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The Vulture Transcript: Judd Apatow on the Books That Made Him Change the Way He Wrote

In this week's New York, comedy kingpin Judd Apatow chatted with David Haglund about the new humor anthology he edited for McSweeney’s, I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All. (The book’s proceeds will go to 826 National, a nonprofit tutoring organization founded by McSweeneys's Dave Eggers.) As the title suggests, the book was first conceived as a collection of humor pieces — and the table of contents does list Adam McKay, Conan O’Brien, Simon Rich, Adam Sandler, and Jon Stewart, among other comedy stalwarts. But Apatow ended up including many pieces that aren’t funny, simply because he liked them. The latter category includes short stories by James Agee, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Alice Munro. As those names suggest, Apatow reads more literary fiction (especially short stories) than a cursory viewing of The 40 Year Old Virgin might imply; in fact, such writing, he says, is a key influence on his work. In this uncut version of Haglund's interview, Apatow talks about which authors most influenced his own move to personal comedy, and why his biggest influence — Woody Allen — doesn't share his point of view.


The book features a hilarious piece by Paul Feig, who created Freaks and Geeks; I hadn’t read any of his books before.

He has two books [Kick Me, Superstud] where he writes essays about things that happened to him during his childhood and early years that are so hilarious. When we were making Freaks and Geeks, every day Paul would tell us these stories from his childhood, and they were always nightmares of humiliation and we would laugh so hard. And at the end of every story, I would always make the same joke. I would say to Paul, “How old were you when that happened, 12 or 13?” And he would say, “16.” He just directed a movie that I produced, which is called Bridesmaids, which Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo wrote. It’s a starring vehicle for Kristen Wiig. We just shot it, we’re editing it now … I thought it’d be fun to put out a book which was a collection of pieces which I find interesting or funny that would contain writing by both my friends and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve actually tricked myself into thinking I wrote the book. I feel like I wrote Hemingway’s piece. I’ve tricked myself into not remembering that all I did was write a three-page introduction.

Well, it is a lot of work to go through so many pieces and select just the ones that will fit.

It was an amazing amount of work. And it just took forever. We went through hundreds of pieces, and people recommended pieces to us. Every time someone agreed to be in the book I would ask them if they had anything they would recommend I include, and then I would ask friends. I asked James Franco if he could recommend some stuff I might want to put in the book and he sent me this really long list. And then he asked all his professors and they sent me these really long lists. This kind of project is a great way to read more …

Did any of James Franco’s suggestions make it into the book?

I’m sure that they did. Some of it is such a blur of information. And my assistant, Lisa, read hundreds of pieces. So I would get these lists: “Try to read these,” “Don’t worry about these.” So people were thinning it out for me. We really did care about it more than anyone thought we would.

I did notice that Woody Allen is not in the book. On Marc Maron’s podcast recently you mentioned that the connection you felt to his work is maybe not as strong as it once was.

I’m such a fan of Woody Allen that I don’t even reference him as someone I was influenced by because it’s just so deep in me. When the VCR was invented, the first movie we owned was Annie Hall and the second one we owned was Manhattan. And I watched all of his movies so many times, hundreds of times, that it’s beyond discussing as an influence, it’s just in me. And I continue to follow everything that he does. But at the same time there’s something incredibly dark about it. As you read his interviews throughout the years and see all of his movies, he’s very up front about the fact that he’s making movies to avoid existential issues and to not think about death. And I try to think of myself as someone who’s more along the philosophical lines of people like James Brooks and Cameron Crowe who are looking to say something positive about our time here on this Earth. As much as I love Woody Allen, I wish he would tell me that things are going to be okay at some point. But I don’t think he’s going to.

I haven’t seen the new one, but it sounds like he’s doing it less and less ...

Exactly. It makes me drift a little bit, because, you know, I’m not as old as him, and I still want to feel that life is good and you don’t need to make 90 movies to avoid your fear of death, to fill your days on this planet.

How did you meet Dave Eggers?

I think I met Dave Eggers through Catherine Keener. Catherine Keener works with 826 L.A., his tutoring organization, and at some point she said you should meet Dave and get involved in his charity. I was a big fan of his first book. It had a big impact on me in terms of realizing how honest one can be in your creative expression. He really is a great guy. I don’t know how he writes so much and also runs a publishing company and is so deeply involved in all of these tutoring centers. I always joke and say, “I don’t care as much as you do, I just don’t want to be an asshole and not help other people.” I’m kind of joking, but not completely.

His book came out around the time of the “reading year” [a year during which Apatow took a break from show business and read extensively] that you mention in the intro.

