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Judd Apatow: A Comedy-Obsessed Kid Becomes 'Champion Of The Goofball'

When Apatow was a teen he landed interviews with an impressive roster of comics for his high school radio show. Sick in the Head is a collection of those conversations, and more recent ones as well.

42:47

Other segments from the episode on June 17, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 16, 2015: Interview with Judd Apatow; Review of HBO's Sunday lineup.

Transcript

June 17, 2015

Guest: Judd Apatow

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMO)

JERRY SEINFELD: Hi, this is Jerry Seinfeld. I'm a well-known comedian. If you listen to "Club Comedy" on WKWZ in Syosset, which is where you are, you might as well, 'cause it's with Judd Apatow. I don't know if you know this guy. If you've ever seen him, he is an incredible, incredible guy. I mean, just to look at him is an unbelievable experience.

GROSS: That was Jerry Seinfeld in 1983, doing a promo for Judd Apatow's high school radio show after Apatow interviewed him. Apatow was obsessed with comedy in high school and succeeded in getting some impressive comics to let him ask them questions. Those interviews, as well as Apatow's recent interviews with comics, are collected in his new book, "Sick In The Head." Apatow started his career in the footsteps of his idols, doing stand-up comedy. But he became famous as a movie and TV writer, director and producer. He was a writer and director of the TV series, "Freaks And Geeks," wrote and directed the films, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Funny People" and "This Is 40," produced "Superbad" and "Anchorman," is an executive producer of "Girls," and directed Amy Schumer's new movie, "Trainwreck."

Judd Apatow, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You really had chutzpah to interview professional comics for your high school radio station, a show that probably, like, nobody (laughter) listened to.

JUDD APATOW: Nobody heard it.

GROSS: OK, so you managed to, like, snooker agents or publicists into thinking that you were an actual professional working on a professional radio station. So you get your foot in the door. The comics see you, see that you're, like, this 15-year-old kid. I mean, how did you then have the confidence to fake the rest of it and act as if, yes, you really belong there interviewing people like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Allen?

APATOW: I just wanted to be in the comedy world so bad that there was nothing I wouldn't do to get access to comedians. And I had a friend, Josh Rosenthal, who worked for our high school radio station, and he would go interview R.E.M. or Siouxsie and the Banshees. And I thought, wait a second. We can get interviews with professional people even though our signal doesn't even get out of the school parking lot? And I started calling up the publicists of comedians. And I think, you know, back then, no one wanted to talk to comedians. There was no Internet. There was no podcasting. So getting any call about an interview probably made a publicist think, hey, I look like I'm doing a good job, I got Seinfeld an interview on WKWZ Radio, 'cause the offers probably weren't coming in back then.

GROSS: Yeah, but still, like, once you get your foot in the door, you have to look confident. You have to make it seem like you know what you're doing. And you probably weren't confident, and you probably didn't know what you were doing. The only thing you were probably super confident of was that you wanted to be there and you wanted to talk to this comic.

APATOW: That's true. But also, the only thing I knew in the world as a little kid was comedy. And no other kids in my school cared about it at all. There was no one to talk about it with. You know, we're in a geek culture now where comedy is so giant. I'm one of the people that, you know, works on Funny or Die. And there is just a giant culture of comedy nerds. But back then, I was alone, and I had a little confidence about it because I felt like, this is my thing, this is the only thing that only I know about.

GROSS: So I want to play a clip of your 1983 interview with Jerry Seinfeld. So set the scene for us.

APATOW: Well, he had been on "The Tonight Show" and "The Merv Griffin Show" a bunch of times. But this is many, many years before "Seinfeld." And to me, he was just, oh, the guy who's the greatest observational comedian alive. I'd seen him perform a bunch of times. And even back in 1983, he was the greatest. So I got a time to interview him in California. I visited my grandma on vacation and set up an interview with Seinfeld.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I show up at his apartment. He's got zero furnishings. Literally, every wall has nothing on it. He is just all comedy. There's like a couch, chair, and that's it. And he opens the door. Me and my brother are there. He gives me a look like, oh, OK, children are here. And then he's incredibly nice. And I ask him, how do you write a joke? How do you become a comedian? And he was nice enough to explain all of it to me.

GROSS: This is - I think a really interesting, insightful part of the interview that I want to play.

So here's Judd Apatow, my guest, interviewing Jerry Seinfeld in 1983. And this is the lead interview in his new book of interviews with comics, "Sick In The Head." And remember, Judd Apatow is 15 when he is recording this interview with Seinfeld.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APATOW: I'd like to talk about your type of comedy that you do. How do you describe it? It's sort of...

SEINFELD: It's funny.

APATOW: ...Observational with, like, a twist on it. Some people just tell the joke like an observation, and that's it. But you add a whole new dimension on it.

