On the scripted page, behind the camera, and as the chief decision maker at his own production company, Judd Apatow has undoubtedly shaped the comedic sensibility of a generation -- but there was a time when he did it from the microphone of a stage in a standup club.
That's clearly part of the reason what Apatow has such a sharp eye for comedy talent: not only has he helped elevate writer/performers like Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, Jason Segel, Amy Schumer, and Paul Rust, helping them translate the best, funniest, and most emotionally effective aspects of their comedy personas into big-screen and small-screen successes.
Now, he's turning to a world he knows well, having long ago done his tour of duty in the standup comedy scene and mentored by standup legend Garry Shandling, to explore that early period in a comic's career where they're all raw talent and ambition before honing and shaping their specific sensibility.
For HBO's "Crashing," Apatow teamed with real-life standup Pete Holmes to build a sitcom inspired by Holmes's own unique backstory: a decent, rule-following evangelical Christian making his first foray into the chaotic, cutthroat world of the New York comedy club scene just as his probably-wedded-too-young marriage is collapsing.
Apatow joined a small group or reporters to sound off on "Crashing" as well as a myriad of subjects including his own early standup memories, how the current political climate will affect comedy and saying goodbye to "Girls."
That particular ground in standup comedy -- being good but not yet great -- must've felt like very fertile ground to explore.
Judd Apatow: I think we all have gone through that period where we're not good yet. That's the thing about comedy is you're trying to get work and get people to pay you before you've learned how to do it well. So that's one of the funny things about it, because you have good nights and bad nights, and then slowly you have more and more good nights. But you're getting paid to do something that you're still weak at for a while.
Did you experience having a relationship where your partner didn't understand that it's part of the process to not get paid, which Pete experiences on the show?
When I did standup, from the time I was 17 to 24, I wasn't really in that many relationships that lasted long enough for them to get irritated with me about me working.
When you see a comedy talent like Pete or Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham, what resonates with you that makes you say, "I want to get in that business with them? I want to bring them to a bigger audience?"
There's nothing common about it. I like people who have an interesting point of view, and I like when they're covering terrain which I feel hasn't been done to death. So the fact that Pete has a unique point of view, and a unique story, is what attracts me to it.
I like that there's an undercurrent of the discussion of religion in the show. I'm very interested in comedy, but I haven't explored religion in my own work. So it's fun for me to talk about all those issues with him.
Is it easy to get the comedians you work with to get to those emotional truths? They've got great comedy material, but the stuff you've worked on tends to be really honest and a little bit autobiographical.
Most comedians are pretty honest and want to open up. The great ones are excited to go there. When we sat with Artie Lange and say, "Let's do a discussion where you tell Pete how hard it is to be a comedian, and how difficult your life has been." He sat for hours and improvised stories, and he held nothing back. It was very brave, and really, really creative and funny.
What did you love about those early standup years?
I love that we were all young and had no doubt that we would make it somehow. So you're diluted. You're crazy and young, and we would goof around all day long. Basically you were trying to kill the day because you had nothing to do.
Then at night, we would all go to the improv and do sets, and then hope the veteran comedians will talk to us. So if by the end of the night if you could sit at Budd Friedman's table with Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace, it was heaven.
If you look at a 20-something-year-old now entering, what's the biggest challenge for them?
To be a comedian? I don't think it's really any different. I think that if you're true to yourself, and you're willing to work hard, and if you're talented, people will like you. Not everybody makes it, but in comedy, if you're good, you will make it. That's the weird part about it. It's so obvious if you're great. Some people go to other heights. But if you're really strong, you're going to do well. It's just that simple.
I think you can learn more about how to be a comedian now, because when I was a kid, I had to go find comedians and interview them to ask them how to do it. Now you can just put on Pete's podcast, or Marc Maron's podcast, and everyone will just tell you exactly how they made it and what it took. Or buy my book, which is still on sale -- for charity! So I think people have a little bit of a head start.
You've worked with so many young great comics. How about some older ones that you have yet to work with and are still dying to get a shot?
I always want to work with everybody. The truth is that there's almost no one you would mention that I wouldn't dream of working with. But I wouldn't want to do it unless I had a great piece of material and I thought I could do something that I was proud of with that. The idea has to create the situation. When I was writing "This Is 40," I thought, "If I could get Albert Brooks to do this, it would be perfect." So that worked out, but it has to follow the idea.
Have you gotten an early look at Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here," which is a fictionalized take on the first big standup comedy explosion in the '70s and '80s in Los Angeles?
I haven't. Yes, yes, Jim Carrey is the producer. I used to watch Jim Carrey at The Comedy Store in the late '80s and early '90s. He would do these mythic, brilliant improvisational sets, so it's really exciting that he's doing that.
