https://youtu.be/pWSawYg4Tvw?feature=shared

On this week’s episode, Editor/Author Mike Sacks (Vanity Fair) discusses his career path, the importance of not asking for permission with your writing, as well as how he prepares for some of the artists he interviews.

Show Notes

Mike Sacks Website: https://www.mikesacks.com/

Mike Sacks on Instagram: @mikebsacks

Mike Sacks on Twitter: https://twitter.com/michaelbsacks

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Autogenerated Transcript

Mike Sacks:
It’s never been any time in publishing history where you could do this, where you could put out a book that looks professionally done. In the past, you’d have to buy 5,000 copies of your book, and they set Moldering in the basement. Yeah. Now it’s a purchase. It’s a paper purchase, so if someone wants it, they’ll pay for it. Then it’s published and it’s not published until then.

Michael Jamin:
You’re listening to Screenwriters. Need to Hear This with Michael Jamin.
Hey everyone, it’s Michael Jamin. Welcome back to another Screenwriters. Need to hear this. We’ve got a surprise twist for you today. I’ve done over 90 episodes and today we’re taking a turn to the world of high literature and publishing something I know very little about. And I’m very pleased to welcome my next guest, Mr. Mike Sacks, and he comes from the Mike. Welcome. Let me give you a proper introduction. I’m not done with you yet, before I let you say something. So Mike is, aside from being an editor at Vanity Fair, he’s written a number of books, I don’t know, 11 or 12 something. A lot of books. He’s gotten his work in Vanity Fair, Esquire, gq, the New Yorker, time, New York Times, Washington Post MCs, Sweeney’s, radar Radar. Funny or Die. He was Die Mad New York Observer, premier Believer, vice Max. It goes on and on. So this guy’s from the world of literature. So thank you so much, Mike, for being on this show. I want to learn all about your experiences.

Mike Sacks:
Well, I’m from the world of literature, meaning I have no money and plenty of time. So this is nothing else to do,

Michael Jamin:
But why? Okay, but why was it that I want to talk about your books and all that, but okay, so what attracted you to the world of literature though?

Mike Sacks:
My biggest dream was to get into tv. I mean, I wanted to write for Letterman. I wanted to write for SS n l, but I didn’t know how to do it. I mean, I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know anyone who knew any writers, very mysterious world. So what I thought at that time was that I would write for the written page and then be discovered like I would from AA or AA to be pulled up to the majors. It doesn’t work like that. I didn’t know it at the time, but over having done that for so many years, I just came to actually prefer that, I guess, to any other medium. I’ve done a little bit of TV and a little radio, and I do a podcast in the end. You know what, I came to love? I love the control. I love the fact that there’s no one over my shoulder telling me what to do, how to do it, and I think if I were at 2021 to have gotten a job on Letterman or S N l, I would’ve been in heaven. I think now it sounds like hell, and I don’t think I would’ve last would last a week.

Michael Jamin:
But tell me when you say no, no, you get to do what you want of that. Is that entirely accurate when you’re are working with a publisher or even a magazine?

Mike Sacks:
Not always, especially when it comes to humor, which is one of the reasons I stopped humor for magazines. I mean, what I found is that most editors view themselves as humor writers in disguise, and if they hadn’t have to have a job, they would be famous humor writers. So a lot of them consider themselves humor genius as very high humor iq. So I would get a lot of rewrites based on that and also based off of, I was writing a lot of stories and pieces based off of current news. So that goes bad very quickly. So I prefer now, what I’ve been doing now is self-publishing and putting out evergreen pieces where meaning it’s not tethered to any sort of current news. So when I look back at some of the GQ pieces, the Esquire pieces written in 2008, 2012, to whatever it is, it just seems very dated. The humor that I love is always tethered to character, and it is not dated. I mean, even going back to, or even I guess last century, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin’s, all character based, and that to me is what interests me now, and I wanted to bring that to the written page rather than have something that is say, Trump’s tweets from the Middle Ages or some shit that it’s not going to last.

Michael Jamin:
But you’ve been on both sides of this because you are an editor at Vanity Fair. So you obviously, you’re rewriting, you’re telling people you know what, what’s going to play in this magazine? But you’re also saying, and then human magazines, that you also getting ’em on the other side, I mean, right.

Mike Sacks:
And I think I have that advantage of knowing how to deal with editors, knowing what not to say, not to drive them crazy, and if they do have a suggestion to, usually it’s not worth fighting over. But my job, inventing affairs, is not to edit humor, it’s to edit hard news, preferably hard news, rather than puff pieces

Michael Jamin:
Especially. Yeah. How did you get that at Vanity Fair? Well, I was How did, go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead. Yeah, I have another

Mike Sacks:
Question. Yeah, yeah. It was one of those things that you just kind of stumble into, and I was New Orleans. I was living in New Orleans, working in retail. Then I moved back to Maryland working in retail and got my first editing job in dc, which is a very DC type of job. I was editing a newsletter for an association that provided shareholder information to large institutional investors. So DC has a million associations, a million groups, they all need editors for their newsletters. So I got this first job. From there, I got a job working nights and weekends as an editor at the Knight Ritter Wire Corp, which used to put out articles sent around the world. And then from there, the Washington Post, and then from there, vanity Fair. So it was just sort of stumbling into one job after another, where at the time, what I really wanted to do was go to California, go to New York and write humor.
It just never really seemed to work out that way. I just kept getting these jobs, and on the side, what I would do on my own time, I would write for Mad and National Lampoon and then later New Yorker. So it was just one of those things. Now, if I had to do it over again, I probably would’ve gone straight out to California or to straight to New York, rather than live in New Orleans and Maryland for a while. But you know, do what you do. And I didn’t have the balls to do it. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have anyone to tell me, Hey, you can do this. Right. To me, it seemed very mysterious, like, Hey, how do you go to the moon? I have no fucking idea. Yeah, but it

Michael Jamin:
Was, it was mysterious. But you still figured it out on this other, that’s the thing. You didn’t know how to do it, but you did know how to do it for this other thing over here.

