. I was lucky enough to start right out of college at The Onion, and I helped a couple of my friends get hired there. Same thing at Fallon. You would hope that your friends, if they succeed first, will help you, too. Help each other out, and everybody wins.”

Mike Dicenzo – The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon

Mike Dicenzo Quote

Want to read more?

Get Poking A Dead Frog and thank Mike Sacks on Twitter for putting together the great collection of interviews.

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Discussion About Poking A Dead Frog: 22 Awesome Bits Of Career Advice from Top TV Comedy Writers

  1. Sky Crompton

    This is the best advice I have read in a while…why?

    2 – Because I learned something

    1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 13, 18, – because I do that

    6, 8, 9, 11, – I should do more of that

    14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 22, – I believe in this

    20 – I hope this is true

    21 – Totally makes sense

    It is the understanding of such advice in the writers context and the application of ideas at the right time that leads to success.

    The advice and ideas here are of invaluable help. That we as writers and storytellers need each day. I know because without 10, 17 and 18 my first feature film would not have gone from the page to international distribution and my US TV series has Oscar nominees attached.

    So there must be something right in there about writing.

    Therefore we need more of it to chart our on path with like minded colleagues and audiences to make the work worthwhile.

    Sky Crompton

    Twitter – @GUNGHOSCREEN
    WEB – gunghofilm.com

  2. Fatima

    It was really useful collection of interviews.
    Thank u

  3. Jeff McMahon

    All these snippets of advice are about life in general; it’s all a bit of a comedy really.

  4. Aaron Taylor

    I like what Kay Cannon said about watching a lot of TV and movies. The screenwriting books that I’ve read all say the same thing. I watch about 2 to 3 movies a week, and I always read the reviews after watching a film. I start to notice patterns of how much time it takes to get to the inciting incident, how long someone stays in their old world before they start the journey to their new reality (it’s usually not very long at all), and things like pacing, emotional journey. Kay is right. People aspiring to work in films should love to watch films!

    • W. Keith Sewell

      Aaron, try 20 – 30 a week, that’s all I did for about 4 years before I again put words to paper…

  5. Dianne Greenlay

    Stephanie, what a great collection of advice, providing honesty ( # 2,5,11,15,19, and 21), personal experiences ( # 7, 9, 11, 12, and 22), and plain old encouragement (# 17).
    Thanks for this list!

  6. Erica

    Great advice! Thanks for the heads up on the book.

  7. Ying Liu Hatch

    This is awesome! Will read! Thanks Stephanie!

  8. Lilia Fabry

    So many Community peeps! How did they come up with “Shut up, Leonard. Everyone knows about….”

  9. Douglas Westfall

    This all makes sense and works well I’m sure — as a writer WRITE TO A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE.

    I’m a Baby Boomer (ages 55-75) and we love comedy — just that we love the Saturday Night Live comedy of 20 years ago. The Coneheads & Bill Murry kind of comedy. Why? Because we’re Boomers and they are Boomers and they wrote for our generation.

    You can write for any generation, XGens 35-55, or Millennials (25-35), or Boomers like me — but find out what we like. My kids (36, 37, 38 & 39) watch Jimmy Fallon — but I don’t…

    • W. Keith Sewell

      Great comment Douglas! Me too!! I recently made a comment on the state of “SNL comedy” and nearly got ‘tarred and feathered’ by some of it’s current viewers… But all I could say was, sorry, but today’s SNL skits and writing, would not have made the first draft in the days of Belushi, Murray, Ackroyd, Radnor, Curtain, Morris, Chase and Pryor! They spoiled us as to what can be truly funny! “Land Shark” I mean, it was so stupid it was hilariously!

      Gilda: “You’re that ‘land shark’ I’m not letting you in!..”

      L Shark: “candy-gram”

      Gilda: “well, alright…”

      classic.

  10. Jon Stevens Alon

    Great stuff. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Jon Stevens Alon

    Added note: the battleground is in our minds, what we tell ourselves, I can, or cannot. It’s picking yourself off the ground after rejection, and trying again and again. In the words of Les Brown: “It ain’t over until I win.” Excellent, yet still struggling thousands of writers need affirmation and inspiration. It takes discipline otherwise the tendency is too quit as the inner enemy is powerful and will discourage one to the point of despair. Fortunately there are ministers as Joel O’Steen, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer to encourage you, and I’ve recently discovered many “inspirational videos” on YouTube to help me stay focused. It helps to be born rich and connected, like Lynda Obst for example, who at an age when no one would even look at the less powerfully connected, made a fluid transition from feature films to TV. Why? She’s not only brilliant, was a successful studio based FF producer for decades, but her brother is – Rick Rosen – head of TV for WME. Without inside connections as that, other than for the lucky few, it’s a brutal uphill battle for the rest of us, so stay grounded, focused and work at being spiritually strong as you will need it to persevere and handle your combat bruises. And combat it is.

