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From Funnyman Judd Apatow, A Few Solid Laughs

Director Judd Apatow is known for his cinematic fusion of frat-boy humor and nerdy sensitivity; from the wry comedy of his TV show Freaks and Geeks to the broad public embrace of films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, there's no doubt that Apatow's writing and directing are hilarious.

That's part of the reason he was asked to edit a new book called I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All.

A collection of funny stories sounds pretty great. But why include writing that "may not be funny at all"? Well, the book opens with a James Agee story called "A Mother's Tale," which would seem to be one of those not-so-funny choices.

I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces Of Humor And Some That May Not Be Funny At All
By Judd Apatow
Hardcover, 224 pages
McSweeney's
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

"I found it fascinating and interesting," Apatow says. "James Agee ... was an amazing writer, and he wrote this short story about a cow that's headed to what he thinks is heaven, but really it's the slaughterhouse, and he escapes after they skin him alive and tries to run back home to warn everybody. And, I don't know, that's kind of dark comedy."

Apatow says he especially likes how none of the cows can entirely decide when such horrible things really happen. To them, it may be just a myth that the moms tell their calves.

"There's a thousand ways to read the story, all disturbing -- and I don't know, maybe it's the agnostic part of myself that found it funny," Apatow says.

If dark comedy isn't your thing, don't worry. I Found This Funny has plenty of stories that people who aren't Judd Apatow will mine laughs from.

"There's a great Philip Roth short story, there's some F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, ones that I found kind of humorous -- others might not. But I also put in a chapter from Steve Martin's memoirs and an article about the great comedian Bill Hicks. And these strange cartoons from Iceland that made me laugh," Apatow says. "It's just ... things that I find amusing or things that I find, you know, powerful."

Fans of his films love Apatow's writing because it makes them laugh, but many also recognize a level of honesty -- brutal honesty, even -- in his work.

"A lot of what I find interesting in writing is ... raw truth and the worst sides of ourselves," he says. "I like when work is passionate and personal, so a lot of the work in the book is very passionate." For him, and for many audiences, happiness is boring.

"I don't want to go to the movies to see happy people," he says. "That's why people like Indiana Jones; they want to see the rock almost crush him. Who wants to see Indian Jones just laying around reading a book?"

Apatow's own relationship with reading as been on and off over the years. A strong reader as a kid, he turned his focus to comedy in college and stopped taking the time to read. Years later, he realized he was missing "an entire aspect of life," so he started getting suggestions from friends.

"I remember Owen Wilson recommended the book A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, which is this hilarious, interesting semi-memoir about an English teacher in the '60s who has alcohol problems and is obsessed with Frank Gifford, who he went to college with. And he compares his entire life to how Frank Gifford is doing. And moments like that made me think, 'Oh, my work will be better if I'm more well-read.'"

Nowadays, he tries to spread that love of reading to kids.

"There's so much technology these days that if you don't make them shut it off, they will never read," he says. "Because they can sit in their room with a computer and talk to 85 people every night on iChats and video chats and never disappear into the world of their imagination with a book."

Profits from I Found It Funny will go toward a charity called 826 National, which has a program that teaches kids to write and creates a book out of their short stories, letting the kids design the cover. Apatow understands very well that getting kids writing can steer them in good directions.

"I wrote a story for my 10th grade English class," he recalls. "It was supposed to be my autobiography, but I was embarrassed [about] my life and how boring it was, so I made one up and said I was a secret agent [who] had affairs with all of the teachers, and I was undercover in the school looking for corruption."

Precisely the sort of stunt, in other words, for which some teachers would send a kid to the principal's office.

"But my great teacher Mrs. Farber said, 'You know, you're really funny. You could be a writer like Woody Allen. You could do that.'"

That was the first time people spoke to him in those terms, says Apatow.

"People yelled at me most of the time. I was getting in trouble for being funny, and that was the first time that my class clownery was funneled in a positive direction. And I think that's what 826 does. It helps kids find themselves through becoming stronger readers and writers."

When it comes to getting his own kids to read, he just points them to the funny stuff.

"I steer everything to the funny, because without the funny we're all in trouble," he says. "These are dark times, and we need to laugh."

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Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Film director Judd Apatow is known for his cinematic fusion of frat boy humor and nerdy sensitivity. From the early days of his TV show "Freaks and Geeks," to the stratospheric embrace of his films like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," there's no doubt that Apatow's writing and directing are hilarious.

That's part of the reason he was asked to edit a new book called "I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny at All."

Judd Apatow joins us from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome back to the program, Judd.

Mr. JUDD APATOW (Film Director): It is a pleasure to be here at the show that launched it all.

HANSEN: That's right. I made you back in the day when you released...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: ..."40-Year-Old Virgin." You hardly needed me.

I'm curious about - I understand "My Favorite Pieces of Humor." But I'm not quite sure I understand "Some That May Not Be Funny At All." You open the collection with a story by James Agee and it's called "A Mother's Tale." This seems to be one of those ones that may not be funny at all. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: ...did you find it funny?

Mr. APATOW: I found it fascinating and interesting. James Agee was the film critic for Time magazine. He also wrote "The African Queen" and "Night of the Hunter." And he was an amazing writer, and he wrote this short story about a cow that's headed to what he thinks is heaven. But really, it's the slaughterhouse. And he escapes after they skin him alive and tries to run back home to warn everybody.

And I don't know, that's kind of dark comedy...

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. APATOW: ...in its own way.

HANSEN: Yeah. But what happens is - the way that I read it is the mom is telling the story about, you know, she wants her calves to stay at home because that's really where the good stuff is. If you go with the herd, you'll take this train ride and you'll be fed really well, and then you'll meet the man with the hammer. And the rest is hamburger.

At the end of the story - I don't think I'm giving too much away because there's a whole book of stories. But it goes through the story and the little calf goes: What's a train?

Now, to me this sounds like the setup and punch-line to an old where a kid asks where am I from? And the mother and father go through the whole explanation. And the kid goes: Oh, my friend Bobby is from Cleveland.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. APATOW: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Is that it? It's like a big setup and then this sort of punchline.

Mr. APATOW: What I like about it is that, you know, they don't even know if it happens; that now it's considered to be a myth. And no one knows if when you get on the train, if you are going to heaven or the slaughterhouse. And there's a thousand ways to read the story, all disturbing. And, I don't know, maybe it's the agnostic part of myself that found it funny.

HANSEN: Well, you can move past disturbing and on to funny stories, funny ha-ha, funny serious. When you talked to us before, you said that comedian Garry Shandling advised you to always make sure the characters you write are real.

Did that idea inform the stories you chose for the book? I'm thinking actually of Amy Bloom's "Love is not a Pie."

Mr. APATOW: I love books where people tell me things they think I should read. And I thought, well, maybe I could do that with humor. And so what I tried to do is pick short stories that were funny. There's a great Philip Roth short story, there's some F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, ones that I found kind of humorous - others might not.

But I also put in a chapter from Steve Martin's memoirs, and an article about the great comedian Bill Hicks, and these strange cartoons from Iceland that made me laugh. And it's just a great way to see what I find amusing or things that I find powerful.

HANSEN: I want to continue on themes of writing, aside from books being recommended or stories being recommended to you, but honesty in writing. Honesty comes to mind in your movie "Knocked Up." The wife, Debbie, finds out her husband has lied to her. And he said he was checking out a band for work. She finds him with his friends playing fantasy baseball. And in this clip that's not the only lie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Knocked Up")

Ms. LESLIE MANN (Actress): (as Debbie) What'd you do last Wednesday night when you said you went to see a band?

Mr. PAUL RUDD (Actor): (as Pete) I went to the movies.

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) With who?

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) By myself.

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) What'd you see?

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) "Spiderman III."

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) Why did you want to go by yourself? Why didn't you ask me to go?

