Mike Drucker is an award-winning comedian who works as a staff writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Prior to that he wrote for The Onion, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Nintendo, IGN, and a little show called Saturday Night Live. He found the time to talk to us about his creative process. Oh, and robots.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you ended up writing comedy?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I did my undergraduate at New York University in English Literature and Journalism. My intention was to go into publishing and become a novelist while supporting myself off magazine articles. That wasn’t happening, so I stayed on another year after I graduated to get my Master’s in English Literature. My thesis was on parody novels in Victorian England. I was lucky enough to be in grad school when I started doing comedy, and a graduate paper on comedy was a fun way to bow out of my education.
As far as performing goes — when I was eight years old, I entered my daycare’s kiddie talent show. I read jokes from a book of dinosaur knock-knock jokes. I was booed off stage by other children. I still own the book somewhere, but those children are long dead to me.
My more modern entry into comedy was while I was still at NYU. After years of procrastination, I decided to try my hand at stand-up. I think my mindset was that I preferred to try it and suck and know I sucked than be the sort of guy who spends the rest of his life claiming he could’ve been great but never got around to it. I don’t mind failing, but I hate “what if?”.
Writing comedy followed. As part of my journalism degree, I wrote for NYU’s newspaper. The sports section. I’m not a big sports fan, but the position was open, and I wanted to see my name in print. I wrote for the hockey team, which was ill-supported to say the least. Every April Fool’s Day though the paper would do a fake issue with jokes. That’s where I really enjoyed it. I wrote an article called something like, “Record 12 Fans Come Out To Hockey Game.” The team loved it and the coach threatened to have me fired from the newspaper.
Over years, I went from a crappy comedian to a sometimes crappy comedian. Along the way, I began contributing jokes to a few television shows and websites, from which I began to get hired to write for bigger projects, and ghost write for a few celebrities. It’s hard to describe what happened in the transition from amateur to professional, because there’s no actual change. You don’t get a set of keys to the professional writers’ gym and a tote bag. You just keep doing it and eventually someone thinks you deserve money.
I think my mindset was that I preferred to try it and suck and know I sucked than be the sort of guy who spends the rest of his life claiming he could’ve been great but never got around to it.
You’ve also worked on writing for video game scripts. How does writing for such a non-linear, interactive medium work? Is it quite mind-blowing when you deal with all the possibilities that can play out?
Yes, in the sheer scope of things. I’ve just started on my project and I’m already mind-blown by the amount of text in a video game. There are so many things that happen, so many things that will be seen and won’t be seen depending on what the player does or doesn’t do. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.
But video games are a lot like live comedy – you create branching pathways based on how the audience reacts. They like this, you do this. They like that, you do that. The interactivity – and temporality – of both art forms make them some of the most fun and exciting to work in. They’re the few art forms that the audience really feels a part of in a visceral and real way. Please, touch this painting. Change it. Make it your own.
Thankfully, video games are also like movies in that you have a team of very talented people working together so nobody feels too lost. There is (usually) an overall vision of what the game will be, which helps rein me in and make me feel less scared.
I don’t mind failing,
but I hate “what if?”
The late Roger Ebert caused a stir a while back when he said that video games couldn’t be art. What are your thoughts on the matter?
To be fair, he later went back and said he hasn’t played or enjoyed enough games to make that sort of blanket statement. He had only seen YouTube clips of video games, which is akin to seeing a photograph of a movie and saying they couldn’t tell good stories.
But even if he hadn’t reversed/apologized, would his opinion really matter? We shouldn’t need permission to enjoy the things we enjoy. Does Roger Ebert’s dislike of games make our childhood memories invalid? I hope not. Nobody should invest that much power in any other individual. Opinions are important, but defining what’s kosher to enjoy, or even worse, influence is weird to me.
I honestly think anything created is art. I’m liberal that way. Even if nobody cares, your expression is your art. Doodles in a notebook are art. Park benches are art. Are they good or interesting art? That depends on who you ask.
The key isn’t whether or not what you create is art – it’s whether or not people a) enjoy it, b) take something new away from the experience, and c) some cool third thing.
Can you describe your creative process? Is there any structure to it? Are there any Drucker™ tricks that you’ve found help the ideas flow? Or is it just a matter of sitting down and forcing your brain to go through the process of trial and error?
It honestly depends on the assignment. When writing for a television show, there’s usually a topic. “We need jokes on Obama’s XYZ.” So I approach that writing like a research paper – I pull up news stories, opinion columns, Wikipedia pages, and research my way into jokes. It takes a long time, and most of the jokes aren’t too pretty, but it works. Research helps me. I was a staff writer at the ESPN sports awards (ESPYs). I’m not a sports person. But research helped me make it work.
Of course, there’s a creative element to it. Just like a research paper, the information provided only takes you so far. The conclusions you draw from it are what’s important. I’m not saying I have a math formula I pour into comedy. I just try to know as much as I can before writing jokes.
