Sick in the Head - Conversations about Life and Comedy - by Judd Apatow

20 minute read

RATING: 7/10 (I only read interviews of comics I know about.)

See Goodreads Page for details and reviews.

I’m a simple man. I see Louis CK name in the internets, I click. As soon as I heard that this book has his interview, something happened and all I remember next was I had a kindle in my hand and I was reading his chapter.

(For the clueless, Louis CK is the best comedian out there. And I’m his biggest fan. Know that.)

Director/Comedian Judd Apatow talks with a lot of comedians in this book. Most of it is boring as I don’t have the context around the topics. The chapters I read were only the comics I know about: Louis CK, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Jay Leno, Ben Stiller, Jimmy Fallon, Marc Maron, Seth Rogen and Steve Martin. (I consumed/consume too much TV).

The worst part of the kindle highlights below are: I can’t see to find the Louis CK parts. So I re-checked that chapter and marked it for ya’ll. I prefixed “Louis CK:” before those sentences. Louis has great parenting advice. Enjoy.

Other than that, I don’t remember anything from other comedians. Well, maybe things like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are hard workers, most comedians did drugs, all were ambitious etc.

Highlights from the book

At that age, the comedians I liked most were the ones who called out the bullshit and gave voice to my anger—the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jay Leno. I loved anyone who stood up onstage and said that the people in power were idiots, and not to be trusted. I was also drawn to people who deconstructed the smaller aspects of this bizarre and ridiculous life.

I started shoplifting with the secret hope I would get caught so that I could finally have an excuse to yell at them: “This would never have happened if it wasn’t for this divorce!”

I remember thinking to myself at one point, Well, I guess my parents’ advice can’t be any good—just look at how they are handling this situation. I need to figure out how to support myself financially and emotionally. Oddly, that pain and fear became the fuel in my tank. It inspired me to work hard and has led to every success and good thing in my life. It worked so well that today, a parent now myself, I am trying to figure out how to fuck up my daughters just enough that they, too, develop outsize dreams and the desire to get the hell out of the house.

Jerry Seinfeld talked about treating comedy like a job and writing every day.

More than one told me that it takes seven years to find yourself and become a great comedian. (Mystical-sounding, but kind of true.) From that piece of advice I learned patience. In my mind I thought, If I start working hard now, in seven years I will be Eddie Murphy. Well, that hasn’t happened—yet.

Judd: How do you get steady work? Jerry: Well, you audition; you start off at three in the morning and you fight your way through the order by doing better than the guy they put on ahead of you.

But then you’ve got this other crew of guys—the Carlin/Pryor school—who never wanted people to know what they were going to say. And in order to make that work, you have to live life. You’ve got to live like a musician, basically. You go on the road and drop an album and then you go off and live life for a couple of years. You come back and, hey, the world’s changed a little bit. And so you’ve got to change a little bit.

It comes from having something to say. It comes from being a new person. Have you lived enough life? Are you seeing the world differently? It can be something as simple as getting up onstage and talking about your kids,

Chris: You’ve got to make yourself scared. When I did that play not too long ago, it was like, Oh, this shit is scary. I’m out of my comfort zone. I’m the low man on the totem pole. I could really suck at this. But it’s in moments like that that you are going to learn the most. Directing, too: What the fuck was I ever doing directing anything, you know what I mean? It scared me and I did some things that sucked. But you learn more from fucking up than you do from success, unfortunately. And failure, if you don’t let it defeat you, is what fuels your future success.

I was also a Mercedes-Benz mechanic at the time. I didn’t have any expenses. I didn’t have any lifestyle to maintain. I liked doing it. I would drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to work for free for four or five minutes. I didn’t know if I would ever really make a living at it. It was just a fun way to screw around. I’d make thirty bucks a week or forty bucks a week at best. But that was enough to live on. I had a junky car, and it was fun, you know. But that’s the whole key. You gotta keep moving. You gotta work every kind of job there is.

Judd Apatow: Is it important to you if your kids are smart? Jeff Garlin: No. I mean, yes, I hope they’re smart and self-reliant so they can enjoy life—but they’ll probably be more miserable if they’re smart. If they’re stupid, they’re going to have a great time. Because really, everything is created for stupid people. Books, movies, TV shows for the most part—they’re for stupid people. So, they would be much happier if they were stupid.

