The acclaimed filmmaker
elements of his own
life to create ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ ‘Undeclared’ and
the blockbuster ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ is
also behind Jim Carrey’s latest.
web-only uncut version here.
The world, it seems, has caught
on to Judd Apatow.
Until last year, the writer-producer-director
enjoyed a peculiar and frustrating position in Hollywood’s comedy universe:
He had talented friends and never lacked for work — he’d
been writing steadily since “The Larry Sanders Show” in
1992 — but he’d also engineered a string of brilliant,
quickly cancelled TV shows and never-seen pilots.
Project after heartfelt project
earned critical raves, rabid cults … and tiny, tiny audiences. He wrote and produced
the seminal “The Ben Stiller Show,” followed
by “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” — two
of the sharpest comedies about school life ever broadcast.
None of these lasted more than 18 episodes.*
And then, over the last two years
or so, Apatow’s success
caught up with his standards.
DVDs of “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Freaks
and Geeks” and “Undeclared” introduced
his best work to new audiences. Comic actors he’d befriended
and employed during their nascent careers (Stiller, Will
Ferrell and Owen Wilson, to name a few) acquired sizeable
followings. And two films — “Anchorman,” which
he produced, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which
he wrote and directed — became bona fide box office
hits. Last March, The New York Times’ Sharon Waxman
all but declared Apatow the co-godfather of a sort of “comedy
mafia” that includes frequent collaborators Stiller,
Ferrell, Wilson, Jim Carrey, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, Steve
Carrell and “Anchorman” writer-director Adam
Here’s what Apatow has in the pipeline: He’s
writing and directing an untitled romantic comedy starring “Freaks”/”Undeclared”/”Virgin” actor
Seth Rogen; he’s producing the McKay/Ferrell NASCAR
comedy “High, Wide, and Handsome”; and he co-wrote
a remake of the 1977 Jane Fonda/George Segal comedy “Fun
with Dick and Jane” — starring Jim Carrey and
Téa Leoni as a pair of larcenous yuppies.
In Focus talked
with Apatow about “Dick and Jane,” “Virgin,” the
joys of reality TV, getting to know past and future comedy
legends, the cult of “Freaks and Geeks,” and
much more. An edited transcript follows.
I’m not sure you’re the first guy I would have
thought of to write a remake of “Fun With Dick and
I used to love the original “Dick and Jane” when
I was a kid. It was a real touchstone movie for me and my
family — we all went together and loved it. A real
pleasant moment in my childhood. And it had Jane Fonda wiping
herself with toilet paper — which was shocking back
But it also seemed like a fun way to satirize
how out-of-control corporations are right now: You could
use the template of
the movie to talk about how the country has suffered a bit
as a result of greed — of corporations being so obsessed
with profits that people get hurt. And being mad about something
is always a good starting point for comedy.
We just interviewed
Harold Ramis — and he said you’d
be interviewing him in front of an audience at the Austin
That’s right. I’m just a giant fan of Harold
Ramis. They showed “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” at
the Deauville Film Festival in France, and they were showing
[“Ice Harvest”], too — so Seth Rogen and
I were just stalking him. His work is the gold standard for
what we all try to do. All the new big-hit comedies are in
some way inspired by movies he’s made.
What sort of questions will you be asking him in Austin?
It’s a great opportunity to ask him things that are
only helpful to me. [laughs] Very obscure questions about
his approach to writing. And I’m always interested
in what their intentions were when they were making those
movies: Did they know what the point of these movies were?
Or were they just funny comedies?
told us about something Bernie Sahlens of Second City told
Don’t talk down
to your audience, use real information, and any character
can know anything. Does that
resonate for you?
I just try to make things I would like. That’s the
only hard-and-fast rule. I never want to do anything I’d
be ashamed of. I don’t mind watching crap — I
just don’t wanna make it.
A lot of what I learned about writing I learned
from Garry Shandling. For him, it’s always about being honest.
So that’s how I approach things. I’m probably
most influenced by Hal Ashby movies and people like Cameron
Crowe and James Brooks.
and the JOY OF IMPROV
said the only TV you watch these days is reality shows.
For the most part, yeah.
Is this connected to the unusual amounts of improvisation
you use in your films and TV shows?
I’ve always been a fan of unscripted television — just
because human behavior’s so interesting. No matter
how bad the [reality] show is, you’re still seeing
people react honestly, even if the situation is completely
fabricated. I’ll run home to watch “Breaking
Bonaduce.” I feel no shame about that. I’m also
a fan of things like “Nip/Tuck” and “The
Sopranos” — there’s a lot of great stuff
happening on cable, and if something’s really good,
I’m the first person to be obsessed by it — but
I’ll be conflicted because “Being Bobby Brown” is
on at the same time as “America’s Next Top Model.” [laughs]
When did you decide that improvisation could advance your
The first time I saw people improvise was when I was producing “The
Ben Stiller Show.” Ben loved to throw scripts out and
make stuff up off the top of his head — and then we’d
go to the editing room and piece it together. Then I worked
on “The Larry Sanders Show,” and Garry is open
to improvisation in both rehearsals and during the show — and
really interesting things happened.