Mike Sacks:
Well, that’s the thing. I mean, that’s the irony is that you stumble into what you end up want to be doing, and I didn’t, if I had known graduating that I would’ve been the circuitous route, I probably would’ve said, screw it. I don’t want to spend seven years doing nothing, working in retail and then trying to get into magazines. But it just ended up working to my benefit where I think writing for the written page is really the best fit for me, more so than writing for TV or the movies. Not to say that I wouldn’t love to have a script produced and this and that, but I do. I think I’ve worked alone for so many years. I wouldn’t have the patience to work with producers and that timeframe. I like to put it work out and keep moving down the road. I don’t like to stumble and sort of stagnate with the same piece.
I’ve met writers who three years later will meet again working on just trying to pitch this same project. We didn’t go into writing for that. I got into writing. I loved it, and I loved to write what I wanted to write. And I see too many writers out there, even in the comedy business who are miserable. And I always do try to remember, this is why I got into comedying and into writing, is because I used to have fun with my friends, and I used to go home and write and enjoy myself. And if I ever lose that, it’s not something that I would want to necessarily live with. So what I do have now is a two-track system where I do make a living as an editor, and then on the side I am able to write what I want, how I write, how I want to write it, and I don’t have to put out material that is not something that is something that I want to put out. Everything I put out is what I want to put out.

Michael Jamin:
But how many hours a day do you devote to your side writing projects

Mike Sacks:
Today?

Michael Jamin:
Well, on an average day, how much do you do on the side?

Mike Sacks:
I’d say at least six hours a day. I mean, I get up early,

Michael Jamin:
You six hours a day on your non-paying. In other words, you’re not, you’re non vanity. Fair job, you’re

Mike Sacks:
Yes. And that’s always been the case. I mean, there’s no other way to put out material, whether it’s articles or books, then to just simply do it. And it did take me giving up a lot of TV watching and a lot of drinking, which I had been doing, and to sit down and make this my O C D compulsion where I have to do this every day, and if I don’t do it every day, I’m miserable. I’m just an absolute best. And

Michael Jamin:
You’ve been both traditionally published and indie published as you’re talking about, and why don’t you talk a little bit, but the differences in why one appeals more to you than the other?

Mike Sacks:
Well, that’s a great question. Now, I think there’s different elements to self-publishing versus traditional publishing. If you have the opportunity to be a MCs or the New Yorker, certainly take it. I think when it comes to self-publishing, what I prefer is self-publishing books. Now, I published about four or five traditional published books when I first started, and what I ended up finding out was in the end, can, if you are competent as an editor and a writer, and if you can find a good designer, you can do all this on your own. And there’s a lot of advantages to that. The main advantage is in humor. Most producers, most agents, most publishers do not have our humor sensibility. I’d say their humor sensibility lies more in the hit radio market than maybe the alternative market, which I think most writers are into. So first of all, it’s going to be very, very difficult to sell the idea that you want to an agent, and that’s the first step, which can take years.
Yes. I know a lot of people who reach out to agents with their humor ideas, and before they know it, it becomes something else entirely, whether it’s now geared towards children, whether it’s a rom-com or whether it’s this or that or ya novel, and then they’re stuck with something that after a year doesn’t sell anyway, so they wasted a year on a project that they’re not happy with. I don’t think you need an agent now for books. In fact, when I say books, I mean comedy books. This is very specific. If you want to put out a comedy book that’s like, or similar to the Woody Allen books, you grew up reading to the National Lampoon books, you grew up reading to Mark Lehner, to anyone, Simon Rich that you grew up reading, that is not going to happen anymore. One and two, it’s not necessary for it to happen. Any advantage that you have in the mainstream market can be reproduced on your own end much better.

Michael Jamin:
Well, let’s talk about that because you can’t get into, or it would be a lot harder to get your book into Barnes and Nobles, right? Well,

Mike Sacks:
Here’s the thing too. Yeah. Everyone dreams about having their book in Barnes and Noble or an airport bookstore. It doesn’t fucking make a difference anymore. So you have one copy of your book in the humor section, which is next to the restrooms. I mean, how many people are going to be stumbling by it anyway? It’s not going to be on the front table. Right, okay. It’s just not going to be. So when it comes to getting a book, even chosen by an agent, skip the two, three year long process and put it out yourself because an agent typically doesn’t even read the book. And if they do read the book, they don’t typically understand the book. What they’re going to get is not much money anyway. Comedy doesn’t bring in much money, so they get you a 3000, $4,000 advance. So that’s something you can reap on your own without getting that advance, by putting it out yourself and having a hundred percent or not a hundred percent, maybe 60% of the profit coming back to you. So what I have done and what I recommend people to do at this point, this has never been, it’s never been any time in publishing history where you could do this, where you could put out a book that looks professionally done in the past, you’d have to buy 5,000 copies of your book, and they set moldering in the basement. Now it’s a purchase, a pay per purchase. So if someone wants it, they’ll pay for it. Then it’s published and it’s not published until then. Do you and the pro,

Michael Jamin:
But do you get, this is, I’m getting a little off topic, but do you order a handful just so you have and send out with when people want to sign copies? I,

Mike Sacks:
Well, yes, it, it’s the very specific process that I had that I have, which is that you as well as writing it, putting it out yourself, designing it yourself, you have to market it yourself. And I don’t know if you want to get into that now later. Yeah, yeah,

Michael Jamin:
Let’s talk about that. Okay.

Mike Sacks:
Yeah. Okay. So I have a very specific process, and I’ve been on the other end of this because I’ve been as a receiver of these books at Vanity Fair. And we would get hundreds of books per week from publishers. And what publishers would do was they would send out willy nilly all these advanced review copies arcs, which would end up just being in the free pile at work, 99% of which is never even looked at, 99% of which isn’t even right for the magazine. So they would send out these books to me at Vanity Fair, and it would be totally inappropriate for the magazine. We don’t do poetry. We don’t do humor, we don’t do sci-fi, so why are you sending me the books Now, the disadvantage of that to the writers, they end up in the free pile in a magazine like ours, and then typically the editorial assistants will then sell these books to the strand or on line.
So you have these advanced review copies where no money is going to the author and they’re getting these review copies before anyone else. So what I’ve tried to do with my own marketing is I’ll order say 50 books and I’ll pay for those myself. It’s cheaper when you’re ordering your own book. It’s cheaper than it would be if you’re paying for it otherwise. And then I send it out to a very specific group. It’s more like surgical precision rather than going wide. And that group consists of comedians and actors and people who, with one mention on their Instagram can do more than a hundred advertisements can in the back of any magazine be beyond that. To get even more specific, what I’ll do is I’ll write the person’s name, the receiver’s name on the edge, the binding of the book. So they can’t, or their assistant can’t then sell it. I’d rather than just throw it out than it ending up being complicated.

