Interrogation

Crowd Pleasers vs. the Big-Question Comedies

Judd Apatow explains why he makes movies that explore the human condition (sometimes).

Judd Apatow.
Judd Apatow. Doualy Xaykaothao

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Judd Apatow, the comedian, writer, and director whose films have included The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Trainwreck. His latest project is The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, a two-part HBO documentary about the late comedian that airs on HBO beginning Monday.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss why some comedy holds up better than other comedy, writing jokes in the age of #MeToo and Trump, and how to react when your friends are accused of bad behavior.

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You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: You say in the documentary that you were doing a job for Shandling, and you stayed up all night and wrote 100 jokes for him. I’ve always heard comedians say things like this. What does it mean to write 100 jokes in a night?

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Judd Apatow: He was hosting the Grammys, so there’s a lot of categories, I guess. I think I just went through the charts and tried to think of everybody in music at that moment and write a joke about Kiss, write a joke about Crosby, Stills & Nash, write a joke about Uriah Heep, write a joke about Eric Clapton, and on and on. And then the next day Garry appreciated [that] I wrote so many jokes, and then we went over them on the phone, and he basically took the setups of most of the jokes, and then he would think of a better punchline that better suited him. But I think he was very happy for me to explain what was happening in music at that time, because he wasn’t a hardcore music fan.

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Is there some comedian that is especially hard to write for? Is there some comedian that you really like writing for?

There are usually people that are easier to write for because you just feel like you have a similar worldview. I felt like I was someone who could write for Garry Shandling because we were neurotic in similar ways and thought about jokes and comedy in a similar way. Even though he didn’t like everything I wrote for him, I never pitched things where he thought I was crazy. Sometimes you write jokes for people, and they think, You are so far from the type of joke I would do. I was always in the ballpark. I was always stirring the pot in a good way. There are people that are very different than me, and I probably couldn’t write jokes for them.

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So could you write for non-neurotic people?

Luckily, most comedians are neurotic. There’s not too many that are solid as a rock. But when I first started, I wrote jokes for Tom Arnold, and then I wrote jokes for Roseanne. For a year I did nothing but try to imagine what her life was like and her concerns were like. She wrote an enormous amount of material and was a really brilliant comedy writer. I would go to her house on the weekends, and she’d pull out all her legal pads and we would kick around her jokes.

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Wait, so who are the non-neurotic comedians?

I think Will Ferrell is a very solid guy in life. He is a really smart, interesting guy, but I don’t put him under the category of tortured person. Seth Meyers seems pretty mentally together from all of my interactions with him. But you never know what happens when people are behind closed doors.

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You must see these people behind closed doors, so I want to know which of them are not actually all lunatics.

Well, there’s always a door behind the door.

You said you and Shandling had similar neuroses. What were those, or what are those?

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I think that we both had complex mothers who were engulfing and smothering and toxic and difficult to navigate at times. That’s a specific kind of childhood. I think that we shared a worldview where we were hypervigilant. I’m the kind of person, and Garry’s like this too, you want to succeed but you also realize that part of the reason why you want to succeed is you have a feeling of safety as a person. If everything’s going OK, and the work is good, and the jokes are funny, life won’t fall apart. That’s not the most pleasant way to approach your life, but I’m sure there are worse ways.

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As people get more famous, it can affect their egos. Is that something that you consciously wrestle with?

Luckily for me, I’m just not that famous, so that’s a good thing.

Your PR people, to get you on the show, told me you were superfamous.

They are making so much money for that lie. If I go to Disneyland for the day, there’s definitely going to be three selfies given to the 25,000 people I pass by that day. My level of fame is wonderfully low. I remember going to a Clippers game with Garry, and just two or three people said, “Hello.” I don’t even think they asked for an autograph. They just said like, “Hey, Garry,” and Garry said to me, “I have the perfect level of fame because most people don’t recognize me, so I can do whatever I want. The people who do recognize me are really excited to see me, but it’s pretty rare.” I think the bigger issue isn’t fame—it’s trying to do good, creative work, trying to have your place in this business as someone that people believe in that’s consistent and reliable. I think there’s a lot of pressure to hold your position and to come through, not just for them but for yourself. It’s hard to feel like you can achieve your creative goals and do strong work time after time. That’s the thing that drives you mad.

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I’ve heard people say that one of the other hard things is that the more powerful someone gets, the harder it is to find people who will tell them “No” or will tell them, “Actually, this isn’t good.” Do you have people in your life who can say, “Come on, Judd. That’s not that funny,” or whatever it is?

