New book Poking a Dead Frog might become your comedy bible

It has interviews with everyone from Adam McKay and Amy Poehler to Mel Brooks and Terry Jones—you can read an exclusive excerpt here

There are a lot of books that claim to tell you how to be funny, but very few bother to track down 44 of the most important, influential and—of course—funniest comedy writers in the business. Mike Sacks, author of Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers (out today, June 24, 2014) has done exactly that, interviewing everyone from beloved Ethel and Albert writer Peg Lynch to Cheers cocreator Glen Charles, throwing in plenty of current favorites—Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, Tom Scharpling, Paul F. Tompkins and more—along the way. Below, you can read an exclusive excerpt from an interview with former SNL head writer and frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay.

Illustration: Louise Pomeroy

Was there a particular comedy movie, or TV show, that influenced you as a child more than others?
It was the [1980] movie Airplane! Everything up to that point had been fairly predictable. Story structures had always been sort of the same in movies. With the comedies until then, you would see setup, a beat and then a joke. Most had this kind of a structure, but Airplane! changed that.

There's a specific scene in Airplane! that I love. A newspaper spins and it stops with the headline: "Disaster looms for airline passengers." And then it spins and stops with the next headline: "Chicago prepares for crash landing." And then it spins again and stops with the final headline: "Boy trapped in refrigerator eats own foot."

That was the first time I ever saw anything like that. That joke was just so out of left field, and yet it still made sense. It was one of the first times I ever saw something where I felt, Oh, my God, you can do whatever you want with this form! Someone's imagination had taken a leap four steps ahead. It was just the utter surprise of it. It was almost wrong or naughty or crazy. It was just so exciting to me. I've talked to other comedy writers who have said the same thing, that they distinctly remember that joke: "Boy trapped in refrigerator eats own foot." I remember my eyes just going wide.

On one level it's pure absurdist comedy. The first couple of beats of the spinning headline are parody, then it becomes a bit of a satire about the media blowing stories out of proportion, and then all of a sudden, it becomes pure absurdism. The premise almost ate itself at that moment—or its own foot.

When did you first make the leap from loving comedy to actually devoting your life to it?
I dropped out of Temple University [in 1989] during my senior year. I had a buddy go out to Chicago to perform. He came back and told me about this thing going on out there, long-form improv. I couldn't believe it. At that time, I was only doing stand-up. He said to me, "You go onstage, and whatever you say is what happens. You make up anything you want. If you want to be on Mars, you're on Mars. The only rule is that you can't say 'no' to the other performers. You have to say, 'Yes, and…' If another performer starts to go off in another direction, you say, 'Yes, and…' and then you follow."

I was like, "You gotta be kidding me!" My friend also told me about improv teacher Del Close, this old hipster who was the mastermind behind it all. There were other improv groups, led by other teachers, but they didn't really do long-form like Del taught. This is what I was waiting to hear. I called up my parents and said, "I'm leaving college." I had a semester and a half to go. And they were so fucking pissed at me.

Is it true that in the mid-'90s, while you were in the Chicago improv scene, you publicly improvised your own suicide?
Yes, that happened. I had an actor's photo, a horrible eight-by-ten glossy, that I inserted into a poster. And the poster read: "On such-and-such-a-date, Adam McKay, 26, will kill himself. This is not a joke." I put up the poster everywhere, and on the assigned location and date, there was a huge turnout. I went to the roof of a five-story building and yelled down to the crowd. We had a CPR dummy dressed exactly as I was dressed, and we threw it off the roof. Someone else was playing the character of the Grim Reaper, and he collected the dummy and hauled it away. Meanwhile, I ran downstairs and "came to life," and we all ended up back in the theater where we finished the show.

Good luck not getting arrested in New York with that stunt.
It was the type of thing you could only get away with in Chicago. [Laughs] Anywhere else, I'd have immediately been hauled away. But it was also the perfect time. Nowadays with the Internet, people would just go, "Oh, it's performance art" or "It's a flash mob" or whatever. But it wasn't commonplace back then. There weren't as many hidden-camera shows. Nowadays, this stuff is so common, you can't truly surprise people.

Do you think you ever went too far with these stunts?
I might have done things differently if I could do them over again. There was one time when Scott  Adsit [the actor who later played Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock] and I and the rest of our group were performing in front of an audience. This was when Bill Clinton was President. Scott came out and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have some terrible news. President Clinton has just been assassinated." Scott's a really good actor and he played it very real. The whole crowd completely believed it. We then wheeled out a television to watch the most up-to-date news coverage.  We turned it on and the audience saw NFL bloopers—we had already inserted a VHS tape. One of us yelled, "Wait, don't change it!" The whole cast came out and hunkered down and just started laughing at these football bloopers. The people in the audience slowly began to file out, dazed. That was the end of our show.

And you know, that's the kind of thing you do when you're 25 or 26. Now that I'm a 44-year-old, I think, You can't do that. What happens if someone starts sobbing? What happens if…? There are too many what ifs. But at 26, you're not quite that compassionate.

From Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Mike Sacks, 2014.