Judd Apatow and Amy Poehler’s ‘Sick in the Head’ Pilot Was a Real, Funny Thing
“I am in New York writing a pilot for the Fox network called Sick in the Head. It’s about a very young therapist with no life experience. The president of Fox, Peter Roth, is a great guy. He loves the show. Got a call from my old friend Paul Feig today. He said he wrote a television pilot and he’s sending it to me. There is nothing worse than reading your friends’ scripts. They are always terrible.” – Judd Apatow, in his “diary,” October 16, 1998
Between the years of 1998 and 2001, The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show writer/executive producer Judd Apatow created five television shows for Dreamworks. The two that made it to the airwaves, Freaks and Geeks (with Paul Feig) and Undeclared, are still regarded as two of the most beloved programs to ever be broadcast. They were also both not watched by nearly enough people when it was on and canceled after one season. When Apatow seemingly gave up on TV entirely and finally found both financial and artistic success in movies, the three unaired shows developed a mythical status. There was possibly an inverse relationship at work with Judd Apatow and television: the less appreciated a show was by the mouthbreathers in charge, the more transcendently amazing the show must have been. If an Apatow production didn’t even get past the pilot stage to be criminally misunderstood by the masses, it must have been too great for the medium to handle.
Sick in the Head, produced in 1999 for possible inclusion on the Fox network’s lineup, is the most talked about of the three. The multicam sitcom starred David Krumholtz as Andy, a young man attempting to run his nascent psychiatric practice. He shared an apartment with a womanizing slacker played by the eternally cool Kevin Corrigan. He split an office with a popular, very accomplished but egotistical shrink Dr. Patti, played by SCTV great and comedy hero to Apatow Andrea Martin. Kids in the Hall‘s Kevin McDonald was Milt, Krumholtz’s very first patient and failure that would immediately migrate to Dr. Patti’s care, who according to McDonald would come back every week with a different disorder. Amy Poehler at the time of the pilot taping was a cast member of the Upright Citizens Brigade show and in two years would begin her career-making gig on Saturday Night Live, but for Apatow she played Beth, a woman on her thirteenth therapist.
The show’s existence became news to most people two years ago when Apatow tweeted out a picture of the absurdly young and talented cast and himself, sans beard. Unlike the other two shows not picked up to series — North Hollywood, which also involved Poehler, and Life on Parole — Sick in the Head actually appeared on television a couple of times in 2003 on the cable channel Trio, which specialized in exhibiting programming that was critically acclaimed but failed commercially1. No clips made it to YouTube, but fortunately somebody recorded one of the Trio airings and made it available for downloading to those that lurk in the scary basement of the internet, like myself. So for maybe the first time in ten years, here’s Amy Poehler on a Judd Apatow written and produced sitcom, with a live studio audience:
“Bad news. My manager told me that Peter Roth is going to be fired and Doug Herzog from Comedy Central will replace him at Fox. Nevertheless, I had to talk with Peter on the phone today about Sick in the Head. It felt like a scene from GoodFellas where everyone knows a guy is about to be killed but they eat dinner with him anyway. Fortunately, Doug Herzog is a good guy. He’s buddies with my manager, so this could turn out to be a good thing.” – Apatow’s diary in the Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1998
Poehler’s Beth exemplifies the inherit danger of basing a comedy on therapy. The Bob Newhart Show was a successful comedic vehicle for the comedian where he played a psychologist2, but the three recurring patients that he dealt with were more just plain weird than possibly going through an actual, diagnosable disorder. Beth would continue to exhibit what seemed like manic behavior taken to a cartoonish extreme, her emotions vacillating wildly, and it’s to all the credit in the world to Apatow’s writing and Poehler’s acting to find the humor in it at all without coming off as insensitive or too dark. The script suitably positioned Andy as a hero that the audience wanted and gradually believed would stop Beth from feeling a deep, possibly dangerous depression towards the end of the episode because of its traditional storytelling design, releasing a sizable burden and spotlight on the potentially broad Poehler character. It’s a classic first day at the office tale, in which the protagonist screws up in the beginning, solicits advice, then saves the day mostly using his or her’s own logic and inner strength3. You’ve kind of seen it and read it before, and it almost always ends well. As the episode progressed, it became much easier to laugh at Beth’s lines. (It also helped significantly that one of Poehler’s comedic strengths is when she’s antic.)