Michael Jamin:
Why can’t they though, if they name, why couldn’t they? Because,

Mike Sacks:
Well, they could cross it out. They could black it out, or

Michael Jamin:
They could sell it with their name on it. What different, does it matter? Matter of

Mike Sacks:
Course. But who’s, who’s going to want to do that? No one’s really going to want to do that. I’d hope it has happened in a few times that someone, I just out of curiosity, even before my book was legally supposedly come out, it’s being sold on Amazon, I was like, who the hell is selling it? And I’ve purchased a copy and I’ll see who then sold the

Michael Jamin:
Book, and then would you give ’em shit or something?

Mike Sacks:
No, I wouldn’t. No. I mean, it’s just a lousy thing to do, but I’m not going to get into it with them. But by doing that, it lessens the risk. So you do that, you make a pinpoint marketing plan rather than spreading it out wide, which is another thing that traditional marketing staffs don’t do. Typically the marketing staff don’t even read the book. They don’t understand a book they can mostly consisting of 20, 30 somethings who don’t have our sensibility and who are just sending out mass produce, press releases or versions of the book that in the end don’t help you and could even harm you. So these are things that I learned by putting out in a traditional publishing venue of things to do and not to do when I would at one point when I plan to put out books by myself. So it’s really important, I think, to know just as importantly, what not to do than it is what to do and what not to do is to spend thousands of dollars and sending it to every person who’s in media, who’s not going to be able to help you.

Michael Jamin:
You’re very targeted. It’s so interesting because there’s so much, and I’m new to the publishing world, but there’s just so much overlap in terms of how Hollywood works and how the publishing world works. My mind, it was publishing was a little more rarefied and maybe there was a No, it’s not still about selling.

Mike Sacks:
No. The thing is that you have to understand that I think I understand is that publishing is not a money business. I mean, you’re not going to sell a book for however much you might sell a comedy screenplay for. If you did really well for yourself, there’s not much money in it. So if you’re getting into it for money, I think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But if you’re getting into it for control, then it’s for you. And then to have that control, why then give it to someone else to edit, to design, and then to market, it’s then out of your hands for no reason. Because I, you’ve seen books, comedy books designed, and they overdesigned comedy more so than they underdesigned it. I’d rather have an underdesigned look than

Michael Jamin:
I wacky. I wish you could mention some without. Well,

Mike Sacks:
I’ll mention incriminating Yourself.

Michael Jamin:
I’ll

Mike Sacks:
Mention my own

Michael Jamin:
That were Overdesigned.

Mike Sacks:
Yeah. And these were the first books that I put out my interview books. And here’s the kicker, poking a Dead Frog and then also my collection.

Michael Jamin:
I’m going to pull it up here

Mike Sacks:
Of short humor. I had to pay for those to be redesigned. I wasn’t happy with the original design

Michael Jamin:
That you designed.

Mike Sacks:
Well, no. Their design I wasn’t happy with. Oh, I see. I’ll tell you the typical look, it would be a chattering teeth on a bench with a microphone placed at it. It would be like a banana peel next to

Michael Jamin:
It. Just something that says comedy right. Comedy right.

Mike Sacks:
Because marketing swears by the fact that this will sell more copies. It has to do this. It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Anyway.

Michael Jamin:
But here’s the thing, does it though, I mean, they must have the numbers. They must not just say it like I am. I’m completely with you going through all this now, but are they right?

Mike Sacks:
No, they could be, but do you want your book to have a chattering teeth being interviewed? Right, right,

Michael Jamin:
Exactly. Sitting up,

Mike Sacks:
Sitting on a bench. I mean, I don’t, so it sells another thousand copies. Who gives a shit? When you look at the classic books, especially the Woody Allen compilations, they’re just white on black, right? I mean, it’s very, very simple. You don’t need something screaming out comedy. These are not a collection of hamburger puns we’re talking about here. This is, unless it is a collection of hamburger pots, right? I’m talking about comedy that I grew up reading and I want out there. You’re not going to get a cover that you’re probably going to be happy with if you go traditional publishing.

Michael Jamin:
Right. It’s so interesting because I’m going through, as you know, all of this now and everything you’re saying is truly resonating with me. That’s why we talked about a couple weeks ago, and it was so helpful. I want to even mention, I want to talk about some of your work because you sent me, you’re very kind. You sent me some arcs and Well, you sent me a bunch of stuff. Let me put it up on the camera here. We’re going to talk about this. This is your poking at Dead Frog. This is a book about, we interviewed some really great comedy writers, Woodmont College, which is a fun read. I want to talk about that as well. But first, this is the first, that book that I first dug into, and I have to send Mike, I think you are an artist. I really do because I do.
But I mean, and he’s being, he’s blushing. You can’t see on your podcast, but the book, to me, it has a very almost indie underground vibe it to me, and tell me if you’re wrong, if this is not what you meant when you wrote it to me. It was like, the premise is very interesting. It’s almost like a Russian nesting doll. The premise of this book is you, the author, are going through a garage, through a garage sale. You stumble upon this odd book that is written that it is the account of someone’s life. The book that you wrote is called Randy, the Full and complete unedited biography and memoir of The Amazing Life and Times of Randy Ss. So you as the author, go into this garage sale or whatever, and you find this book written by this, some schmuck. Some schmuck wrote it about his friend or whatever, a guy he knows. And what’s so interesting, and then you share the book. And so what’s interesting to me, what I found very interesting, even about the premise of it, it’s quite brilliant. It is basically, first of all, you’re saying, look at this amazing book. I didn’t write it. I have nothing to do with it. I just found it. It’s amazing. And already you’re hyping it up, but you’re also distancing yourself from it saying, well, if you don’t like it, it’s, it’s not mine. But you’re also saying exactly,
Here’s a schmuck that the story’s about, the book’s about. Here’s a schmuck who wrote about another schmuck and how amazing it is. And that’s what I find it. So it’s so almost indie. Like I said, it’s like a Russian nesting doll. It’s like no one has any attachment to this book, to this story. Here’s this great story. I thought that was very funny premise of