Judd: The other thing that I remember about our interview is that your apartment had nothing in it. Like, it was not decorated. Jerry: Oh, I was a minimalist from the beginning. I think that’s why I’ve done well as a comedian. Judd: No distractions. Jerry: If you always want less, in words as well as things, you’ll do well as a writer.

where do you think you’ll go with your stand-up, Judd? Judd: I have to say that I am loving the fact that there’s no career goal connected to it. It’s purely for the joy of trying to get good at something that I was just okay at back in the day. It’s unfinished business. And it would just be great to figure out how to tear the house down consistently. Jerry: Right.

Judd: I always remember you and Larry Miller saying that to be a comedian, you have to sit down and write. That’s the job. How much time do you spend at a desk? Jerry: I just finished wrestling with a bit, actually. I couldn’t stop. I do it compulsively. I write with a pad and a pen. I like a big, yellow legal pad. And once I get that pad open, I can’t stop. It’s kind of like free-diving, you know. You have a certain amount of air and then you just have to come up. I’m good for an hour or two and then I collapse on the couch and sleep.

Judd: Have you ever had a period where you were sick of it? Jerry: No. No. No. Never. Judd: Not even for a second? Jerry: If this is something you have a gift for, it’s going to suck you along into it. All you have to do is transition from looking at your phone to putting the phone down and opening up the pad where there’s nothing going on. There’s no light hitting your retina. So, no, I’ve always found it to be—I just see something and I write it down and I go, Gee, that almost worked. That kinda worked. Maybe that’s the good part. Let me get rid of the bad part and write a different intro to the idea. And the next thing I know, the day is gone.

How do you deal, in the middle of the madness of kids, when someone wants something so badly they will scream and push you emotionally until you crack to get it? Jerry: My kids never get me to crack. It’s because of my stand-up training. Like, “You’re nothing compared to the Comedy Cellar.” Judd: That’s so funny. Jerry: “You think you’re tough?” My kids said something to me last night, and I said, “That line is so weak, give me my last name back. You don’t deserve it.”

Judd: Well, it’s also that all the boys are so unamusing, it bugs you. If they were funnier, you might like them. They just have so little to offer. Jerry: But don’t you think there’s just going to be just a natural, powerful editing process that goes on? Your daughter is not going to be able to hang out with unfunny guys forever, right? Judd: That’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. Because of my job, my daughters have gotten to hang out with some of the most interesting, funny people around—and it makes them think less of their friends. Jerry: That’s good. Judd: They think they’re so uninteresting and so not funny. Jerry: They’re right. Judd: They actually have a problem with it sometimes. They don’t like what their friends talk about, or what interests them. Jerry: That’s a great contribution you’ve made.

Jerry: I have cars. And my son, when I pick him up at camp, says, “Dad, you better not come in a different car. No one’s impressed with your cars. Come in the same car every day so no one knows you have more than one car.” Judd: I find myself saying to my kid, “I earned this money, not you.” I’m allowed to enjoy it, but you go make your own money. Jerry: I say that, too. “You’re not getting any of it.” Judd: Do you subscribe to the Warren Buffett theory? Are you going to give your kids nothing? Jerry: No, I don’t. I wish I subscribed to that theory, but I don’t. I honestly don’t even know what to do about that. Let them fight over it.

Judd: For me, I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to work from a very early age because I was afraid of being broke. What was your core motivation? Jerry: To never have to do anything else. I learned very young in this business that you bust your ass or you get thrown out of the kingdom. My motivation was not wanting to leave the kingdom. Plus, I just love the life of it. I love my independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes. It’s as simple as that.

it gave me everything, and that was always my thought when I was doing it. If I sacrifice every cell of energy that I have doing this, the rest of my life will be pretty good. So I just died on the shield. I went to the point where I thought, If I keep going, I could lose my sanity. That was how far I took it mentally.

Judd: You started doing TM in college, right? Jerry: I started doing it in college. While everyone was at lunch, I would go back to my room and do a TM. I did it once a day. But about a year ago, I was talking to a TM instructor, and he started telling me, “You know, if you do two a day, it’s a lot more powerful.” So I just recently started doing that and it has completely changed my life. I honestly will do four a day sometimes. I pop them like Tic Tacs.

Judd: Do you think your general disposition comes from a place of spirituality, or were you like this from the get-go? Jerry: That’s a tough question. I was drawn to a lot of Eastern thought, a lot of Zen stuff. I’ve always been drawn to Eastern philosophy and religion more than Western or Jewish, I guess. Which is why I took to TM so quickly. No question. But going back to our thing about emotions, I just don’t accept irrational emotion as part of my behavior. I’m not going to act on an irrational emotion. So I think that’s probably built in, but reading some of the Zen stuff I’ve read over the years and doing all the TM has definitely shored it up. Now I’m this guy, whoever that is.

