Judd Apatow started interviewing comedians 30 years ago, when he was 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.” Now he 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 to me 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 that way. They were 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?
So much of the advice that was given to me when I was 15 and 16 years old, I took. Everything from the logistics of how to get on at a comedy club to discipline and patience. A lot of what people talked about was that it took a really long time to become a good comedian. That was important to hear. It was 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 seem to ask any silly questions.
I was really serious about trying to do a good job. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, because I looked up to everybody; my nightmare 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 I was able to have a great conversation about how to get into comedy and how to write jokes. That was my favorite one of the time.
— You write that you started doing these interviews as a way 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 that was a way to create your own career, because I had heard the legends of what he had done. I studied screenwriting at USC, but I mainly did it because there was no comedy major. Now there 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 too much about it. Then I realized: Oh, I’m doing this because writing saved my life. Without writing, I would never have been able to make 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. When we 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. How did you decide on the interview order?
I tried to block them into old ones and new ones, or here are friends, here are heroes. I never liked how they bunched up. Then I said, “Why don’t we just look at what would happen if it was alphabetical?”
— If Twitter and the Internet had been around when you were 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 I would 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 who worked his ass off.” And that gave me hope that I might be able to succeed. All these people were incredibly nice to me when I was some snot-nosed brat bugging them for stories.
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