His book came out in 2000, and Undeclared was canceled at the beginning of 2002. I probably read it when it came out. But it was the beginning of me realizing ... You know, I went to USC and studied screenwriting and ran out of money after a year and a half. And the only classes I enjoyed were my few English classes. And it stuck in my craw that I probably should have majored in English and I wished I could have finished up.

So was that motivation for the reading year?

Well, in most aspects of life, I’m about ten years behind. I’ve always known that I should be more literate, and it’s difficult when you have family and children and a job to sit down and crack Moby Dick. You get three pages in, you get incredibly tired, and you go to sleep or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey. It requires some discipline, and when I have down time, I try to force myself to read some of the books that I should have read a long time ago.

You mention in the introduction that you mostly read short stories, and you connect this with having a short attention span.

Yes. I’d read the shortest of the short stories. I’d look in the table of contents and whichever stories are the shortest; I start with those.

I find novels demand less of my attention span than short stories, because you can pick them up and put them down so easily, whereas with short stories I feel like I need to read the whole thing at once.

Well, now that I’m older my problem is if I read 30 pages of a novel, and get busy for a few days, I forget everything I read, I don’t remember any of the characters, and so unless I can hit it hard and fast, I run out of gas. My daughter makes fun of me, because every time we go to Barnes & Noble I buy a dozen books, and she knows I probably will never read any of them. But you always have this fantasy that there will be a lot of free time at some point and you’ll finally sit down and bang out a few James Ellroy novels …

Short stories also seem to me to have more in common with movies, in the terms of the narratives they attempt, which might take place over a few days or a few weeks rather than over years or generations like they might in a novel. Maybe you enjoy them more for that reason, too?

That’s a good question. I never thought about whether I liked them better, they just take less time. But I really do like the immediacy of short stories. I like to sit down and read something in a half an hour and be sucked in emotionally. But I am also sad that they’re over. And when I do engage with the characters, I wish they would continue. It’s a little bit how I feel about making movies: When I like characters, I always feel bad that it’s not a series.

Have you ever thought about adapting a literary work?

I assume at some point I will attempt to do that, but probably because I’ve run out of my own ideas. It won’t be because I’m dying to do it. When I read something that I think is great or see a movie that feels perfect, there’s no part of me that thinks, “I want to redo it.” Because the best you can do is recapture what they’ve already captured. Maybe you can enhance it a little bit. That being said, I love those movies, and I’m the first to run to see Let the Right One In or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But maybe I have enough personal issues and neuroses to keep me busy with my own ideas ... But when I get saner, which may never happen, I might be more up for that. But so much of what’s great about novels is the interior life of the characters, and when I think about stripping it down to mainly plot, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s going to lose something. But again, so many of my favorites movies came from books, it may just be that I’m afraid. Ordinary People came from a novel.

So, a lot of pieces in the book aren’t funny, as the subtitle admits. Which one do you think is the least funny?

Yeah, I was looking through the book and I thought, Wow, way more of these are not funny than I thought. The subtitle maybe should be, And Most of Them Which Are Not Funny at All. It forces you think about what comedy is. Some of the pieces are not meant to be humorous. One of my favorite pieces in the book is a section from Steve Martin’s memoirs. Everyone in comedy adores that book. It’s like a gift that fell from the sky. It’s what everyone always wished he would tell us. And the fact that suddenly it appeared feels like a miracle, because his stand-up years are what influenced so many people to get involved in comedy in the first place. And so I really enjoyed that piece, and also the John Lahr piece [“The Goat Boy Rises,” a 1993 New Yorker profile of comedian Bill Hicks], which tells the story about Bill Hicks, who I worked with a few times, and we all looked up to him.

You did shows with Hicks?

I didn’t know him, but I was the emcee at the Improv when I was a kid, and when he was in town I brought him onstage a few times. But we were all in awe of him. We knew he was better than all of us and had something to say and was passionate in a way almost no comedians are about his point of view.

Was there something special about watching him work live, as opposed to watching him on video? I never saw him live.

I think so. With all stand-up comedians, you can’t fully capture what they do watching it on a Comedy Central special. A lot of it is the dance with the audience and he was one of those people that the show would change dramatically based on how good or bad the crowd was. You know, he wasn’t just making a speech, it was a conversation with the crowd. And some of the great Bill Hicks moments — and some of them are out there on videotape or on albums — are nights when the crowd was awful, and he does his act but a lot of it is berating the crowd for not caring or not understanding or being sheep. And those meltdowns are what comedians enjoy most.

