NEW YORK — The comedy education of Judd Apatow began with unusual access to great comic minds, which he pried for straightforward instruction: How do you tell a joke?
Growing up on Long Island as a comedy nerd before there was such a thing (or many others like him), Apatow managed to land interviews with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Steve Allen, most of whom turned up expecting something other than a 15-year-old kid with a high school radio show.
It was a foundational beginning for what became a career that has done a lot to define comedy in the last 20 years, from “The Larry Sanders Show” to “Freaks and Geeks,” from “The Cable Guy” to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
In a new book, “Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy,” Apatow, 47, returns to those high school interviews to publish them, as well as add new, more recent talks with many others. Proceeds go to Dave Eggers’ 826, which provides free tutoring and literacy programs to kids.
The conversations center on comedy — where it comes from, how it works — but grow into more expansive and intimate reflections on life from some of the sharpest, most thoughtful minds around.
The intervening decades reveal less about Apatow’s much-improved standing than his continuing comedy-nerd curiosity.
Here are excerpts from a recent Associated Press interview with Apatow:
On his first time performing standup: The first time I did standup, I said to the audience: “Hey, I don’t know how to respond to hecklers so I’d like you to heckle me so I can learn how to do it.”
And then the whole crowd started cursing me out. I used to have a tape of it and on the tape you could hear my friend, Kevin Weltmann, screaming at people to shut up because they wouldn’t stop cursing me out.
So they would curse for a while, then I would take a long pause and say, “See, I don’t know what to say. I gotta think of something to say.”
On his first paying gig: Rosanne (Barr) gave me the job that changed my life the most because she was the first person to pay me well. That was the day I realized I could afford valet parking.
On working with comedians: For me to sit in a restaurant talking to Steve Martin, it feels very otherworldly. I always wanted to be part of those groups of comedians, like Second City.
I wasn’t able to join “Saturday Night Live” or Second City, but in my own way, I was able to create my own groups of funny people that worked together a lot. That was always the dream. It wasn’t for me to be successful, it was really for me to collaborate with people I respected. I just loved comedy people and I wanted to be around them.
On interviewing performers now: I’m interested just in how people are surviving and trying to remain relevant as the decades go on. After success, what is the point of doing this? That’s a lot of what (his 2009 film) “Funny People” is about.
It’s such a strange job. You work very hard to be given the opportunity to tell jokes in front of people or make movies. But when you’ve done it for a while and the newness of it wears off, you are left with just one question: What do I want to say?
On returning to standup: While I was working on (the upcoming comedy) “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer was having so much fun doing stand-up comedy and I got jealous. I thought: “Why did I stop doing that?” One of the reasons was because I was so young. I did it between ages 17 and 24. I didn’t have that much life experience to draw on and I wasn’t the most innovative comedian.
So, how do you tell a joke? It’s so funny because you do have to figure out your worldview and your attitude. I remember I was doing standup one night and Dave Attell and I were talking about my set and I was getting very philosophical about what I was trying to say and he was like, “Just be funny! People just want you to be funny!”