In his recent book, Judd Apatow gives you the greatest party you've never been invited to.
Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and ComedyPublisher: Random House
Length: 489 pages
Author: Judd Apatow
Publication date: 2015-06
No person in Hollywood occupies a position quite as enviable as Judd Apatow. He's simultaneously famous and anonymous, ludicrously successful and almost universally beloved. With millions of dollars and a place in the pantheon of comedy secured, Apatow no longer needs to do anything to prove himself. Perhaps that’s why his latest works have been passion projects: returning to standup comedy after a two-decade hiatus, directing Trainwreck to skyrocket friend and comedienne Amy Schumer to stardom, and publishing a bestselling-book, only to donate all proceeds to charity.
That book, Sick in the Head, takes the format of its subtitle – conversations about life and comedy. These conversations range from Apatow’s inspirations like Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis and Steven Martin to his collaborators like Lena Dunham, Adam Sandler, and wife Leslie Mann and on to other contemporaries almost from different worlds, like Spike Jonze, Miranda July, and Stephen Colbert. Perfectly bite-sized, the interviews can be read one at a time, on a bus ride or before bed or while sitting on the toilet.
Some go on long, like Spike Jonze’s 23-page interview, while others flash by like Sarah Silverman’s eight pager. No matter what the focus of the interviews in question, together they serve primarily to paint a portrait of Apatow himself.
In the introduction, Apatow explains how this interview process began. Like the funnier cousin of Almost Famous’s William Miller, Apatow began these interviews at the age of 15. Working for his high school’s radio station, he would call the agents of comedians, tell them he worked with WKWZ radio on Long Island, and request to interview their clients. Upon finding out he was in fact a 15-year-old, none would have the heart to turn him away.
In this time period, he interviewed comedians such as Steve Allen, Harry Anderson, and Sandra Bernhard. But most memorably (and included first in the list of interviews here) was an up-and-coming New York comedian by the name of Jerry Seinfeld. Even a text transcription perfectly encapsulates the eager tone of both comedians, far before either of them reached their biggest successes. Besides the absolutely precious picture of the two of them included in the book’s photo section, what really gives their dialogue a poignancy is this follow-up interview conducted more than 30 years later, in which they mention the previous interview and reflect on how young they had both been. The conversation that unfolds veers wildly from subject to subject, from Apatow’s reasons for returning to standup (“it’s literally like I spent my entire life directing movies just so I could get better spots in comedy clubs”) to fatherhood (“I do feel like there’s no larger pride than in seeing your kid get funny”) to an unexpected discussion of Zen Buddhism (“it ultimately makes me unhappy because I don’t want to be one drop in the ocean”).
Each interview follows roughly the same pattern, scatterbrained meandering across dozens of topics, sometimes silly, and sometimes poignant. While this book doubtless could resonate with any audience, its strongest importance will be with people trying to make it in comedy themselves. For example, Chris Rock drops a pearl of wisdom: “why do you give a fuck about the crowd? I mean, if you kill tonight, is the crowd going to get the credit? And so don’t give it to them if you bomb. It’s not them it’s you.” In Sarah Silverman’s entry, she describes the necessity of a comedian to find their way outside of the standup world, describing “comics in their sixties who didn’t parlay their act into writing or acting or producing, and so they’re just fucked. Even the cruise ships don’t want them anymore”.
No comedian has parlayed their act quite as well as Apatow. While he has phased out acting ever since a bit part in Anchorman, he has thrived in every other aspect of the filmmaking process, writing such comic masterpieces as Freaks and Geeks (1999) and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), directing his own scripts in The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and Funny People (2009), producing what seems like every major comedy of the past decade, and of course, serving as a mentor to every young blood comedian from Seth Rogen and James Franco to Steve Carell to Lena Dunham to Jonah Hill and most recently, Amy Schumer.
He’s even written a Simpsons episode. In the meantime though, he’s also participated in the so-called “normal things” in life, marrying the actress Leslie Mann, an interview with whom appears as well in this book, and fathering two children, both of whom have appeared in his movies.
I have met the man once. He was performing one of his semi-regular “Judd Apatow and Friends” revue nights at the Largo in New York City. The other stars billed were Fiona Apple and Jon Brion, with a vague reference to a secret guest star. Seeing any of them would be a legendary night, but all at once? Unforgettable. The show was hysterical. His presence on the stage was unforgettable, especially when compared to his first secret guest, Pete Davidson. On one end, you have the youngest member of SNL, a 21-year-old trying to make his name known. On the other, you had Apatow, a well-known comedian with absolutely nothing to prove.
You could see the way he relished in the laughter, the way that he held the crowd on his every word, and when he brought out the truly secret guest star, Kevin Hart, and witnessed the crowd erupt into applause, he was clearly pleased. After the show, as I waited for my ride, I waited around, in hopes that I could see him. Lo and behold, there he was. I approached him, forgot to even mention my name, and shook his hand and thanked him. I wish that I could have spoken to him longer. I wish I could have been that punk-ass kid interviewing one of his comic heroes, the way that he had so many years ago.