Friday, August 21, 2015

Ha! Judd Apatow and Sick in the Head

Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow's book Sick in the Head is an essential read.

When you’re always picked last, you always get the worst position, like right field in baseball. Then, since you are always in the worst position, the ball never comes your way, so you never get a chance to show anyone that you are, in fact, good at this sport. But the truth is, you are not good at this sport because you are never involved in a play, because you are always in the worst position. When it is time to step up to bat, you feel so much pressure to do something incredible, like hit a home run, that you usually whiff. If you somehow manage to get a hit, your accomplishment is ignored by your peers, who chalk it up to luck … Then the kid who is picked last never gets a girl to like him, because he has been labeled a loser. Therefore, what else is there to do except decide that everyone else is the loser and you are the cool one?
– Judd Apatow, Sick in the Head, “Introduction: Why Comedy?”

I have a short list of celebrity idols – the people on whose careers I wish to model my own, whose work ethic I admire, and whose approach to life and philosophy either lines up with mine or more likely has directly informed mine. Roger Ebert, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, Albert Brooks, Dan Harmon. In ways both large and small, these people have made me the person I am and give me targets for the person I want to be.

Recently, another prominent figure has cropped up whose views on work and life I find intoxicating. Much to my surprise, he comes from the world of comedy: Judd Apatow. Now, I enjoy comedies (see above: Allen, Brooks, Harmon), but it is not really what I do. I am drawn to the dark, the serious, and the macabre, but seen in that light, maybe it is not so surprising. The old cliché often seems true: There are few people darker or angrier than comedians.

Apatow discusses this topic at length in his recent collection of interviews with comedians, Sick in the Head. He is fascinated by what drives comedians to do what they do and how a few performers – notably, Jerry Seinfeld – pull off the trick of being funny and being happy. It is among the many themes running through the book, a New York Times bestseller released earlier this year.

My copy of Sick in the Head, signed by Apatow.
The premise of the book is simply that Apatow has spent his life in comedy and talking to comedians about their craft. At its most basic, Sick in the Head is a collection of this accumulated knowledge related through interviews with famous comedians at various points in their careers. However, beneath the surface, it is much more than that. It is a guide for overcoming fears and anxieties, for putting our troubled pasts behind us, and for carving out a better future for us and ours.

My single biggest takeaway from the book – which is as revealing about Apatow as it is about his interview subjects – is, to paraphrase Nike, just to do it. We all have problems. We all have concerns. We all have excuses. In the end, none of that matters. There is either action or inaction. Admittedly, this is the kind of moral shared elsewhere countless times, but for me, to hear it articulated by people I admire so much while learning of their personal struggles, well, it is invaluable.

Fellow writers will attest to this: Writing often is easy; sitting down to write is one of the hardest things in the world. Sick in the Head inspires me to write. It makes me want to sit down and fill blank page after blank page with ideas, and I cannot convey how empowering it is simply to have the will to write.

I recently returned from Hollywood, where I was in town for three days to pitch movie ideas to studios, agents, and managers, which is a draining and dispiriting process even when it goes well. I packed only the essentials – a change of clothes, some toiletries, and an autographed copy of Sick in the Head. I read it the whole flight there and the whole flight back. I read it in my hotel room. I read it at the bar. There is something essential in those pages, something that got me through times when I felt bad or exhausted or like packing it in and going home.

I don’t know that I can ask for more from a book than the will to carry on. I don’t know that I can ask for more from anything. So, thanks, Judd Apatow, and thanks to everybody who inspires anybody to do better.

No comments: