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Excerpt: 'I Found This Funny"

I Found This Funny by Judd Apatow

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

I don't remember how I learned to read. Who taught me to read? Was it my mother? We always had a lot of books around. Dr. Seuss. Curious George. That book about the strange animal with the spots he could take off and juggle. Lately I have been teaching my seven year-old daughter how to read and it is hard. Someone must have put some serious hours in with me. I wish I remembered any of those moments. It must have been my mom and not some faceless Montessori teacher. I'll go with mom. For some reason I think I picked it up really fast because if it was a long difficult road I feel like I would remember that.

I say that because my adult reading life has not been a long easy road. It took a long time before I got excited about literature and reading in general. As an adolescent I liked to read. At first only books about the Marx Brothers. Steve Martin's book of humor, Cruel Shoes. I remember reading the Albert Goldman book, Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce, in seventh grade and it had a major impact on me. It made the world of comedy I dreamed about threedimensional and potentially obtainable (hopefully without the heroin use). The book had such an impact on me that I cut out all of the photographs in it and made a complicated, graphic book report on it. I do not think a book report was even assigned. Then my English teacher promptly "lost" it. For years I thought he was so impressed with my report that he literally stole it so he could have it for himself. He was dead to me after that, which was tough because he was the "cool" English teacher. The one who put on Beatles records and discussed the lyrics with you. The one who would say "shit" a few times a year without shame or regret. Still, dead to me.

And then Stephen King came into my life. In the junior-high years that was all I read, one right after the other. The Dead Zone, Cujo, Firestarter. He cranked them out one after the other. Ridiculously enjoyable books being released to the world at such a torrid pace that one would think the man would have had to be on cocaine.

But sadly, that is where my curiosity ended. Other than a brief moment in college where I believed my mind had been blown open and literature suddenly made sense to me (Candide's in the house, bitches!), I did not pursue it at all. I wrote jokes; I did stand-up comedy. That was my obsession. But I was always limited in my perspective. I became a decent writer because I could mimic the comics I was getting paid to write for, but my own act had no unique perspective. I was kind of funny, but forgettable to everyone, even myself.

I slogged on for a period of years, doing pretty well in Hollywood, but one does not always need to be the cream to rise in that world. I had a major shift after working with the director Jake Kasdan on Paul Feig's creation, Freaks and Geeks. I was directing and had written an episode that contained a scene where one of the geeks goes home alone after school and cheers himself up from his lonely life by watching Garry Shandling on The Dinah Shore Show. As the geek eats grilled cheese sandwiches and cake, like I had always done, the great Who song "I'm the One" plays as he blissfully escapes his frustrating life and laughs his tits off to a stand-up comedian's jokes. After I edited it, Jake Kasdan said, "That is the most personal scene you have ever made, and it's also the best."

It occurred to me that he was correct, and that I needed to find the courage to share my inner world with people through my work. I had always thought my life was pretty boring, but as I slowly brought that boring world into my writing, people connected more with the stories I was telling.

Freaks and Geeks was cancelled, and so was my next show, Undeclared. My wife Leslie was pregnant with our second child, so I decided to take a year off to rest and catch up on an education I abandoned during college due to lack of funds and interest. I was going to take a reading year.

So the question was -- where to start? There are a lot of books out there if you've never read anything but The Stand your previous thirty years. I had spent some time with Owen Wilson, and he recommended a few books. One was Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and the other was Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. He also recommended F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Pat Hobby Stories, one of which is included in this collection. They are hilarious and insightful short stories about a washed-up screenwriter in Hollywood. After several films that did not perform at the box office, I related. But it also led me to suck it up and read The Great Gatsby finally. And then I was off. At some point I bought a book called You've Got to Read This, which contained the favorite stories of a bunch of famous short story writers. That collection introduced me to James Agee, whose story "A Mother's Tale" was in that collection.

And so it went: I would read a collection of short stories and then find an article about the author, see who their influences were and then get those books. I mainly read short stories due to my short attention span. Not only did I mainly read short stories, I always checked out the table of contents and mainly read the shortest stories in any book first. And usually only. I gave up on a lot of books. I still have not done Moby Dick or Tolstoy. I can't say I ever will, unless I have a long hospital stay and while I am in the hospital I am not too medicated or in too much pain to read.

Becoming even semiliterate had an immediate effect on my writing. The courage to dig deep and reveal inspired me to take chances and look at parts of myself I had tried to avoid through workaholism and masturbation. I became a better writer, and suddenly my cult status gave way to people actually going to the movies to see my work. All because the honesty in a book like Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made me think, "maybe I could write a scene about the time I got wigged out having sex with my wife when she was very pregnant. Maybe I could have Leslie's character, Debbie, say to Paul Rudd's character, 'Just because you don't yell doesn't mean you are not mean.'" I had found my voice.

Excerpted from I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces Of Humor And Some That May Not Be Funny At All by Judd Apatow. Copyright 2010 by Judd Apatow. Excerpted by permission of McSweeny's.

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