October 20, 2010
What Judd Apatow finds funny
Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s leading comedy mogul, was running late. “I actually have to leave, because I’m going to therapy to discuss what happened in this interview,” he said wryly in a conversation on his cell phone from somewhere in Los Angeles. “I don’t know if I’d call it psychotherapy,” he said, when asked. “I’m not a psycho.”
The 42-year-old Apatow is by turns wickedly hilarious, self-aware and a rapid-fire wordsmith in conversation; it’s what one might expect from the writer and director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People” and the producer of other hit raunch-fests-with-heart such as “Superbad” that often reflect his life and career. When the struggling young Jewish comic played by Seth Rogen in “Funny People” recounts how his parents’ bitter divorce forced him to “find the funny,” it could have been Apatow speaking. Hence the therapy sessions. And the content of his new anthology, “I Found This Funny” (McSweeney’s: $25), subtitled “My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny at All.”
The book — which includes short stories by Raymond Carver and Jonathan Franzen alongside work by Apatow, Jon Stewart and other comedians — benefits 826 National, the nonprofit tutoring, writing and publishing organization for students 6-18 headed by Dave Eggers. On Oct. 29, Apatow will conduct a reading at Book Soup and on Oct. 30 at Skylight Books. On the evening of Oct. 29, he and Eggers will co-host an 826 fundraiser (also his book release celebration) at the Writers Guild Theater, with music and comedy by Apatow’s mentor, Garry Shandling, as well as Randy Newman and others.
The anthology proffers comedy sketches and cartoons as well as poems and stories, but — by Apatow’s own admission — one-third of the book “might be depressing.” It opens with James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale,” which spotlights life’s absurdities from the perspective of cows headed to the slaughter, and it includes such fare as Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” in which a boy threatens suicide after he is punished for asking theological questions.
“Comedy is usually about obstacles and things going wrong while we attempt to figure life out or try to do good in the face of a dark world,” Apatow explained. “Two incredibly happy, well-adjusted people living a calm life is a fantastic thing, but it’s not something that provides any entertainment for the rest of us. It’s nice to know other people are struggling.It makes you think, ‘I’m not the only onewho feels this way — some people feel even worse,’ ” he said, laughing.
Apatow first read “The Conversion of the Jews” 10 years ago in the midst of “a Philip Roth kick.” He identified with the sensitive boy who turns the tables on dogmatic grown-ups by threatening to jump off his Hebrew- school building. “As an aspiring stand-up comedian at the age of 11, I certainly understood the concept of standing on a roof, flapping your arms, trying to get people’s attention,” he said.
Apatow grew up in Syosset, N.Y., with parents who were supportive of his stand-up ambitions but who eschewed religion. “My parents were atheists, and there was no talk of religion or spirituality whatsoever,” he said. “The only thing my mom and dad ever said was, ‘Nobody ever said life was fair.’ That’s about as spiritual as we got in my house. When I asked to be bar mitzvahed — probably just because I heard my friends were making a lot of money [through bar mitzvah gifts] — they refused to let me go to Hebrew school, but there was no reasoning behind it. They never sat me down and explained their philosophies, which certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.
“It left [me] spiritually lost because there was no conversation, pro or con, in terms of religion and spirituality. So other than going to a lot of bar mitzvahs and the occasional Passover dinner, there wasn’t any religion in the house. And that’s a very dark point of view. My parents weren’t agnostic; they never said, ‘I hope there’s something more happening.’ They said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
It was a scary vision of the world: “Terrible,” he said. “And I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to recover from it.”
Apatow’s obsession with comedians was part of that journey: “Comedy is a search for answers,” he explained. “If you’re not provided with any answers in another context, you look to people who have some thoughts about what it all means. ... But comedians are very dark people, so you don’t get a lot of light answers.”
In his introduction to “I Found This Funny,” Apatow describes how his adolescent reading consisted first of books on the Marx Brothers, whose anarchic upending of wealthy snobs leveled an unfair social playing field. Besides his comedy hero Steve Martin, he said, he “also enjoyed Lou Costello; he was a big weird nerdy guy who got into trouble while his friend was giving him a hard time and whacking him in the face every once in a while. ... I felt that way with my own friends; I was always the smaller one, hanging out with athletes, picked last for the teams, getting bossed around a bit, trying to stand up for myself, usually with terrible results.”
Add to that his parents’ divorce when he was in his early teens, when he went to live with his father while his older brother was sent off to grandparents in California and his younger sister mostly stayed with his mother, who worked at a Southampton comedy club. It was through his mother’s club connections that Apatow was able to meet Shandling and a young Jerry Seinfeld, whom he interviewed for his high school radio station.
“I’m still shocked that I’ve done well,” Apatow said of his adult success. He describes some of his commitment to charity work — which currently includes producing public service announcements for the emergency relief group American Jewish World Service — as “survivor’s guilt”: “There’s a part of me that is never comfortable with the fact that I’ve done well,” he said. “Comedy is driven by your pain, and it’s sort of weird that your pain leads to your job, which leads to being comfortable — and yet you’re never comfortable.”
Apatow’s own contribution to “I Found This Funny” is titled, “How I Got Kicked Out of High School,” a diary of the rise and fall of his television show, the critically lauded but all-too-quickly canceled “Freaks and Geeks.” The story opens as Shandling visits Apatow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after Apatow has had back surgery for severe pain caused, in part, by the stress of the demise of “Freaks.”
“Today I found myself wondering if I should create a really smart, hilarious show that just happens to be about hot models,” he wrote in one of the diary entries.
A decade later, Apatow has produced many of the highest-grossing film comedies in Hollywood, but, he said, he’s still evolving his take on things spiritual. He’s read a lot of Buddhist thought; he’s raising his two daughters with the understanding that religion is not necessarily predestined by one’s family history (his wife, the actress Leslie Mann, is not Jewish); and he is “not closed off” to reading more about Judaism.
When pressed now about what his Jewishness means to him, he said, “I don’t know if it’s specific to being Jewish, but there’s a certain neurosis mingled with a certain amount of warmth and instinct to do well by other people. Maybe everyone in the world feels that, but there’s a combination of humor and positive intentions that feels connected that. And a fair amount of pain,” he added, 10 minutes late to his therapy session. “And more guilt than you think is possible to hold in one human shell.”