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Judd Apatow gets comedians to dish in ‘Sicker in the Head’

In ‘Sick in the Head’ sequel, the filmmaker asks other creative types to delve into their process

Judd Apatow. (Mark Seliger)
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With “Sicker in the Head,” Judd Apatow has written his first sequel, and as sequels go, this second collection of interviews with creative artists, featuring a diverse lineup and wide-ranging conversations about life and comedy, is more “The Godfather Part II” than “Jaws: The Revenge.

In 2015’s “Sick in the Head,” Apatow shared interviews with comedians that he conducted for his high school radio station when he was 15 years old. He was a self-described “comedy freak,” and his questions to such up-and-comers as Jerry Seinfeld included, “I’d like to talk about your type of comedy that you do.”

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He now goes at these conversations as a peer and one of comedy’s most prodigious hyphenates. He is a writer, director, producer and mentor. Five years ago, after abandoning performing for 25 years, he became a relapsed stand-up comedian. He is still fascinated by the artist’s process.

“Sicker in the Head” offers a more inclusive mix of subjects than the first book. In addition to icons, such as Mort Sahl, David Letterman and the late John Candy (from a 1984 interview), Apatow reached out to newer, distinctive voices — Amber Ruffin, Bowen Yang, Hannah Gadsby, Ramy Youssef and Mindy Kaling (whose big-screen debut was Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) — and to modern masters of stand-up, including Gary Gulman, Kevin Hart and John Mulaney, whose 2018 conversation predates his divorce, rehab and parenthood.

Apatow also talks to director Cameron Crowe, legendary rocker Roger Daltrey, actor and playwright (among other things) Lin-Manuel Miranda and celebrated talent manager George Shapiro, who nurtured the careers of Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman, among others.

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The interviews in “Sicker in the Head” go well beyond origin stories to fruitful discussions about the mysterious creative process. Lulu Wang, director of “The Farewell” (who incidentally tells Apatow that she was fired from the set of “Pineapple Express” because she was “a terrible assistant”), remarks: “One of the best questions that I’ve ever been asked was just, ‘Why is this important to you?’ My editor and I work this way, where he’ll make me defend scenes. … It’s worthwhile to dig and find out why it’s there.”

The pandemic looms over this collection. Of the 30 conversations in “Sicker in the Head,” 19 took place since the beginning of 2020. If, like me, you consider comedians to be essential workers, it was one of the ironies of the health crisis that creative artists were prevented from entertaining at a time when they were needed most.

“Many of these conversations became way more personal and honest than they otherwise might have been, because we were in this vulnerable, raw space together,” Apatow writes. “It’s hard to hold back in an interview when you have been pondering your life (and death).”

But not to worry, fellow comedy freaks. There are also wonderful and funny stories, such as Will Ferrell’s account of how he came to portray one of his iconic “Saturday Night Live” characters:

“One of the NBC pages at the show said, ‘Bill Murray’s on the phone for you. … And [Murray] goes, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ I think we’d only talked two other times prior to that, and he was like, ‘You know who you should play? That host of Inside the Actors Studio. You should play James Lipton.’ I go, “That’s so weird to say. I was literally thinking that myself,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah right. Take it easy.’ Click. So, I was like, Oh, I have to write the sketch because Bill Murray told me I’ve got to write it.”

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The artists with whom Apatow converses are not “on” in the comedic sense, but they are fully engaged, which makes for more stimulating dialogue. The conversation with John Cleese revolves around the legendary comedian’s recent book about creativity. Come for recollections about “Fawlty Towers” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but stay for insights Cleese gleaned from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and His Emissary.”

“We need ideas, and the hard thing is getting out of the left brain,” Cleese says. “These days, we have phones calling all the time, and interruptions, which is exactly what keeps us stuck in the left brain. It stops us from being creative.”

In “Sicker in the Head,” Apatow wrestles with the value of creating comedy. “When the pandemic was at full force,” he writes, “I grabbed my family and made a really silly movie [“The Bubble”]. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Apatow is self-deprecating to a fault. At one point, he dismisses his films as “ridiculous,” but they are not. His characters may act ridiculous, but the films themselves tackle the weightiest of issues — love, family, how to become a mensch — with a Harold Ramis-like empathy. Apatow’s movies are funny, and in times as dark and divided as these, funny is never ridiculous.

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

Sicker in the Head

More Conversations About Life and Comedy

By Judd Apatow

Random House. 480 pp. $28.99

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