Mike Sacks:
It. Well, thank No, that’s really actually a good way to describe it. I mean, I always wanted to write a current day Medici book where some idiot is, pays an unemployed writer to write about his life in flowery terms, rather than it be 15th century Italy. It’s, or Florence, it would now be 21st century Maryland. So that was one premise. Then on top of that, it would be a very mediocre life, written a very flowery type of way. But what I do love is found artifacts. I genuinely love finding shit, whether it’s self-published memoirs or whether it’s old or whether it’s, that to me is fascinating. And what you mentioned really hits at the crux of it is that I’m not putting this book out. I’m two characters removed from the person. Yes. Writing it. And by doing that, by putting out a book like this, it’s playing a character acting role where I’m not the person, and if you don’t like it, it’s really not my fault. Right. And by doing that, it frees me up as a writer to then take more chances because the margin of error is higher. If you don’t like that joke, I had nothing fucking to do with it. I’m just reprinting. It’s

Michael Jamin:
Right. That’s exactly my point. Yes, exactly. And that’s so interesting about this because usually you write a book, you have a narrator. The narrator may even be talking about their life, but you, like you said, you’re two steps removed and you don’t even know who to believe is describing the story. Well,

Mike Sacks:
I’ll tell you what I always think of, and that’s Steve Martin. He was being interviewed about pennies from heaven, and he said, I can’t dance, but if I play someone who can dance and maybe not well, but if I play someone who’s dancing, then I can do it. So he’s not even dancing. It’s the character who’s dancing it. And I always view that as what I’m trying to do is just have fun with it. I’m not the person in this book, my name isn’t even on it. Hopefully. My father always used when he was alive, would say, why is your name, why are they not on these books? On the re-release? It was, but when I put it out myself, my name was not on any of these books. And to me, it’s part of the joke. I want people to think it’s real. I don’t want them to think that I wrote it. I want them to come across this and say, oh, someone is republishing a shit self-published memoir. That’s someone an idiot in Maryland published in 2013. Right. That really is my dream.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. And that’s so funny about it. It’s, that’s why I say it’s almost underground. It’s almost, yeah. I, I guess my question for you is, when you wrote this or any of your writing, are you thinking of of the audience or your reader in mind, or are you really just like, this is what I want to do? It sounds to me, I already know the answer, but

Mike Sacks:
It’s never what the audience necessarily wants. I mean, I found that by even writing Twitter jokes, if you put out what you think the audience is going to want, then I think it’s not going to hit as hard. And that’s part of the problem with what I had freelancing for magazines. What are the editors going to want? And then what are the editors going to want for the readers is you have to, it’s not even running for yourself at that point, but for these projects, not by skirting around having an agent skirting around having a publisher, you can do whatever the hell you want. And by you, I mean me in this case, it’s just these are projects that I just have an itch to scratch. I don’t know why. And there’s no one on earth who I think necessarily is the perfect reader for this.
I just know that if I stumbled upon this book in a bookstore or online, I would fall in love with it. And that is really the, I’m trying to please myself. And it’s a very specific thing mean, so specific that it’ll sell a few thousand copies. This is never going to be in an airport bookstore. It’s never going to be in any bookstores. I mean, it’s sort of like the underground radio I used to play in New Orleans when I worked for the radio station. I love these groups, but they never would’ve been played on.

Michael Jamin:
But that’s why I say you are an artist because you are doing this for the, with the purest of intentions, which is not cashing out like this is your expression.

Mike Sacks:
No, it isn’t. But I have found one, it goes back to my O C D where if I don’t do this sort of thing, I’m a mess. I’m a depressive mess, an anxious mess. The other thing that I’ve noticed is that by putting out these type of books and by genuinely not giving a shit, if anyone likes it, people do the right. People do tend to like it. And right with my upcoming book, I have a ton of actors and comedians who have liked the past books, John Ham and Paul Rubins and Amy Sedaris, who want to be involved in the next project. Again, I don’t think it’s going to certainly make them any money, and it’s not going to make me any money, but it’s just what I like. I genuinely like this. I, I’d rather watch an Albert Brooks standup bit from the 1970s than any of the most popular sitcoms or reality shows on now. That’s just my what I like, my personal, and this is my personal, when it comes to books, very specific. It’s not going to appeal to many people, but I have found that by putting out what you want, how you want, it means more to people, the right people, the people you respect, the people whose sensibility you got into the business to try to impress it has impressed those people.

Michael Jamin:
Tell me though, this takes me to, when you submit to let’s say McSweeney’s or any of these places, then are you writing with them in mind to this is what they want to buy, or are you just like, I wrote something and maybe they’ll like it, maybe they’ll like it.

Mike Sacks:
Well, you really do have to take in mind who you’re sending it to. And I know this, having been friends with MCs, Sweeney’s editors, they receive a ton of material that is not right for them. So don’t waste their time by sending them something that is not going to be appropriate for the site. You really do. And that goes for anything that goes for Vanity Fair and New Yorker or anything. You have to know what they’re looking for. And you can’t be obnoxious about it. You can’t say, this is a great piece, I want you to publish it, even though it’s not right for the site. This is their site. I mean, this is right. That’s up to them. And they have every right in the world to say, this is right

Michael Jamin:
For us. But are you personally writing for them or have, or are you just writing and then you go, maybe they’ll like it.

Mike Sacks:
Well, if I have an idea, I’ll go through my mind. Would this be better for McSweeney’s or New Yorker? And then you write, do have to play to the interest of the editors. You do have to play to what they’re looking for style wise. If you’re writing, none of these pieces would be submitted to the shouts and murmurs to New York. I just know that it wouldn’t be accepted and they’d have every right not to accept it. But if there is an idea that does coincide with style and format to a specific magazine, I’ll start thinking in terms of that and I’ll start writing in terms of that. You do have to make it easy for the editors not going to want to rewrite, to take the time to rewrite what you’re sending them. They want something coming in appropriate for the site or magazine and as clean as can be. And if you’re difficult in any way, even if you’re a genius, they’re not going to want to work with you again.