SEINFELD: Yeah. I'm eating, so I'm going to sound like I'm chewing, 'cause I am.

APATOW: (Laughter).

SEINFELD: Well, it's one thing to see something, you know? And I think the next step is to do something with it, you know? Like, I'm doing this routine now about this guy that was on "That's Incredible!" last year that caught a bullet between his teeth. And it's, like, you see a thing like that and you go, what the hell is that, you know? A guy catches a bullet between his teeth. And, now, I don't know what's funny about that. But I think to myself, there is something funny about that, and that's what I like to do. Other comedians do different kinds of things, you know? But that's what I want to do. And I'm - so I've explored that and I think, you know, what job did he have before he got into doing that? What made him go, you know, I'd rather be catching bullets between my teeth? You know, and - I don't know. Just, I have a whole routine about it. But to me, that's funny, you know? I don't know. That's the way my mind works, I guess.

APATOW: So how do you develop that?

SEINFELD: Trial and error. You know, just try out one joke. I have this other thing about how I don't remember his name. You know, I saw the guy do it, right, caught the bullet. I don't even know his name. Now, if he knew that I didn't know his name after seeing that, wouldn't he feel like, what the hell do I have to do?

APATOW: (Laughter).

SEINFELD: You know what I mean? Isn't that impressive enough for people to remember me? I mean, what, do I got to catch a cannonball in the eye or - what is like - so it's like, I just keep thinking on it until I, you know, hit something.

GROSS: So that's an excerpt of Judd Apatow at the age of 15, interviewing Jerry Seinfeld. The whole interview is in his new book of interviews with comics, called "Sick In The Head."

So that's a pretty interesting insight about how he takes an observation and has to, like, work through, so what's funny about that and all the trial and error stuff. Did you love hearing that when you were 15?

APATOW: It transformed me. It was the first time someone explained what stand-up comedy was and how you develop it. That was probably the most important moment of the 45 interviews I did as a kid. It was just simple. And also, Jerry Seinfeld grew up two towns over from me. And when I met him, I thought, I'm kind of like him. I'm just a Long Island guy. And it made me feel like a life in comedy was possible because this guy who felt similar to me was this amazing comedian. And then I asked him to do it again. We did another interview about six months later. And he said, why would I do it again? I already did one with you. And I said, well, you did "The Tonight Show" more than once.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: And then he did another interview with me. We did, like, another hour, six months later. And that's the nicest guy in the world.

GROSS: (Laughter). So once he told you that he tries to figure out what's funny about this and he sits down and he works through it, did you start doing that yourself?

APATOW: I did, but I was so unfunny. I look at how funny young comedy people are today at 17, 18, 19. I can't believe it. I may have gotten funny, like, two years ago. It took me a long time to really figure all of this out.

GROSS: So what's it like for you to listen back to your 15-year-old voice?

APATOW: Well, it's fascinating because I've lost most of the Long Island accent. I got a little Long Island in me. It's funny to hear your voice before it changes, you know? So it's funny that there's still a little like, (imitating 15-year-old voice) how do you do it? How do you write jokes? So sometimes, like, you'd say something and then it's weird and you make it funny.

So it is painful to hear how dumb you are.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: But, I - you know, my grandfather was a jazz producer. His name was Bobby Shad. And he recorded Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. But in the late '40s and the early '50s, you know, he went down South with a tape recorder, and he recorded all these blues artists on their front stoop. He was one of the first people to bring the recording equipment to those people. And I always remembered that he was a hustler, and that if you want to make something of yourself, you just have to do crazy things. And that's what this felt like.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow. He has a new collection of his interviews with comics dating back to when he was 15 and had a high school radio show. It's called "Sick In The Head: Conversations About Life And Comedy." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow, the writer, director and producer whose credits include "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "This Is 40." He's an executive producer of "Girls," and he's directed the new Amy Schumer movie that opens in July. He has a new collection of the interviews that he's done with comics, dating back to when he had a high school radio show. And with interviews as recent as ones recorded last year, the book is called "Sick In The Head: Conversations About Life And Comedy."

So let's hear another interview excerpt, and this is with Jay Leno in - was it 1984?

APATOW: That's correct, at Rascals Comedy Club in New Jersey.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you're interviewing him, and the way you start is so endearing because you're obviously kind of uncomfortable. And I can't tell, at the beginning of the interview, whether you're trying to put him at ease or trying to put yourself at ease. So let's listen, and then you can tell me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APATOW: OK, right now - I know it's hard to get going. Once you get going, it'll be OK.

JAY LENO: OK.

APATOW: (Laughter) OK. Where are you right now in your career, if you had to describe it, you know, with popularity?

