Snapshot of stand-up by Apatow

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Judd Apatow had not performed stand-up comedy for more than 20 years when he approached the Comedy Cellar stage in New York in April last year. "I was terrified," he said.

Apatow, 47, went onstage and told stories he had tried on talk shows, including a bit about the challenges of marital sex, that got laughs.

"He talked about trying to be sexy while thinking about vaccinating your kids," said Amy Schumer, who stars in his next movie, Trainwreck, and works regularly at the Cellar.

"He killed. I was surprised and it made me a little furious."

A successful Hollywood director moonlighting at basement clubs is not exactly typical - try to imagine Steven Spielberg doing crowd work at the Stand - but stand-up success was Apatow's original dream.

That is clear from his new book, Sick In The Head: Conversations About Life And Comedy, out today from Random House, a lively collection of interviews with comedians that is a kind of love letter to the art form and an entertaining portrait of how stand-up has changed from its first boom in the 1980s to its current one.

In a way, Apatow has been working on this book since he was a teenager.

Seven of the interviews were done for his high school radio station in Long Island, New York, in the 1980s.

Once he decided to put them in a book, he figured he would add new interviews, including ones with several of the people - such as Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling - he talked to as a young man.

The interviewees inevitably include many collaborators - Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Lena Dunham - since his resume in movies (Knocked Up, 2007; The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 2005; Funny People, 2009) and television (The Ben Stiller Show, Freaks And Geeks, Girls) can make Apatow seem like a Zelig of the comedy scene.

The early interviews read like the education of a young comic, with Apatow asking technical questions and trying to prove his bona fides to the comedians he idolised.

When Shandling apologises for not being funnier in the interview, Apatow assures him: "This show is pretty serious."

The purpose of those early interviews, he said recently, was to learn about the business. "This was my comedy school." (He did eventually attend and drop out of the University of Southern California film school.)

"The first interview in the book is talking to Jerry Seinfeld in 1984 and I was asking him: 'How do you write a joke? How do you get spots?' He really lays it out."

Back then, comedians did not have as many outlets to talk with comedy- obsessed journalists.

There were no podcasts or comedy websites, so Apatow's curious, informed questions received expansive answers.

In 1984, Jay Leno says he likes his career because he is obscure enough that he can still trust the audience. "Sometimes when you get real big, they laugh at stuff that's not really that funny and you don't know anymore," he said, pinpointing how fame can be a challenge to a comic's artistic process.

The thorny relationship between comic and audience is a running theme of the book and you can see the tension between "the customer is always right" perspective of Seinfeld (who says fame buys you only a minute and a half with a crowd) and the proud defiance of the Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue, who expresses no interest in audiences over 45.

"They can be tossed in a shallow grave, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I don't write for them." (O'Donoghue died in 1994.)

The new interviews, conducted over the last few years, have a different dynamic.

Apatow is now an equal - he talks more so people learn more about him and the exchanges feel more like a chummy conversation.

The topics range further afield, from comedy to family or religion. He also throws in some non-comedians, such as Miranda July and Eddie Vedder, just because he is a fan.

The focus is also less about how to make comedy than how to manage success in a tough business. The conversations veer, as they tend to do with comics, to dark places.

When Apatow asks Carrey if success brings him peace, he says he worries that calm will ruin his career, describing his work as about needing approval.

"If I remain worthless in my own mind," Carrey says, "I will be the king of show business."

Besides Trainwreck and the next season of Girls, Apatow is working on a Netflix relationship comedy, Love, starring Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust, and a movie about veterans in the vein of The Last Detail (1973).

But his identity is no longer defined by that type of work.

"I don't want to be thought of as a film-maker and not a comedian," said Apatow, who has continued to do stand-up regularly.

"It took me a long time to realise that - just how much I valued stand-up. It's all I wanted to do.

"Everything else was something that happened along the way."

 
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