‘Sick in the Head’ and my own youthful fascination with comedy

Movie producer Judd Apatow's new book is subtitled, 'Conversations About Life and Comedy'
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This flyer notes that Seinfeld sold fluorescent light bulbs over the phone while breaking into comedy.

Jerry Seinfeld walked onto the stage at the University of Missouri’s Jesse Auditorium the night of Nov. 11, 1986.

The school’s football team was his first punchline, having three days earlier lost 77-0 to the University of Oklahoma.

“Are you sure your guys had their helmets on the right way?” the sneaker-wearing Seinfeld quipped.

I was a sophomore at Mizzou and already a big Seinfeld fan. I was familiar with his standup and his role on the awful TV series “Benson.”

After the show (I think admission was free) as he signed an autograph for me in his left-handed scrawl, I asked him if he had any plans to return to television. He said something such as, sure, if the right opportunity came along.

Three years later it did, as “Seinfeld” began its nine-season run on NBC.

Writing to comics

I’ve been thinking about my Seinfeld chronicle relative to movie producer and writer Judd Apatow’s new book, “Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy.” Apatow, whose body of work includes the brilliant but under-appreciated TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and movies including “Superbad” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” is a true student of the comedy genre.

In 1983 and 1984, when I was delivering newspapers and bagging groceries, Apatow was interviewing comedy up-and-comers and giants including Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Steve Allen for his high school radio station.

“Sick in the Head” is on my summer reading list; you can learn more about it by listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Apatow for “Fresh Air” or reading this New Yorker article.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sorting through my own comedy archives. Humor has always been a big part of my life; my family has always enjoyed a good laugh. I truly believe that laughter is the best medicine and that one of the worst qualities a human can have is to be humorless.

During Christmas break in 1986, I had shoulder surgery. I returned to Mizzou with my right arm in a sling, in a lot of discomfort and probably a little bit of depression. For at least a few days I pondered dropping out of school.

I soon met a new student on my dorm floor, Craig Holman, with whom I immediately bonded over a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Dana Carvey plays a songwriter who, lacking any new material, spontaneously waxes poetic about “choppin’ broccoli.”

To this day, Craig and I share laughs via email and text; he sent me this hilarious clip of comedian Brian Regan in the final days of the “Late Show.” Craig and I have long dissected comedy, too, and I think we each secretly wish we could have been comedy writers.

‘Hope to visit someday’

I wasn’t comedy obsessed, as a young Apatow has been described, and I certainly wasn’t seeking advice on how to launch a comedy career. But I was a regular letter writer: to TV newspeople, to hockey players, to comics, as I described in this 2013 post about “Saturday Night Live.”

I really just wanted to pad my autograph collection and bask in the reflected glory of people whose work I admired.

Harry Anderson, best known for the 1980s TV series “Night Court,” was an occasional performer of comedy and magic on “SNL.” I wrote to him in care of one of the shows, garnering this autographed photo with the wonderfully ironic “sincerely” stamped on it in blue ink.

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Michael Davis also was a regular performer on “SNL.” What Anderson was to magic, Davis was to juggling, including knives and bowling balls. He also was on the short-lived “The News is the News,” whose cancellation he acknowledged in a 1983 note to me, written in pencil (he signed his autographed photo in red grease pencil).

“Dear Neal — Loved your letter. I showed it to NBC and they cancelled the show! C’est la vie. Hope to visit someday. M Davis”

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New York Mayor Ed “How Am I Doing?” Koch hosted “SNL” in May 1983 (Anderson was a guest).

Besides an autographed photo, he sent me a letter:

“It was reassuring to learn that you were looking forward to my appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I enjoyed doing the show and it provided me with an opportunity to show people the human side of politicians.”

He thanked me for my “thoughtfulness in writing” and, ever the city booster, said he hoped I would “soon be able to visit New York.”

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I will never grace the “SNL” Studio 8H stage, but I like to think that the show’s long-time announcer, the late Don Pardo, made me an honorary host with what he wrote on an autographed photo.

“It’s Sat nite Live!!! And here’s Neal!! Don Pardo”

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