A celebration of ‘sickness’

Director Judd Apatow gets inside the minds of comedians to see what makes them tick

Judd Apatow (photo credit: REUTERS)
Judd Apatow
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a magician asked to reveal his tricks, you’d be hard pressed to find a comedian willing to talk about what makes a joke work.
And heaven help the scholars who attempt to analyze the mechanics of it from an outsider’s perspective.
Which is what makes director Judd Apatow’s collection of interviews with comedians, Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, so delightful: it provides a raw and unfiltered look at some of the most compelling, strange and eccentric comedy minds of our time.
The desire to delve into the depths of why something is funny is something Apatow has felt all his life. A self-proclaimed comedy nerd and child of a contentious divorce, comedy seemed to be his only source of salvation in a world that did not seem kind or fair.
“The closest [my parents] came to religion was saying over and over again throughout my childhood, ‘Nobody said life was fair’... it left a bit of a void in my life and I looked to comedy – and the insights of comedians – to fill it,” he wrote.
This prompted the aspiring comedian to volunteer for his high-school radio station so he could interview the most famous comedians of his time, with Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Allen unaware that the intrepid journalist requesting an interview was just an awkward 15-yearold.
“Thirty years later, I can still see that slightly crestfallen look in his eyes when he opened the door and realized that I was not, in fact, a real journalist from a real radio station with a real audience.
That I was just a 15-year-old kid with a tape recorder,” he said, reminiscing about his first encounter with Seinfeld, in 1984.
Despite eventually enrolling – and subsequently dropping out of – University of Southern California film school, Apatow proudly proclaimed his years interviewing comedians were his “college education.”
But Sick in the Head is more than a collection of interviews he’s done in the past 30 years, it also illustrates what makes a Judd Apatow movie so Apatowian in the first place. To his detractors, an Apatow film is juvenile, crude and sexist, with little deviation from the standard plot: an overgrown man-child is forced to mature and get his act together because of the woman in his life (see Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin for example). However, there is plenty of pure human emotion emanating from Apatow’s scripts – usually anger and contempt, mixed with bursts of empathy.
That emotional cocktail mixing in Apatow’s brain is evident in his conversations with the comedians, where he doesn’t hold back from revealing what haunts him on a daily basis.
In a conversation with Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he recalls one of his early dates with his then-girlfriend and now wife Leslie Mann (who is also featured in the book). In a scene that could very well be ripped from one his movies, during the date Mann angrily asks him why he is staring at her mouth during conversation.
“Because you’re talking, and I want to know what you’re saying,” he innocently replies. Mann then has to educate him on one of the most common rules of etiquette: you’re supposed to look someone in the eyes when they talk.
“It’s crazy and it makes me wonder how I was parented. Where was my mom looking? Was she looking at my mouth? It makes me realize what my damage is, and why it’s hard to connect with people: because I’m a mouth looker,” he told Garlin of his Freudian realization.
Surprisingly, Apatow, who was born Jewish but raised atheist, dedicates much of his time to asking comedians about faith and how it shapes their comedic worldview.
The comedian with the most fascinating take on the intersection of faith and comedy is Roseanne Barr, whom Apatow wrote for early in his career.
The conversation with Barr is insightful and conducted almost as if the two were unaware their words were being recorded.
In it, Barr openly talks about her battle with dissociative identity disorder, being a feminist in the days when a female comic wasn’t the norm, her abusive childhood and the trauma of being raised as a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“I was told as a girl that every Jewish woman has to have five children to replace [the] three-fifths of our people that were killed,” she says bluntly. That philosophy dominated her thinking and has seeped into practically every corner of her life. For example, she describes her on-set battles with network executives over her sitcom as “Wonder Woman battling back the Nazis,” and an afternoon leisurely playing with Barbies as a child spent pretending Barbie and Ken needed to “[parachute] behind enemy lines to save the Jews.”
Most of the conversations go on unexpected yet entertaining tangents like the one above.
The only shortcoming of the book is that one wishes there was more of it.
Where are conversations with Conan O’Brien and Bill Maher (odd omissions considering their late-night counterparts Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno are all present). For that matter, if we’re going to talk about women in comedy (as he does with Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman) where’s Tina Fey? There are times, too, when Apatow seems a bit too excessive with lavishing praise on his fellow comedians as he introduces each interview.
For example, “In your dreams as a young guy, you imagine your heroes to be one thing, and then you get a chance to work with one of them [and] he’s actually even better,” he says of working with Albert Brooks.
Or, take this snippet about Chris Rock: “Chris Rock is not only the best comedian in the world, he is WAY better than everyone else. Period.”
But Apatow, like the characters in his movies, is a creature of exaggeration. His praise – however hyperbolic – seems as if it comes from a genuine and generous place.
As for generosity, Apatow will donate all of the proceeds from the book to the 826 National, a non-profit with chapters across the United States that provides tutoring services for under-resourced students.
In the book, Albert Brooks tells Apatow of how during an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Jack Benny took the time to deflect attention away from him and raved about Brooks to the audience instead.
“It was this profound thing,” he recalled.
“Like, ‘Oh, that’s how you lead your life. Be generous and you can be the best person who ever lived.’” In many of these conversations it seems as if Apatow has internalized that motto – whether his overly neurotic mind knows it or not.