Michael Jamin:
And they do give you notes, they give you feedback, and you got to take that because that’s what they want.

Mike Sacks:
Well, what I found is typically the notes just consist of editing out, which is fine, rather than putting in, which was my problem with magazine writing was they would put in their own jokes. I’d rather just them I, I’d rather overwrite and have them take out.

Michael Jamin:
Now, aside from being really an honor, let’s say, to be in the New Yorker, how does it help you as your career?

Mike Sacks:
I don’t know if it does. I mean, I, embarrassingly enough, I never read the New Yorker until I was 25. Maybe I didn’t know from it. And then once I did, I fell in love with it. I mean, I remember the first piece that I read in a public library in Maryland that just was blown away. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but I don’t think that, especially now with the daily shouts of murmurs, I don’t think that will get you an agent automatically. I do think good things can come from it. Agents may reach out and if you have enough pieces you could put out in a book. But I don’t know if it’s a magic key to any kingdom. It perhaps used to be.

Michael Jamin:
Right. Oh, you think, why do you think it’s changed then?

Mike Sacks:
I just think there’s more opportunity out there for writers that can put out, there’s a million places you can put up your own website and potentially be as read as by as many people as readers as the New Yorker has. I mean, this is all new. When I was first starting out, this was pre around the beginning of the internet, very few options. So there was Crack Magazine, there was Playboy, there was New Yorker, mad Magazine, maybe the end of National Lampoon. So six, five or six choices. Now there are thousands of choices. And if it’s good, it doesn’t really matter necessarily where it is, as long as it sort of stands out from everybody else.

Michael Jamin:
See, the thing is the game, the game has changed so much even in the last, let’s say even 10 years, about how to make it as a writer. But I think, or screenwriter, and I think so many people are still hung up on playing the game the way it used to be played for some reason. I can’t figure out why.

Mike Sacks:
I think so too. And that is something I try to tell young writers is that you don’t necessarily have to play. If the game is working for you and you’re getting in the New Yorker and you’re getting an agent, fantastic. I mean, that’s the way to do it. If you’re not, you have to come in the back door. And that there even is a backdoor, I think is a tremendous opportunity. Right. Because I mean TV writing, how many voices would we not have heard writing for TV 30 years ago? I mean, a lot. Yeah. The avenues are much bigger now to hear a, which is better for comedy, a lot more voices, different styles of voices, there are fewer gatekeepers than there used to be.

Michael Jamin:
Now you never did, go ahead, I’m sorry.

Mike Sacks:
No, and to spend years of your life trying to do it the way that someone in the 1980s did, I don’t think is conducive to any sort of success.

Michael Jamin:
Do you think it’s do So what is it? Do you think it’s just ego driven? Is that I want that pat in the back of having it in a New Yorker. I want the pat or the pat in the back of traditional publishing or whatever.

Mike Sacks:
Maybe. I mean it, it’s, I think it goes for anything, but I think it’s sort of basing your wants on a philosophy that doesn’t have to exist anymore. It’s like a restaurant trying to appeal to OTs. I mean, do they have to do that anymore? Do you have to appeal to only the New Yorker editor? Can you not put out what you want, how you want on your own? And that’s another thing. You don’t have to write for New Yorker. If you want to get into comedy. You can put out videos, you can put out standup, you can put out a one person show, you can put out a fake document. I mean, there’s a million things you have to do. So to tailor your creativity into a mold that you don’t want to fit in, I don’t think is worth spending your time because there is no end of the rainbow necessarily. Even if you do get into New Yorker, I don’t think your life is going to change to the point where it might have been worth it spending four or five years trying to do so while not using that time to put out your own thing however you want.

Michael Jamin:
Hey, it’s Michael Jamin. If you like my videos and you want me to email them to you for free, join my watch list. Every Friday I send out my top three videos. These are for writers, actors, creative types. You can unsubscribe whenever you want. I’m not going to spam you and it’s absolutely free. Just go to michaeljamin.com/watchlist.
So it’s not like you are constantly trying to come up with ideas and submit to the New Yorker. It’s just like if they have something, you’ll give it to them.

Mike Sacks:
Well, I did. I spent years doing that even before that, McSweeney’s, and I love them both. I read ’em every day. I think the editors are amazing. I just don’t, the ideas that I wanted to put across whether there was a fake novelization, whether it was a found fake memoir, whether it was a parody of a college catalog, whatever it was, didn’t fit into that realm anymore. And I could’ve spent three years trying to get these books in there, and they probably wouldn’t have. And even if they had, how would that have helped me? I think you really need, as a young writer, to sort of discern what you want to do and how you want to get it across, and what’s the best way to do that? What’s the best Trojan horse to get your idea into that castle? What’s the best way? And if it doesn’t consist of trying to get into New Yorker with a 1000 word short humor piece for shots and murmurs, don’t feel that your writing is any lesser for not having for fitting into that category. You, there’s a million ways now that you can get out your creativity and you don’t have to go through traditional gates.

Michael Jamin:
The thing that I wanted to mention earlier is you were, because you said this is like, it’s really about you can wait. You can spend years writing something or submitting something and waiting for the yes or waiting for someone’s permission to take. And that waiting is fucking terrible. And if you put it out yourself, if you put your energy into something, more comes from it. You know what I’m saying? The more energy you put, the more creating you do, the more things that will happen if you just stop waiting around some sitting around begging.

