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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 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."