♪ Laughter is a weird, wonderful, and important thing.
That awesome contraction in our diaphragm is also a buffer against heart disease, pain, and isolation.
And when the laughs hinge on keen observation, we start to see who we are, how we are, and that we are not alone in our foolish self-importance or our desire to be included.
Since the late nineties, Judd Apatow has been reflecting a world back to us as the force behind "Freaks and Geeks," "40-Year-old Virgin," "Knocked Up," and "Trainwreck" and as a producer on "Girls," "The Big Sick," and "Bridesmaids."
A lonely teenager thrown hard by his parents' divorce, he found comfort studying comics and has never stopped working to become an expert in noticing and the weirdly awesome life-saving art of comedy.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with writer, director, standup, and perennial student Judd Apatow.
♪ So when you were a kid, you were taking the TV Guide and circling like what comedians were gonna be on TV that week.
And then you were also writing a 30-page paper for no one about the Marx Brothers.
That's the weirdest part about my childhood, that I thought that I needed to write a mini book about the Marx Brothers.
And not for school.
And I never showed anyone.
So even now-- Do you have it?
Tell me you have it.
Oh, I have everything.
I'm such a hoarder.
I mean, you know, I always watch those shows about hoarding, and I just root for them not to clean up their houses.
Like you hate Marie Kondo?
Oh, I hate her.
Who is she to judge what I should keep or save?
And then every once in a while you need something.
Like, we were doing "Funny People," and I remembered that I had videotaped Adam Sandler making phony phone calls when we lived together, you know, 30 years ago.
And I was like, "I think I saved that."
And I looked around, and I did save it and I had it.
And the same thing happened when I did the Garry Shandling documentary.
Garry was building a house, and he said, "Let's videotape the process "because I know it's going to go so badly, "and I'm going to be in so many lawsuits "with all these people that if we tape the whole thing, we can make a little funny comedy documentary about it."
You loved Garry Shandling so much.
You know, I was always just surprised how nice he was to me as a young comedy writer.
I was, you know, hired by him to write jokes for the Grammys one year very, very early in my career, and he just, you know, let me into his process, how he worked.
So I was writing jokes and then one day he said, "You can come to the show if you want.
"Maybe you should be on stage "and you can help me as I come on and off, think of things during the show."
And then I did a sketch show with Ben Stiller.
And for the pilot, I asked Garry to do a cameo, and he said yes.
And I always felt like Garry and Roseanne and Tom doing those cameos was one of the things that really helped us get picked up because it made us look like we knew good people.
And then when we were cancelled, he said, "Do you want to write for the 'Larry Sanders Show'?"
Like, right at my lowest moment, he said, "Why don't you come here?
You'll learn a lot."
So you had a pretty productive pandemic.
But I think you're a guy who's productive in the face of stress.
Am I right?
I thought I wasn't being productive, because mainly I was promoting the "King of Staten Island," which came out in the summer.
So it was just months of doing everything you usually do when you promote a movie, but all on your couch.
So you're doing Seth Meyers and, you know, Jimmy Fallon, but just you're literally on the couch, and then when that was done, I just, you know, wandered around and took walks for two hours a day for months and months.
And then one day I said to my friend Brent Forester, "We probably should think of stuff on these walks."
And then my wife Leslie said that she had to go to England to shoot a television series that she was supposed to do.
And I thought, I wonder if I could get this together in time to shoot this when she's shooting her show.
But then we added dinosaurs in it, and, you know, made it about people trying to make a dinosaur movie during the pandemic in a bubble.
And so we were having this very meta experience of making fun of something that we were actually doing and something that a lot of our friends were experiencing in their attempts to work.
It was, you know, about isolation and people having nervous breakdowns by being-- Yes, a little madness.
Stuck, you know, in hotels.
And also, it's a little bit-- I mean, for everyone who lived through the actual pandemic, not just the people in your--in your movie, it's a little bit about who's going to break the rules.
Like, who are the rule keepers and who are the rule breakers?
And who are the poor people who are charged with keeping things under control-- Yes.
in these scenarios.
You know, all the rules were being created on the fly, and there's so much tension in that.
And there's a tension in wondering if you should work at all.
Is there any point in making entertainment when something so serious is happening?
Like, do people need it?
Are you providing a service that's valuable at this time, or should you just hide in the house?
So you're in a house of women.
You have Leslie Mann, and then you have these two daughters who are pretty spunky and active.
And they're both in the business?
They both act and want to write and direct and do all that.
So let's talk about sort of capturing women's voices.
You've worked with some awesome women, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer and Kristen Wiig and Roseanne and your wife.
What are you learning from them about what's available to them and what's not available yet?
