Judd Apatow is the hottest director in Hollywood right now. But it wasn't an easy road.
Apatow began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 17. After a few years in front of the audience, he realized that he hadn't developed his own comedic voice, so he tried to work behind the scenes instead. After befriending comedian Ben Stiller, he produced the Ben Stiller Show in 1992, but the show was cancelled by Fox after one year. In 1993, Apatow was introduced to comedian Garry Shandling, who hired him as a writer/producer for the Larry Sanders Show for the six year duration of the show. Next, Apatow worked on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared but both were cancelled after only one season. After contributing to movies like the Cable Guy and the Wedding Singer, Apatow had his breakthrough in 2004 with the hit comedy Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy, starring Will Ferrell. Since then he has had two more box office smashes with more in the making.
Just before leaving for Australia to promote his current film, Judd took the time to speak with Jewlarious' own Mark Schiff to talk about comedy, filmmaking, what it was like working with his family, and why there are so many Jewish characters in his movies.
MARK: Judd thanks so much for taking the time to speak to me on behalf of Jewlarious.
JUDD: My pleasure.
MARK: So you must be in a whirlwind.
JUDD: Yeah, it's about to die down now, though, that's good.
MARK: Do you think so soon?
JUDD: Well, the hype will still be out there, but I won't have to deal with it as much.
MARK: You know Jerry Seinfeld and I went to see your film together when we were in Oklahoma City and it actually gave us sort of a renewed faith in comedy. Why do you think it's so difficult to make a great comedy?
JUDD: It's hard for me to know. It took me a very long time to be allowed to make comedies. I was a big fan of a lot of the people who are doing well now a long time ago. And there was a lag time between when these people first revealed that they were funny and when the studios felt they could carry a movie.
MARK: Did you hear from Jerry at all?
JUDD: I did. He wrote me a very, very nice e-mail. Jerry Seinfeld is the reason why I went into comedy. I was this huge fan of his. When I was in junior high school and high school, I used to go see him at Caroline's in New York. And, you know, he is one of two or three people that I idolized when I first started doing stand-up. And I met him when I was young and interviewed him for a high school radio station. I think I interviewed him twice. I remember after he did it the first time, I asked him to do it again. And he said, "Why would I do it again?" And I said, "Well, you did The Tonight Show more than once." But the fact that he liked the movie means so much to me, because he's one of the funniest comedy writers of all time. And as I leave my younger days behind, people like Jerry who are so funny for so long are the people that you try to be like. Someone who stays fresh forever. As they enter a new phase of life and have children, and their work evolves with their life experience -- they are the artists that I admire.
MARK: Absolutely. You said about his work that you admire how he writes. His dialogue is so honest. Do you think your early days of stand-up sharpened your ear so you could write the type of honest dialogue for this movie?
"In order to really do good work I would have to turn inward, go to a more of a personal place."
JUDD: When I started doing stand-up, I didn't think of myself as an interesting person with a unique point of view. I was really frustrated because I thought I really did have one but I knew that I wasn't at that point yet. That's why I became a writer. I was frustrated and my own inability to figure out who I was. But because I was such a fan of Jerry's and watched him the way a sports fan watches Reggie Jackson, I must have hardwired my brain to understand some of those rhythms. I love watching comedy. That's the real fun, watching your act when I was at The Eastside Comedy Club on Long Island working as a bus boy at 16 and 15 years old seeing somebody great rip the house down. I mean, to this day, to me there's nothing more exciting than that. But as I got older after working with Gary Shandling, I realized that in order to really do good work I would have to turn inward, go to a more of a personal place, and I started that process. Suddenly, people are responding to it. But it took me a long time to kind of have the courage to try to work from that part of me.
MARK: Yeah, Shandling is an amazing guy.
JUDD: Yeah. Well, I started working at the Larry Sanders Show and he said to me, "Oh, you're going to learn a lot here." He never talked to me as if I was going to give anything to the show. [LAUGHS] And I was there for five seasons and adjusting around his process, taught me everything I needed to know about being a writer. He really cuts to the bone, and he pushed everybody to really go to their core, as he likes to say, with the work. And it shows. He would do something funny in between takes, and he would remember it and put it into the show. Or he would notice that there was an actor who was being arrogant, then he would add that to their character on the show. For example, I always remember when Dana Carvey did an especially cruel impression of him on Saturday Night Live. And they talked on the phone with Dana. He apologized but Gary said, "It's okay. Let's just do something about it on the Larry Sander Show." And then, Gary had him do the exact same mean impression on his show.