LENO: About 25 miles outside of New Jersey - outside of New York, I guess. I'm in Jersey right now. Where am I? I have no idea. I don't really know. I mean, last two years or so I've been doing "The Letterman Show" a lot, and that seems to have helped an awful lot. So, you know the clubs are kind of full on Wednesdays now instead of just the weekends, so that's nice. But I don't know. I'm too close to it. I can't tell.

APATOW: What would people that you've opened up for?

LENO: Oh, everybody. Everybody from Stan Getz, Mose Allison, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chikeria (ph), all the way to, like, John Denver, Tom Jones, Perry Como, Kris Kristofferson - I mean, all kinds of people.

APATOW: I remember I saw you once on "Laverne And Shirley."

LENO: Yeah.

APATOW: I know, I hate to bring that up (laughter). What is the point of doing that show at your stage - in that stage in your career?

LENO: Well, the point of doing that show is the same point of doing this show. Somebody asks you to do it, you go, why not?

APATOW: Yeah.

LENO: You know, I mean, you do everything. I mean, I make fun - I mean, I like Penny and Cindy and all those people. They're good friends. And people ask you to do the show, and it's nice. I mean, OK, the show is not exactly "King Lear," but that's all right. I mean, they're fun people to work with, and you do the shows.

APATOW: Because that's the kind of thing you make fun of in your acts.

LENO: Oh, sure it is, sure it is. But I'm not above doing something I make fun of in my act. I also eat at McDonald's and all those other things I make fun of. But, I mean, that's all a part of the business, you know? I mean, you can - I do "Hollywood Squares." I do whatever people ask me to do, unless it's something which is just totally - oh, I don't know, I mean, sexist or racist or something of that nature. But when you do those kind of shows, it just helps - you know, when I'm on TV, I'm either on "The Tonight Show" or "The Letterman Show," which is on after 11:30 at night in most parts of the country. So consequently, there's a whole generation of people that never see you or know who you are. So when you do a show like "Laverne And Shirley," it gives my relatives a chance to see me on television.

GROSS: OK, that's Jay Leno in 1984, being interviewed by Judd Apatow when - how old were you then, 16, maybe?

APATOW: Sixteen. And have you ever heard anyone happier to talk to somebody?

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I mean, I'm literally jumping out of my shoes that I'm in the room with Jay Leno.

GROSS: So when you say at the beginning, you know, like, it - what do you say to him at the beginning? It's hard getting started and then it gets easier.

APATOW: Exactly (laughter).

GROSS: Are you reassuring yourself or reassuring him?

APATOW: I think I'm just trying to see if I pooped my own pants.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I'm just so scared and excited. There's way too many emotions happening right there. I mean, Leno, you know, was one of the main people that made me want to be a comedian. I listened to him on "The Merv Griffin Show," and he was on "The Tonight Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show." And he was a real hero of mine, and then was always incredibly nice to me when he was at "The Tonight Show." He would have me on all the time when I was just some goofy director and there was no reason to have me on. He always treated me as a friend.

GROSS: I also love in this part when you ask him, so why are you doing, like, a stupid show like "Laverne And Shirley?" And he tosses it back to you and says, why am I doing this show?

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Like I'm "Laverne And Shirley."

GROSS: And I bet he was really thinking that, too - why am I doing (laughter) why am I doing this show?

APATOW: Exactly. Again, another person that doesn't know a child is coming to talk to them. But, you know what?

GROSS: But he was so generous.

APATOW: I did him twice as well, I did him twice as well. I cornered him six months later and I did another one with him. I don't know where I got the cojones to do that. But really, my secret dream was that Jay Leno would turn to me and go, will you be my best friend? That was my 16-year-old dream.

GROSS: Didn't happen, right? (Laughter).

APATOW: It did not happen. Right now, we are distant close friends.

GROSS: But what did happen, you asked him to do a promo for your radio show, and he obliged. (Laughter).

APATOW: Oh, jeez. Do you have that?

GROSS: We have that.

APATOW: Oh, my goodness.

GROSS: So we're going to hear Jay Leno's promo. It's very funny, actually. So let's hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMO)

APATOW: Say whatever you want. Open. Wait a minute. I should say, the name of the show is, "Club Comedy." The interview name of the show is...

LENO: Hello, this is Jay Leno. And, you know, when I'm not working with the poor, I like to take some time out and listen to "Club Comedy" on WKWZ 88.5 FM.

GROSS: Talk about chutzpah. You're a 16-year-old (laughter) interviewing Jay Leno, and you're asking him to promote it. He doesn't even know the name. He's never heard of the station. He doesn't know you. Add it's like, hey, do a promo for my show. (Laughter).

APATOW: See, I think everyone's doing so much more press now that you wouldn't do all of those things. But then I just don't think there was much for them to do. I think comedians were way more bored, and I took advantage of that.

