Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why Sick in the Head should be on every comedy fan's bookshelf

Comedy fans who go deep will love Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. Those who don't merely enjoy comedy but relish seeing how the jokes came together, including the life experiences and technique a comic draws on to create his or her act, will devour this book.

A compilation of 30 years of interviews with comedy greats on how they got into the biz and how they write, as well as some general experiences from the road, this book alternates between funny, fascinating and just plain fantastic. It even serves up insightful advice about life in general (for instance, check out what Chris Rock and Harold Ramis have to say in my excerpts below).

Seriously, go to Amazon now (or actually walk into a bookstore, if you've got one handy) and get this STAT. Don't sweat the price -- the proceeds benefit 826LA, a literacy charity. My frugal self bought this as soon as it came out rather than wishlisting it and waiting for a price drop or hitting up the library, like I usually would. My uncharacteristic full-price buy was not only because I greedily wanted to get my hands on it immediately, but because I could feel good about helping a charity at the same time. So grab a copy and pat yourself on the back for your largess.

Here's the gist of how this all came together: Apatow, before he was known for the groundbreaking show Freaks and Geeks and hit films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Anchorman, was just a kid who wanted to know how to make it in comedy. So he did what any wise-ass teen would do -- he bullshitted his way into interviewing comedy heroes, starting with Jerry Seinfeld in 1983 (he follows up with a second Seinfeld interview in 2014, offering insight to where the comic was at very different stages of his career).

I eat this kind of stuff up. I love it -- I loved Seinfeld's movie Comedian, watching it more than once and then did it again to hear the commentary. When there's a documentary about comedians, I'm there (see The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall, Why We Laugh: Funny Women, I Am Comic, and many more). I'm thrilled whenever there's a new episode of Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Crackle. See Apatow's own film Funny People for more on the life of comics; it's not a documentary, but it feels painfully real at times.

Part of my interest is because, well, who doesn't love comedy? And it's partly that I have a minor background in comedy that makes seeing how comedians interact and develop jokes feel a bit like visiting old friends. At one time part of my writerly life included freelancing humor-laced columns for an entertainment magazine. From that I ended up doing stand-up on the side of my "real job" in newspaper, joining an improv troupe, producing my own comedy shows for bars and doing a little PR for professional comics. I was never more than a hobby comic -- I worked up my five minutes of material and parlayed that into worming my way onto any show I wanted. I also interviewed famous comics coming to my area, and upon telling them I was a comic too, the general response was, "Great. Wanna do five minutes?" Yes, yes I did. I found I could walk into small clubs anywhere, find the comics before showtime, tell them I was a member of their tribe, and just like that, I'd be offered a seat and a five-minute spot for the taking.

It was great fun, but I never considered it more than a hobby. I didn't think I had what it took to headline, and what's more, several of the low-level full-time comics I knew made less than I did at my newspaper job, and also didn't have the health insurance and paid holidays I did. I wasn't giving up on a steady paycheck and benefits, no way, not at that point in my life, all single and the sole one knocking out that rent. But those few years I dabbled in that world made me look at comedy differently. Acts I used to think were funny became painfully hack once I'd seen and studied a lot of comedy ("studying" being going to gigs, doing your five, and hanging at the bar way too late with "real" comics who had a hell of a lot more game than I). Other acts I always thought were funny suddenly gained a whole new dimension as I experienced a far greater appreciation for how they crafted their jokes, how they presented their act, and how they used timing and gestures and expressions to bring it all together and make it seem like their carefully plotted routine was off the cuff.

Reading this book reminds me of the insight -- and crazy stories -- I heard from comics back in the day. If you dig that sort of thing too, you will adore this book. Here are a few highlights to whet your appetite:

Jerry Seinfeld (1983 interview)
I want my comedy to be the things nobody else talks about. Not necessarily things people don’t want to talk about, but just things that everybody else missed. That’s what I like.
Chris Rock (commenting on Jerry Seinfeld)
Jerry Seinfeld, one of the greatest comedians of all time and one of the cockiest bastards to ever live. ... To his credit, he writes some of the best jokes ever. He  really does. I mean, they're like Billy Joel songs, you know what I mean? ... That shit's American. Everybody likes those records. And Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes like that. Everybody gets those fucking jokes.
(and offering career advice)
...You learn more from fucking up than you do from success, unfortunately. And failure, if you don't let if defeat you, is what fuels your future success. 
Judd Apatow
(on how Garry Shandling went on to accomplish everything he said he would when Apatow interviewed him in 1984)
The lesson here, for me, was that you have to have a dream before you can execute it.
(On brilliant advice from the late Harold Ramis)
He once said to me, 'Life is ridiculous, so why not be a good guy?' That may be the only religion I have to this day.
(On how the impact of watching stand-up diminishes over time)
There were days, when I first started, when I really used to laugh. I don't laugh anymore. I'm dead inside. (Note from Chocowino: Word -- that's what happens when you watch *a lot* of stand-up and discuss it with other comics. Everything has a price, baby.) 
(Discussing thoughts on the afterlife)
My biggest fear is that I will become a ghost and be forced to hang out in some house watching a bunch of jackasses live their lives.
Harold Ramis
If life only has the meaning you bring to it, we have the opportunity to bring rich meaning to our lives by the service we do for others. It's a positive thing. 
Jeff Garlin
(on losing his virginity at 20 to his heckler, a 30-year-old woman who led him to the lifeguard stand on the beach for a little action)
 ...My clothes had fallen from the lifeguard stand into the sand and there was a bum walking up the beach to take my clothes, and so I jumped up naked with a boner, and ran down and fought off the bum for my clothes and then I went up and she was, like, angry at me. I was like, I'm not going to lose my wallet to a homeless man. And we continued.
(On his loathing of Michael Bay movies)
Fuck him for making those shitty movies. Fuck him for wasting America's time. Fuck him. Fuck him. And by the way, Albert Brooks's speech in Broadcast News about lowering our standards: Michael Bay does it at a rapid pace. He's not like slowly chipping away with each movie. Immediately upon first movie it's a punch in our face to make us stupid. (Please imagine Jeff Garlin yelling this in a hilarious ranty voice like I did.) ... I hope that all things are good for Michael Bay, but I want him to stop making movies. That I do. If it brings him joy, let him make movies -- but don't put film in the camera.
Jerry Seinfeld (2014 interview)
(On why he does Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee)
I wanted people to see what the life of a comedian is like:  Ten percent of it is being onstage, and ninety percent is just like hanging out with these great people. And that's really made my life.
Sarah Silverman
(On why some brilliant comics don't succeed)
You don't get what you want, you get what you think you deserve.
(On how some comics never get it together enough to get anywhere with their careers)
Comedy is like alcoholism. You're surrounded by people who are getting high all day, fucking around, and just being comics -- and time passes, you know.

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