In a career that spans over two decades, Judd Apatow has written, directed, and/or produced some of the entertainment industry’s most successful comedies, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This Is 40, Superbad, Bridesmaids, Anchorman, and the current hit, Trainwreck. And the introduction of his book, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, actually has a lot of great lessons for high school students, whether or not you like Apatow’s movies.
Apatow describes how he developed an obsession with comedy at an early age, even taking a job in junior high as a dishwasher at a local comedy club. But it was in tenth grade that he started working at his high school’s radio station and pitched an idea for his own show. He called comedians’ agents or their PR people, introduced himself as “Judd Apatow from WKWZ radio on Long Island,” and asked to interview their client. He left out that he was only 15 years old.
Over the next two years, this high school student interviewed more than forty comics, TV stars, writers, directors, and even a few movie stars (one of those early interviews was a fledgling comedian in 1983 named Jerry Seinfeld whom Apatow asked, “How do you write a joke?”
As Apatow describes the experience interviewing his idols:
“This was my college education [editor’s note: Apatow later enrolled in the screenwriting program at USC]. I grilled these people until they kicked me and my enormous green AV squad tape recorder out of their homes. I asked them how to get stage time, how long it takes to find yourself as an artist, and what childhood trauma led them to want to be in comedy. I asked them about their dreams for the future and made them my dreams, too. Did I mention I never even aired most of the interviews? I put a few out there, but even then I knew this information was mainly for me—and that the broadcast part was a bit of a ruse.”
The lesson here is not that students must identify what they want to do with their lives (Apatow admits that he never became a great stand-up comedian, but later found that he was quite good at writing jokes for other people). The lesson is that likely without even knowing it, Apatow was embodying five of the most desirable traits that colleges look for in potential students:
1. Passion: Apatow wasn’t doing any of this just so he could put it on his college application. He was genuinely passionate about comedy and went to great lengths to feed that interest.
2. Initiative: Apatow didn’t wait for someone else to create this show or contact the comedians for him. He did that himself. And he proved that he’s someone who can make things happen.
3. Individuality: How many other students do you think could say that they’d done what Apatow did in high school?
4. Love of learning: He had an insatiable desire to learn everything about comedy, so much so that he also transcribed episodes of Saturday Night Live and made a point to watch every stand-up comedian who appeared on talk-shows. None of this would ever appear on his transcript. But he was channeling an intellectualism there that paid off in the form of an admission to college, and was likely instrumental in his success later in life.
5. Likability: It must have been impossible for a college admissions officer not to like this high school kid who had interviewed some of the biggest names in show business.
Apatow let his passion and curiosity drive him to do as much as he could with something that really interested him. Even if he had never pursued comedy after high school, those skills—cold calling, selling himself, interviewing, interacting with adults, etc.—would still have served him well…and made for a great college essay. Best of all, he didn’t do any of this as some sort of college admissions strategy. Like almost all successful applicants, Apatow wasn’t concerned with whether or not he’d ever get any literal or figurative credit for it.
If you made Apatow-like efforts with whatever interests you, how far could you go?