In terms of the pieces [in the book] that are more serious, the James Agee piece [the short story “A Mother’s Tale”] I find humorous but is deeply disturbing. There’s a Christ metaphor happening, there’s Holocaust imagery everywhere ... He’s someone that I discovered when reading a book of short stories called You’ve Got to Read This. And I didn’t know who he was, so I read this demented short story about this group of cows, and this train arrives and they all think they’re going to go to this heavenly place. And that’s the myth of the cows, that you’re going to leave here and go to this perfect nirvana, when they’re all being taken to the slaughterhouse ... It’s almost science fiction. And reading it made me look into who he was — and he was one of the great film critics of all time, who also wrote The African Queen, and he also wrote an amazing book called A Death in the Family that was released posthumously and won the Pulitzer Prize, which is one of my favorite books of all time. So that was a fun experience, for me, of trying to open myself up to different writers. And each writer leads you to another writer.


So you found writers to include that way, and also from suggestions — you mentioned James Franco, and in the intro you mention Owen Wilson.

Yeah. Back in the nineties Owen turned me on to A Fan’s Notes, this amazing book by Frederick Exley. Reading a book like A Fan’s Notes made me think more about what I’m trying to do with my own writing and going deeper and not being afraid of going into dark and scary places and into painful truths. And these books are also both very real and very emotional, but also funny.

Funny People seemed to show that influence in terms of writing about your own experience, even when it’s dark, and still being funny. Are you working on anything now that is moving in that direction?

We’ll see. Sometimes you make a movie and your intention is to make people deliriously happy. And when you’re working on a movie like that you understand the rules: The 40-year-old virgin needs to get laid, and when he does, the audience should be happy. And you’re trying to make every scene as unique and funny as you can. You know, with Funny People, I was trying to get big laughs, but also talk about issues which are not usually talked about in a comedy, and some of it is not meant to be entertaining as much as thought-provoking. And it’s a very different experience to try to walk that line than to make a movie where the final judge of every moment is, "Did it get a laugh?" There’s no sound people make when drama’s working. I wish there was. At a preview for the movie, maybe every time a dramatic moment’s working they could make a sort of squeal-y noise. But they don’t … I found that to be a very fulfilling experience, but it’s also painful because you’re really putting your heart into something and putting yourself out there. There are people who really take to it and see what you’re going for, and there are people who say, “Why isn’t it funnier?”

I read an interview from a few years where you said you think Freaks and Geeks is the best thing you’ve ever done. Do you still think that’s true?

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll know for a very long time. But Freaks and Geeks was a very special moment, and Paul Feig had this beautiful vision for that show, and everyone gave their hearts and their stories to it. When I watch it on IFC now, because it’s been running this summer, I’m very proud of it, but it’s a tough show, because the kids fail. And it’s hard to make movies, where the characters fail, the end.

Even Funny People has that ending where Sandler sits down with Seth Rogen and you think, Well, maybe he changed a little.
That’s what I was going for. I think people evolve in very small increments. And that’s not a very satisfying end, and it’s not a very uplifting message for people. But it is true. Even when catastrophic events happen, people sometimes have a hard time learning from it, and if they learn, maybe it’s just a little bit, maybe there’s just a crack in their armor. So at the end of Funny People, you’re hopeful that, just the idea that he wants Seth Rogen’s character around means he wants someone to tell him the truth about his life, and he wants to connect in a different way. But you also have a sense that tomorrow he’ll probably be very cruel to Seth. But hopefully on another day he’ll be much nicer to him. It’s not going to go smoothly.

And you’re about to start working in TV again, with Lena Dunham, the 24-year-old writer-director of two feature films, Creative Nonfiction and this year's SXSW hit Tiny Furniture?

I am. I’m helping her produce a television series. Jenny Konner, who worked on Undeclared, is also producing it with me. I saw [Lena Dunham's] Tiny Furniture, which I thought was hilarious and very sweet. She has a very original voice, and she made that movie for $45,000 when she was 24 years old. She’s a remarkable talent with gifts in so many different areas. I just thought to myself, I’ve avoided TV for ten years, but I just thought if there’s anything I could do, with whatever success I have, to help her achieve her goals, it would be very gratifying and fun. So she’s going to shoot a pilot which she wrote and she’ll direct, in November. I’m mainly a sounding board.

I saw Tiny Furniture a few months ago in Brooklyn and I liked it a lot. It seemed like one of the more successful variations on Woody Allen that I had seen in a while.

Yes, that’s what I thought, too. It did in an odd way remind me of Manhattan, even though the subject matter’s completely different. There’s an aspect to her personality that echoed that.