Mike Sacks:
Totally. I mean, if you’re going to wait for permission to achieve success, you’re going to be waiting a long time. And really, this philosophy did not come for me, to me from writing. It came from music. I grew up in DC and I grew up around Discord records, which put out minor threat and Fugazi, and I always mention them because when I was growing up in the late eighties, nineties, they were doing, this is pre-internet, and they’re putting out music on their own terms. And to me, out of DC, it was a miracle. I had never heard of such a thing. And they put out what they wanted, how they wanted. And to this day, Ian mackay, who ran Discord Records, owns all the rights. He only put out what he wanted, and he is living the good life. That to me, was really what influenced me more than anything.
And after years of trying to break in, even when I did sort of break in, I found that it really wasn’t worth it. And you found it wasn’t worth it there. Well, no, it’s not like you’re tenured as a professor. Even if you get into New York, it doesn’t mean you’ll get in again. And even if you’re in New York, it doesn’t mean you’ll get an agent. And even if you get an agent, doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to publish your dream project. So I think really in the end, and we have this opportunity now to do so, you have to be in charge, good or bad. You have to put it out and just keep on moving. Don’t stagnate. And I stagnated for a long time. You cannot. I did, because I would think of ideas and I would submitted and I would be accepted. Or I go to certain agents who handled my favorite writers and they didn’t like it, and it would bother me. You

Michael Jamin:
Feel like a failure.

Mike Sacks:
You feel like a failure. But even worse, you waste time. And what you find is as you get older is time really is the most important precious thing. Because there is limited time once you learn your craft to be able to put it out. And if someone is gumming up the system by saying, for whatever reason, I don’t want to take on this project, I don’t think it’s worthy. Well, who gives a shit? You don’t need them anymore. You don’t fucking need them anymore. Put it out yourself like you would a garage band record and then keep moving. But whatever you do, do not stagnate. Because before you know it, 10 years have passed and you have produced nothing. And I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more depressing soul crushing than that. No one got into writing to be prevented for 10 years from doing something that’s hell. And that out of everything is what you need to avoid, is you need to keep moving down the path.

Michael Jamin:
But the little X factor I think people forget about is the marketing aspect. People think, well, I can write it, but how do I get people to see it? How do you know, read it or whatever.

Mike Sacks:
I’ll tell you, it’s not as hard as you might think. The fact that word gets out there, especially in small communities, small communities go on small communities. So this small community I’m talking about is comedy. People who read written word comedy, people who love written word comedy. We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of people here. We’re talking about a somewhat small community.

Michael Jamin:
So if you can, and where do you find this community?

Mike Sacks:
You find them online, you find them on podcasts, you find them on Instagram, you find, say, pat Oswald, who loves reading comedy, maybe he’ll like this book. You send it to him. If it’s a smaller project and you send it to someone who is famous, I don’t think they’re going to be upset about it. If you set, this is part of the marketing, Hey Pat, and I’m a big fan of your work. I put this out myself. If you liked it and only if you liked it, would you mind mentioning something online? And most people who are in comedy, remember what it was like to start off. Know what it’s like to get a praise from someone who has followers and whose work means a lot to others. That’s really how you spread the word. If you’re, I took any of these books and sent them to a New York Times reviewer, they wouldn’t know what the fuck was going on.
And quite frankly, I don’t know if the review readers would know what the fuck was going on. So you also do have to know your audience. It’s like the alternative music I listened to in the late eighties, early nineties when I was at Tulane in New Orleans, working for the radio station. You know, appeal to those who like this music and it’s new, so it’s not going to appeal to everyone. And then hopefully a few years later, it will appeal to everyone. It does take some time. But until that point, you have to send your records to the college DJs. You have to send your records to people working in record stores. You have to pinpoint out who you’re sending to, the people who are going to spread the word, the people who are coming up now and who comedy and who are going to be able to talk about it with their friends.

Michael Jamin:
And why not, though? I’m asking you personally, why not? Again, I think I know the answer. Why not write something more mainstream that you think will sell or whatever people

Mike Sacks:
Will love. I just don’t have any interest in that. I mean, it’s like, why do I not listen to Taylor Swift? I respect her. I think she’s amazing, I guess in theory, but I would rather listen to Portland, the man or whatever the music is. And I don’t think that I appeal. You just sort of reach a point in your career where you have to say to yourself, I don’t appeal to the mass amount of people. I mean, I show these books to my relatives. They don’t know what the hell’s going on. Which is fine. It’s not for them. It’s not for everyone. So I mean, I think really you have to put your head down and not even worry about that. But if it does come to you, sell the maximum amount that the public is interested in. Well, that’s just the way it is. I mean, no one writes to, I don’t think, to be popular. And you can sort of tell, I think like a, Paul McCartney and Elton John were just lucky enough to put out the records they wanted. And it appeals to everyone. But most people aren’t that lucky. And I am one of those. I don’t think that even if I wrote something to the top of my ability that I was completely happy with, it would ever appeal to more than maybe 5% of the readers.

Michael Jamin:
Well, here’s a good segue. Read to this other book that you wrote, poking a Dead Frog, and this is available for everywhere. And these are conversations that you had you conducted with top comedy writers. And I think for this is particularly the place for, because I have a big audience who are into this, they should go check it out. There’s a lot of really interesting conversations. Well, some were actors, bill Hader, but you also have, I’m just going through the list here. Yeah, James Downey, a lot of seven, eight live writers. James L. Brooks, you a got a lot of people. My buddy Mark Marin. You had a lot of people, a lot of really great people that you found. How did this come about?

Mike Sacks:
Well, that was through Selfish Reasons. That’s the second book that I put out of interviews. The first book came out about five years earlier. That’s called. And Here’s the Kicker. And this is another case of wanting to do something and being prevented from doing so. That book, that first book, and here’s the Kicker, where I interviewed comedy writers, was rejected 20 times really by publishers. The only reason why it was finally accepted was that I was friendly with an editor who used to work at McSweeney’s named John Warner, who was working for a smaller publisher in the Midwest called Writer’s Digest. It was only because of that book came out. That book came out when there was no podcast. Very little was out there about writing about comedy. I put it out only for the express selfish purpose of being able to talk to the people whose work meant a lot to me. I wanted to talk to them and pick their brains about how they got to where they got, what worked for them and what didn’t work for them. Another thing was a lot of them were dying off. This was the first generation of comedy writers. Quite a few people I interviewed for that book were in their seventies and eighties and nineties, and they passed away shortly after that book came. How did

Michael Jamin:
You get contact with them?

