What Judd Apatow finds funny

Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s leading comedy mogul, was running late. “I actually have to leave, because I’m going to therapy to discuss what happened in this interview,” he said wryly in a conversation on his cell phone from somewhere in Los Angeles. “I don’t know if I’d call it psychotherapy,” he said, when asked. “I’m not a psycho.”

The 42-year-old Apatow is by turns wickedly hilarious, self-aware and a rapid-fire wordsmith in conversation; it’s what one might expect from the writer and director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People” and the producer of other hit raunch-fests-with-heart such as “Superbad” that often reflect his life and career. When the struggling young Jewish comic played by Seth Rogen in “Funny People” recounts how his parents’ bitter divorce forced him to “find the funny,” it could have been Apatow speaking. Hence the therapy sessions. And the content of his new anthology, “I Found This Funny” (McSweeney’s: $25), subtitled “My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny at All.”

The book — which includes short stories by Raymond Carver and Jonathan Franzen alongside work by Apatow, Jon Stewart and other comedians — benefits 826 National, the nonprofit tutoring, writing and publishing organization for students 6-18 headed by Dave Eggers. On Oct. 29, Apatow will conduct a reading at Book Soup and on Oct. 30 at Skylight Books. On the evening of Oct. 29, he and Eggers will co-host an 826 fundraiser (also his book release celebration) at the Writers Guild Theater, with music and comedy by Apatow’s mentor, Garry Shandling, as well as Randy Newman and others.

The anthology proffers comedy sketches and cartoons as well as poems and stories, but — by Apatow’s own admission — one-third of the book “might be depressing.” It opens with James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale,” which spotlights life’s absurdities from the perspective of cows headed to the slaughter, and it includes such fare as Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” in which a boy threatens suicide after he is punished for asking theological questions.

“Comedy is usually about obstacles and things going wrong while we attempt to figure life out or try to do good in the face of a dark world,” Apatow explained. “Two incredibly happy, well-adjusted people living a calm life is a fantastic thing, but it’s not something that provides any entertainment for the rest of us. It’s nice to know other people are struggling.It makes you think, ‘I’m not the only onewho feels this way — some people feel even worse,’ ” he said, laughing.

Apatow first read “The Conversion of the Jews” 10 years ago in the midst of “a Philip Roth kick.” He identified with the sensitive boy who turns the tables on dogmatic grown-ups by threatening to jump off his Hebrew- school building. “As an aspiring stand-up comedian at the age of 11, I certainly understood the concept of standing on a roof, flapping your arms, trying to get people’s attention,” he said.

Apatow grew up in Syosset, N.Y., with parents who were supportive of his stand-up ambitions but who eschewed religion. “My parents were atheists, and there was no talk of religion or spirituality whatsoever,” he said. “The only thing my mom and dad ever said was, ‘Nobody ever said life was fair.’ That’s about as spiritual as we got in my house. When I asked to be bar mitzvahed — probably just because I heard my friends were making a lot of money [through bar mitzvah gifts] — they refused to let me go to Hebrew school, but there was no reasoning behind it. They never sat me down and explained their philosophies, which certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.

“It left [me] spiritually lost because there was no conversation, pro or con, in terms of religion and spirituality. So other than going to a lot of bar mitzvahs and the occasional Passover dinner, there wasn’t any religion in the house. And that’s a very dark point of view. My parents weren’t agnostic; they never said, ‘I hope there’s something more happening.’ They said, ‘That’s it.’ ”

It was a scary vision of the world: “Terrible,” he said. “And I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to recover from it.”

Apatow’s obsession with comedians was part of that journey: “Comedy is a search for answers,” he explained. “If you’re not provided with any answers in another context, you look to people who have some thoughts about what it all means. … But comedians are very dark people, so you don’t get a lot of light answers.”

In his introduction to “I Found This Funny,” Apatow describes how his adolescent reading consisted first of books on the Marx Brothers, whose anarchic upending of wealthy snobs leveled an unfair social playing field. Besides his comedy hero Steve Martin, he said, he “also enjoyed Lou Costello; he was a big weird nerdy guy who got into trouble while his friend was giving him a hard time and whacking him in the face every once in a while. … I felt that way with my own friends; I was always the smaller one, hanging out with athletes, picked last for the teams, getting bossed around a bit, trying to stand up for myself, usually with terrible results.”

Add to that his parents’ divorce when he was in his early teens, when he went to live with his father while his older brother was sent off to grandparents in California and his younger sister mostly stayed with his mother, who worked at a Southampton comedy club. It was through his mother’s club connections that Apatow was able to meet Shandling and a young Jerry Seinfeld, whom he interviewed for his high school radio station.

“I’m still shocked that I’ve done well,” Apatow said of his adult success. He describes some of his commitment to charity work — which currently includes producing public service announcements for the emergency relief group American Jewish World Service — as “survivor’s guilt”: “There’s a part of me that is never comfortable with the fact that I’ve done well,” he said. “Comedy is driven by your pain, and it’s sort of weird that your pain leads to your job, which leads to being comfortable — and yet you’re never comfortable.”

Apatow’s own contribution to “I Found This Funny” is titled, “How I Got Kicked Out of High School,” a diary of the rise and fall of his television show, the critically lauded but all-too-quickly canceled “Freaks and Geeks.” The story opens as Shandling visits Apatow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after Apatow has had back surgery for severe pain caused, in part, by the stress of the demise of “Freaks.”