So when I made “Freaks and Geeks” with [series
creator] Paul Feig, my idea was to hire kids who were very
similar to the characters. If they’re, for the most
part, being themselves, it’s easy to improvise. And
they say things that you couldn’t write in a million
years. And when we did “Undeclared,” I made a
point of hiring only people who were capable of that. We
did the same thing on “Anchorman.” There were
so many funny improvisations, we just put tons of it on the
DVD. That’s what we did on “Virgin,” too.
PRIVATE COMEDY COLLEGE
You interviewed a bunch of professional comedians for your
high-school radio station. Do you still have those interviews?
I do. I haven’t really listened to them, because I
have such a high voice and such a thick New York accent that
I’m mortified every time I listen to them. I listened
to one recently, and I was interviewing Jay Leno, and I was
about 15 years old. And this was way before “The Tonight
Show”; this was when he was working in comedy clubs.
And I said, [adopts high voice with thick New York accent] “How
d’you think you’re doin’ in your career
now? I mean, you’re doin’ pretty well, but you’re
not exactly playing the Universal Amphitheatre.”
I was a dumb, cocky kid. So they’re kind of rough to
How did Leno respond to that question?
He just laughed! He laughed really loud! “No, I’m
not playing the Universal Amphitheatre.” [laughs] This
was years before he became a gigantic star. But he was nice
enough to let me interview him twice. I interviewed him and
Seinfeld twice — after showing up with my enormous
tape recorder from the A/V squad, they actually let me do
it again. That’s what those guys are truly like.
When I interviewed Seinfeld, I was grilling
him for literally 45 minutes about how to write jokes — and he tells me, in incredible detail, using examples from his act, how
he thought of it, how he developed it, what the stages were … .
It became a blueprint for how to be a comedian and a comedy
writer. So when I started writing, I already had 15 hours
of conversations about how to do it.
And I didn’t just interview comedians; I interviewed
writers like Michael O’Donaghue and James Downey … .
I interviewed Harold Ramis back then. I interviewed John
Candy, Martin Short, Franken & Davis, Bruce Feirstein — so
it wasn’t like I got one opinion. I interviewed everyone
from Steve Allen to “Weird Al” Yankovic. [laughs]
I was going to write something about that
thought about putting them out in some form, maybe a book
of transcripts that might have a CD on it … . I’m
not exactly sure how many comedy nerds would care.
some people before they became popular, and they basically
lay out their career plans — and you
see how many of them achieved their goals. I did a long interview
with Garry Shandling where he talked about how his dream
was to do a TV show that he created where he played himself.
And he did exactly that.
And then you ended up working for him.
I’ve never played it for him, though. For anybody.
MAKING ‘VIRGIN’ SING
You’re at an interesting point in your career. You’ve
said that, when confronted with idiotic producer directives, “my
usual instinct is to tell everyone to take a hike.” And
that caused you a lot of pain for a lot of years. But now
it seems to have earned you respect and success. Was there
a dark time somewhere in there when you thought you’d
have to bag it?
No — because there never was a time when I thought
I was never gonna work again. Even when I was in the middle
of the worst battles, there were enough people who liked
what we were trying to do that I would be allowed to continue.
When “Freaks and Geeks” was being shuffled around
and not treated well, the people at the other networks liked
it and would say, “Well, do something over here.” So
it wasn’t like I was in a precarious moment in my career.
But then you’d go over there, and they’d behave
in the same manner.
And I care most that the work is good, so
I don’t enjoy
it being a bloodbath — but I’m always happy that
I like what we created, and it’s always worth it, even
if every once in a while you have to have major back surgery
[as he did during “Freaks”]. It was really unpleasant
during “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Freaks
and Geeks” and “Undeclared” a fair amount
of the time — but I always knew I’d be proud
of what we’d made, and that people would see it at
some point in some format.
The stress doesn’t come from making the shows. The
stress comes from being really excited about the shows and
having people tell you what’s wrong with it when you
know it’s in pretty good shape.
“The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s” end-credits
sing-along to “Let the Sunshine In” is just a
little too affectionate to be a mere send-up. Are you a closet “Hair” fan?
Well, we knew we needed an ending that signified that he
had sex and it was really good. It was Garry Shandling who
advised me often during the writing of the movie that you
have to point out that his sex — when he finally has
it — is better than everyone else’s because he’s
in love. I wasn’t sure how to tackle that. I didn’t
think I could show great sex … . So we were kind of
stuck. And then Steve said, “What if I just sing a
song?” And I immediately said, “Yeah — like ‘Let
the Sunshine In.’” And that was it. We didn’t
think about it any more. We just did that.