Judd: I read a lot of Zen but it ultimately makes me unhappy because I don’t want to be one drop in the ocean. Jerry: I do. Judd: How do you get over that hump? Jerry: You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it. I used to keep pictures of the Hubble on the wall of the writing room at Seinfeld. It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important. Judd: See, I go the other way with that. That makes me depressed. Jerry: Most people would say that. People always say it makes them feel insignificant, but I don’t find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting. Judd: Insignificance is a hump I have trouble getting over, but maybe that’s because my parents were crazier than yours. Jerry: Maybe. Or maybe you think this is your only life, and this is the only stuff you’re ever going to do. Which, you know, I don’t subscribe to that. Judd: What do you subscribe to? Jerry: That this is just one chapter of thousands of chapters.

Judd: But generally, your parents were cool, right? You had a good relationship with them? Jerry: I wouldn’t use the word cool. I would say they were … highly independent. My father’s mother died giving birth to him, and my mother grew up in an orphanage. My father was out of school probably by sixth grade, on the street. And they didn’t marry until they were in their forties so they were very, very independent people, and I just folded right into that place where you won’t need anybody. Judd: That didn’t make you needy? Jerry: It made me feel free. You don’t need people. They’re unreliable.

Judd: You can’t and you just—that balance of how do I give them rules, which they want to fight me on, and guarantee they want me to be their best friend at the same time is impossible. Jimmy: You invented this human, so you’re like, I made the best human I can make. This is my Sistine Chapel, and I should be able to appreciate this. Not someone else.

Louis CK:
If you come here, we’ll teach you how to use all this equipment and you can do whatever you want. And I couldn’t fucking believe it. I stopped going to Neil’s house immediately and I thought, I want to get back into school. I had a direction in my life. So I started going to the station and it was all grown-up people. I was the only kid there.

Louis CK:
“I am going to be your go-to guy”. And that’s what you want your kids to have. It’s hard, I think. I talk about this all the time with my kids. The reason why you do that is because you can see your demise if you don’t do it. Our kids, though—they don’t have that fire on their ass because when I was a kid both my parents went bankrupt. It was very chaotic for a while and so, when those opportunities came up, I was an animal because I was afraid that I would be homeless at some point.

Louis CK:
A shot at Letterman could have totally changed everything.
Judd: In a good way or bad, do you think?
Louis: I’m glad I didn’t get it. I’m glad for every single thing I didn’t get.

Louis CK:
I was talking to Chris Rock and he said, “If you do Letterman or you get the big shot, don’t go back and do your classic five minutes. Do what’s exciting you today. Do what’s really turning you on in the moment.”

Louis CK:
Whenever I realize, Uh-oh, this is fucked up, I don’t feel ready, this is going to look bad if this doesn’t go well, I get that physical feeling. I don’t like that feeling, but I like the whole arc of it. You need the whole arc for it to be good. When you win and you do well, it feels great.

Louis CK:
I remember thinking, you know, I want to show up for this, and I remember thinking that stuff of like not being able to sit alone with myself. That’s not a good thing about me. I wanted to change and this was a good reason to do it, and I remember sitting alone with my daughter a lot and breathing and going, Just cool it, you know, be here for her. She was a great target for my better intentions. I remember telling myself, keep being part of it and change as many diapers as I can and also try to get the kid away from my wife so I can have my own set of parenting skills. So I wasn’t just her assistant. I put a lot of thought into that. It was a big deal for me.

Louis CK:
Judd: What are the things that you’re trying to say on the show about being a parent?
Louis: I always try to show that I don’t have any control as a parent, you know what I mean? I did this thing with the little one on the show and I’m telling her this thing about don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl unless it’s to check if they have enough. I try to teach my kids this kind of thing. The reason why we cut sandwiches in half is so you can offer somebody a piece of your sandwich. You don’t need the whole sandwich. Everybody in your line of sight, you offer it to them and if nobody wants it, then hey, you get a whole sandwich but you’re only supposed to eat half. I tell them these things.

Louis CK:
when I’m at my best, I leave my phone around without looking at it and I only use my computers to write or edit or whatever. My favorite part of the year is when I’m editing my show because I can’t touch the Internet; I’m using my computer to edit. Because it’s (the internet) a sickness.