GROSS: So it must've been odd for you, like, in the period when he kind of, you know, reclaimed "The Tonight Show" and Conan had to, like, move to another network and everybody was saying, like, how selfish he was being. And you knew him as, like, the most generous person in the world from this early interview.

APATOW: Well, I am a believer that it is a dog fight to get those talk shows, to keep those talk shows. Everyone is pushing somebody else out and jockeying for position. So I was never the person who thought that any of the players did anything wrong because you're implicitly trying to get a show, or you're trying to not get pushed out of your own show. When I was at "The Larry Sanders Show," the entire final season was about Jon Stewart pushing out Larry Sanders and taking over "The Larry Sanders Show." That's just how it works.

GROSS: Years before you even did these interviews, you wanted to be in showbiz. When you were in seventh grade, you got a series of head shots 'cause you wanted to do TV commercials. Why TV commercials? Like, why weren't you aiming for...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Like, maybe playing a kid on a Broadway show, or being an extra in a movie? Why was like, TV commercials the dream of the moment for you?

APATOW: That just shows how confused I was.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I thought the way to become an actor was to be on a Burger King commercial.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: There was no part of me that's like, I could be the kid in "Les Mis." I didn't really understand anything about the process. In show business, all I knew was, some people did commercials, and I could be like Rodney Allen Rippy, you know, I could one of those...

GROSS: Who is that?

APATOW: Remember that kid who's like, it's a virtual borgasmorg (ph)?

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I could be, you know, Mason Reese or something. And so I got my head shots, and then immediately, this terrible thing happened. I was trying to make my friends laugh so I shoved poison ivy up my nose. That's how badly I was trying to get laughs. I get poison ivy all over my face, I start putting poison ivy medication on it. Then I get the chickenpox. But I don't know I have the chickenpox because I think I have poison ivy. And the medicine, it inflames the chickenpox. So now I have these like, Godzilla-sized chickenpox and I have scars all over my face, and I look like Noriega. And that was the end of my chance of being on a Burger King commercial.

GROSS: But you'd already had your head shots taken.

APATOW: They were worthless because I was now a freakish-looking man.

GROSS: How long did it take for the scars to go away?

APATOW: Well, if we - next time we're face to face, you will go, ah. Up-close. They're still there. I have one scar right in between my eyes. Everyone used to make fun of me and say I had a third eye.

GROSS: Wow. That must've hurt (laughter).

APATOW: It did hurt. It was right when puberty hit. I was scarred.

GROSS: So how did that affect the direction you wanted to take with comedy? You had to give up on your dream of being a kid in a TV commercial. (Laughter). Was comedy already on the agenda?

APATOW: Well, I don't know. I don't know what I would've done. I definitely gave up for a few years 'cause I was scarred. 'Cause who knows, maybe I would've wanted to take an acting class or something like that. So when my parents got divorced, this great guy, Rick Messina, he was a bartender at a restaurant that my parents owned and then he later went on to open up the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington, and he had another club in Southampton. So one summer, my mom became the hostess at this comedy club. And at the time I didn't realize it, but later I thought, oh, I think she just did that because I liked comedy. 'Cause how much money can she make seating people at a comedy club? You know, it doesn't sound like that was going to make or break her financially. You know, she was going through a divorce and struggling financially. So it was a real gift to me because that summer, I got to see every comedian in the world at this comedy club. And that's what inspired me to pursue it, and then I thought, oh, maybe I can interview these people. And I became a dishwasher at their comedy club so I could watch the shows.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter, director and producer, Judd Apatow. His new book, "Sick In The Head," collects his interviews with comics dating back to when he was 15 and working at his high school radio station. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about his teenage years and about the time two years ago when he was supposed to go on stage at a televised tribute to Mel Brooks, and he panicked. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Judd Apatow. He was a writer and director of the TV series "Freaks And Geeks," wrote and directed the films "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Funny People," and "This Is 40," produced 'Superbad" and "Anchorman," is an executive producer of HBO's "Girls," and directed Amy Schumer's new movie, "Trainwreck." When he was 15 and obsessed with comedy, he started interviewing comics for his high school radio station. Those interviews, as well as his recent interviews with comics, are collected in his new book, "Sick In The Head."

Your parents divorced when you were in 10th grade or something?

APATOW: Well, it started in junior high. And then I think they finally got divorced, like, 10 years later. It was a long back and forth of court dates.

GROSS: Right, but they weren't living together during most of that time, right?

APATOW: They were not.

GROSS: Right. So when they separated - and it sounds like it was pretty acrimonious - for example your mother called you, asked for your father's credit card number and proceeded to charge about $30,000 worth of stuff, and your father didn't have that kind of money. So did you feel like you were starting to matter less in their lives, that they were looking out for you less?

