hide captionWriter-director Judd Apatow talks about the funny stories — and the not-so-funny stories — he picked for a new collection.
Writer-director Judd Apatow talks about the funny stories — and the not-so-funny stories — he picked for a new collection.
Director Judd Apatow is known for his cinematic fusion of frat-boy humor and nerdy sensitivity; from the wry comedy of his TV show Freaks and Geeks to the broad public embrace of films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, there's no doubt that Apatow's writing and directing are hilarious.
That's part of the reason he was asked to edit a new book called I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All.
A collection of funny stories sounds pretty great. But why include writing that "may not be funny at all"? Well, the book opens with a James Agee story called "A Mother's Tale," which would seem to be one of those not-so-funny choices.
"I found it fascinating and interesting," Apatow says. "James Agee ... was an amazing writer, and he wrote this short story about a cow that's headed to what he thinks is heaven, but really it's the slaughterhouse, and he escapes after they skin him alive and tries to run back home to warn everybody. And, I don't know, that's kind of dark comedy."
Apatow says he especially likes how none of the cows can entirely decide when such horrible things really happen. To them, it may be just a myth that the moms tell their calves.
"There's a thousand ways to read the story, all disturbing — and I don't know, maybe it's the agnostic part of myself that found it funny," Apatow says.
If dark comedy isn't your thing, don't worry. I Found This Funny has plenty of stories that people who aren't Judd Apatow will mine laughs from.
I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces Of Humor And Some That May Not Be Funny At All By Judd Apatow Hardcover, 224 pages McSweeney's List price: $25
"There's a great Philip Roth short story, there's some F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, ones that I found kind of humorous — others might not. But I also put in a chapter from Steve Martin's memoirs and an article about the great comedian Bill Hicks. And these strange cartoons from Iceland that made me laugh," Apatow says. "It's just ... things that I find amusing or things that I find, you know, powerful."
Fans of his films love Apatow's writing because it makes them laugh, but many also recognize a level of honesty — brutal honesty, even — in his work.
"A lot of what I find interesting in writing is ... raw truth and the worst sides of ourselves," he says. "I like when work is passionate and personal, so a lot of the work in the book is very passionate." For him, and for many audiences, happiness is boring.
"I don't want to go to the movies to see happy people," he says. "That's why people like Indiana Jones; they want to see the rock almost crush him. Who wants to see Indian Jones just laying around reading a book?"
Apatow's own relationship with reading as been on and off over the years. A strong reader as a kid, he turned his focus to comedy in college and stopped taking the time to read. Years later, he realized he was missing "an entire aspect of life," so he started getting suggestions from friends.
"I remember Owen Wilson recommended the book A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, which is this hilarious, interesting semi-memoir about an English teacher in the '60s who has alcohol problems and is obsessed with Frank Gifford, who he went to college with. And he compares his entire life to how Frank Gifford is doing. And moments like that made me think, 'Oh, my work will be better if I'm more well-read.'"
Nowadays, he tries to spread that love of reading to kids.
"There's so much technology these days that if you don't make them shut it off, they will never read," he says. "Because they can sit in their room with a computer and talk to 85 people every night on iChats and video chats and never disappear into the world of their imagination with a book."
Profits from I Found It Funny will go toward a charity called 826 National, which has a program that teaches kids to write and creates a book out of their short stories, letting the kids design the cover. Apatow understands very well that getting kids writing can steer them in good directions.
"I wrote a story for my 10th grade English class," he recalls. "It was supposed to be my autobiography, but I was embarrassed [about] my life and how boring it was, so I made one up and said I was a secret agent [who] had affairs with all of the teachers, and I was undercover in the school looking for corruption."
Precisely the sort of stunt, in other words, for which some teachers would send a kid to the principal's office.
"But my great teacher Mrs. Farber said, 'You know, you're really funny. You could be a writer like Woody Allen. You could do that.'"
That was the first time people spoke to him in those terms, says Apatow.
"People yelled at me most of the time. I was getting in trouble for being funny, and that was the first time that my class clownery was funneled in a positive direction. And I think that's what 826 does. It helps kids find themselves through becoming stronger readers and writers."
When it comes to getting his own kids to read, he just points them to the funny stuff.
"I steer everything to the funny, because without the funny we're all in trouble," he says. "These are dark times, and we need to laugh."
Excerpt: 'I Found This Funny"
by Judd Apatow
I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All By Judd Apatow Hardcover, 224 pages McSweeney's List Price: $25
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
I don't remember how I learned to read. Who taught me to read? Was it my mother? We always had a lot of books around. Dr. Seuss. Curious George. That book about the strange animal with the spots he could take off and juggle. Lately I have been teaching my seven year-old daughter how to read and it is hard. Someone must have put some serious hours in with me. I wish I remembered any of those moments. It must have been my mom and not some faceless Montessori teacher. I'll go with mom. For some reason I think I picked it up really fast because if it was a long difficult road I feel like I would remember that.