And she has an almost “literary” sensibility, I think, like he does.
It’s funny: I was reading all the short stories and novels of Dan Chaon [one of which, “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” is included in I Found This Funny], and I was having a very emotional reaction to his work. I would read these short stories and each one would connect with me in some very specific way. I’d read something and think, I have that problem, or I’m crazy in that way. I was really enjoying it, but also almost overwhelmed by my connection. And then I met Lena, and she was telling me she went to Oberlin College and her screenwriting professor was Dan Chaon.

Lena has been associated — very loosely, in her case — with the group of filmmakers often referred to as “mumblecore.” It occurred to me that your own way of working, while you have a lot more money to spend, is not totally different from theirs: You draw a lot on improvisation, you work with people you know, you write for specific people. Have you seen any of those movies?

I have. And I don’t always know which ones are defined as “mumblecore.” But I watched Cyrus this year, which was one of my favorite movies of the year. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, and it was just so funny and interesting. And I’m fascinated by how they do it. I’ll sit at home listening to, like, Mark Duplass [who, with his brother Jay, wrote and directed Cyrus] on a podcast trying to figure out if I should try to take the same approach with one of my next movies. I was talking to Jason Segel the other night about it, because he made a movie with the Duplass brothers. And he said, “Sometimes we would just shoot a 30-minute conversation.” And that kind of thing gets me excited. It’s an interesting way to be creative and to write and to collaborate with other creative people. But what I like about Lena is that she has a very clear point of view and her stuff also feels very tight and written. She’s not improvising much at all. If anything, I’m trying to talk to her a little bit about having fun and shooting extra material, and that you can write it really well and shoot it and also play and see if anything happens in a style that has a little Rob Altman in it. That’s what I learned from [Garry] Shandling, which is, you do want to create room for something else to happen.

I just caught up finally with Louis C.K.’s new show, Louie, and it reminded me a little bit of Funny People.

I have to say that Louis C.K. is so unbelievably great, and is covering so much ground — he puts out a comedy special every year, he has this amazing series — that I actually do not allow myself to not watch much of it, because there would literally be nothing left for me to talk about. Because I know if he’s talking about a subject he will do it so well that there will be no way for me to do it without feeling like I’m copying him badly. I felt that way about The Simpsons for years — which is there’s no joke that I can make up that will not have already been done on The Simpsons. So it’s unhealthy for me to watch hundreds of Simpsons episodes. But now that I have children, I’m catching up.

Are there any other pieces in the book you’d like to talk about, ones that have meant the most to you as a writer?

The people that have been the most inspiring to me that are in the book are people like [the late short story writer] Andre Dubus, whose work I would not say is funny. He has a good sense of humor in some of his work, but most of it is not funny. But he’s been one of the biggest influences for me. There’s a great humanity to all of his work. And I was very excited that we were able to get Raymond Carver in the book. I can’t say that that story’s that funny, either, though I find it funny. The Philip Roth story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” to me is funny. But I also was excited that I was able to clear this television pilot that Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien wrote many years ago called Lookwell, which they wrote for Adam West. It was one of the first television pilots I had ever read, and it was one of the funniest pieces of writing I had ever read. So that’s the kind of thing that no one would have ever seen ever again if I didn’t put it in the book. So that’s kind of fun. And then I picked my favorite Adam McKay–Tom Gianas sketch from Saturday Night Live that Alec Baldwin was in, and the “Canteen Boy” sketch that Adam Sandler was in, so it’s fun to have that in addition to, you know, Tony Hoagland poems and cartoons by this Icelandic cartoonist Hugleikur Dagsson, which are so funny and dark and disturbing.

You’ve got some pilots yourself that were not picked up. Would you ever consider publishing them?

I’ve considered putting them out on DVD. I have three pilots that didn’t get picked up, all of which I find pretty funny. Some are more successful than others. One stars Jason Segel and Amy Poehler and Kevin Hart and Judge Reinhold. It’s about struggling young actors in north Hollywood. I’ve always wanted to get that out there. At some point maybe. That one is unfinished in the form, I’d have to kind of ... My problem was it was supposed to be 23 minutes, and I handed in a 31-minute pilot. And everyone got mad at me. It seemed like a very out-of-control move, the kind of thing no one does. But it just worked way better at 31 minutes, so ... I probably cut it down for the network, but always wanted to show people the long one. I did one with David Krumholtz and Kevin Corrigan and Amy Poehler called Sick in the Head about a therapist who just graduated who’s seeing his first patients. It was a young Bob Newhart–type show that I always thought was very funny. Maybe one day I’ll show it. I’m always happy to get anything out of the vault.

Photo: Patrick McMullan