Mike Sacks:
Well, what I found funny enough was the easiest people to contact were the older writers who were all on a o l at that time. They would get right back to you. They would not their assistant. Usually the font would be like 46 point. It’d be huge font. But they always got back to me whether they wanted to do it or not. The ones who didn’t get back to me were the younger writers who either had their assistance say no or just never. I never, and to this day, I haven’t received an answer from a lot of young writers, but the older writers always got back to me and usually said yes. In one case, I wanted to interview a comedy writer who worked in the early days of radio comedy writing. So at that point in 2007, 2008, there weren’t many around. I reached out to someone who ran a newsletter on radio comedy shows, and he sent me a list of writers who still might be around out of that list. One was still alive, and I just happened to call the Town Council where she lived. I said, do you know a Margaret Lynch, a Peg Lynch? She wrote for radio. She goes, yeah, yeah, yeah, peg Lynch, we know her well. I said, she’s still alive. She goes, yeah, there, she’s still alive. She’s 95 and she’s doing well. So I called her out of the blue, and I think it was a case of her thinking, why has no one called me before?

Michael Jamin:
And

Mike Sacks:
Talking to her was really something. I mean, I did, I wasn’t familiar with her, but after doing research, after we hung up and I said, can I call you back? She basically invented the modern sitcom. She had a radio, then a TV show called Ethel m Albert, and she wrote, I think 30,000 scripts for radio and for movies. Jesus, Jesus. Some of them lasting 10 minutes or so. But it was all based on real life. It really was Seinfeld before Seinfeld. And the stories that she came up with, for instance, one was she grew up in Minneapolis outside the Mayo Clinic. Her mom was a nurse there at 14 years old. Peg Lynch took it upon herself to interview celebrities, PA passing through the Mayo Clinic for her little radio show that she had in town. The first person she asked to interview was Lou Gehrig when he was at the Mayo Clinic being diagnosed with a L Ss.
And right Lou Gehrig said yes to that. Wow. Which I just found incredible. She also interviewed Newt Rockney when he was passing through the Mayo Clinic. So just to be able to talk to these people from another World Bridge to another time, that was really my selfish reason. I didn’t think the book would sell. I didn’t think it would really do well. I just wanted a product that I could have as an excuse to be able to talk to all these great writers. Some of whom, and most of whom maybe readers that weren’t even familiar with. This was just my going after readers, writers that I liked and writers that I sort of stumbled upon,

Michael Jamin:
But poking at Dead Frog. And again, comedy students should pick this up because it is helpful to hear you talk about people’s processes, how they broke it, not just how they broke in, but also writing how they approach the material. And it’s just very interesting. But this must have been an easier sell. No,

Mike Sacks:
Yeah, that was easier because the first book did well. So by the time and that came around, I did get an agent and he did sell, and I did get it in advance, so that was much easier. But it also started coming around that people were talking about comedy, more analyzing comedy, having websites devoted to comedy. But when the first one came around, there really was not much out there. It

Michael Jamin:
Was. And how were you conducting these interviews? Just over the phone. Yeah.

Mike Sacks:
Typically I prefer over the phone,

Michael Jamin:
But some of them looked like they just weren’t interviews. Some of these pieces looked like they were just submission. Like you tell, Hey, write something for my, tell your process. They’ve submitted you something. Is that right? I like Mark Marin specifically. Specifically. It

Mike Sacks:
Seemed like he, yeah, well, mark Marin, that that’s a case where I actually didn’t even reach out to Mark. It was someone who was doing interviews for me. He reached out to Mark, but in other cases it was like, Hey, show me what it’s like to submit a packet for a late night show. Can you just show me your packet? And they, yeah, that interesting. Send me your packet. But in most cases, it was me talking to them either on the phone or in some cases in person, after many, many, many hours of research. And that was part of the problem. I didn’t know how good they would be to talk to until after I did all this research. So in a lot of instances, I interviewed a lot research though. Well, I mean, for each of these interview subjects, I would do 20 to 30 hours of research, reading everything they wrote, reading every interview they’ve done. And you really don’t know what they’re going to be like until you talk to ’em. So in a lot of cases, a lot of people did not make the book because either through my fault or the way they were feeling that day or whatever, it just wasn’t jiving. So even after having done all that research, I would have to trash the interviews. So what you see in that book is really maybe 60% of the interviews that I conducted entirely for

Michael Jamin:
That book. Oh my God. Because it’s not a thin book. There’s a lot.

Mike Sacks:
That was a long year, man, putting that thing together. I mean, like

Michael Jamin:
A year, huh? Since

Mike Sacks:
Year.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. Wow. I mean, so yeah, it’s just interesting that you, like even Mike Scher in here, I mean, yeah, Mel Brooks, Amy Poer, a lot of really interesting people being talked about their craft. I thought it was very interesting. Now, let’s talk real fast about this one. Woodmont, this is your phony college brochure, and it’s pretty funny. What is the audience for this? It seems like this would be great to leave in a dorm room somewhere, but what fucking

Mike Sacks:
I, well, what I was thinking was that, that I wanted it to be confused with a real, real college catalog. I thought that it was sort of ripe to be made fun of, because those catalogs are pretty ridiculous. Unfortunately. The first publisher we took it to, I have nothing bad to say about them, but they wanted to put it out in digital form only, which I did. And it looked good. But I wanted something tangible that you could sort of send to people. And I then took it to,

Michael Jamin:
Go ahead. Go ahead,

Mike Sacks:
Please. I took it to another publisher who was willing to put it out in hard copy form.

Michael Jamin:
And where does it get sold then?

Mike Sacks:
It’s online. You can find it anywhere. It’s on Amazon. It’s,

Michael Jamin:
I mean, it’s pretty funny. Welcome to Woodmont. And I guess their motto is No refunds,

Mike Sacks:
Right? It’s all money based. I mean, I think it costs 150,000 per semester to go there. It’s just the shittiest boutique college you can ever imagine. Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. It’s pretty funny read. Yeah. But that’s what I say when this is just something that you wanted to do and you say you did it. Yeah. Yeah.

Mike Sacks:
And a lot of people might think, why? And I don’t have any answer for that. There’s no good answer. I don’t know. I mean, it did. Okay. People seem to it. Did it change my life? No, but it just seemed like I had to do it.