But I didn’t really know how to shoot a musical — I
just knew I wanted to allude to the musical “Hair,” but
I didn’t want to do a direct spoof of it. Which is
a tricky line — because people kept walking up to me
and asking, “Well, are they wearing beads? Are they
wearing pooka shells? What are they wearing?” And I
kept saying, “Well, I think it’s a hint of ‘60s,
but it’s a funny line where it’s just guys with
pants and no shirts on.” [laughs] In a weird way, we
hit that perfectly, based purely on blind luck.
I can take credit for very little. I did a
lot of delegating. My biggest contribution was, “Hey! It would funny if
FUNNY FROM THE WOMB
geek out on the genius of Seth Rogen.
Well, I’ve known Seth since he was 16. Someone sent
me a tape of him auditioning for “Freaks and Geeks” in
Canada. I was fascinated by this weird kid with this froggy
voice — and, at that time, he had a much thicker Canadian
accent. He had such a weird energy. And he knew what he was
doing. So we created a part for him on the show — and
as the weeks went by, it became clear that he was a gifted
comedy mind. He was trying to write an episode of the show.
And when a scene didn’t work, I always knew I could
bring him into the office with another actor and have them
goof around and improvise, and they’d come up with
some hilarious stuff.
When I did “Undeclared” [in 2001], he was only
18, but I put him on the writing staff and in the show — and
he quickly became one of the best writers. So when I wrote
[“40-Year-Old Virgin”], I wrote a part for him,
and then I made him a co-producer — which basically
meant I forced him to go on the set every day, all day, and
help me to make things funny.
His story, in some ways, parallels your own. You jumped
right into the deep end of the entertainment pool at a young
age. Do you feel a kinship with him because of that?
I never thought of it that way. I was just more amused by
the fact that he seemed to come out of the womb with a fully
formed comic persona. And any time you realize someone’s
funny and the rest of the world doesn’t know it yet,
it’s really exciting.
The aspect of the work that I’ve enjoyed the most is
working with people before they break — then trying
to find out how to execute the projects that cross them over.
Since you’ve achieved some mainstream success, is
your career these days about righting wrongs — about
getting good projects to overlooked talent?
I think of it more in terms of working with people that I
like and trying to hit untapped reservoirs of comedy. It’s
fun that Steve Carell had never starred in a movie, and we
made this movie together and it became a big hit. I didn’t
know how he worked as a leading man — so we had to
figure all of that out together. There’s no trail of
bread crumbs to follow.
You’ve said you make no real profit off these beautiful
DVD sets for “Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Why
put them out?
It’s just weird to work really hard on something and
have nobody ever see it again. So I couldn’t be happier
that Shout! Factory put out those two shows — at great
risk to themselves, because they had to pay almost a million
dollars in music clearance to put “Freaks and Geeks” out
on DVD. It turned out really well for them.
But the main reason I do it is that they give
me an enormous amount of freedom in the packaging, in the
extras. And I
actually enjoy it more because I don’t make any money
on it — I can beg people to buy it and they know I’m
not begging because I’m going to fill my wallet.
been clever about using the Internet to rally support for
your shows. You also
distributed some unaired
episodes over the net after cancellation. Does this give
you mixed feelings about online file-sharing?
The only thing I can say about file-sharing is that I don’t
do it. It feels wrong in my gut. I don’t do Napster.
I don’t download movies for free. Maybe that’s
because I have money and don’t need to. Maybe it’s
because my grandfather owned record companies when I was
a kid. Somewhere in me, I know that’s stealing.
But I love the Internet. From the very beginning
and Geeks,” Paul Feig always said, “This is a
show made for the Internet.” The fans were really into
our website — that’s how we got the information
out about the campaigns to keep it on the air. It may have
kept us on the air another four or five episodes.
We’d use the fans in all sorts of different ways. One
fan, Tammy, watched every piece of footage we shot on both “Freaks
and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” and told us
what she thought would be good to put on the DVDs. In fact,
right now I’m trying to put together a Loudon Wainwright
DVD anthology of all his performances over the last 30 years — and
she’s helping watch all these old “Mike Douglas” shows
and things like that.
“Freaks & Geeks,” “Undeclared” and “The
40-Year-Old Virgin” all seem to follow a similar theme — the
geek’s quest for love and acceptance. Do you think
this will forever be a defining theme in your work?
I don’t think so. You tend to write about things a
little bit earlier in your life; now I’m going to write
about marriage and having kids — that starts a little
bit with “Dick and Jane” and the romantic comedy
I’m going to do with Seth after that.
I’m just beginning to have enough distance to start
writing about my young adulthood and having kids and being
married. And then later I’ll write about what it’s
like to be in Hollywood — and then I’ll lose
touch with my audience and be rejected by the system. [laughs]
That seems to be the last step in almost any writer’s
career: He does well and then he has nothing to write about,
and it’s over.
| *Apatow frequently jokes that he has grown wary of
being honored by the Museum of Television & Radio. “Freak
and Geeks” was cancelled almost immediately after
it the museum feted it. The exact same thing happened