“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them. Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head
Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”, was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.
Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.
Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)
Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”
Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”
If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”