Michael Jamin:
I’ll tell you why about, I’ll tell you why I’ve been, because I perform, I’ve been doing some performances, my little one man show, and every night before I go out, you know, can hear the audience. And I’m backstage and I’m starting to get nervous. And I always ask myself this question, why am I doing this? And then I only answer I’m able to come up with is because I can.

Mike Sacks:
But it’s more than can. I mean, you can go to Mount Aetna and try to climb it, but you’re not, so what is it about doing that? Is that you need to want to share it.

Michael Jamin:
Something.

Mike Sacks:
Yeah. Some itch that needs to be scratched. Right? Very specific itched. You could be home relaxing with your wife and family, but you’re out at this club at 11 o’clock at night. Why are so, I mean, the question is really, why are you doing it. What is it about doing that that you need to do that you would prefer doing over, not just doing nothing

Michael Jamin:
Relaxing? Right. And that takes me to my last thing, my last question for you had one of the great honor, I would suppose of your career is that you’ve gotten to open for David Saris, and I want to talk to you a little about that mean. Yeah. Which pieces are you reading or did you read?

Mike Sacks:
I would usually write these pieces special for these shows. I mean, I have been doing this for a little while now, and I, I’ve found that the pieces I would write for McSweeney’s in New Yorker wouldn’t necessarily connect with a live audience. But what David does, he’s such a genius, is that he’ll write these pieces that appeal to not only a live audience, but also to an audience at home reading internally. I don’t know if any other writer who does this, and by the time he turns into piece to New Yorker, he’ll know what jokes work and what jokes. I mean, it reminds me of what the Marcus Brothers used to do. They used to travel around performing these movie scripts live to see what jokes worked and what didn’t. So he’s really unique in that sense. But when I would read these pieces, the reaction would not be that good.
So I sort of had to tailor these pieces to a live audience. And it’s a lot of work. I mean, these pieces are really meant to be read once, twice, three times, and then they’re never heard from again. But it is an absolute thrill to do this because I have been out on tour where I have read to literally no one. I mean, no one has shown up, and I refuse to go out on a book tours now because of that. I don’t think one sells many books. So it’s like being in a bar band where never, no one shows up to opening for the Rolling Stones. I mean, it’s just huge. And the fact that he allows me to do that, I mean, there’s no one of his caliber who is as giving to other writers and readers as he’s just spectacular.

Michael Jamin:
And how did you meet him then?

Mike Sacks:
Well, I met him interviewing him for the book, my book, and we just became friends. I think we talked for four or five hours the first time, and we just connected. And he’s just a very giving person. I mean, no, what he’ll do, this is what he does. And I don’t, no other au author would do this. No one. When I read for him, he’ll sometimes say, listen, if you want my autograph, you want me to sign your book? And these lines are hours long. You can wait in line. But if you buy Mike’s books, you can go straight to the front.

Michael Jamin:
Isn’t that nice?

Mike Sacks:
Isn’t that ama? I mean, who else would do that? So people just out of wanting to get that, getting through the line more quickly. They’ll buy my books and they’ll sell out and they’ll talk to me for a second and then talk to Dave. But no one else is as giving no other writer. How many

Michael Jamin:
Books did you bring that they sold out? I would be like, shit, why don’t I bring more?

Mike Sacks:
Oh, I don’t know. I mean, bookstores provide them, I’m guessing 50 maybe. Okay. And the 50 of each book. Oh,

Michael Jamin:
Okay. A lot.

Mike Sacks:
There’s a few books. There’s a few books there.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. Are you going out with him again soon?

Mike Sacks:
Yeah. And in fact, he just asked if I wanted to do some shows up in Maine, and I’m going to beat, my wife is from Maine, but we’re not going to be there up there then. But he did very kindly ask me to be open for him in Baltimore, which is what I’ve done in the past. I am from Maryland, south of Baltimore, near the Virginia line. Oh, that’d be great. I love Baltimore. And yeah, I, last time I invited John Waters. Wow. Someone on whose work I absolutely love and have been in touch with. And he showed up to the reading and got to see me read. I actually read something from the Woodmont College catalog and through in the John Waters reference, just to appease

Michael Jamin:
Him. Oh, that’s funny. Wow. This is Mike. I want to thank you so much. This has been a very illuminating talk for me to hear from your side of the world. Tell me, me, plug your books again all and tell me how people can follow you and find you and your podcast. Tell me, plug away.

Mike Sacks:
Yeah, I am on everything. Instagram, Twitter, blue sky everyth, the new piss stream or whatever it is for Instagram. I forget what threads. It’s

Michael Jamin:
Threads. I couldn’t even get on Blue Sky. I don’t know. Good for you.

Mike Sacks:
Yeah, someone asked me if I wanted to get, I had no idea what it was, but I’ll say yes to anything. And I have my own site, mikes sex.com. And then I’m also a Wikipedia page as well. And honestly, I know what it was like to start off and not to know anyone. If anyone wants to reach out to me, I’m at Mikebsacks@gmail.com. I’ll answer any questions. It is not as hard as you might think to publish a book. And I always encourage people to do so because I love to see people skirting the system to get what they want made. I think that’s very important. Don’t ever think that there’s someone between you and success, especially when it comes to comedy. Yeah. Anyone can do it. And if you have any questions, feel

Michael Jamin:
Free, reach out. Wow, that’s very kind and generous of you. That’s very nice of you. Mike, thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, man. Thank you. Again, don’t go anywhere I want to sign out. Alright, everyone, thank you so much for listening. Lots of great resources on my website, Michaeljamin.com. Sign up, we’ve got free webinars coming up and my newsletter. Alright, until next week, keep writing.

Phil Hudson:
This has been an episode of Screenwriters. Need to Hear this with Michael Jamin and Phil Hudson. If you’re interested in learning more about writing, make sure you register for Michael’s monthly webinar @michaeljamn.com/webinar. If you found this podcast helpful, consider sharing it with a friend and leaving us a five star review on iTunes. For free screenwriting tips, follow Michael Jamin on social media @MichaelJaminwriter. You can follow Phil Hudson on social media @PhilaHudson. This podcast was produced by Phil Hudson. It was edited by Dallas Crane Music by Ken Joseph. Until next time, keep writing.

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Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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