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Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them.
Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them. Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Terrorist" by John Updike




"I have the American dream — I had a dream of becoming a writer! I was little — not rich, or not anything really, but I did have this hope and faith and it kind of has come true for me. So I wouldn't say the American dream is all hokum.
Not in my case, at least."
—John Updike*

“Writer’s and Company” recently aired an encore presentation of Eleanor Wachtel’s 1996 interview with John Updike. Feeling remiss in never having read even one of Updike’s 60 books — two of them Pulitzer Prize-winners — I went in search of Rabbit, Run.

I found Terrorist instead.

Inside 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mully, something terrible is churning. On the surface, he is a high school senior. A solid student. He runs track every spring. And wears a crisp, white, buttoned up shirt every day that does nothing to conceal the contempt he feels for his classmates at Central High School in New Prospect, New Jersey.

Through the lens of detachment, Ahmad observes—and is offended at every turn—by the consumerism, hedonism, and misogyny that he sees in American culture. He rebuffs the outreach of his high school guidance counsellor, his self-absorbed mother and even the girl at school who shows a flicker of interest in his brooding persona. He does have one devotion, however, nurtured by an imam with an agenda, that is an intense spiritualism and study of the Qur’an.

With so little to live for, Ahmad latches on to the promise of paradise. All it will take to get there is one catastrophically murderous act. In a truck loaded with explosives, he drives towards the Lincoln Tunnel. Martyrdom may have to wait, though, when a familiar passenger takes a seat beside him, and begins to wedge a detour of doubt in Ahmad’s way.

Updike’s characters in Terrorist are not the stand-up-and-cheer variety. New Prospect is no suburb of thriving American dreams. Surrounding Ahmad are adults wrestling with their own private despairs. When tested, though, the choice of life, despite its disappointments, is powerful enough to hold the slightest advantage--perhaps the only reassurance Updike was able to offer at the end of a dark tunnel.


*Updike, John. Interview by Eleanor Wachtel. “Writers & Company”. CBC. Encore presentation Toronto: 27 March 2016. Radio.