Do you have a longing for that historical moment in comedy?
Oh, sure! I'm an uber-comedy nerd. So if someone's doing a show about life and the Hollywood comedy scene in the '70s, I'm the first person who will be addicted.
The pairing of Pete and Artie Lange is really potent. They come from very different comedy places.
I guess so. I think those types of things happen naturally, where Pete is like this guy who's trying to hold on to his soul, and in a way, Artie is too. He's a sweetheart of a guy who has his own specific sets of personal obstacles, who's trying to keep it together and thrive.
They're funny together because Pete's been through so little, and Artie has been through so much. So you're rooting for both of them, and you do want some of what Pete's talking about to rub off on Artie.
But Artie was so funny, and really is great as anyone I ever worked with. All of his scenes were workshopped with him and improvised. So much of it came from Artie. He said he hadn't acted in 14 years. I just couldn't believe it. I thought, "This is a real gem." We're so lucky to have the opportunity to showcase him and have him be a part of this.
We've been talking to a lot of people here about how material that was written before the election might land differently with the audience after. Do you have a sense in your own work about how that might play out?
Oh sure. I think the mood of the country affects how people experience art and culture. We made a movie called "The Big Sick" with Kumail Nanjiani that premiered at Sundance on Inauguration Day. It's about ... Kumail is from Pakistan acclimating to being in America and falling in love in America.
There's a lot of issues about immigrants in it. We worked on it for five years. We didn't think it would come out in an environment where people were deciding these major issues with how we feel about immigration and having a president that has some new ideas about it. So I do think it changes how you watch.
In terms of that film, I think it reminds you that it's very easy to dehumanize people. So when you see people in their lives, and they looking happy and are exactly the same as you, it's an important statement. It's very easy going, don't let anybody in, without thinking, what does that mean? Who are these people? What are we scared of?
In what way do you think a Trump presidency changes comedy?
It changes everything, because we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know how the government's going to be run. Larger concerns and investigations ... I always want to think comedy's important because it lets us all blow off steam, and depressurize, and laugh, and it just makes us happy when we're stressed about what's happening in the world. I'm really not sure what role it will play in a pretty scary, chaotic moment.
Do you think comedians as a whole will tread lighter? Heavier? What's your sense?
Comedians will say whatever they want to say. It depends on who's going to broadcast what they want to say. If somebody said, "I want to go on a talk show and do a very, very political routine," I'm sure there are limitations on where they could do that and who would be comfortable with what they were saying, and how they would vet it.
But we don't know. We're going to find out. I think there's amazing comedy happening. I was just watching Seth Meyers talk about a lot of these issues. He's so brilliant and funny. I think it's very helpful for someone to organize some of this information. I think they're all working very hard to be accurate, a lot of these talk show hosts -- people like Samantha Bee and John Oliver.
You mentioned that dehumanization quality that's happening in stereotyping different groups. Some people may also want to do that to people with Pete's background, who build a great deal of their lives around their faith.
I think the show also is showing the humanity of religious people. It's a world that isn't examined in comedy very often, so it really does feel fresh. And any time you're showing a community and try to be thoughtful about it, I think it's a really positive thing.
So that's one of the main things I love about this show, is that we get to talk about religion from a lot of different perspectives, from very religious people to hardcore atheist comedians, and we're going to continue to see what we can talk about there.
Do you need the creative freedoms that Netflix or HBO affords you to do your best work? Would you want to do another broadcast network-type show?
I'm not interested in the broadcast networks because I feel like the shows are too short. I don't like the commercial interruptions. I don't like the waiting on ratings to determine if you're going to survive. I feel like the streaming services have created a world where there's a financial incentive to do amazing original work. I don't think that the networks, for all sorts of reasons, couldn't do it in the way that some of the other networks and streaming services can do.
There's limitations on content, and I hated the idea that they're waiting to get the ratings the next day, and if they're bad, they might pull the plug. I like that, at least at places like HBO, you get your season, and then at the end you might say, "Let's do some more." But you get your season. I've been cancelled many times mid-season, three times. I've had enough of it.
You get asked about reviving various shows and characters you've worked on. What about "Girls"? Would you like to revisit those characters at some further point in their lives?
I don't know. I've never talked to Lena about her thoughts about things like that. Which I think we're all adjusting to the fact that it's ending. For six years, we would talk all the time. "What might Hannah do in this this situation? What might Marnie do in this situation?" So it's really weird for us that that conversation has ended. So we're all traumatized. That was fun. It affected all of us.
One thing "Crashing" has [in common] with "Girls" is the awkward sex scene. Is that something you enjoy producing?
I feel like all sex scenes need to be awkward, or they're just pornographic. Once they're not awkward, we're not even in comedy. You can't have a comedy with this great sex scene where it all goes well.