  12. Mark Martino

    Thank you for sharing this article. It is encouraging to read advice that jibes with my experience and reminds me of what works.

    In particular, I liked the quote from George Saunders about using all of yourself. I found this out indirectly for myself. When I was a newly minted electrical engineer, I struggled to design new circuits because, without realizing it, I kept limiting myself to what I learned in my classes. Once I learned to let my thoughts range through all of the knowledge and experience I had, even if it had nothing directly to do with electricity, my work went much better and faster.

    From then on, as I changed careers from engineer to game programmer to screenwriter, I used this approach.

    Oh, and regarding target audiences, I was born in 1951 and I watch Jimmy Fallon.

  13. W. Keith Sewell

    Great article Stephanie! I can identify… One lesson holds true. You get more done by ‘doing something’, than thinking about ‘doing something”. Create, Produce, put it out there… embarass yourself. I think I’ve reached the point of “embarassing myself” and not being concerned about it.

    Once I saw James Brooks, Diablo Cody, and Amy Poehler, Megan Ganz and Kay Cannon contributed to this book, I have to give it a read… classic comedian writers – they just talk ‘funny’.

    Keith

  14. Teisha Hickman

    Thank you for sharing this! There’s some great advice in here! Yeah…What I’m about to say is a bit of a downer…Not funny at all. It saddens me not to see any people of color in there. Actually, I think the right word is tiresome…Yes, it’s tiresome. There are quite a few women, but I’m starting to realize when women are chosen they don’t mean women of color.

    It’s tiring to think about all the talent that’s overlooked, never given a chance to build a bank of advice which can sever the next generation. I don’t mean one person plucked out so folk can say, “Hey look we got one!” or a moment in time that can be rolled out when we ask for more, “Remember back in 19 blah blah blah, we hired a lot of yawl!”

    I mean talented people having the opportunity to make their mark on a steady basis. Don’t think I’m not appreciative, this blog post was great…It’s just difficult for me not to notice when I see myself as part of the missing ingredient.

    Thank you again…Really, I’m not crying or anything…LOL!!!

  15. William H. Morris

    A wealth of extraordinarily useful wisdom from impressively experienced writers.

    With a volume to choose from I will endorse one, Spit draft. I learned this this way. Just keep writing no matter what. When I’m working out an early draft and I come to a scene where I don’t know what is supposed to happen but I know I need something that is exactly what I write. If a character needs dialogue but I’m not real sure I write” He enters and says’ I don’t know what I’m supposed to say here but I’m sure I have a line.’ This practice keeps me moving through much more effectively than stopping to think.

    So Spit Draft gets my vote. Just keep writing.

    See you Saturday, Stephanie

  16. Holly Johns

    Loved #2, Spit Draft…I think I just got the right thing to move me through a tough spot! Thx for all the great practical helps.

  17. Mel

    Thanks for sharing;-)

  18. tlotso pheto

    Love the advice, and thanx for all the updates…

  19. David Ballard

    Great stuff, I especially liked Gabe’s comment entitled “Do It for Free” cuz if you are a true artist you do your art for the love of it, not for the money.

  20. Liza

    Hey Stephanie,

    It’s Liza from Down Under! great blog. Write it, get it out there, let it go! Those stories about being found via social are awesome. I also like- the right agent will find you. I’m hanging onto that advice like it’s the last thing I’ll ever see. Thanks as always. You rock!!
    Liza xx

  21. Bonnie Russell

    Gotta admit, Stephanie, this gave me a very sinking feeling.

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/confessions-from-above-the-celluloid-ceiling-the-truth-about-white-male-privilege-20151104

    Perhaps because I’ve seen it in every other industry

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Yes, I can confirm I’ve seen it many times in Hollywood. It’s very frustrating.

  22. Singara Velan

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks for the post.
    All quotes from the writers are good and encouraging.

    I like QUOTES No: 11, 20, 1, 19, 13, 9, 17, 10, 2, 4, and 3