I try to have a very open process. That’s something that you have to cultivate over the years, that you have creative friends and advisers that know that they’re allowed to say, “Judd, this is not working yet.” I am very open to people’s opinions. When I make movies, I do screenings first for a dozen friends, then 30 friends, then 100 friends, and then I start showing it to real audiences. I’m obsessed with taking notes. I think that’s a key part of the process. But there are people that don’t do that. There are people who just say, “I don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m just going to edit my movie and then say I’m done and hand it in and that’s it.”

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I was reading an old interview of you in New York [magazine], and the interviewer, David Marchese, asked, “What’s a criticism you’ve read of your work that was useful? Has there been one?” This was your answer: “No, because I already think about all of the problems with my movies. I used to read every piece of criticism about my stuff, but it became too hard to know what to listen to and what not to listen to. I think I have a good understanding of how people experience movies, and sometimes the truth is that I’m in a real please-the-crowd mode and sometimes I’m not.Do you still not read outside criticism, and secondly, when you talk about being in a “please-the-crowd mode,” are you talking about a project like a movie, or are you talking about a certain joke, or a character, or what?

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There are certain projects that are built to be crowd pleasers, and they’re built to work in a certain way. It doesn’t mean that they’re not as thoughtful or challenging as other films, but if I’m making a movie like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Trainwreck, in a way they’re traditional romantic comedies where people meet and have problems and then you figure out their main problem and they end happy. You know on some level that at the end of that movie you’re trying to figure out how to do all of that in a very credible, funny way and have a big, hysterical ending where everything comes together. It’s built to be a crowd pleaser. That’s my favorite kind of movie. That’s why I go to the movies, to get that jolt of joy and belief in people.

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But other times, movies are talking about how difficult life is and that there aren’t easy answers to many of the big questions. When we made a movie like Funny People, it was about a comedian who is struggling, he gets sick, he gets better. He’s having trouble learning the lessons of his life. We see all this through the eyes of a young comedian. We know that at the end it’s not going to have that burst of joy and energy that one gets when watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin. You’re really watching someone learn a very small lesson. He’s not ready to learn the big lesson. He’s not ready for his relationship yet. All he can do at the end of the movie is something selfless like writing jokes for Seth Rogen after we’ve watched him be completely selfish the entire movie.

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On some level, it’s not built to be a crowd pleaser, but a lot of our great films are in that mode. There’s something satisfying about exploring the human condition. Some people would say to me, “Was Funny People about Garry?” I always said “No.” Funny People is about the opposite of Garry because Garry was the person that wanted to give you notes on your act and kick around jokes with you and give you notes on your films. He was the reverse of that.

So who was Funny People about?

It’s funny because when we were making it, Adam Sandler and I thought, You know what? It’s really about us. It’s about the side of ourselves that wants to win at all costs. It is the ego-driven part of a comedian who is thinking more about his jokes and what he wants and his desires than about other people.

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What do you think of late-night TV today versus when you started watching it and thinking about it?

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. There was nothing I enjoyed more than watching Johnny Carson bomb during the monologue and then make jokes about how bad it was going and fight his way back. I watched Letterman from day one and loved all of the experimenting that he did. Late-night television is … it’s very vibrant right now. Sometimes I don’t watch it because I’m so depressed by the real news [that] I have trouble enjoying comedy about all of these awful people. There are times when I can laugh at the jokes, and I love when someone dissects the hypocrisy and the corruption, but there are other times where I think I don’t want to laugh about this. These people are awful.

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You don’t even want to think about them.

I want to think about it seriously. These people are looting our country. They’re gaslighting us. I wonder if all the comedy is helpful. But at the same time, I’m a stand-up comedian, and I write tons of jokes about the president and what’s happening. I’m just saying as a human being and as a person, sometimes I want to laugh about it, and I need to see people explain it to me in a way that amuses me but is clear. Other times, I just want all these people to get arrested.

You have been tweeting about and talking about the #MeToo movement, and you’ve gone after a lot of people who have waffled on the importance of it. What, in your work, are you trying to do to bring about some sort of change of the type you’ve been tweeting, and writing, and talking about?

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I think in my career I’ve had an awakening on these issues. When I first started making movies and television, I don’t think I thought about diversity at all. I’ll be honest with you—it wasn’t part of the conversation. I was happy I was getting a job, and I wasn’t exposed to this discussion. That doesn’t take me off the hook at all. I’d hire a producer, he’d hire a crew, and if he thought about those things, great. If he didn’t, I’m not saying I would even notice that much in the earliest days of my career. I think it started to change when I worked with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner on Girls. When we crewed up, suddenly we had an enormous amount of women on our crew, a lot of diversity, and we talked about it. Lena was very aware of the importance of that.