MARK: That's funny. You know, there's lots of Jewish stuff in the movie. And even in the trailer for "Super Bad," there's a Jewish joke. Your main character is Jewish. Any particular reason you chose to go that way with him?
JUDD: I didn't make a conscious effort to make him Jewish, although on an unconscious level, I'm sure I was working with some people who I think can portray my feelings or experiences. I did realize that the majority of the male characters were Jewish and that they all kept referencing it in their improvisation. And I kept writing jokes and references in the script. And it really made me laugh. At some point, I thought, well, this is something you don't see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, and all of them are Jewish. And they're proud of it and hilarious about it. It's just not done. And little scenes - like these guys hang out at their nightclub debating the movie "Munich" and it really made me laugh. I loved what someone said to me, "Do you think it's too many references to their being Jewish in the movie? You're going to alienate people who aren't Jewish." And I thought, well, I can't cut anything out for that reason. And the person said to me, "Well, if it was all Mormon references, would you find that odd from someone watching the movie?" And I thought, well, that seems to be what's unique about this situation. So, I'm just going to go with it. But I wasn't trying to make any kind of statement other than I don't want to hide from the reality of who they were.
This is something you don't see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, all of them are Jewish. And they're proud and hilarious about it.
MARK: Speaking of cutting things, Woody Allen said that sometimes some of his best jokes did not make it into his movies because they didn't fit. Did you have that problem? Is it hard for you to get rid of a great joke?
JUDD: It really is. People always call it killing your babies. It's is a harsh phrase that really captures the theme of cutting some jokes for time or story. Sometimes, you have a scene, and it's too long. And you have to trim it purely, because you know in your gut it should be 90 seconds. And you have three minutes.
MARK: That's another thing, you took a gamble making a 129 minute movie, which doesn't seem to bother anyone really. Even though most comedy filmmakers would say 90 minutes is the limit.
JUDD: Well, I was talking to Harold Ramis and he said that he thought the length did show that I felt my characters were worth the time. Someone else said that there was a funny Bertolucci quote which was, "What else do people have to do with their time, sit in traffic?" So, I definitely had been plugged into the slightly longer than normal movie. Hopefully, I won't get too crazy in that direction. But the extra 15, 20 minutes really does a lot for the characters and not just the story.
MARK: Right. I think the reason it could go there is because you had a really strong story. And there was a lot of heart in there.
JUDD: Yeah, hopefully, you'll want to spend time with these people. I know that when I like a movie, I'm not dying for the end.
MARK: Your wife and kids were in the movie as well. How's it working with the family?
JUDD: It was easy because I know my wife so well. She's a resource and gets to the truth of things, especially because the movie is based on the things that we fight about. As for the kids, I remember watching on these old John Casavetes movies, and you always had these kids running around in the background. And they'd just be there. He made them feel like real families. Usually the kids are so tight and scripted that it never makes you believe it. I really remember one goal that I make in the movie is for the audience to forget about me and just buy it. And I felt like kids would help me do that even though my wife thought it was a terrible idea, that it would mangle their childhood. [LAUGHS]
I hope that my movies have a funny sort of anti-drug message to them. My main intention is to show that drugs lead on the road to nowhere.
MARK: Another interesting thing is that many of the characters in the movie smoke pot, and don't seem to go anywhere, and Alison doesn't do any drugs and gets a great job and promotion. Did you know you were sort of saying something with that?
JUDD: I do. I don't know if anyone else knew, but I did [LAUGHS]. I hope that my movies have a funny sort of anti-drug message to them. My main intention is to show that drugs lead them on the road to nowhere. And I find that people don't pick up on that message. You know, a lot of people aren't affected by that message even if I hit it really hard. I just hope that when people watch it, they think, look at these idiots. [LAUGHS] And that's enough to plant a seed in these people that this isn't a good long-term decision. I have friends who are life-time pot smokers and they get less healthy as the years go by. It just affects their work. Every guy I worked with who smokes pot is less funny, or their music got lame.
MARK: This has been really great. I know you are off to Australia to promote the movie down there, so have a safe trip, and thanks again for talking to us.
JUDD: My pleasure. All the best Mark.