Well, the thing that, you know, I learned early on was that, you know, most men aren't very good at writing female voices.
And so for me, I've been lucky enough to collaborate with people.
I didn't really understand that early on that it was through collaboration that I could make these stories work better.
Obviously starting with Roseanne because I would sit with her, and we'd sit at her breakfast table, and she would bring out yellow legal pads of all of her ideas and little joke fragments.
And my job was to try to help her figure out which the best ones were and maybe expand some things and organize for her.
So one of your first bosses in comedy was a woman.
That was the first big job, you know, that I had.
I mean, I think that's really impactful.
Well, impactful in the sense that I really never thought that women weren't brilliant.
You know, I grew up on Gilda Radner and Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore.
It didn't mean that I knew how to write.
You know, as a young person, I don't know how to write for men or women or anybody.
You know, so I'm trying to figure it out.
And then, you know, Leslie and I were together, and I would see these stacks of scripts that she would get, and most of them were not good.
And we would talk about how the female parts were so much weaker.
And it made me think, "Oh, I wish I could do better in my writing."
Then, you know, I, you know, I got to work with Catherine Keener.
And she was really remarkable when we did "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
And Jane Lynch.
Yeah, and Leslie's scenes were so funny and Jane Lynch and Elizabeth Banks.
And, you know, when I met Lena Dunham, you know, that really opened up, you know, an enormous amount of new thoughts and ideas to me.
And I always felt like I was getting an incredible education being a part of that show that I tried to apply to everything else that I work on.
Well, also, it's interesting because there's a lot of generational stuff in what you think about and what ends up on the screen.
And Lena's probably between your generation and your daughters' generation.
So what a lovely person to prepare you for your daughters' eventual adolescence and young adulthood.
And they were very inspired by the show-- Oh, I'm sure.
seeing-- Did you let them watch everything?
Maude was in a couple of episodes.
And just to see somebody, you know, write, direct, and produce the show and be in charge and see so many, you know, women at the show do something that was really spectacular.
I think it led to my kids growing up thinking that it was all possible.
Where maybe in an earlier generation, you wouldn't see that on television, and you wouldn't think that that opportunity was there for you.
OK, so you put-- "Bridesmaids" comes out, and it's this monster success.
Did you see that coming, that people were ready to see women in those different roles?
I don't think that we thought about it at all till it was made.
We just thought Kristen Wiig is great.
We'd love to make a movie with her.
The premise was about a lot of brilliant women, and we thought, "Well, this is fun, doing a movie like this."
But not that it meant anything political or business wise.
And there was a moment in post when we were finishing up where we thought, "Oh, it would be bad If this didn't-- if this didn't do well."
Paul Feig, you know, became aware that oh, this is important because we want there to be tons of these.
But thank God, we didn't think about it while we were making it.
So you don't have an agenda item to help more women's stories get told, it just so happens that you're doing that?
I think that, you know, for me, I tend to just try to go to a place that's underrepresented and what's funny.
But also underrepresented is usually funny because it's fresh.
And so, yes, it's great to get to make "The Big Sick."
But again, when we were doing "The Big Sick," we didn't think like, "Oh, this is going to be really great "to tell a story of a family of immigrants, you know, story about Muslims."
That wasn't the idea.
The idea was that Kamail and Emily had an incredible, funny, moving story about them falling in love while Emily was in a coma.
And then later, when you're working on it and Donald Trump is running for president and you're feeling something happening in the country that's scary, you know, then it occurs to you, "Oh."
This might help.
Yeah, this might help.
And again suddenly, it has a significance.
I mean, it literally premiered at Sundance the day Donald Trump was inaugurated.
And so we were thrilled that it did well because I think the industry wasn't of the mind to make movies like this.
It was made for $5 million.
And that's because no one else would give us any more than $5 million when it certainly deserved the same budget as all of the others.
Do you think the reason why nobody wanted to give you more money for a story like "The Big Sick" was because they're a little bit racist or because they assume that the public is a little bit racist and therefore they're not going to be interested in a story about a person with brown skin or who has a religion that's not very common in America?
The business generally is chasing something that's already succeeded.
So if they've neglected to have these stories told, you know, then they can always fall back on, "Oh, this has never worked before."
Whether they say it out loud or not, on some level, if they thought they were going to make a fortune, you would get more money to do it or you would get more movies like that.
So, yeah, there's clearly a systemic racism to the type of movies that you see.
And, you know, it certainly is changing.
You know, if you watch movies and television, you could feel it changing, way slower than it should be, you know, but those doors are slowly opening.
The other part of Hollywood that's so tough for your wife and your daughters and all these great women that you're collaborating with is harassment and the assault.