First, the hero has to make a mistake. Stupidly taking the advice of his roommate Corrigan and taking the chair facing the window, Krumholtz ignores Kevin McDonald’s humorously boring, inconsequential banter.
Then the hero has to ask for help. Austin Pendleton practically stole the entire pilot in his one scene playing Andy’s former professor. It becomes clear by the end of the conversation that Andy launched his career several paces behind the starting line. Professor Elgin is old and defeated, but Pendleton played it in a mostly understated way, which made the smile on his face and the eye movements towards the ceiling as he casually described all of the “easy” ways to kill yourself much much funnier than it probably should have been.
Andrea Martin therapized Andy in two minutes, cleverly set-up earlier when Dr. Patti insisted patients can be dealt with in three. Her method came off as cold and calculated, and Patti only seems to want to show off how great she is at her job to Krumholtz and to herself.
“NBC green-lit the Freaks and Geeks pilot. We taped Sick in the Head. It could not have gone better. Doug Herzog loved it. I pressed him for a midseason order, but he said, ‘Judd, it went well, but it was the first pilot taping I have ever been to so I have nothing to judge it against.’ He is the president of the Fox network.” – Apatow’s diary entry, January 20, 1999
Then the hero goes off to be the hero. The conclusion of the pilot isn’t too surprising, but satisfying all the same, with a faith that Andy is going to be good at his work, and that Beth is going to lead a healthier life, but it’s definitely going to take some time for either of those things to occur, providing both a sense of verisimilitude and potentially multiple years of story. On the cusp of the horror that was Y2K, Judd Apatow already knew how to spin a yarn, but at the time it didn’t seem to matter.
“Sick in the Head didn’t get picked up. When I asked Doug Herzog why he didn’t order my show, he said, ‘Nobody here loved it.’ I got kinda mad and said, ‘Well, if you picked up anything good I wouldn’t feel so bad.’ He said, ‘Judd, 90% of everything fails. Don’t worry, I’ll probably be fired in a year anyway.'” – May 16, 1999
Even though Judd comes off as kind of petty in his own story when you consider that he already had one show slated to air that fall to begin with, history is somewhat on his side: Fox ordered eight new shows for the 1999-2000 season, and only Malcolm in the Middle made it to a second year4. Manchester Prep — a prequel to the movie Cruel Intentions — was shut down before it ever could show its sleazy face to TV. In Herzog’s defense, Action starring Jay Mohr was a good comedy, but let’s just say it was regular programming on Trio. And seven out of eight is 87.5 percent, which is really close to 90. Despite the mathematical excellence, Herzog — who previously had been President of Comedy Central — resigned ten months later.
Apatow is currently an executive producer and sometimes writer of Girls, but there was a ten year period of neglecting to work on any TV series that proceeded it. It’s hard to blame him for turning his back on the television industry while he accumulated all of the clouts in the cinematic universe, but it’s a bit depressing to find that one of the individuals that was a part of the beginning of the more intelligent, honest, yes, Golden Age, of television, was not around to participate in the making of any show, in any capacity, in a far bigger and welcoming environment. While Sick in the Head may not have exceeded the impossibly huge expectations, it turned out to be an above average comedy pilot, and one that deserved a better fate. Not that some of the stars are particularly upset about the outcome.
1 Naturally, Trio was itself canceled on New Years Day 2006. That’s what they get for spelling canceled in the other, equally as right and wrong way.
2 Some sources list Krumholtz’s Andy as a therapist, while others wrote psychiatrist, and wikipedia labels Newhart as a psychologist. There are of course differences between all three.
3 Basic Joseph Campbell stuff.
4 Ally, a half hour, more comedy centric version of Ally McBeal; the Party of Five spinoff Time of Your Life; the dramedy Get Real starring Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg; Ryan Caulfield: Year One; Harsh Realm; Action; Manchester Prep