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) 'Cause I needed to get away, you know. With work and you and the kid, sometimes I just need some time to myself.

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) I need time for myself. I want time for myself, too. You're not the only one.

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) It's not that big of a deal.

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) I like "Spiderman."

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) Okay, so let's see "Spiderman III" next week.

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) I don't want to go see it now. I don't want to have to ask you to ask me. I want you to just come up with it on your own.

Mr. RUDD: (as Pete) What, what - I don't even know what to say. What do you want me to do?

Ms. MANN: (as Debbie) You just think because you don't yell that you're not mean. But this is mean.

HANSEN: Oh, brutally honest and funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. APATOW: Yes, that's my brilliant wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. And that is one of the scenes I'm most proud of and ashamed of, at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. APATOW: It's a little too accurate.

HANSEN: Ah.

Mr. APATOW: But a lot of what I find interesting in writing is raw truth and the worst sides of ourselves. You know, sometimes, Leslie will say how come you don't, you know, show all the happy moments? And I always say because that's not interesting. I don't want to go to the movies to see happy people. That's why people like Indiana Jones; they want to see the rock almost crush him.

Who wants to see Indiana Jones just laying around reading a book?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: But honesty is important. So you were looking for honesty in, even if they were recommended, some of these short stories.

Mr. APATOW: Sometimes when you read something or see a movie or hear a song, you think wow, that person is not kidding around. They're not making this to make a buck. They really have something to say. It's like watching Sean Penn's performance in a movie. They're a group of people, you know, they are very serious about what they do and they're trying to get something very deep across. And that's what excites me.

HANSEN: Tell us about your love affair with reading, which began as a kid. But then you kind of broke up for a few years. And then you jumped back in to the relationship again. Tell us why and how that came about, and what kind of reading is now informing your writing today.

Mr. APATOW: The first real reading I did was everything by Stephen King in junior high school. And then I read a book about Lenny Bruce, the unauthorized biography of Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman. But I became obsessed with comedy, and I spent a lot more time watching the "Mike Douglas Show" and "The Tonight Show" than I did reading.

And 10 or 15 years later, I realized, oh my goodness, there's an entire aspect of life that I'm missing out on and I have done my best to catch up. Now, that being said, I own thousands and thousands of books and I have read tens of books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. APATOW: My daughter always laughs at me. Just every time we go to the bookstore you buy 12 books and I have never seen you read any of them. I said, yes, but one day, one day I'll have the time.

HANSEN: So, the profits from your book, Judd Apatow, "I Found This Funny" is the title, is going to raise money for a nonprofit that actually works with kids in eight cities across the United States, 826 National. First of all, very briefly, what kind of work do they do? I mean, I assume it's to get kids reading.

Mr. APATOW: It's a great charity that was started by the writer Dave Eggers. And they are tutoring centers and they have programs where they teach kids to write and then they'll create a book with all the short stories that the kids wrote. And the kids will design it and create the cover.

I remember when I was a kid, I wrote a story for my 10th grade English class and it was supposed to be my autobiography but I was embarrassed of my life and how boring it was. So, I made one up and said I was a secret agent and how I had affairs with all of the teachers and I was undercover in the school looking for corruption. And I thought she was going to yell at me but my great teacher, Mrs. Farber, said, you know, you're really funny. You could be a writer like Woody Allen. You could do that.

And, you know, when I was 14 or 15 years old and no one ever spoke with me in those terms - people yelled at me most of the time. I was, you know, getting in trouble for being funny and that was the first time that my class clownery was funneled in a positive direction and I think that's what 826 does. It helps kids find themselves through becoming stronger readers and writers.

HANSEN: And you just steer them toward the funny.

Mr. APATOW: I steer everything to the funny 'cause without the funny we're all in trouble. These are dark times. We need to laugh.

HANSEN: Filmmaker Judd Apatow. He's just edited a new book called "I Found this Funny," and he joined us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks a lot.

Mr. APATOW: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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