Book Notes: Judd Apatow’s comedy interviews are the perfect summer read
“Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy,” by Judd Apatow. Random House, 2015. $27.
Since I usually review books I like, it’s a short hop, skip and jump to this: “Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy” is about as perfect a summer read as you’re going to get this summer.
Television and movie producer, comedian and comedy writer Judd Apatow’s new book is crammed with interviews with comedians he conducted from 1983 to the present. Apatow is a good guy and a smart guy who comes up with superlative questions — comedian to comedian, friend to friend.
“Sick in the Head” is great entertainment and, if you keep your eyes open (with the help of sunglasses), you’re likely to learn way more than anticipated about comedy and life.
What makes a good summer read? A book you can dip in and out of between dips in the ocean and sips of lemonade, a book that holds its own when up against the fabulous people watching and a book that gives you great conversation material for all the cookouts to come.
“Sick in the Head” profiles brilliant comedians like Louis CK, Chris Rock, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and, lucky for us, Jerry Seinfeld (twice) — among many others. The conversations meander — from figuring out how to be funny onstage to goal-setting and single-minded drive to coping with their kids.
The comedians dish about each other. They’re not shy about stating vulnerabilities. They reveal their work processes, which differ. But there are common threads, too, that go beyond career comedy to life lessons.
Apatow -- producer of hit movies like “Bridesmaids,” writer and director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and executive director of “Girls” on HBO, among other significant credits -- started these interviews in high school. He realized that he could call up his favorite comedians, show up at their place with a tape recorder and ask them about their work.
What kept people like Jerry Seinfeld from throwing Apatow out the door were probably his good questions, his earnest and youthful enterprise, and his overall likability. And the more these revered people gave to him, the more he tried to give back in kind. The profits from this book will go to charity, for example.
As expected, some of the interviews are exceptional, Seinfeld is at the top of that list. Apatow showed up at Seinfeld’s barely furnished Santa Monica apartment in 1983 with his monster-sized tape recorder. Apatow looked every bit like the teenager he was, as photos reveal.
Seinfeld was known and respected back then, but the flash of disappointment on his face spoke to his anticipation and need for bona fide journalists to profile him and elevate him in the public’s consciousness.
He swallowed whatever he’d been thinking, invited Apatow in and gave him sincere answers to great questions like “What is the difference between an audience at the Improv or a local club, and Atlantic City or Las Vegas?”
Seinfeld’s long, interesting answer includes this: “There’s a central core of what I do that pretty much works everywhere, and the only variable is the way I perform it.” He goes on to say that every audience is unique “and you have to shape your act to their personality. Every set is an accomplishment.”
We learn that most comedians love that spontaneous part of the work and that being in the moment is the most coveted part of the standup routine.Confidence on stage, which comes with time and experience (and comedians do a lot of standup), appears to be what allows comedians to take risks and accept bombing. Comedians, we learn, bomb or kill it. Their jargon is discernable and personal.
But since Apatow’s interviews are with comedians who’ve experienced a lot of success, we don’t see the downsides, which would mostly likely be demoralization, depression or ambivalence. Comedians profiled here love their work. They do not, at least in these interviews, focus on the discomfort and the difficulty.
Jay Leno’s discussion about starting up — traveling hundreds of miles to perform for free — is the perfect example. He loves stand-up, and says that repeatedly throughout his interview.
The dishing is delicious. Albert Brooks says that when he wrote for Michael Dukakis during his run for presidency, he was so unlikable and distant that he thought, “I pray he doesn’t win.” He said the team hated Dukakis. “Nobody can talk to him now!” Brooks worried, “So I’m thinking, What if there’s a war?” You can see, as you read the Brooks interview, why he’s so highly regarded by his peers.
Chris Rock’s interview is honest and revelatory. “I feel like, for a lot of people, there’s that moment when you go personal with your work and everything changes. Look at Louis CK. When he revealed himself, the whole world connected with him. … I realized that if I just come clean, people connect in a completely different way.”
Lena Dunham tells Apatow that the writers’ room is her safe room, where she feels most comfortable. Of her HBO series “Girls,” she says, “I also like when women tell me that the show made them feel more comfortable and strong both with their body and in their relationships, that it has given them more authority.”
Apatow’s book is a gift. Humor, the antidote to being born, is a fierce and beloved practice in our country at this time and Apatow is just the one to deliver this entertaining exploration.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com Read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter at @RaeAF.