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Review: Two books (mostly) about TV writing: Russell Davies' 'The Writer's Tale,' Mike Sacks' 'And Here's The Kicker'

December 30, 2009 |  2:12 pm

Writerstale When I am not watching television to write about television, or writing about television, sometimes I read a book. And while ideally this represents a complete break from my day job -- or, to be more accurate, from my day-and-night job -- two of the more enjoyable books I've read recently are about writing, and mostly about writing for television. One of the great pleasures for a writer in reading about writing is the comfort of knowing that other writers have as hard a time at it as you do, in whatever form they work, trying to make something -- that is, something good -- that seems to have been no work at all. Television has its share of bad writing -- which given the sheer bulk of the medium can seem distressingly superabundant -- but the good stuff fills me with immoderate respect. I know I couldn't do it.

First published in the fall of 2008, and about to be reissued in an expanded, updated edition, "The Writer's Tale" (BBC Books) is a journal of a year in the (mostly) professional life of Russell T Davies, re-creator and show-runner of the British sci-fi series "Doctor Who," as recorded in e-mail exchanges with Benjamin Cook, a journalist specializing in the series. It tracks the creation of the reborn show's fourth season, a period that also includes Davies' announcement to the BBC, and the BBC's to the world, that he would be leaving the show. His last episode, the second part of "The End of Time" airs in the U.S. on Jan. 2 on BBC America; the new edition of "The Writer's Tale" will include this final season of specials.

For anyone, including myself, who has wondered exactly what it is a "show-runner" does, "The Writer's Tale" offers a blow-by-blow account at least from the runner's point-of-view. I did come away with an increased appreciation for the process of creating a world out of thin air, and how a collaborative art can somehow remain a personal one, and of the luck, good and bad, that influences what finally goes down onto the page and up onto the screen, from the felicities of casting to the money available, or unavailable, for special effects. Davies often seems often to start his scripts with an image of something he'd like to see -- a picture that leads to a story crafted to realize the picture -- and then goes about figuring out how to make it happen in a way that rings true. It is an honest (though necessarily somewhat circumspect) book that factors in the colds and crushes and not infrequent moments of self-doubt that also color and feed the work. And it's a picture book, as well, profusely illustrated with production and personal photographs and with Davies' own drawings, which are adept and charming.

Kicker Mike Sacks' "And Here's the Kicker" (Writer's Digest Books) is a sort of "Paris Review" of comedy, mostly screen comedy, featuring interviews with 21 writers on what they do, how they came to do it and, to the extent that each can formulate an answer, how they get it done. The last question is more a matter of personal working method and ritual than of How To Be Funny, which most agree is beyond explanation and, like other gifts, something you can hone but not acquire. Whether in forging a career or working out a gag, the consensus seems to be: Be persistent, be patient and don't settle for the first thing that comes along. Good comedy writing seems a form of magic to me, and not just the kind based in tricks and illusions, but something close to supernatural.

Published by a company that specializes in how-to books for writers, "Kicker" also includes practical career tips scattered among the interviews, but these seem more a sop to the venue than the actual reason for the book, which is the particular personal experiences of its subjects. (Most of the interviews do include an advice-for-young-writers question or two.) Sacks, an editor at Vanity Fair, has written humor for the New Yorker, McSweeney's and other publications, and he approaches each interview as a knowledgeable fan. His respondents represent several generations of comedy, from Irving Brecher, who wrote for the Marx Brothers, through Buck Henry ("The Graduate," "Get Smart") and Larry Gelbart ("MASH"), on to Paul Feig ("Freaks and Geeks"), Mitch Hurwitz ("Arrested Development") and Stephen Merchant ("The Office"). They skew toward white and male, although Allison Silverman, formerly of "The Colbert Report," and Merrill Markoe, who helped make David Letterman what he is, are here, as is Larry Wilmore ("The Bernie Mac Show," "senior black correspondent" on "The Daily Show"). But within those demographic limits there is a wide range of background and neurosis, of taste and vision and practice. Myriad are the paths to a punch line.

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo credits: BBC Books; Writer's Digest Books