I say that because my adult reading life has not been a long easy road. It took a long time before I got excited about literature and reading in general. As an adolescent I liked to read. At first only books about the Marx Brothers. Steve Martin's book of humor, Cruel Shoes. I remember reading the Albert Goldman book, Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce, in seventh grade and it had a major impact on me. It made the world of comedy I dreamed about threedimensional and potentially obtainable (hopefully without the heroin use). The book had such an impact on me that I cut out all of the photographs in it and made a complicated, graphic book report on it. I do not think a book report was even assigned. Then my English teacher promptly "lost" it. For years I thought he was so impressed with my report that he literally stole it so he could have it for himself. He was dead to me after that, which was tough because he was the "cool" English teacher. The one who put on Beatles records and discussed the lyrics with you. The one who would say "shit" a few times a year without shame or regret. Still, dead to me.
And then Stephen King came into my life. In the junior-high years that was all I read, one right after the other. The Dead Zone, Cujo, Firestarter. He cranked them out one after the other. Ridiculously enjoyable books being released to the world at such a torrid pace that one would think the man would have had to be on cocaine.
But sadly, that is where my curiosity ended. Other than a brief moment in college where I believed my mind had been blown open and literature suddenly made sense to me (Candide's in the house, bitches!), I did not pursue it at all. I wrote jokes; I did stand-up comedy. That was my obsession. But I was always limited in my perspective. I became a decent writer because I could mimic the comics I was getting paid to write for, but my own act had no unique perspective. I was kind of funny, but forgettable to everyone, even myself.
I slogged on for a period of years, doing pretty well in Hollywood, but one does not always need to be the cream to rise in that world. I had a major shift after working with the director Jake Kasdan on Paul Feig's creation, Freaks andGeeks. I was directing and had written an episode that contained a scene where one of the geeks goes home alone after school and cheers himself up from his lonely life by watching Garry Shandling on The Dinah Shore Show. As the geek eats grilled cheese sandwiches and cake, like I had always done, the great Who song "I'm the One" plays as he blissfully escapes his frustrating life and laughs his tits off to a stand-up comedian's jokes. After I edited it, Jake Kasdan said, "That is the most personal scene you have ever made, and it's also the best."
It occurred to me that he was correct, and that I needed to find the courage to share my inner world with people through my work. I had always thought my life was pretty boring, but as I slowly brought that boring world into my writing, people connected more with the stories I was telling.
Freaks and Geeks was cancelled, and so was my next show, Undeclared. My wife Leslie was pregnant with our second child, so I decided to take a year off to rest and catch up on an education I abandoned during college due to lack of funds and interest. I was going to take a reading year.
So the question was — where to start? There are a lot of books out there if you've never read anything but The Stand your previous thirty years. I had spent some time with Owen Wilson, and he recommended a few books. One was Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and the other was Saul Bellow's Seize theDay. He also recommended F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Pat Hobby Stories, one of which is included in this collection. They are hilarious and insightful short stories about a washed-up screenwriter in Hollywood. After several films that did not perform at the box office, I related. But it also led me to suck it up and read The Great Gatsby finally. And then I was off. At some point I bought a book called You've Got to Read This, which contained the favorite stories of a bunch of famous short story writers. That collection introduced me to James Agee, whose story "A Mother's Tale" was in that collection.
And so it went: I would read a collection of short stories and then find an article about the author, see who their influences were and then get those books. I mainly read short stories due to my short attention span. Not only did I mainly read short stories, I always checked out the table of contents and mainly read the shortest stories in any book first. And usually only. I gave up on a lot of books. I still have not done Moby Dick or Tolstoy. I can't say I ever will, unless I have a long hospital stay and while I am in the hospital I am not too medicated or in too much pain to read.
Becoming even semiliterate had an immediate effect on my writing. The courage to dig deep and reveal inspired me to take chances and look at parts of myself I had tried to avoid through workaholism and masturbation. I became a better writer, and suddenly my cult status gave way to people actually going to the movies to see my work. All because the honesty in a book like Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made me think, "maybe I could write a scene about the time I got wigged out having sex with my wife when she was very pregnant. Maybe I could have Leslie's character, Debbie, say to Paul Rudd's character, 'Just because you don't yell doesn't mean you are not mean.'" I had found my voice.
Excerpted from I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces Of Humor And Some That May Not Be Funny At All by Judd Apatow. Copyright 2010 by Judd Apatow. Excerpted by permission of McSweeny's.