And you have been so, in my opinion, fabulously vocal about Bill Cosby.
We talked to Steve Carr, the great NBA player/coach, and he said that he felt some responsibility that since he had a platform, he should use it.
What about the Bill Cosby story made you want to talk?
I think that obviously he's an important figure to all comedians because he's one of the main reasons why a lot of us got into the business was our love for his work.
And so to find out that he's evil, you know, it messes with your whole sense of your reality.
And also the idea that Hannibal Buress brought up, which was that people had complained and stepped forward and nobody listened.
That was the point of his standup routine.
He said Google it, and if you did, it was all there.
And why were we ignoring it?
Why were we?
I think that people tend to value certain art and music and films that meant a lot to them, and they really don't want to let go of it.
They just don't want to let go.
You know, I know that, you know, they're playing Michael Jackson in heavy rotation at most parties I go to.
And we all watched the documentary, and at the end of it, people just value the joy they get out of it enough to not connect it to those crimes.
And I always just feel bad because I feel like it sends a signal that you're being ignored and that you're not important.
And you're a fan of therapy and self-help books and that kind of stuff.
Who are you as a kid?
I, you know, I was like a good--good kid.
You know, my parents, you know, had a big divorce and we--which was very traumatic.
To me as a kid, I think that led to wanting to form communities, having trouble letting go of things.
I feel like I read that your mom left when you were 13.
Yeah, like--like 14, 15.
And it's such an unusual thing for the mom to leave.
And then she said later on her deathbed, "I only meant to be gone for two weeks."
Yeah, I mean, it was when she was sick, she had cancer, and she said, you know, "I always thought I'd come back."
And she never said that to me, you know, till like very close to the end.
And it would have made me feel so much better my whole life, because it's that question, like no one's mom leaves.
The dad moves out.
And so the circumstances of it were never explained to me because I was little, and I think, you know, back then especially, parents don't really break down the reasons that they're having problems.
They just--they just don't express it.
But isn't that incredible that that's what was on her mind in those final days?
Like, I think that's so telling.
I mean, that's what's sad about life is I think that so many conversations that should happen much earlier tend not to happen.
How much was "Funny People" informed by your mom being sick?
Well, probably all of it, because that's what was in my mind at the time, the way that people get wisdom from the fact that they're not sure if they're going to live and they see every moment as more precious, and they get more perspective about what's important.
And those ideas were in my head when I thought about writing about a character who gets a lot of wisdom.
And as soon as he finds out he's not going to die, it all goes right back out the window and he starts living the exact same way and kind of needs, you know, another, you know, event to try to get back to that.
You are a college dropout and Adam Sandler was your first roommate.
He was my first roommate.
And then you were transitioning from being a standup to being a writer.
Were you disappointed?
Well, I was always disappointed that I wasn't better or more charismatic or, you know, or brilliant in the way the people around me were.
A lot of people in our group were doing just the best comedy that's ever been made.
And when you're around them, I always say, it's like being, you know, in your first band and your best friend is Bono.
You're like, "I don't think I'm as good as Bono."
You're still trying standup.
Like, it's the great unfinished business of your life.
I think that's so interesting that you are not just sort of staying in your movie lane, that you keep looping back through standup.
There's something immediate about it.
For me, I feel like down deep, I have such low self-esteem, I'm always fighting against a voice in my head that's saying, "Shut up.
No one cares what you think about anything."
And the very act of getting on stage and talking and telling stories and trying to be funny is a weird act of proving of myself.
Like, there's something healing about not hiding in my room.
Which is what I want to do most of the time.
You know, like my therapist always says, your mind thinks if it can just get you to hide under the covers all day, you'll be safe.
And so it's like, "You can do that," because to your mind, that would be the best thing that you could do.
You're always really fighting against this like anxiety of bad things happening.
So that's why I like to do standup.
And it's a way to know what people find funny.
You're seeing it very directly.
Lately I've been saying I'm like Michael Jordan when he played Minor League Baseball.
Nobody wanted him to do it, he wasn't even that good at it, and he won't stop trying.
♪ Kelly: So what's more fun, making a movie or standing in front of a crowd trying to make them laugh?
I mean, it could flip either way on any night.
You know, being in front of a crowd can be really fun or just the worst night of your life.
You know, that's part of what is fun about it.
And there are a lot of people, they enjoy that.
You know, some people, they like to bomb.
I think they get a kick out of it.
I think the best comedians, they have that level of confidence, but I'm still just devastated.
Like, I'm not one of those people that-- Oh, my god, I can't imagine.
I have no, you know, Norm MacDonald in me.