Louis CK:
Louis: I need to help my daughter figure out how to do this. I think I’ve done a good thing already, which is that she’ll be the last one of her friends to get a smartphone. And because she’s watched all her friends change since getting them, and I’ve watched them change, too. I know all of these kids. I know the parents and I know the kids. I’ve known them since they were little. And I see these kids who suddenly are seized by this thing. When they come over—like, my daughter had a sleepover party recently and I made her friends check their phones at the door.
Judd: What’s hard is that they are afraid to drop out of this mass communication. But like I’ve said to my daughter, “Maybe you should be known as the kid who is hard to reach.”
Louis: You need time by yourself. I was watching Rocky with a friend of mine. And there’s all these scenes of him sitting on this dirty mattress, alone—the guy is so alone, it’s beautiful how alone he is. Nobody’s alone like that anymore. Nobody. You know, cops on the beat in New York are staring at their fucking phones. Airline pilots are on iPads. Fucking hell. It’s crazy.

Marc: What is the wound? Because I know I have it. Judd: You know, I’m not sure exactly. I’ve had therapists who say everything that happened to you happened in the first three years of your life

Judd: It happened right after my parents got divorced and I just thought, I got to get something going in this life. I really need to take care of myself. Because when your parents get divorced they just make terrible mistakes and they fight and you see that adults have very real flaws. And I think my instinct was, Oh my God, maybe they’re wrong about all sorts of stuff they keep telling me. And if my mom thinks my dad’s the devil and if my dad’s enraged at my mom, then maybe some of this advice they’ve been giving me is wrong. I mean, I don’t think he’s the devil. He’s very nice to me. And it just completely threw me—like, it’s important that you believe your parents. So when you see them at a terrible moment, screaming at each other—my reaction was, Nothing is true. I don’t believe anything. I can’t rely on these people because they can’t rely on each other and they’ve bailed on each other, and, like, “Our family isn’t important enough for you guys to just figure out how to get along?” It was terrible.

Judd: Did they stay married? Sarah: No, they got divorced when I was like six and a half, but I was thrilled because they hated each other. I mean, I never saw a loving glance or a smile between them until long after they were divorced. Now they’re close. They’re like army buddies, you know. Like siblings. My mom is sickly and my stepmother checks in on her almost every day. Judd: So your dad remarried and his wife is close with your mom? Sarah: Yeah, they’re all close. My mom remarried, too.

There weren’t any boundaries or a sense of, like, “Maybe let’s not say that in front of the kids.” It was all out there, you know, and I didn’t know better. I mean, honestly, a lot of the human etiquette I learned in life I learned from, like, thank-you notes and dating Jimmy Kimmel. I have great parents and they both taught me great things, but it was just different. My formative years were boundaryless.

I have to sit and sit and work on my jokes. And it’s just such torture for me and I think, Why don’t I love this? Sitting down and fixing my shitty jokes should be my passion. But it’s torture.

Judd: Seinfeld said he sits and writes for two hours every single day. Sarah: Seinfeld and Chris Rock, they’re just that incredible combination of funny and not lazy, which is very rare and special and completely failure proof.

When I drive them in my car, and they get out, I have to Febreze the whole area. It’s insane. Like hygiene is just something you don’t need if you’re fly enough to get girls or something. But it’s bad and death creeps in through the gums.

Judd: I think a lot of the reason why I’ve done okay was growing up with the terror of not doing okay. From an early age, I tried to teach myself how to think ahead.

I also really like sleeping. My friends make fun of me because, you know, I love hanging out but I always hit a point in the night where I just want to get home and sleep. I have a very active dream life and I have to be there a lot.

There’s something that my wife said to me once: Just because you don’t yell doesn’t mean you’re not mean. That’s actually the interesting lesson that I took from my marriage, which is when you’re married to an actress, they’re very emotional and they’re expressive, and as a weird nerd writer who likes hanging out in his room watching The Merv Griffin Show, I’d be kind of quiet, and so I thought that I was always right in fights just because I didn’t get upset. I was in a superior position because she was getting upset. And then actually that realization was kind of a big moment in our marriage. She convinced me that I’m the dick.

For me, my parents got divorced. And so, as a teenager, I thought, These people are crazy. Whatever advice they’re giving me, I shouldn’t listen to. It made me ambitious. But it’s a big leap to get out of the house, isn’t it? Steve: I definitely wanted to get out of the house and I wanted to have a job. I don’t know why, but the idea of working at Disneyland—that was, you know, fantastic.