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I think that going forward I made adjustments on my other productions. I am sure that I can continue to do better. For instance, I saw this general speak—I’m going to guess and say [Stanley] McChrystal, but probably I’m wrong. He was talking to people at a Hollywood Reporter or Variety event and he said that Easterseals has a program where they connect veterans who want to work in the movie industry with productions and that we should try to hire more veterans because it’s difficult for them to find work sometimes when they return from service.

So, in every production since then, we’ve worked with these people and instead of hiring someone’s kid as a favor, we hire veterans in a lot of positions on our movies and television shows. Now, if I didn’t see that guy, I wouldn’t have known to do that. I can’t say I would’ve been enlightened, but that has been an incredibly positive change that we’ve made. Every single person that we’ve hired through that program has been fantastic. I think the same thing is true for all diversity. It’s very simple. If I get a green light on a TV show, I sit down with my line producer, and if in the first meeting I go, “Make sure the crew’s diverse,” it gets done. If I don’t say it, I’m going to get 90 percent white guys. That’s just how it works. All it takes is for the head person to care.

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What do you think about this idea of inclusion riders?

I don’t know much about the inclusion riders. I have to say [that] I haven’t read up specifically what it means, so I don’t have a specific opinion about formalizing it. But I think the key is that everyone needs to want to do it. I remember I visited Will Smith’s set one day. The entire set was populated with African American people. It seemed like the vast majority of the crew were African American. It made me realize how white my crews had been in the past. It really can be done. But the big part about it, which people rarely mention, is it’s about giving people breaks. It’s about giving people jobs who haven’t had that job before. It’s about giving people first opportunities. If you don’t do that, you’re not changing Hollywood. If you give the same people work all the time and you don’t get a lot more people who aren’t represented, then you’re not really helping. One way I’ve seen it change is at places like Netflix and HBO. They’ve said, You need to make half of your directors on your television shows minorities or women. That instantly changes it. I bet [on] most shows, it’s probably eight or nine out of their 10 directors are white men. Now, suddenly it’s 50-50 at those places, and I think that’s a great thing.

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Two people that you’ve done a lot of work with, Aziz Ansari and James Franco, were accused of some variety of sexual misbehavior—the Aziz one in a strange article for Babe.net. I’m wondering when you read something like that, how do you, as someone who talks about these issues, deal with it? Do you call your friends?

It’s different because I know an enormous amount of accusers, and I know an enormous amount of the accused. I’m getting information from both sides. These issues are very difficult. I don’t think that people have really figured out how to process all of this. We have the criminals, we have Harvey Weinstein, and we have people who are being accused of rape, and then we have all of these other people, and they’re being accused of all sorts of things from light disrespect, to just being a douchebag, to being manipulative, or abusing their power. We’re all talking about: What does it mean? What should happen? What should someone’s punishment be? Is there any way they’re allowed to make amends? Are people allowed to learn? How long are they not working for? Or should they never not work as a result?

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Because there’s no president of show business, there’s no board of directors making these decisions, it’s a little bit like the Wild West out there. I think the next year or two we’re going to see how the business decides to deal with all of these people. But as of right now, we really don’t know. We really don’t know.

But how you deal with it just as a person? Forget being in the business. You open up the L.A. Times, and there’s a story about James Franco, who I imagine you’re friends with, saying he used his power in certain ways that were exploitative. How do you deal with that?

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There’s nothing for me to really deal with. I have my own opinions, but I can’t say that my opinions on any case are factual. Most of us aren’t in these rooms. What’s my priority? My priority is that women should be heard. They should be taken very seriously in all cases. It doesn’t matter if it’s my friends or not my friends. I also think there’s a place for people to be able to defend themselves and to try to express their version of events. It seems like most people accused of things have not found a way to discuss their point of view. It definitely feels like if you say, “This is what I think happened,” that you are at risk of people thinking you’re attacking your accuser. If you’ve noticed, no one who’s been accused of things, except for a few people like Ryan Seacrest and Fred Savage the other day, most people haven’t defended themselves.

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There’s a strange situation happening right now where a lot of people are just paralyzed. Ultimately, I think everything that’s happening is messy, but it’s incredibly necessary. Women have been treated terribly forever. Every story that you’ve heard about sexual harassment, I’ve heard 100 more. There’s no one I talk to that doesn’t have the worst story that you’ve ever heard. A lot of people quit the business because they just go, “This is too toxic an environment for me to exist in.” I think the fact that we’re talking about it a lot is very positive because a few years ago no one would even consider speaking up.

But do you feel like if you were to cast someone in another movie or TV show who’d been accused of something, that you would have to talk to them and say, “What happened here?” You’re obviously responsible for a lot of people getting jobs.