I'm just actually in pain.
But you still do it.
You still put yourself in the line of fire.
I will still do that.
I will do it tonight.
And no matter how well it goes, I wake up in the middle of the night just horrified about some moment or something that I said.
Sometimes you're doing a set and everyone's laughing and you just look and there's one person who's like... [Laughs] And it haunts you.
Like, it literally haunts you.
Not even that you were bombing, just, "She does not take to me."
♪ And when you were doing "Trainwreck," you and Amy Schumer were doing standup every night for 3 months.
Is that true?
I mean, I was probably doing it more than her because I would just unwind at the end of the day and go to The Comedy Cellar in New York and jump on stage and do standup.
And I found that it put me in a good place.
I felt funnier for Amy during the day by having this, you know, conversation with the crowd every night.
I can't believe you had the energy.
I feel like I'd be so exhausted at the end of every day.
It almost just knocked me out.
And someone told me that after a concert sometimes Bruce Springsteen likes to work out.
But on some level, I understood it.
Like, you just have to knock yourself unconscious.
So all this time with all the success, you don't think people want to hear what you have to say.
I mean, that's the thing I think that anybody who's trying to do something creative is fighting against.
When you sit at a computer and you're about to start a movie, before you start, there is that voice that's just like, "What if this sucks?"
And you have to just accept that you're just taking your swings.
That's why I love the Beatles documentary.
I think creative people have really responded to seeing "Get Back" because you see Paul McCartney, and he's trying to figure out a song.
He doesn't have anything, so he just starts banging, which is like an improv group.
And then slowly, like, he likes something and he starts doing that again.
And then he thinks of like-- he says, "Get back."
OK, what's that?
And then you realize, oh, he's not self-conscious.
He's not being insecure.
He feels like he knows what he's doing.
He'll get there.
Even through, like, Ringo and George, like, yawning.
He's, you know, he's just gonna do it.
And that really is what comedy is.
It's the same thing.
You're just experimenting, and slowly, you're like, "Yeah, maybe that's worth keeping."
And you think of your revolver as "Freaks and Geeks."
I used to think about "Freaks and Geeks" as, like, the one time, you know, that we got it right.
You know, the first time Paul Feig showed me the pilot, you know, you felt like, "Oh, this is going to be something special."
When it was over, I thought, "I did a good one once."
And so we're all so proud of it.
So when I start a new project, I'm like, Well, I can really experiment because, you know, it happened once, and that's more than enough.
It's a good position of gratitude to put yourself in.
Well, you have to trick yourself into working.
You know, whatever weird mental game it takes to, you know, to start your "Get Back."
You just try to get in that head space.
We have a thing at "Tell Me More" called Plus One, which is our way of reminding ourselves that nobody gets anywhere alone.
Who has been invaluable to you?
One person that's meant so much to me, you know, is the writer David Milch.
And David Milch, you know, co-created "NYPD Blue" with Steven Bochco and created "Deadwood."
And I remember I showed him "Funny People," and it wasn't what people expected.
It was a little darker, it had themes about mortality.
And it was tough for some people.
It wasn't as silly as maybe they would have wanted it to be at times.
And he just said to me one day, "I know what you're doing.
Keep going in that direction."
You know, he said, you know, "You really moved me and made me laugh.
And that changed everything I did going forward.
So, you know, they are those angels who support you and guide you, and he's one of them.
♪ OK, we have a speed round at "Tell Me More."
Minute by Minute Tour.
Third concert, also Doobie Brothers End of the Minute by Minute Tour.
It was that good?
Best live performance you've ever seen?
You know, I saw Bruce Springsteen on Broadway right when he started it up after the pandemic ended.
He cried so hard while performing it.
I walked out and said, "That's was one of the most powerful things I'd ever seen."
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
I got best dressed in fifth grade.
So I'm living up to the hype.
Ha ha ha!
When was the last time you cried?
The last time I cried?
I'm always crying.
When am I not crying?
I'm trying hard not to cry this whole interview.
If you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
I guess to say to Donald Trump, "Don't run for president."
Ha ha ha!
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
"I Told You He Was the Best."
She was always very positive.
I really believe in laughter and comedy.
So I want to thank you for your work and I want to thank you for helping so many other important people's work get made.
Thank you very much.
It was great to be here.
In my own office.
I didn't go anywhere.
Thanks for having us.
♪ If you loved today's conversation, you'll enjoy related episodes with Jennifer Garner, James Corden, W. Kamau Bell, and David Byrne.
For more on the science of laughter, creativity, and well-being that Judd and I talked about, join me for my companion podcast "Kelly Corrigan Wonders" or for our companion video on pbs.org.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