Apatow, Judd. Sick in the head

Apatow, J. (2015) Sick in the head: conversations about life and comedy [versión para lector digital]. Random House Publishing Group

A comedy freak was born.

I’m not sure why I was so drawn to comedy. Part of it, I think, was frustration. Looking back, I was an angry kid who didn’t feel like the world made sense. My parents were not particularly spiritual people in those days, so they couldn’t help much in the existential angst department. The closest they came to religion was saying over and over again throughout my childhood, “Nobody said life was fair.” It was the opposite of The Secret. It was The Anti-Secret. This left a bit of a void in my life, and I looked to comedy—and the insights of comedians—to fill it. (pag 7)

At that age, the comedians I liked most were the ones who called out the bullshit and gave voice to my anger—the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jay Leno. I loved anyone who stood up onstage and said that the people in power were idiots, and not to be trusted. I was also drawn to people who deconstructed the smaller aspects of this bizarre and ridiculous life. I idolized the new generation of observational comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and Robert Klein. I related to them and imitated them, and even began to write really bad jokes of my own in a notebook (pag 10)

It’s hard to be a teenager witnessing your parents at their worst. This was way before the days of “conscious uncoupling.” This was war. I remember thinking to myself at one point, Well, I guess my parents’ advice can’t be any good—just look at how they are handling this situation. I need to figure out how to support myself financially and emotionally.

Oddly, that pain and fear became the fuel in my tank. It inspired me to work hard and has led to every success and good thing in my life. It worked so well that today, a parent now myself, I am trying to figure out how to fuck up my daughters just enough that they, too, develop outsize dreams and the desire to get the hell out of the house. (pag 10)

Over the next two years, I interviewed more than forty of my comedic heroes—club comics, TV stars, writers, directors, and a few movie stars. It was a magical time. I remember walking into Jerry Seinfeld’s unfurnished apartment in West Hollywood, in 1983, and asking him directly, “How do you write a joke?”(pag 18)

One thing I took from these interviews was that these people were part of a tribe—the tribe of comedians. My whole life I’d wanted friends who had similar interests and a similar worldview, people I could talk with about Monty Python and SCTV. People who could recite every line on the Let’s Get Small album and who knew who George Carlin’s original comedy team partner was (Jack Burns). It was lonely having this interest that no one shared. Even my best friends thought I was a little weird. (pag 18)

These interviews would inform the rest of my life. They contained the advice that would help me attain my dreams. Jerry Seinfeld talked about treating comedy like a job and writing every day. (I have never done that, but I certainly have written more than I would have since speaking to him.) More than one told me that it takes seven years to find yourself and become a great comedian. (Mystical-sounding, but kind of true.) From that piece of advice I learned patience. In my mind I thought, If I start working hard now, in seven years I will be Eddie Murphy. Well, that hasn’t happened—yet. (pag 22)

Seinfield: …I’m trying to find new, fresh, original, interesting things. I want my comedy to be the things nobody else talks about. Not necessarily things people don’t want to talk about, but just things that everybody else missed. That’s what I like. (pag 33)

Judd: When did this all start, being funny?

Jerry: I wasn’t a class clown per se. I mean, I wrote some funny things for the newspaper and I was always trying to be funny around my friends. And watching comedy was the thing I enjoyed more than anything else. I knew every comedian, I knew all their routines. That’s how I got into it. I wanted to be around it, you know. I never thought I’d be any good at it. But that turned out to be an advantage because it made me work harder than most other people. (pag 37)

Jerry: I did Catch a Rising Star one night. I guess this would actually qualify as my strangest experience. This is definitely it. My first time onstage, I write the whole act out, you know, and I put it there on my bed and rehearse it, over and over again. I’m standing there with a bar of soap, like it’s a microphone. And I got the scene memorized, cold. I get up on there, and it’s gone. I can’t remember a word. I was—I stood there for about thirty seconds with—saying absolutely nothing, just standing there, freaking out. I just couldn’t believe it, all these people were looking at me. And then, I was able to just remember the subjects I wanted to talk about. This is absolutely true, I’m not embellishing this at all, I stood there and I went, “The beach…ah, driving…your parents…,” and people started laughing because they thought this was my act. I couldn’t even really hear them laughing; I was like absolutely panicked. I think I lasted about three minutes and I just got off. That was my first show (pag 37)

