Judd Apa­tow learns from the best

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Carolyn Kel­logg carolyn.kel­logg@latimes.com

Judd Apa­tow started in­ter­view­ing co­me­di­ans 30 years ago, when hewas a teen com­edy fa­natic from Long Is­land. Armed with a bulky recorder and the media cre­den­tials of his high school ra­dio sta­tion, Apa­tow talked with he­roes such as Jerry Se­in­feld and Jay Leno to dis­cover the keys to the com­edy king­dom. It worked: Apa­tow has be­come one of our most suc­cess­ful com­edy writer-di­rec­tor-pro­duc­ers, re­spon­si­ble for, among oth­ers, “Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year-Old Vir­gin,” “An­chor­man” and “Freaks and Geeks.” Nowhe has sat down with more co­me­di­ans (in­clud­ing Louis CK, Steve Martin, Jimmy Fal­lon and Amy Schumer) and col­lected all these con­ver­sa­tions in a book called “Sick in the Head” (Ran­dom House: 512 pp., $27).

“Sick in the Head” of­fers an oral history of con­tem­po­rary com­edy, re­veal­ing a drive away from joke telling and to­ward a more in­ti­mate point of view. The fun­ni­est in­ter­views— like those with Mel Brooks and Jeff Gar­lin— were done in front of live au­di­ences. Apa­tow spoke tome by phone. You recorded some of these in­ter­views on cas­sette in the 1980s and have kept them all this time.

Oh, my gosh, I’m such a hoarder. I’m just the kind of per­son who would treat these cas­sette tapes like gold. I had them trans­ferred dig­i­tally as soon as CDs were in­vented. I’m a nerd that­way. They­were al­ways han­dled with care, although a few did dis­ap­pear over the years. But for the most part, I treated them like the ark of the covenant. When you started, you wanted to crack the code of these co­me­di­ans. Did you?

So­much of the ad­vice that­was given tome when Iwas15 and16 years old, I took. Ev­ery­thing from the lo­gis­tics of howto get on at a com­edy club to dis­ci­pline and pa­tience. Alot of what peo­ple talked about was that it took a re­ally long time to be­comea good co­me­dian. That­was im­por­tant to hear. Itwas good to know, “Oh, you’re not go­ing to be good at this in six months; this is go­ing to take about seven years.” When you’re a kid you’re so im­pul­sive— to set your clock at a slower pace was re­ally healthy for me. Did you edit down those early in­ter­views? You never seemto ask any silly ques­tions.

Iwas re­ally se­ri­ous about try­ing to do a good job. I didn’t want to em­bar­rass my­self, be­cause I looked up to ev­ery­body; my night mare would be to come across as some idiot kid. I did bet­ter in some than in oth­ers; a lot of those peo­ple were very in­tim­i­dat­ing. Some peo­ple were so nice that it be­came easy. Jerry Se­in­feld was so easy to talk to and warm that Iwas able to have a great con­ver­sa­tion about howto get into com­edy and howto write jokes. That was my fa­vorite one of the time. You write that you started do­ing these in­ter­views as away to build a ca­reer.

My grand­fa­ther was a jazz pro­ducer. In the 1940s he recorded all these great jazz and blues mu­si­cians at their homes and on their front stoops, peo­ple like Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles and Char­lie Parker. I al­ways knew that­was away to cre­ate your own ca­reer, be­cause I had heard the le­gends of what he had done. I stud­ied screen­writ­ing at USC, but Imainly did it be­cause there­was no com­edy ma­jor. Nowthere is a com­edy ma­jor at a lot of these col­leges, but back then you had to fig­ure it out for your­self. The pro­ceeds of this book go to 826, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports dis­ad­van­taged kids de­velop their writ­ing skills.

I started work­ing with 826 be­cause I so ad­mired Dave Eg­gers and his com­mit­ment to char­ity. I started help­ing him out, but I didn’t think toomuch about it. Then I re­al­ized: Oh, I’m do­ing this be­cause writ­ing saved my life. With­out writ­ing, Iwould never have been able tomake it in this world. The idea that there are these places where any kid can walk in for free and get tu­tored is re­ally pow­er­ful. Whenwe sold the book, there def­i­nitely was a mo­ment where I thought, “I should have kept all this money for the Judd Apa­tow Char­ity.” But I’m glad it’s do­ing well for them. You show­case Amy Schumer at the front of the book, although it’s be­cause her name starts with A. How­did you de­cide on the in­ter­view or­der?

I tried to block them into old ones and newones, or here are friends, here are he­roes. I never liked howthey bunched up. Then I said, “Why don’t we just look at what would hap­pen if itwas al­pha­bet­i­cal?” If Twit­ter and the In­ter­net had been around when youwere a teenager, would you have been driven to go as deep and far?

I think if all this stuff ex­isted I wouldn’t have in­ter­viewed any­one: I just would have gone on YouTube and watched their in­ter­views or lis­tened to pod­casts. And Iwould have been very happy do­ing that. But what it did for me, it made it feel like be­ing a co­me­dian and a com­edy per­son was pos­si­ble. Be­cause when I met them I thought, “Oh, they’re just like me. This is just another guy from Long Is­land whoworked his ass off.” Andthat gave me hope that I might be able to suc­ceed. All these peo­ple were in­cred­i­bly nice tome when Iwas some snot-nosed brat bug­ging them for sto­ries.

Ran­dom House

SINCE his teens Judd Apa­tow has in­ter­viewed com­edy greats.

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