Seemingly out of nowhere Judd Apatow has become known as a saviour of comedy, as owner of a brand of sophomoric humour that’s also truly smart. Either that or he’s just the guy who makes movies half an hour too long. But you can’t deny that he’s had hits himself (Knocked Up, This Is 40, The 40 Year old Virgin, Funny People) and impact/influence (producer of Girls, Anchorman and several other films) and you go back through his CV to find he had a crucial hand in the cult show Freaks & Geeks. That, to begin with, was the big hook, his trump card. And then stories started circulating about how Apatow was this “comedy nerd”, had studied harder than anyone.
Turns out, at 15, he “faked” his way into interviewing comedy legends for his college radio station. The comedians didn’t know they were opening the door to a teenager. But that’s what happened. The very young Apatow turned up on the doorstep of Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, met with Steve Allen…
Sick In The Head documents these early encounters and includes many modern interviews that Apatow has conducted with his friends and heroes.
Since those early, earnest interviews (the 15 year old Apatow asks some great questions) he earned his stripes through standup comedy and on to writing jokes for comics and working in TV (The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show) before moving into scripting and producing movies and eventually directing. Now, as a mogul of sorts he’s returned to the stage. And took his interview questions and tape recorder out into the field to capture new thoughts from the likes of Steve Martin, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Amy Schumer, Michael Che, Lena Dunham, Mel Brooks, Louis CK, Chris Rock, Harold Ramis and Roseanne Barr.
So, drawn from 30 years, these “Conversations about Life and Comedy” offer clues into how particular comics work, and avoid too much of the nazel-gazing obvious, a brief exploration of the pain/tragedy that can push a person into comedy, rather than riding so heavily on that theme.
We learn about the writing process, and different versions of comedy – for big and small screen or stand-up stage – and though there’s a bit of repetition around Apatow’s story (as he relates parts of it to various interviewees) we mostly get fresh perspectives and different approaches, given we’re hearing from nearly everyone in big-name comedy, the zeitgeist-capturers of recent years Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, mavericks such as Louis CK and “old school” players such as TV/film writer/director James L. Brooks and veterans Steve Martin, Martin Short and living legend, Mel Brooks.
There’s no substitute for hard work, that’s obvious from the assembled cast – but we do get plenty of insight into vulnerabilities and artistic temperaments.
There’s one or two lazy/random/out of place interviews (Eddie Vedder’s inclusion here feels more like name-dropping than anything) and Apatow is altogether too pleased with himself and his “comedy nerd” story. Then again, why not. He’s made a career from it. That and all that pesky hard work…
A great book for anyone interested in not just how comedy works but potentially why – and in the writing processes around joke-delivery and channelling inspiration.