Those days living with Adam were, in some ways, the time of our lives; we still get on the phone every now and then, twenty years later, and reminisce about it. It was a time when all we did, all day long, was kill time and write jokes and then, at night, tell jokes at the Improv, then we ate fettuccini Alfredo with Budd Friedman and one of the many comedians we looked up to. It was a special, carefree time. We were all working so hard to succeed, but having fun being knucklehead kids, too. (pag 44)

But the way Judd put the movie together was like, All right, you see why this guy became a certain way and you forgive him.

Judd: That was the thought I had. I had a little notebook and right before we shot I made little notes, things to remember. Like: Don’t forget these four things. And one of them was the entire movie is just a journey to understand why the character is like this and when it ends you completely know him and you know what his struggle is. But it takes a while to connect the dots. (pag 56)

what I thought about when I was making the movie was that there are traditional structures of comedies—and film in general—and when you go against it, it disturbs people. You know, it’s the movies like John Cassavetes’s movies and Robert Altman movies where they’re meant to make you feel things you don’t want to feel. Now that’s not part of mainstream comedy but I thought it was important to think about. There’s this quote from John Cassavetes. He said, “I don’t care if you like me or hate me, I just want you to be thinking about me in ten years.” (pag 58)

In terms of it being an insular world of comedians, it’s kind of a ridiculous criticism because it’s a movieabout comedians. And in terms of comedians who get successful or who are unhappy, you only have to look at Michael Jackson to see what fame does to people in terms of everyone giving them everything they want. How unhappy it makes them and how much difficulty they have connecting with individuals when they can only connect with the masses. (pag 58)

Judd: Well, I don’t think I’ve met a man who is not a man-child. If I meet a man who acts very proper I think he’s covering up how goofy he really is. I’m forty-one years old, and when we lived together we were all immature, goofy guys. Now I have a lot of the same friends and I’m forty-one and we haven’t made a lot of progress and I really don’t think when me and Adam are sixty it’s going to be much different. (pag 60)

And in my movies, starting with Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Katherine and Leslie inKnocked Up, I was trying to show real conflict between men and women. And some of the scenes—which I think are kind of rough, where people really curse each other out and have big fights—are more like fights in real life. It’s not like fights in the movies. For some people it’s so different that it throws them, but I just look at my own sense of what’s happening. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell doesn’t want to have sex because he thinks he’s going to be bad at it, so he avoids it. Catherine Keener starts screaming at him because she thinks there’s something wrong with her. In Knocked Up, the issue was that Seth cared more about his bong and his pot than his pregnant girlfriend, so she breaks up with and screams at him. And she should scream at him for that. I’m trying to show immaturity—and there is sexism in the immaturity. But it is a journey towards these guys realizing, I’ve got to get my act together. This isn’t the way to behave. (pag 62)

Judd: Yeah. I just think terrible behavior is funny. I’m not saying it’s correct. I’m saying, Here’s a starting point and most comedies—even if it’s a Jerry Lewis movie—start with an incredibly immature person who needs to learn a lesson. I’m not like that in life. I’m a very timid person when it comes to women. I was not out and about too much. I was a shy guy. But I find that nerdy guys talking about women in a way that is over-the-top sexist makes me laugh because they do it out of insecurity. (pag 62)

Judd: When I lived with Adam, I wanted to be a comedian very badly and Adam had one of those things that you just can’t define, which is charisma. People were drawn to him. I would enter a room before he was famous and you would just feel the room move towards Adam and I would be sitting in a corner going, Why don’t I have the magic fairy dust? He’s a great person and people can just tell. The camera’s been up in his face for twenty years and they get a sense of where his heart is in addition to all his comedic chops. (pag 64)

Jerry is someone I have known a little bit for a long time. Whenever I’m around him, though, I usually don’t speak much. I’m still a little bit intimidated. The truth is, most comedians don’t understand why he’s so happy when they’re so tortured. But I look up to him more than ever, and every conversation with him is an opportunity to learn. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of what Jerry Seinfeld has to offer. (pag 371)

Judd: The other thing that I remember about our interview is that your apartment had nothing in it. Like, it was not decorated.

