The comedies of director, writer and producer Judd Apatow inspire personal reactions. Fans of his short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks” will say, “That was my life.” The same goes for fans of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” which he co-produces. Moviegoers of a certain vintage can quote whole scenes from “Anchorman ” or “Bridesmaids” or “Superbad” — a series of hits long enough to convince Hollywood that Apatow has a golden touch.
All the more fitting, then, that Apatow’s latest book should be a collection of interviews with many of the great figures of comedy in the latter half of the 20th century. In “Sick in the Head,” Apatow talks with Steve Allen, Albert Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Sandra Bernhard and many others. Apatow has been conducting such interviews since he was a student at Syosset High School in the 1980s when he’d cheekily seek out the comedians he admired, most of whom showed the good grace of being interviewed by a whip-smart teenager.
In a very Hollywood-style act of chutzpah, several of those 1980s interviews are included in “Sick in the Head.” Fortunately, though, the majority of pieces here are the work of an adult talking shop with other adults, and the accumulative effect is fascinating. The book’s highlight is an “oral history” of “Freaks and Geeks” consisting of the cast trading reminiscences about the series that was the making of so many of them (Seth Rogen : “James [Franco] would do stuff at times just to push people’s buttons. I think he threw milk in someone’s face as an improv, and I remember thinking, That’s not the best improv”).
There’s also a wise (though mostly unquotable) interview with Roseanne Barr and a surprisingly spiritual conversation with Sarah Silverman (“I can be cynical. But I don’t think of myself, at my core, as cynical.”) When talking about hecklers, Jay Leno allows himself a moment out of character: “I’m never hostile with anybody, unless it’s somebody who is just totally abusive. Then you can go for the throat.” And the late “Groundhog Day” director Harold Ramis strikes an appealingly humble note, saying, “I’m as much a product of our culture as I am a participant in it.”
In a 2009 interview, Adam Sandler reads aloud from a review of one of Apatow’s movies: “[His] man-child universe, with its mixture of juvenile raunch and white-bread family values, has conquered American comedy.” Apatow somewhat defensively (and unconvincingly) responds, “Well, I don’t think I’ve met a man who is not a man-child.” But nevertheless, when “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin tells Apatow, “You’re a good man,” readers will be inclined to agree. And when Garlin goes on to say, “You should take more credit for being a great guy,” well, here’s this book, conveniently, to help that along.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of the online literary journal Open Letters Monthly.
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SICK IN THE HEAD
Conversations about Life and Comedy
By Judd Apatow
Random House. 489 pp. $27