What’s so funny?
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - November 14, 2015 - 9:00am

Sick in the head: Conversations about life and comedy

By Judd Apatow

490 pages

Available at National Book Store

We are in the midst of a comedy explosion right now. Movies and TV sitcoms and standup comics invade every aspect of our lives, whether it’s Jimmy Fallon’s viral YouTube bits, Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or even Kevin Hart and Jay Leno guesting as your Waze navigator (check it out; it’s true). Comedy has crossed over big-time, thanks to a plethora of cable and online offerings, but also, in many ways, thanks to the success of one unlikely comedy catalyst: Judd Apatow.

Yes. The guy behind the scenes of so much of what people find funny today has gotten so big that his name is now used as an adjective: “Apatow comedy” has come to describe a kind of male-centered filmic grouping of potheads who, deep-down, are actually sensitive and bro-caring, as much as they are clueless about the opposite sex. (Cue: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This Is 40, etc.) But at the same time, Apatow’s the guy who helped a new generation of female comics come to the fore: Lena Denham’s Girls, box office hit Bridesmaids and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck are all partly produced by him. You could call his weird pivotal role in so much of modern comedy the “Six Degrees of Judd Apatow” effect.

Being a geek, he spent his early teen years conducting interviews with his comic idols — and being a total geek, he kept every single tape recording, many of which make up Sick in the Head, a selection of discussions about “comedy and life” with everyone from Garry Shandling and Steve Martin to Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. The talks span from when he was 15 years old (a nervous backstage interview with an about-to-hit-big Jerry Seinfeld) to more recent chats with Seth Rogen and Louis C.K. Yes, this guy really does know everybody in show business, or at least the comedian business.

Standup is his holy grail. It’s the great laboratory of comedy — the place where jokes are boiled down to their essence, field-tested again and again, looking for reproducible results. Even now, Apatow likes to take the occasional pass at a mic at some comedy club on the odd weekend, but he’s like Garth in Wayne’s World: he doesn’t think he’s “worthy” of being in the presence of his idols, people like Albert Brooks, Seinfeld or Leno.

To understand Apatow’s tentacle-like reach, consider this: he started by volunteering for HBO’s Comic Relief, literally manning phones or whatever as a teen until they put him to work writing; this led to working on HBO’s Larry Sanders as a writer under Shandling, who taught him that writing about people’s weaknesses was comic gold; before that his roommate was a young Adam Sandler, which led to all kinds of other serendipitous connections; his first TV show Freaks and Geeks was a launching pad for Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr, and while it only lasted a season, it’s considered a cult favorite; he wrote jokes for people like Jim Carrey — which led to making Cable Guy, that Ben Stiller movie that the three comedians swear, even today, is an unappreciated masterpiece; and, oh yeah, he’s married to Leslie Mann, one of the funniest females on the planet.

You could say Apatow has had a pretty lucky, charmed life. He certainly has turned his ability to schmooze to great advantage.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his first writer/director outing, was really the apotheosis of Apatow: he had already assembled his budding comic ensemble, letting their improv bits shine through what was, even back then, way too long a script. But it was Knocked Up that made his name — his brand — a worldwide phenomenon. From it came a type of comedy centered on the modern man-child — a dude who would rather play video games than get a 9-to-5 job, or would absentmindedly save his bong instead of his pregnant girlfriend when an earthquake hits.

Even if that brand of humor originated more with the Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary was kind of a watershed), Apatow has certainly spread his name far and wide. And while many thought his crude, rude approach only applied to guys, Girls and Bridesmaids proved women could be just as gross, when they wanted to be. 

Sick in the Head covers three decades of comic conversation, and much of it is revealing. We learn a lot about Apatow’s predilections and neuroses, and about his hero worship for people like Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Steve Allen, James Brooks (his ‘70s shows Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi “built” Apatow’s brain, he claims). Mostly, we learn how Apatow learned his craft over a lengthy career that has mostly kept him in a background role. And he does unearth some insights from his interviewees.

• “Working with an audience is like being a lion tamer. If you go in the ring and your hand’s shaking, the animals sense it and they rip you apart.” (Jay Leno)

• “Writing jokes is very complicated. I have a legal pad and one of those accordion folders, and when I’m done with the bit, it either goes in the garbage or the accordion folder. Those are the only two destinations. And then it’s in the air. It has to survive on its own. Bits are like turtles after they hatch, running to the beach.” (Jerry Seinfeld)

• “I remember when I was a kid, (tennis pro) Billie Jean King was doing that Battle of the Sexes thing with Bobby Riggs, and he would say things to the media, like ‘Women should go back and put on tight shirts and make me a steak.’ And she would say to the press, ‘Well, what he’s saying puts a lot of pressure on me. All the more it means I have to beat him.’ And then she would get this big smile on her face and say, ‘I love pressure.’ And I never forgot it — that notion that pressure’s going to make you better. Like, eating pressure, having it be your fuel: I like that.” (Louis C.K.) 

Sick in the Head gets into the nuts and bolts of comedy, and it’s occasionally very funny, because you’re basically listening in on casual conversations by very funny people. Apatow is the ultimate geek, because he not only practices comedy, he studies it and analyzes it, like it’s gonna be on a test next week. You pick up interesting tidbits, like how weird it is that so many skateboarders go on to become funny, creative people because it’s such a maverick sport (as Spike Jonze puts it, “in skateboarding the city is this place for you to reinvent”). You learn how Letterman and Leno basically expanded upon a style that TV pioneer Steve Allen had created decades before: funny man-on-the-street interviews, stupid stunts like the “human teabag.”

There’s a lot of comic wisdom here — about how to deal with life on the road as a comedian, how to make contacts and respect the process, and how not to yell at your staff (a lesson Apatow apparently did have to master). But there’s little secret knowledge given away. We discover that comedians are funny because they’re funny, or because they’re hostile and angry for not being noticed in high school (not all of them, though — some, like Fallon and Seinfeld, or freakishly well-adjusted). They’re funny because they want to share something with the world, and hone it down to the pithiest message ever (brevity is the soul of wit, after all). They’re funny because they work hard, or write well, or simply because they’re addicted to the laughter.


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