Nishat Kurwa on Wednesday, Mar. 2nd
One paradox of our hyper-connected culture: so many ways to reach out, yet so much bumbling in our efforts to communicate. In the new book, “In Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason,” Vanity Fair staffer Mike Sacks satirizes the tone deafness, misfiring, and just plain awkwardness that often pervades our communication. But as he pointed out in our interview, we were plenty socially handicapped pre-internet, and many of the scenarios he depicts are just as likely to have taken place in the 50s as in the aughts. Sacks began writing humor pieces when he was in college.
Nishat Kurwa: How does one start out as a humor writer?
Mike Sacks: Now, it’s easier than it’s ever been, in a sense. It’s easier to get published, it’s easier to get seen. You won’t get paid necessarily, but you will get your work seen, if it’s linked. I started off before, when there were very few outlets for humor writing. Now there’s plenty of outlets, it’s just a matter of having a real job to support yourself as you build up a resume.
NK: Take us through that. Were you web publishing or submitting your pieces to different publications?
MS: Well in college, I was submitting to print publications, but there were very few outlets for humor. There was Playboy, Mad, the New Yorker. As an unknown writer it’s very, very difficult to get into those. It was only once these online sites started — McSweeney’s, Opium Magazine, Sweet Fancy Moses — this was in the early 2000s — that it became possible to start writing humor on a consistent basis and be read. Before that it was really difficult.
NK: Maybe one of the only disadvantages is that when you’re putting your humor out there, and if you’re just starting out, you’re laying it all bare and in terms of the digital footprint, it never goes away. You may start to get better over time. But all the really bad stuff is out there for everyone to read in perpetuity. Do you feel like that damages your prospects for moving up the chain and being more published in more eminent publications?
MS: That’s a good point…I think it can certainly hurt because you have no control over what Google ranks towards the top. It can be a piece you wrote as a freshman in college that you’re embarrassed about now. If an editor is looking at your work or wanting to know more about you, it’s not going to be a very good sign for you as a writer. But it’s one of the things you just have to do. If there are places that are willing to publish you, even if it’s just a small online site, just publish as much as possible. Worst comes to worst, start your own site with your own collection of pieces that you’re proud of, rather than the early ones that you’re embarrassed about. But I think what’s most important is just to keep writing, trying to get published, and to do it consistently.
NK: Your writing is often satirical of our modern culture. Who and what are your sources and subjects – where do you get your inspiration?
MS: I don’t know if it comes from a certain place, it’s usually just something to satirize in the culture. Beyond that, I’ll take a form. If I wanted to satirize, for instance, in the New Yorker, that everyone is online constantly, I just use fake Twitter feeds. I’ve done that throughout the book. Usually what I find the ridiculousness of what’s going on out there. Not in a mocking way, more of a satirical way.
NK: Is there ever a conflict because what you find comedic is, say, from one of your loved ones, and it would be really obvious what the source is?
MS: Oh yeah, and I’ve done that. I have little cousins who text and Tweet at the dinner table. They’ve come up at times. I don’t really think they read what I write anyway, so it wouldn’t matter…I never use real names. In one piece that I wrote for the New Yorker, I did use my parents. It was a piece about if they happened to be porn stars, how they would act in these films. It all had to do with, they weren’t interested in the sex, they were just interested in the logistics…you know, the salesman coming by to fix trying the roof, but he has no resume, so my mother would kick him out. My parents were more perplexed by that than offended. No one’s ever really been offended – I try not to make it too non-fictional.
NK: Well, in terms of the stuff that you do take on that deals with the hyper-digitized culture that we live in, and people who might be a generation younger than you or “digital natives”… how do you ride the line between what’s going to be funny to be a broad audience and not make yourself sound dated, like a curmudgeonly old guy who’s not with the game?
MS: It’s hard. I mean I don’t want to look like Joe Codger up here. I think there’s a way of doing it…I wouldn’t write a first-person essay about how the kids don’t stop Tweeting. But I wrote a piece for the New Yorker about a couple who were just married who were Tweeting on their honeymoon- they were Tweeting mid-orgasm, things like that. That’s taken, obviously, to an extreme. Hopefully it would appeal to New Yorker readers who might not be familiar with Twitter, and to those younger readers who are familiar with Twitter but just wouldn’t have taken it to that degree.
NK: Is that part of it…making sure that you’re going so extreme and so absurd that for everyone, there’s going to be a grain of untruth in it?
MS: Oh, definitely. If it’s not tethered to some sort of reality then it’s not going to be funny. But you do have to certainly make it so that it doesn’t read like an Erma Bombeck or Art Buchwald type of article where it’s just the old man railing against the youth culture. Nothing dates more than that. And you know, I do all this stuff…I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, so I am familiar with them.
NK: There’s a quality to your pieces that’s very desirable, which is, a layman can read it and feel like -”Why didn’t I think of that?” They’re based on the very obvious and the very preposterous in our culture that you need that keen observational eye to stop and say, “This is ridiculous, and we’re on a path to the more ridiculous.” Is there a way that you consciously go about achieving that quality? How do you know when something is worth turning into a piece?
MS: I think it has to work on a couple of levels. I wouldn’t just write, coming back to the Twitter piece, about a Twitter between two buddies. It has to have a satirical idea, which was a couple Twittering on their honeymoon while they’re having sex. It also works on another level, which is, you can make fun of the abbreviations, the lingo, the slang. A lot of stuff just doesn’t work, and will never see the light of day. If you come up with enough ideas, some will be ok, some will be good enough to publish.
To hear why Sacks is glad he’s not a stage comic, his thoughts on what makes a good editor, and his memory of when he found out he was funny, listen to more of our conversation here. He’s Funny, after all. (No joke!).