Life is messy: Judd Apatow on Freaks and Geeks, Lena Dunham and his return to standup
The writer-director-producers influence on comedy has been huge. So, why's he still drawn to themes of disappointment and embarrassment?
Judd Apatows office looks a lot like a workspace that might be inhabited by a slovenly, immature character from one of his movies or TV shows. Its cluttered with boxes, toys, records, scripts, magazines, sports memorabilia and various items of pop-culture detritus.
Im in the middle of moving stuff, mutters the 49-year-old, somewhat defensively. However, the rest of the four-storey West Los Angeles building that houses Apatows production company is testament to a decade of sustained success that changed the face of American movie comedy. At the start of this century, US moviegoing audiences were offered the choices of romantic comedies, raucous, gross-out comedies, intimate, improvisational indie comedies and heartwarming family comedies. In 2005, Judd Apatow co-wrote and directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a film that managed to encompass all these variant forms of comedy under one roof and make a star out of long-time supporting player Steve Carrell.
Posters of the films and shows Judd Apatow subsequently wrote, produced or directed, hang around the walls of his company. From Knocked Up to Superbad, Bridesmaids to Trainwreck, Pineapple Express to This Is 40, Girls to Love, Apatow has made sometimes surreal, sometimes emotional, sometimes meandering, always profane comedies his particular brand. He's constantly taken a chance on the actors and comedians who star in them. Take The Big Sick, the rapturously reviewed film of the period in Kumail Nanjianis life when the woman to whom he was too scared to commit to (Emily V Gordon) fell ill and was placed in a medically induced coma. There are producers who may have agreed to allow Nanjiani to write his story. Few would've had the foresight to allow Nanjiani to star.
I contacted Amy Schumer because I heard her on the radio and I thought all of her stories sounded like movies. I'd that thought again when I heard Kumail telling the tale of how he met his wife, Apatow explains. Plus, what it was like moving to the US from Pakistan and dealing with the fact that his parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage. It seemed like a great tale that hadnt been told before.
The fact that Nanjianis highest profile role was as the disgruntled Dinesh on Silicon Valley didnt discourage Apatow.
A lot of these people can carry their own movies. They dont need to be mega-famous, they just need to be amazing, he says, citing Will Ferrell and Steve Carell breaking through after some bit parts.
Working with Kumail is very similar to working with Kristen Wiig or Amy Schumer these are really intimate, passionate stories that just happen to be funny, he says. You dont have to have made another movie to deserve to be the lead. To be the lead, you need to be talented, charismatic and ready for your moment.
Still, the growing trepidation that he wasnt talented, charismatic and ready for his moment put Apatow on the circuitous route to the position of ubiquity he now occupies. The teenage Apatow, a native of Syosset, New Jersey, was a comedy nerd of heroic proportions, hauling around a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview the patient likes of Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld for his high school radio show, Comedy Club, which was enjoyed by exactly none of his fellow students.
When I was a kid, I was interested in comedy and entertainment, he says. I'd sit and watch TV from 3.30 in the afternoon to about 1.30 at nite. I also used to go to the library and look up articles on microfiche about Lenny Bruce dying. No one cared about comedy in my high school. I felt like I'd found some special nook and I felt like there was space for me to succeed.
As soon as he turned 17, Apatow relocated to Los Angeles to launch his own standup career. I did it for seven years, until I was 24, he recalls. I worked really hard but I didnt have a strong point of view about anything. When I started, I was working with Jim Carrey a lot and living with Adam Sandler. In a weird way, its a terrible piece of luck. Its like being in a band and your friends are the Beatles. You think, Why am I even doing this? and dont give yourself a chance to find out if youre the Yardbirds. You just stop. And then I started getting writing work, I thought, Oh maybe the universe wants me to write. Which I guess it did.