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There was somebody who has been in the news for things like this who I had worked with in the past. I hadn’t planned on working with him in the future, and one of the accusers was saying things on Twitter about the case. I just called the accuser and said, “Tell me what happened, and let me tell you about my relationship with them.” It was very helpful and very productive. I don’t know how much of that is happening. I think that’s important. I think we should all be very open about it. Yes, if I was considering hiring somebody, and I felt like it had risen to the place where I needed more information, I would just call the accusers. I would try to see if I could understand more deeply what had happened so I can make a decision. Ultimately, a lot of what happens in this business is people are deciding whether or not to hire people. We want to make the right choice. Nobody wants to support bad behavior, but at the same time nobody wants people to lose their livelihoods unless that is warranted for what happened.

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Can you still watch Woody Allen movies?

I don’t watch Woody Allen movies, but I feel like the idea of watching people’s work is more about if I’ve lost my affection for the person making it. What Woody Allen did to his family, separate from the molestation accusation, I found distasteful to the point where it was hard to watch Sleeper and crack up. It just changed the prism through which I used to enjoy all of his work. It wasn’t a conscious decision to like it or not. It’s just as I learned more information about how he handled his life and his family, and the disrespect that he showed them, suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. That’s just me. Everyone has a different reaction to it. Some people can compartmentalize it. For me, it’s more difficult.

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Going on side by side with this, you hear people like Bill Maher saying that audiences have gotten way too PC now, and everyone’s too sensitive. You hear this a lot in the general culture. Do you feel like there’s truth to that?

It’s hard for me to know. I do stand-up comedy, and I don’t feel like I’m censoring myself a great deal. Every once in a while, I’ll tell a joke, and somebody will print it as click-bait, and then I’ll get calls from hardcore Trump supporters—sometimes threats. Sometimes they’ll tweet or leave messages, and it can get pretty ugly even on just the joke that gets picked up by Breitbart. There’s some really dark characters out there. We’ve seen that with the reaction to the kids from Parkland, that they don’t even care that you’re the survivor of a violent incident. There’s just bad people out there who don’t realize the pain they inflict on others. But for me, I’m a little bit rebellious about that. I try to just say what I want to say and let the chips fall where they may.

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I think that the key to it is you have to believe what you say. You have to be willing to stand behind what you say. That’s something I learned from Colin Quinn when he was promoting his book, The Coloring Book, which was about race. A lot of people asked him about political correctness, and he said, “You need to believe in what you’re talking about. You need to believe in your position.” You can’t be a sloppy thinker. But there are other people who think, The world is so messed up. We just need to tell jokes. It’s so crazy that we also need crazy jokes and distasteful jokes, and that’s just how we get through the day is to just laugh at the madness. Then there are other people who are so offended. They don’t want you to do that. I’ve always understood that debate. I just think generally if you don’t like a movie or a stand-up, just don’t watch. You certainly don’t have the right to shut them down. Just shut the TV off.

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Is there some comic in the past, or some movie, or some TV show that you did not find funny 30 years ago and now you find hilarious, and vice versa? Is there something you really loved and you feel like for whatever reason it hasn’t aged well?

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Most comedy doesn’t age well. I don’t know how I would feel if I went back and watched all of those Abbott and Costello movies, how many of them I would’ve thought were the funniest movies I’d ever seen. But there are movies that you didn’t get when you were young that you watch when you’re older. I just watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and I didn’t understand that as a teenager. Then I watched it recently.

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Oh, it’s a laugh riot, that one, yeah.

Yeah, I guess not a comedy. Although the TV show based on it, Alice, was also very funny. Although would Alice hold up? That’s the question. We’ll have to watch Alice.

So what does really hold up, though, when you watch it today?

I think James Brooks’ films are as good as human comedies get. Every time I watch Broadcast News I think you can’t do it better than that. Terms of Endearment, Diner, Almost Famous, Fast Times at Ridgemont High really hold up. Most of the things I loved as a kid, which were good, are still great. Caddyshack’s still great. Stripes is still what it always was: first half was great, second half isn’t great.

Which of your projects do you think will hold up best, or what does hold up best when you go back and watch it?

I haven’t really gone back to carefully watch things again. I don’t know. I do feel like Freaks and Geeks holds up because it was made to feel retro at the time. When Paul Feig and I worked on it, we wanted it to feel a little bit like the ’80s. As a result, it doesn’t age, or hasn’t yet in a bad way. Usually things age because you don’t know how it’s going to age, like a movie from the ’90s where someone has the largest cellphone in the world. Then it just feels wrong and distracting. But I think that holds up. The Larry Sanders Show holds up. I’ve watched some episodes while making the documentary. I think even though the jokes about the news and the celebrities are from a slightly different era, the soul of it is still pretty hilarious.

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