Auteur of underdogs–turned auteur of bromance, Judd Apatow is the fast-talking wordsmith who sits in the front row, spouting encyclopedic knowledge over the drone of a dull geography teacher. He’s also the charismatic goofball with a Ritalin prescription.
As he explains in the introduction to I Found This Funny, he always considered himself a standup comedian. Only later in life did he assume the identity of a reader. “I became a decent writer,” he admits, “because I could mimic the comics I was getting paid to write for, but my own act, had no unique perspective.” That was before he cracked the books.
I Found This Funny, published by McSweeney’s, gathers Apatow’s “favorite pieces of humor and some that may not be funny at all.” A whole bunch of circumstantial factors had to converge before he finally began the process of culling all this contemporary literature. Teaching his seven-year-old daughter how to read was maybe the most immediate impetus for the project, though Apatow lets on that his own adult reading life has not been easy, that for a long time, apart from Steve Martin, Stephen King, and an ill-fated dose of Candide, he was all but illiterate. After Freaks and Geeks and then Undeclared were canceled, his wife became pregnant with their second child, and Apatow decided to do what every person I know fantasizes about doing: taking a vacation from life and just catching the fuck up. He gave himself the ultimate gift: a reading year. But the question of where to start is obviously daunting one, and as he explains, “there are a lot of books out there if you’ve never read anything but The Stand your previous thirty years.”
I remember getting to college and realizing for the first time that “film” was something people like me should know about. I spent the next nine months obsessively reorganizing my Netflix queue (forever demoting The Battle of Algiers), imploring films studies majors to draft up syllabi for me, and pausing borrowed Criterion DVDs to read the accompanying essays. Compared to art or literature though, film’s history is finite; you’re only reckoning with about one hundred years’ worth of material. It’s possible to devote yourself with fervor and autodidactism when you know you’re dealing with a relatively manageable load. With each movie seen, it really does feel as though you’re noticeably chipping away at your ignorance.
But my bludgeoning epiphany at eighteen must have come with weaker force than Apatow’s did at forty. His method is organic but systematic; he relies on the recommendations of friends and a collection called You’ve Got to Read This. Most importantly though, his method is entirely free of ego. He admits to reading The Great Gatsby for the first time in middle age and that he’s never gotten around to Moby Dick or Tolstoy. “Becoming even semiliterate,” he writes, “had an immediate effect on my writing.” Mostly, it seems, reading gave Apatow permission to write about things he never thought to think were comedic. Reading, it turns out, allowed him to find his “funny voice.”
Over paninis recently, Lena Dunham, who is co-writing a pilot for HBO with Apatow, described him to me as “insanely funny, but not in an exhausting, always-on kind of way. More than anything,” she explained, “he facilitates humor.” Facilitating humor is exactly what Apatow does here as an editor, and once you finish his introduction and move onto the actual content, it’s easy, for the better or worse, to forget that there’s curator behind the whole thing.
It’s rare that a 5-page introduction can save a 462-page collection, that such a personal conceit (I read now!) can justify a pretty boring editorial feat. But the introduction is undoubtedly the highlight of the book. If you’re anything like me, and your identity is that of a reader, you’ll find that a disappointing proportion of the collection is stuff you’ve already read. There’s your standard fare short stories by Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Earnest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, and Raymond Carver (all great, of course, but nothing new to discover) and there’s an odd amount of excerpts that I can only assume were familiar to me from The New Yorker: Simon Rich, Ian Frazier, David Sedaris. There’s writing from all disciplines here (short stories, poetry, essays, humor writing, journalism, memoir, cartoons, sketches, and even television pilots) and each piece is great, if obvious.
Apatow describes I Found This Funny as “the ultimate airplane book, bathroom book, or what one reads while waiting for a friend to come out of an appointment that you have no interest in.” But this implies ownership, and I’m not sure this is necessarily a book worth owning. Here’s what I Found This Funny is for me: a book you would never buy but that you might grab off the shelf at Barnes & Noble and read while you’re waiting for a sudden rainstorm to let up. Or maybe as a gift for someone you don’t know well?
Make no qualms about it, I Found This Funny is everything Apatow says it is and nothing more: a primer for non-readers. A friend walked into the café I’m writing at and spotted the book. I told her I was reviewing it, and she correctly identified his ideal reader: the college-aged male who drops a writing workshop on the second day to take Econ 101, but who will still read and love a good story if you Xerox it for him.