APATOW: Well, it was the era before conscious uncoupling. Now people - they go to the therapist to try to get along for their kids. But, you know, in the '70s and early '80s, people just went to war. And it happened with all of my friends. One by one, all their parents got divorced. And the parents would really vilify each other. And they would tell the kids everything that was happening. My mom did that much more than my dad. And so I was just classically in the middle in a situation that I didn't know how to handle. And, you know, they're both great people and were both incredibly supportive of everything I wanted to do in comedy. My dad was the one who introduced me to comedy. And he would drive me to all the clubs late at night. And my mom worked at the comedy club. And they so believed I could pull it off that it gave me the confidence to do it. But they really could not find a way to get along. And that troubles you when you're a kid because you're looking to them for answers. And you're looking to them for a way to navigate the world. And when they're, you know, fully, you know, at war, you're not sure who to listen to and whose advice to take. And it makes you feel like you have to be responsible for yourself. And that's what drove me and made me think, oh, I've got to get a job. I've got to figure out what I'm going to do. I mean, I don't think my kids have that situation. I don't think that they're sitting around saying going, I've got to get the hell out of Malibu.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: They've got a much easier situation.

GROSS: You write (reading) everything about how my family worked was based on guilt. Why should you have felt guilty, though, 'cause they were the ones who were arguing. They were the ones who were undermining each other.

APATOW: Well, I don't know if that's my family or any Jewish family. But I feel like a Jewish family can make you feel bad about anything, even if they just go, how you doing? I'm doing good. Oh yeah? Well, it's good you're doing good. And you feel terrible all day long.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: Well, it's nice that someone feels good. It's nice that you feel good, yeah. Not everyone gets a chance to feel good because it's a hard time. But you get to feel good? Oh, OK, well, that's nice for you. That's nice for you. How are you doing? Oh, I don't want to talk about it - don't want to bother you with it. The Jewish people can just get you at any corner. I remember, like, going to the mall with my grandma and her just - I'd go come on Grandma, let's go in the mall. I'll just wait in the car. I'm going to be, like, three hours. I'll be fine. I'll occupy myself.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you say in your book that you started shoplifting with the secret hope that you'd get caught so you could have an excuse to yell at your parents, this never would have happened if it wasn't for this divorce. What did you shoplift?

APATOW: Oh, we used to switch all the price tags at the sporting goods store. So I would buy a tennis ball racket - I mean, a racquetball racket that cost $200. I would switch the price tag, and make it cost $10. And then, I would return it for $200 in credit.

GROSS: No, wow.

APATOW: Then I would have $200 in credit. Then, I would buy brand-new skis and because my parents weren't paying any attention, they didn't go, why does my 13-year-old have brand-new skis? (Laughter) And we did that for years. I mean, when I look back now, I think I was really doing some bad things. I remember we used to - we'd take a BB gun and shoot out people's windows in their cars and steal their radar detectors and sell their radar detectors. I mean, we would, like, follow people home and blow out their window and steal their radar detectors in Southampton. And we'd be like, well, they're fine; they can replace that window. And I never thought how insane it was as a kid. I just was in some bizarre headspace that - I don't know, everything is so crazy; who cares? And I wanted $100 for the radar detector.

GROSS: Wow, you are really, really lucky that you didn't get caught or beaten up or, like, end up just heading in that direction forever.

APATOW: It's not that we did it that much. But, you know, I think everyone - we were all like hustlers a little bit. You know, most of our families, you know, were upper middle class. And then they would get divorced. And then we, you know, everyone would move from, like, the big house to, like, the tiny apartment. And we would just try to figure out, how are we going to make money? What are we going to do? I remember cheating a lot, both in school and at poker with friends. And it just seemed like whatever we wanted to do was OK. And I never thought that much about the ethics of it. It wasn't like that dark. It was just, like, stupid stuff. And then later, I thought, oh, it's kind of terrible to follow someone home, waiting for them to go to sleep and steal their car radar detector. But at the time, it just seemed like a weird, crazy adventure. And no one was really paying attention to what we were doing.

GROSS: So among the things that you had to deal with when you were growing up is that you were just about the shortest kid in your class, and you were the youngest kid in your class. You weren't athletic. Put those three things together; what impact did it have on you?

