“We just went knowing that we might get canceled,” Jimmy Fallon tells Judd Apatow, in an effort to explain his “Tonight Show” success. “And if you’re going to go down, you have to go down doing what you like doing and what’s fun for you, because I don’t ever want to do something painful and then have someone go ‘Hey that works. Keep doing that painful thing for years.’ ”
Fallon missed Friday’s “Tonight Show” right before he was scheduled to go on summer vacation. He tweeted that in a freak accident at home he “almost tore my finger off” when his ring got caught on a kitchen counter. The accompanying Twitter picture showed a heavily bandaged hand held up in the air to prevent hemorrhage.
No matter what Fallon told Apatow, there’s no question that his current “Tonight Show” full of party games instead of talk and brain power bears all the earmarks of someone who might have been told “Hey that works. Keep doing that painful thing for years.”
You can bet that Apatow would have asked Fallon to bare his soul about the serious accident if the interview had been conducted after last weekend.
Even here in Apatow’s milestone new book, “Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy,” he asks Fallon point blank about ‘SNL’s’ “famous … survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere. It’s almost built for people to turn on each other because everyone is under so much pressure to get on the show.” To which Fallon replies in agreement: “It’s so – I watch ‘SNL’ all the time and I see a new cast member and I think, ‘Oh man, no one’s going to write for that person next week because they scored too hard.’ ”
Let me hasten to say this about “Sick in the Head”: All is forgiven. All hail Judd Apatow, including me. With his movie “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer and – get this – LeBron James coming in a couple weeks, his time is clearly at hand. The book clinches it and then some.
I’ve been a serious Apatow holdout in the collective media rush to fall on a prayer mat and salaam toward his kinder and gentler comic bromances and raunchfests. I’ve certainly liked and howled at some of the movies he’s been involved with (he produced “Bridesmaids”) but I’ve also been bored stiff by most others, as admirable as they might have been on paper (“This Is 40.”)
But it is not possible to be a holdout on Apatow’s book “Sick in the Head,” in which he interviews 35 comedians and participates in a 20-page oral history of “Freaks and Geeks,” the semi-legendary TV show that announced Apatow’s brilliance without quite pre-figuring his status as the most successful comic force in modern Hollywood.
This is one of the greatest books about comedy – in particular stand-up comedy – ever assembled.
That’s because it’s unique. Long before he was a powerful practitioner of it, Apatow was an unabashed comedy nerd. His father took him to see Bill Cosby at Hofstra University when Apatow was a fifth-grader – he wisely excised a section about Cosby in his introduction on the grounds that “he has more sexual accusers than I have had partners.” He was, he admits, the kind of kid who unsuccessfully tried to push his parents to gobble down their chicken Parmesan at an Italian restaurant just so he could get home in time to watch Steve Martin on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
It begins when Apatow is a comedy-obsessed 15-year-old high school student recording interviews while out to learn comedians’ “secrets” while working for his high school radio station WKWZ 88.5 FM. All he tells his comic interview subjects on the phone is that he’s “Judd Apatow from WKWZ from Long Island.” He begins with Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Weird Al Yankovic, Harold Ramis and Jay Leno.
“By the end of those two years, I had interviewed Henny Youngman, Howard Stern, Steve Allen, Michael O’Donoghue, Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello), Harry Anderson, Willie Tyler (not Lester), Al Franken, Sandra Bernhard.” Alan Zweibel – comedy writer and University at Buffalo alumnus – “hooked me up with a bunch of his famous friends. ‘Hey, here’s Rodney Dangerfield’s number. You could call him. Tell him I sent you.’ ”
Once into the door, how on earth did teenage Judd get such sophisticated people in one of the world’s most wised-up professions to cooperate and speak so candidly and intelligently? Because they’re not fools. Apatow may have been a kid for many of these interviews but he already knew he wanted to be a comedy pro. And he was already hipper about the business and practice and wounded soul of comedy practitioners than three-quarters of the people he would ever encounter in “grown-up” professional media.
Seinfeld was first. And yes, Apatow even asks him how he writes a joke. But this teen boy also asks questions like these: “Do you think that people have gotten into comedy that shouldn’t have?” (Seinfeld can’t help but admit “It’s an interesting question.”) And “What is the difference between an audience at the Improv or local club and Atlantic City or Las Vegas?” And get this now, he asks this burgeoning stand-up comic if he ever gets bored with stand-up comedy.
This, you understand, is Seinfeld BEFORE “Seinfeld.” The kid from the high school radio station asking the questions is virtually a fellow professional.
The book is weirdly arranged in alphabetical order by first names. Apatow’s old roommate when they were struggling stand-ups Adam Sandler, his old idol Albert Brooks, everybody’s comic idol Mel Brooks, his star in the upcoming movie “Trainwreck” Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, all the way to Spike Jonze, Stephen Colbert and Steve Martin.
These are conversational portraits of deeply driven people. But the stories Apatow elicits are uncanny and amazing.
Albert Brooks, for instance, spends a lot of time with Harry Nilsson and John Lennon in Los Angeles. Lennon, he says, “was a frustrated comedian.” After flying into town from doing an episode of “The Mike Douglas Show” in Philadelphia, Brooks accompanies his newfound buddies to Keith Moon’s room at the Century Plaza Hotel.
“In about 20 minutes, Keith Moon threw the television out the window. It was 16 stories up. And now the room is destroyed. And I’m going ‘I was recognized. I got to get out of here! How am I going to get out of the Century Plaza Hotel without being seen? … I’m sitting with Keith Moon trying to be a Jewish Mother: ‘Don’t throw the TV. If you want your frustration out, go around the block because the TVs, they don’t want them thrown out the window.’ ”
Chris Rock tells him “I try never to brag but I’m probably the only person who has been on ‘60 Minutes’ twice and isn’t dead.”
And Jon Stewart tells this story about bombing early on in Radio City Music Hall in front of a prestigious audience full of Ann-Margrets and the like celebrating the venerable hall’s refurbishment.
“There is some confusion in the audience as to why I am there,” says Stewart. “I can feel it. Six minutes into the bit and it had not in any way dissipated. What was impressive about it is you would think the law of averages says that if you have a room full of 5,000 people, some of them are going to laugh at some point at something, even if it’s something they whispered to their friend. You know what I mean? But it was total silence. Impressive in its discipline. At a certain point, you think like ‘Doesn’t anyone have a cold? Isn’t anyone here going to sneeze? Shuffle their feet?’ No sound. I really felt like there was a moment of silence at some point for something I just didn’t realize what it was. I’m coming off stage and it was truly shocking in its unanimity and uniformity. And I turn and look around, there’s Shirley Jones. She’s backstage. I don’t know Shirley Jones. She looks at me and doesn’t say anything, she just opens her arms and gives me a hug. It was one of those like ‘There there poor boy.’ ”
One of the all-time greatest books about American comedy.