“Today I found myself wondering if I should create a really smart, hilarious show that just happens to be about hot models,” he wrote in one of the diary entries.

A decade later, Apatow has produced many of the highest-grossing film comedies in Hollywood, but, he said, he’s still evolving his take on things spiritual. He’s read a lot of Buddhist thought; he’s raising his two daughters with the understanding that religion is not necessarily predestined by one’s family history (his wife, the actress Leslie Mann, is not Jewish); and he is “not closed off” to reading more about Judaism.

When pressed now about what his Jewishness means to him, he said, “I don’t know if it’s specific to being Jewish, but there’s a certain neurosis mingled with a certain amount of warmth and instinct to do well by other people. Maybe everyone in the world feels that, but there’s a combination of humor and positive intentions that feels connected that. And a fair amount of pain,” he added, 10 minutes late to his therapy session. “And more guilt than you think is possible to hold in one human shell.”

Q&A with writer-director Judd Apatow

In Hollywood terms, Judd Apatow is hot. His last two films, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” have been smash hits, and his second comedy this summer, “Superbad,” generated a critical buzz ahead of its Aug. 17 release.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Syosset, N.Y., who once worked as a comedy club busboy.

Apatow began performing as a stand-up comedian in high school and moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to attend USC film school. Two years later, he dropped out of USC and roomed with Adam Sandler while he honed his act.

Unable to find his own comedic signature, Apatow moved behind the scenes. He went to work writing for “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks” and was brought in to rewrite such films as “The Cable Guy” and Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer.”

After producing the breakout 2004 hit comedy, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” he wrote and directed “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Apatow has used Judaism as a big theme in his movies. Jews are mentioned numerous times in “Knocked Up” and perennial Apatow favorite, Seth Rogen, plays a Jewish police officer in “Superbad.” Apatow has reunited with Sandler and is currently filming “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” which recounts the story of a Mossad agent who fakes his own death to become a hair stylist.

The Journal recently caught up with Apatow to talk about filmmaking, the plethora of Jewish characters in his films and working with his family in “Knocked Up.”

Jewish Journal: Jerry Seinfeld and I went to see your film, “Knocked Up,” together when we were in Oklahoma City, and it actually gave us sort of a renewed faith in comedy. Why do you think it’s so difficult to make a great comedy?

Judd Apatow: It’s hard for me to know. It took me a very long time to be allowed to make comedies. I was a big fan of a lot of the people who are doing well now a long time ago. And there was a lag time between when these people first revealed they were funny and when the studios felt they could carry a movie.

JJ: Did you hear from Seinfeld at all?

JA: I did. He wrote me a very, very nice e-mail. Jerry Seinfeld is the reason why I went into comedy. I was this huge fan of his. When I was in junior high school and high school, I used to go see him at Caroline’s in New York. And he is one of two or three people that I idolized when I first started doing stand-up.

I met him when I was young and interviewed him for a high school radio station. I think I interviewed him twice. I remember after he did the first time, I asked him to do it again. And he said, “Why would I do it again?” And I said, “Well, you did ‘The Tonight Show’ more than once.”

But the fact that he liked it at all means so much to me, because he’s one of the funniest comedy writers of all time. And as I leave my younger days behind, people like Jerry, who are so funny for so long, are the people that you try to be like. Someone who stays fresh forever. As they enter a new phase of life and have children, their work evolves with their life experience.

JJ: You said about his work that you admire how he writes. His dialogue is so honest. Do you think your early days of stand-up sharpened your ear so you could write this type of honest dialogue for this movie?

JA: Well, I’ve seen Jerry’s comedy from being a fan. When I started this movie, I didn’t think of myself as an interesting person with a unique point of view. I was really frustrated, because I thought I really did have one, but I knew that I wasn’t at that point yet.

That’s why I became a writer. I was frustrated at my own inability to figure out who I was. But because I was such a fan of his and watched him the way a sports fan watches Reggie Jackson, I must have hardwired my brain to understand some of those rhythms.

I knew I could know about his act inside and out. I love watching comedy. That’s the real fun, watching your act when I was at the Eastside Comedy Club on Long Island working as a busboy at 16 and 15 years old, seeing somebody great rip the house down.

I mean, to this day, to me there’s nothing more exciting than that. But as I got older after working with Garry Shandling, I realized that in order to really do good work, I would have to turn inward, go to a more of a personal place, and I started that process. Suddenly, people are responding to it. But it took me a long time to kind of have the courage to try to work from that part of me.

JJ: There’s lots of Jewish stuff in “Knocked Up,” and even in the trailer for “Superbad” there’s a Jewish joke. Your main character is Jewish. Any particular reason you chose to go that way with him?

JA: I didn’t make a conscious effort to make him Jewish, although on an unconscious level, I’m sure I was working with some people who I think can portray my feelings or experiences. I did realize that the majority of the male characters were Jewish, and that they all kept referencing it in their improvisation. And I kept writing jokes and references in the script. And it really made me laugh.

At some point, I thought, well, this is something you don’t see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, and all of them are Jewish. And they’re proud of it and hilarious about it. It’s just not done. And little scenes, like these guys hang out at their nightclub debating the movie “Munich,” and it really made me laugh.