APATOW: Well, it's - you know, it's a pretty humiliating thing when you get picked last every day in gym class. And then at lunch time, all the kids play sports, and you get picked last. And at the time, I just thought, this is awful because it defines you as a weak person. It defines you with girls. And if you're bad at sports, you get in this funny cycle where the ball never gets to you because now you're in the worst position - you're in, like, deep right field. So you can never prove that you got better. And so the cycle lasts forever. And it made me angry at attractive people. It made me angry at healthy people and physical people. Even now, if I see someone working out, you know, in great shape - like, a 40-year-old guy with his shirt off, jogging - I always think, look at that idiot.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: That's why everyone in my movie is kind of goofy - because I'm a champion of the goofball. But what sucks is I have to work out now, you know, not to die.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: I was always happy not working out because I never wanted to be someone who worked out to look good, but now I have to try to not die, which is such a drag.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. I was - I am very short. And in school, I was always, like, the shortest or the second-shortest person in my class. But that did not diminish my status as a girl because it's OK for a girl to be short in a way that it wasn't supposed be OK for a boy to be short.

APATOW: Well, I didn't realize until years later, but my parents pushed for me to be ahead in the grade because I was the youngest person in the class. And I was supposed to be a year behind what I was. And, you know, when you're little, that year is...

GROSS: Yeah.

APATOW: Impactful. You are smaller. You're behind in every possible way. You're not as smart - I mean, I'm not as smart for all sorts of reasons. I realized recently that one of the reasons why I'm not smart is 'cause my mother didn't breast-feed me. When we had our kids, my mom was like, why are you breast-feeding them? You didn't get it; you're fine. And she would be mad at us for breast-feeding. And then, I read this study that said, you know, people who are breast-fed are smarter and have better jobs. And I'm like, that's why everyone in my movie is high or in high school - because I can't even pretend to write for a smart person. I can't even fake it - of, like, how witty people talk. So - and I don't know where any of the states are. I realized the other day if you gave me an empty map of America, I could probably hit about eight states.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow. He has a new book that collects his interviews with comics, interviews dating back to 1983, when he was 15, working on his high school radio station. The book is called, "Sick In The Head: Conversations About Life And Comedy." Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Judd Apatow. And he is best known as a writer, director and producer. His credits include "Freaks And Geeks," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "This Is 40." He's an executive producer of "Girls," and he directed the new Amy Schumer movie, "Trainwreck," which opens in July.

GROSS: When you first got on stage to do stand-up, what was your earliest material like?

APATOW: My earliest material was all about how terrible I was. I used to do my act, I wouldn't get laughs and then at the end I would say, you know, ladies and gentlemen, the great Jerry Lewis said, you only learn by being not funny. You learn nothing by being funny, so thank you for giving me a college education tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

APATOW: And that was my closer. And that would get a big laugh because I bombed for the last five minutes.

GROSS: How did your self-esteem deal with bombing?

APATOW: Well, here's the funny thing. When I did the interviews, everybody said it would take seven years to get good and to find yourself. So I had it built in my head that I was supposed to bomb for a couple of years. And so even though I didn't enjoy it, I thought that I was right on schedule.

GROSS: Were you honest about any of your real insecurities on stage, or was your material just kind of jokes about stuff?

APATOW: I was, you know, I was trying to. I - you know, I really admired Bill Maher when I first started. But I was not angry about anything. You know, it's hard to be a comedian when you don't have strong opinions, no stories and no rage. And that's one of the reasons why I stopped doing it for 22 years. I had to build-up opinions, stories and rage.

GROSS: You were asked to be one of the speakers at the AFI, the American Film Institute, tribute to Mel Brooks, which was only, like, a year or two ago.

APATOW: That's right.

GROSS: And - so you were supposed to go on I guess in the middle of the show or something. And from the way you've told the story, it's like, right before you're about to go on, you tell - I don't know, the stage manager, somebody - that you can't do it, that you're not going to do it. And in fact, you didn't go on. Like, what was going through your mind then?

APATOW: Well, I was asked to do a toast. And I'm not good on cue cards, I hadn't been doing stand-up comedy, I wasn't comfortable in front of people. So I thought, you know, I'll write some bullet points and I'll speak from my heart because I do love Mel Brooks. My wife can't go that night and she's the one that always supports me and gives me the strength to do things which are scary. 'Cause if I get scared, she'll say you're great, don't worry about it. You're going to kill, it'll be fun, but she was unavailable. But my daughter, Maude, was. She was 15 years old. Now, if I try a joke out on Maude, she's always like, I don't think that will work. I've never tried a joke on her where she's said, that's funny. She's always like, you think that'll work? Oh, God, don't say that. Please, don't say that. I think that won't work, Dad. 'Cause she's so worried that it'll go badly. So we're in the car and her dress suddenly just tears, like, in half. And I'm all frustrated because I need to work on my speech in the car on the way there, and now I have to figure out a way to sew her dress back together. So we go and we sew her dress back together, backstage at the show, with all the people working on the show. I've had no time to prepare my speech. The show starts. I'm scared to death. Every show-business person on Earth is there. Martin Short opens the show, does a medley of every song from every Mel Brooks movie. It is like he worked on this medley for two-and-a-half years. It is the most incredible thing I've ever seen. Then Billy Crystal comes out - kills. Then Sarah Silverman comes out and says everything that I was planning to say, more eloquently and funnier than I was about to say it. I turn to Maude for support. I say, Maude, I'm getting scared, I'm kind of freaking out. What do you think? And she turns to me and goes, Dad, don't do it. Don't do it. You're white as a ghost - are you having a heart attack? You look like you're going to die. Don't do it.