When it comes to more freeform ideas such as The Onion articles or stand-up, I just try to draw from everyday experiences. There is a lot of staring at a screen waiting for ideas to come. A lot of trial and error. But it works. You just keep writing and eventually something funny will come out. Maybe you won’t have the time to write a masterpiece of stand-up, a masterpiece of fiction, and a masterpiece of cinema. But eventually you will write something funny.
What advice would you give to young people who want to write comedy?
Write what you think is funny, not what other people think is funny. Eventually, you’ll find a way to bring the two together. But if you start off doing jokes that you think you’re supposed to do instead of the jokes you want to do, you’ll hate comedy very, very quickly.
Think about what makes you laugh. Keep a notebook of jokes, articles, and stories that you like. NEVER copy them. But look at them and try to figure out what about them interests you and makes you smile. Take note of your interests outside of comedy. What is there you can write about or talk about?
If you can talk endlessly about music, you will be able to write about music. If you know everything about Austrian history from 1750 – 1975, you should be able to find something weird about it that people can relate to.
It can be an uphill battle to write about what you like – as opposed to the vanilla “sex is weird” / “race is weird” duo – but you’ll find it much more fulfilling.
Write what you think is funny, not what other people think is funny.
How does writing for publication differ from writing for performing, if at all? Do you find the two play off each other, strengthening your skills in each process?
The two definitely play off each other. And when one idea doesn’t work in one form, it often works in another.
The biggest benefit to performing is seeing people react right in front of you. On the other hand, publications allow you to be super specific. You generally know who’s reading. Audiences are more generic but also more personal.
What’s your ratio of good stuff to bad stuff? Stuff that’s sold/published vs. rejected?
There’s a lot of bad stuff. A lot. More than you think. Nine out of ten ideas that are written never even get submitted or make it to the stage. Then out of that 10 percent, I’d say only a quarter of the resulting material is any good.
There’s a lot of rejection, a lot of failed jokes. At first you’re mortified and feel embarrassed. After a while, you get used to it. Rejection is never fun, but the more you mature as a writer; the more you mature as a person. Worst-case scenario, they outright reject the piece. Best-case scenario, they give you feedback and you grow as a writer or performer.
My piece Robot Comedian was actually rejected by McSweeney’s with notes on the ending. The ending was a little more dramatic, a little more boisterous, but didn’t mesh with the rest of the piece. I changed things around, spiffed it up, and I believe that it became a much funnier piece because of those notes.
It seems a comedy writer’s strength is often in seeing through the bullshit, cutting through the facade and seeing the messy underside of things (pop culture, etc). Does this mean one has to have a cynical approach to life?
It depends on what you mean by “cynical.” If by “cynical” you mean angry and hateful, no. But if by “cynical” you mean analytical, yes. A careful approach to viewing the world is vital to comedy writing.
Unfortunately, comedy writers often confuse the two. A lot of people think hating something is the same as taking a critical view of it. “I hate my children. I hate my wife. I hate, I hate, I hate.” It gets tiring. To be honest, there are very successful comedians who do it. I even do it sometimes, I guess. I wish I didn’t, but I know I’ve fallen into it. It’s okay to have problems with the world – the world is full of problems – but nobody is helped by a wall of fury.
I’m much more interested in comedians and writers who talk about things they love. Eddie Izzard is amazing at this. Simon Rich is the best comedy writer in the world for this reason. Their comedy is so innocent; it comes from a place of joy. Even in the darkest moment, it feels like they’re sharing something special with you rather than having a shouting match.
If you’re going to hate something on stage or in a written piece, at least have a good reason why. This is my scholarly background talking, but if you have no supporting evidence, you have no point. If you want to go on stage and tell me something like women are stupid or immigrants need to leave, you better have five solid supporting paragraphs. And most comedy writers and performers don’t. They appeal to emotions and get applause for saying something easy or dirty. That’s not interesting for me.
A good comedy strategy I try to use when writing is to think of things I dislike and view them from the opposite perspective. I may still not like what I’m writing about, but it gives me a perspective that’s deeper than vitriol.
So tell us… what’s the funniest thing in the world?
So many things.
1. Simon Rich is the funniest writer alive today. His books are unbelievable. Just read this short piece.
2. Portal is the funniest video game of all time. Even if you don’t like games, it’s an amazing look into the power of interactive writing and the participation of a player in a comedic scenario.
3. The Onion was funny before I wrote for it and will be funny long after I’m dead. “Daddy Put In The Bye-Bye Box” is one of the saddest, funniest pieces of writing put to Internet.
3.5 Side note, the funniest Onion headline of all time is “Man Who Likes To Move It, Move It Still Searching For Perfect Song”.
4. I don’t know why, but this Old Man Murray article on America after 9/11 has always struck me as particularly funny, even years later after people stopped reading the site.
5. And finally, anything that reduces the epic to normal. McSweeney’s articles like this. The funniest thing in my head is taking the grandiose and making it small and petty.
This interview originally appeared over at Junior