Jerry: Oh, I was a minimalist from the beginning. I think that’s why I’ve done well as a comedian.

Judd: No distractions.

Jerry: If you always want less, in words as well as things, you’ll do well as a writer. (pag 372)

Jerry: It’s really fun. You find that you’re this breed, you’re a dog breed. I always thought it was weird that dogs would bark at other dogs. They should be barking at everyone else. And that’s the way I see comics. I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere until the day I walked into a comedy club. (pag 374)

Judd: I always remember you and Larry Miller saying that to be a comedian, you have to sit down and write. That’s the job. How much time do you spend at a desk?

Jerry: I just finished wrestling with a bit, actually. I couldn’t stop. I do it compulsively. I write with a pad and a pen. I like a big, yellow legal pad. And once I get that pad open, I can’t stop. It’s kind of like free-diving, you know. You have a certain amount of air and then you just have to come up. I’m good for an hour or two and then I collapse on the couch and sleep. (pag 376)

How do you deal, in the middle of the madness of kids, when someone wants something so badly they will scream and push you emotionally until you crack to get it?

Jerry: My kids never get me to crack. It’s because of my stand-up training. Like, “You’re nothing compared to the Comedy Cellar.” (pag 380)

Judd: For me, I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to work from a very early age because I was afraid of being broke. What was your core motivation?

Jerry: To never have to do anything else. I learned very young in this business that you bust your ass or you get thrown out of the kingdom. My motivation was not wanting to leave the kingdom. Plus, I just love the life of it. I love my independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes. It’s as simple as that. (pag 384)

Jerry: Obviously, after the show, I saw there were many other avenues available for me. I missed the solitude. I missed the griminess and the simplicity of the life. I remember working it out with a friend of mine, James Spader. I said, “What do I do with my life now?” And he said, “Well, what has been the best experience that you’ve had so far?” And I said, “For me, it has been performing for live audiences.” You kind of get to do that on TV, but TV is so much work and the pipeline is just too long. In stand-up, you get addicted to that intensity: You have an idea for something, and then you’re onstage that night and people are reacting to it. That’s very intense. (pag 386)

are you willing to compromise quality to keep it going? Of course, the answer to that was no. And that’s why the show ended when it did.

Judd: Sometimes, when I think about my career, I think of it in this weird way. I had this show that was a financial failure, Freaks and Geeks, which didn’t even last a full season. But in my head, I have tricked myself into believing it was a major accomplishment. I tell myself, Well, at least I accomplished that. And then I look at the rest of my life and career as post–Freaks and Geeks. Whatever I do, it doesn’t matter because I pulled it off once and that was enough. I look at the rest of my career as gravy. Do you look at like your career in a similar way, as post-Seinfeld? When something so enormous is accomplished, does it just reframe everything?

Jerry: Mostly, it just frees me from having to do press. And I travel in comfort. That’s what it gave me. No, I mean, it gave me everything, and that was always my thought when I was doing it. If I sacrifice every cell of energy that I have doing this, the rest of my life will be pretty good. So I just died on the shield. I went to the point where I thought, If I keep going, I could lose my sanity. That was how far I took it mentally. (pag 388)

Jerry: You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it. I used to keep pictures of the Hubble on the wall of the writing room at Seinfeld. It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important. (pag 390)

Jerry: Pleasing people is fun. It’s never been an emotional nutrient for me. It does make me happy when people like something I made and it makes me unhappy if they don’t like it, but that’s not my nutrition.

Judd: You’re a lucky man in that respect.

Jerry: It’s allowed me to play the game for what it is. I look at everything as a game. (pag 394)