And I just had a raging panic attack. I walked up to the first assistant director and I said, I can't do it, I'm too nervous. It seems like this show's long - why don't you skip over me?

And they looked at me like, are you serious? (Laughter). And I didn't do it. And that show won the Emmy. So maybe I would've hurt that show and they would've lost the Emmy if I did it.

GROSS: Have you ever done anything like that another time?

APATOW: Well...

GROSS: Is that the only time?

APATOW: ...One of the main reasons I stopped doing stand-up, I realized later, was I auditioned for something for Jim Henson. And Jim Henson didn't want to hire me. And I hear from the casting director, he'd like to buy your ideas but he doesn't want you to appear in the show - he thinks you lack warmth. And I was like, Jim Henson thinks I lack warmth? That's like Mr. Rogers telling me, you don't deserve love.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APATOW: He taught me to read. Years later, I thought, I can't imagine he actually told somebody to call me and tell me I lack warmth. So probably, it's just a mean casting director. But at the time, it really took the wind out of my sails. It made me think, oh, yes, this instinct you have to not perform has now been confirmed by Kermit the Frog.

GROSS: You write, (reading) my mind is a noisy place. I tend to look for problems so I can solve them before they blow up in my face. I am like a lookout for disaster.

Do you think you, like, you were trained to be that way as a child?

APATOW: Well, I think when you grow up in the - a volatile or sensitive situation, you know, you don't feel that calm. And you're just looking for trouble, and you're looking for ways to avoid trouble. And I think it's helped me as a producer because a lot of producing is anticipating a problem. Are we going to run out of money? Did we hire the right actor? Is the script ready? And you're planning for things, you know, a year in advance. And I think that my general panic and catastrophic thinking makes me a better producer. It's terrible at life. It's the worst thing for your brain, but it helps you get the movie in on-budget.

GROSS: So one last question for you - and this is a very, very important question. Why are the interviews in your book in alphabetical order as opposed to chronological order? And why are they alphabetical order according to first name and not last name?

APATOW: (Laughter). This is the best question I've ever been asked.

GROSS: America awaits. (Laughter).

APATOW: OK. So first of all, I don't remember the order, so I can't do it chronologically. But I tried to do it like, by section. Like, interviews with friends, interviews with mentors, you know, things like that. And then I just didn't like how they bunched-up, so finally I said, OK, let's alphabetize it by last name and then first name. And then I just liked the order of alphabetized by the first name. And then I started with the Jerry Seinfeld interview because I feel like that really kind of sets the table for what's in the book. But I think, you know, it's meant for the toilet, Terry. It's meant for an airplane or bed. I mean, there's like 30-something interviews in the book, so you could open it up and go, oh, I'd love to hear Mike Nichols or James Brooks, or, you know, Chris Rock. It's really more to jump in where ever you feel like it. You shouldn't read this like it's "Infinite Jest," or something. It's meant to be dipped into when you feel like it.

GROSS: Well, who needs good reviews or a blurb when you could just say for yourself, it's meant for the toilet? (Laughter).

APATOW: Sometimes you have to admit that.

GROSS: (Laughter) Judd Apatow, it has been so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. Good luck with everything that you have in the works.

APATOW: All right, thank you so much. Great to talk to you again.

GROSS: Judd Apatow's new book, collecting his interviews with comedians, is called, "Sick In The Head." He directed Amy Schumer's new film, "Trainwreck," which opens next month.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Last weekend, HBO presented the season finales of its three Sunday night primetime spring series - "Game Of Thrones," "Silicon Valley," and "Veep". This weekend, HBO unveils its new Sunday night lineup, the all new second season of "True Detective" and two new comedies - "Ballers" starring Dwayne Johnson, the former wrestler who was known as The Rock, and "The Brink" starring Tim Robbins and Jack Black. Our TV critic David Bianculli is surprised and impressed by all three shows.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Let's start with "Ballers." HBO has tried building a sitcom around pro football before, way back in 1984, with one of its earliest series efforts "1st and 10." That show not only was flat-out bad, but one of its stars was O.J. Simpson just a few years before he became infamous as well as famous. "Ballers," though much of it deals with the Miami Dolphins, is more like another vintage HBO sports comedy "Arli$$". Dwayne Johnson plays Spencer, an ex-Dolphin who is trying to make the transition from pro football player to financial planner for wealthy athletes. His boss is played by Rob Corddry from "The Daily Show" who throws indignities at Spencer that The Rock in a wrestling ring would never have sat there and taken. But Spencer does with a slow burn that Johnson delivers very, very nicely as his boss complains about not locking up the estate planning for a football player who's just died.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BALLERS")

ROB CORDDRY: (As Joe) Look, there's going to come a time, because you've been here a year now, where you're going to have to...

