Comedy Is Life and Life Is Comedy in Judd Apatow’s ‘Sick in the Head’

judd-apatowJudd Apatow has been interviewing comedians since he was fifteen years old. Back then, in the early 1980s, a new crop of bright young comics was rising through the ranks of the entertainment industry, capitalizing on the enormous American appetite for comedy whetted over the last several years by the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Steve Martin. The standup gold rush was on, and Apatow wanted to talk to its most courageous new prospectors. So he did. Finagling his way into conversations with Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno and others, the comedy acolyte from Syosset High recorded their thoughts and observations on the mysterious and often bizarre work of being a professional funny person.

Thirty years later Apatow is still at it. His persistence has paid off, for he has assembled an extraordinary collection of interviews with some of the world’s most interesting people. His new book, Sick In The Head, contains over thirty-five interviews with the best standups, sketch actors, and comedy writers to ever live — there are even a couple of conversations with the same person three decades after the initial encounter. Most of the interview subjects are household names (perhaps the most famous of them all, Seinfeld, is interviewed well before he became enshrined as a mononym). A few are more obscure comedic figures. All of them will likely prove compelling in some way to readers of every stripe, from the most intense standup fanatics to those who have never even set foot inside a comedy club.

Reading Sick In The Head is like hurtling through the history of modern comedy — and one man’s obsession with it. Plotting his infiltration of Hollywood from a Long Island bedroom, the teenaged Apatow was so enamored with comedians that he believed merely talking to them could dramatically alter his circumstances. “These interviews would inform the rest of my life,” he writes. “They contained the advice that would help me attain my dreams.” The book’s subtitle is “Conversations About Life and Comedy,” and it does not take long for it to become clear just how deeply and inextricably linked Apatow’s personal journey is to his development as an artist. To have a life, he needs to do comedy; to be good at comedy, he needs to have a life.

Part of what makes Marc Maron such a great interviewer is his hunger to connect. Apatow certainly has that as well. But there’s another overriding motivation fueling his conversational drive: his desire to learn. About his early interviews with comedians, he recalls: “I asked them how to get stage time, how long it takes to find yourself as an artist, and what childhood trauma led them to want to be in comedy. I asked them about their dreams for the future and made them my dreams, too.”

As an adult who has realized many of his dreams, Apatow is still inquiring into how people become and remain professionally funny. He delves into the specifics of Seinfeld’s current writing habits, and asks Steve Martin about how to successfully navigate between the different phases of a long career. But he’s also after more specific and immediate advice on how to approach life on a day-to-day basis. When he asks Albert Brooks about the television rules he sets for his kids, you get the sense that this kind of information is just as pertinent and interesting to Apatow as the finer points of outlining a script or honing a punchline. You can also imagine him driving home after the interview and immediately incorporating the answer into his own family situation.

Over the course of the collection, two core themes emerge. The first has to do with community — journeying far and wide to find one’s people, and through that finding a place in the world. Apatow describes comics as a “tribe” and his teenaged self as an alienated youth who longed to break into their ranks. He also harbored less grand ambitions, like simply having someone else to talk to about Monty Python and SCTV. When he finally moved to Los Angeles after high school and discovered other likeminded souls, a new world opened up to him. “I felt like the Bee Girl in the Blind Melon video, running onto the field and looking around and…finding all the other bees I didn’t know existed. I was so happy to no longer be alone.”

There’s a scene Apatow wrote for the cult television series Freaks and Geeks that poignantly expresses this elation, and perfectly epitomizes what comedy and comedians mean to him. It depicts Bill, a latchkey kid and the geekiest of the geeks, returning home from school to an empty house, making a grilled cheese sandwich, and then sitting down to devour his meal in front of the television. The mood is all silence and gloom. Then Gary Shandling comes on the screen and performs standup. In an instant Bill’s body erupts with spasms of joy, pieces of food flying from his mouth as he cackles and howls. The convulsions go on and on. It’s a deeply cathartic moment, and a private one. There’s no doubt that the teenaged Apatow experienced many such moments behind closed doors, laughing hysterically at the TV set, becoming less alone, all by himself.

The other theme has to do with transformation. It grapples with how people behave once they’ve broken free, found their tribe, and amassed an audience. Here things get messier. Sick In The Head features more than a few tales relating professional successes that came at the price of broken friendships, torpedoed personal lives, or diminished artistic integrity. A riveting 2005 conversation with Harold Ramis (it contains no less than two stories in which a legendary SNL cast member assaults an innocent bystander) explores this topic in depth. “We want to be rich, we want power, we want to be attractive to people, and we want all the perks of success,” Ramis explains. But when all that is achieved, the journey becomes more inwardly directed, and even the most brilliant people in the world are not always able to make that change of course. “Now it becomes a measure of character, growth, and development. What do you want to be from that point on? You’re rich and famous, so what do you have to say? You’ve got the stage. You’re on it. You’re there. Now what?”

From these interviews, Apatow seems to have discovered that the answer to these questions should be connected to the practice of generosity. The concept surfaces again and again throughout the thirty-odd conversations; it’s the thread that ties together the entire collection. It also appears to be Apatow’s guiding philosophy, inspired by the comedians who so magnanimously offered their time and guidance to him as a youth. “As an adult, I have tried to pay it forward by giving my time to young comics and mentoring the funny people I believe in,” he writes. Sick In The Head is part of that effort to pay it forward, a potential resource for young comedy obsessives to turn to so that they can “feel a little less weird and alone.”

In the book’s introduction, Apatow makes an amusing confession. Although his early interviews were ostensibly being recorded for his high school’s radio station, he never even aired most of these conversations. “I put a few out there,” he admits, “but even then I knew this information was mainly for me.” The interviews collected in Sick In The Head are still, in part, for him. But this time they’re for us, too.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

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