DWAYNE JOHNSON: (As Spencer) Monetize my friendships, right?

CORDDRY: (As Joe) Yeah, but the way you say it, you know, monetizing friendships - it makes me sound like an [expletive]. All right? And I'm not, you know me. I hired you for access; for your friends. For players, even the ones you hate. I don't care. I don't care who it is. I don't care who they play for. What about Rodney? He probably could've used your help. Can we manage his estate at least?

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) There is no estate. Tina was left with nothing.

CORDDRY: (As Joe) Wow, you're kidding me right?

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) No.

BIANCULLI: Throw in the sexy women, the lavish spending, the outrageous misbehavior and the greedy entourages and "Ballers" feels like the football equivalent of the hip-hop music world of "Empire"- just as entertaining and even less predictable. HBO's other new comedy "The Brink" is even more recognizable as a variation on a theme. It's got an indecisive U.S. president, advisers who range from sensible to bloodthirsty and an out-of-control pilot on a bombing mission overseas. Yes, it sounds almost exactly like Stanley Kubrick's brilliant apocalyptic antiwar comedy Dr. Strangelove." But "The Brink" has its own modern take on the nonsense of war. This series really takes chances with its casting and those chances really pay off. Pablo Schreiber plays the loose-cannon pilot sent to target Pakistan after a military COO there results in fears of World War III. Two comics who work superbly together here (inaudible) play a low-level State Department envoy and his driver on the ground in Pakistan. And back in the White House situation room, Tim Robbins, who's hilarious, plays Secretary of State Walter Larson. And when he picks a fight with the military advisor pushing for an immediate attack, even the president can't stop the bickering.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

ESAI MORALES: (As President Julien Navarro) Walter, talk to me.

TIM ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Mr. President, I'm in the process of tracking down moderate elements in the Pakistani government. Give me 24 hours to find a different way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We don't have 24 hours Mr. President, we need to remove those weapons now.

ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Spoken like a true chicken hawk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're out of line, Walter.

ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Am I? I was on the [expletive] roof defending the last chopper out of Saigon before my 19th birthday. When you were 19, you were date raping Radcliffe girls [expletive]. Or was it Harvard boys?

BIANCULLI: Finally, there's "True Detective." Like "American Horror Story" and "Fargo," it's designed so that each season of episodes stands alone telling a new story with new characters and mostly new actors. Last season, "True Detective," with its grim flashbacks, was a combination murder mystery and character study starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. This season, once again created by Nick Pizzolatto, is about a different murder and involves new investigators from three different jurisdictions. Those investigators, all with troubled pasts and abrasive personalities, are played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and from "Friday Night Lights," Taylor Kitsch. And in scenes set in both the past and present, the law man played by Colin Farrell has an uneasy relationship with a local white-collar criminal played by Vince Vaughn. In a flashback, we see their first meeting when Vaughn's character summons Farrell's street cop to give him some information regarding the cop's wife who has just been brutally attacked. He slides the cop a photograph along with a note with the name and description of the man he has heard bragging about the crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")

VINCE VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) This is the description, all right? My people know him. He's not with us - amphetamine freak. Bragged about it said well, matched your wife's account.

COLIN FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) How do you know my wife's account?

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) This is only information, man. I'm sharing with you. I wanted to do this. Now it's done. That's it.

FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) What to do you want from me?

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) Me?

FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) Yeah.

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) Not a thing. Maybe we'll talk sometime, maybe not.

BIANCULLI: It takes the entire first episode for the main characters to be thrown together. But as soon as they are, you realize there's no predicting what they'll do, which ones to trust, or even which ones will survive. It's the beauty of the miniseries form and "True Detective" uses it expertly. As with HBO's other new Sunday offerings, I didn't know what to expect until I previewed them. But in all three cases, I've ended up pleasantly surprised.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AND MERCY")

PAUL DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Remember, it's the higher octave on the upbeats in the bridge.

GROSS: That's Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in the new film "Love And Mercy." I'll talk with the film's screenwriter Oren Moverman and we'll hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with Brian Wilson, the musical genius who created the sound of The Beach Boys. I hope you can join us tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Wouldn't it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn't have to wait so long. And wouldn't it be nice...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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