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The Hemi Q&A: Judd Apatow

He's been behind the decade's biggest comedies, but this patron saint of arrested development started out the old-fashioned way: by menacing Steve Martin.

Author David Carr Illustration Stanley Chow

NOT LONG AGO, I WAS IN LOS ANGELES AND HAD LUNCH WITH JUDD APATOW, the wildly successful producer-writer-director who has had a hand in hit films The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Anchorman and Get Him to the Greek. As you might expect, we had something of a Hollywood power lunch. There was a very nice grilled salmon with Thai chili sauce and a grilled pork dish I remember with some fondness. This being Judd Apatow, however, we weren’t actually in Hollywood. We were in a nondescript three-story office building in a part of Santa Monica you won’t see in the movies, and we were eating out of plastic takeout containers.

That’s how Apatow, 43, rolls: No gilded reception area and fluttering posse of assistants with headsets, just a conference table piled with papers from all his various projects and a lot of talk about movies. A Jewish kid who grew up in Syosset, New York, idolizing comedians, he’s never been much for the showbiz part of show business. That sensibility is reflected in his characters: schlubby, floundering man-children and the women who, for whatever reason, love them.

Apatow was nominated for a bunch of Emmys in the mid-’90s for his work on The Larry Sanders Show, but he really came into his own with 1999’s short-lived but critically beloved NBC sitcom Freaks and Geeks, which he produced, cowrote and codirected. A funny, often wince-inducing and surprisingly sweet look at the lives of outcasts in a suburban high school, it was canceled after one season. Later, Apatow moved into films full-time, scoring his first big smash with 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Since then he’s become something of a one-man comic- industrial complex. His next production, Bridesmaids, starring Kristen Wiig, comes out in May. (He’s also working on an as-yet-unnamed Pee-wee Herman film, slated for 2011.)

We had an interesting conversation at lunch, but, schlub that I am, I didn’t bring a tape recorder, so I called Apatow back a few weeks later to talk a little more about how he became the king of a certain kind of comedy.

HEMISPHERES: You were fanatical about comedy from a very young age, right? You had a radio show in high school and interviewed all kinds of big names.

APATOW: The interviews that had the biggest impact on me were with people like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Paul Reiser, because they all had this skill, and they were superfunny and nice people. It felt like this is what a grown-up version of me might look like if I worked hard and stayed on my path.

HEMISPHERES: You’ve become a producer known for a golden commercial touch, but you first came to prominence with Freaks and Geeks, which lasted one season. People still talk about that show as one of the best that ever snuck onto a network schedule.

APATOW: It was a funny dynamic. It was so clear that we were going to get canceled. The network stopped giving notes, and we responded by shooting the types of episodes that the network would have absolutely no interest in. In the end, it feels like a miniseries. We were lucky. We said most of what we wanted to say because we knew it was going to end.

HEMISPHERES: Did you decide afterward that you needed to be more commercial?

APATOW: Nothing changed about my work—in fact, most of the movies I’ve made star the cast of Freaks and Geeks—but for some reason the culture has embraced the goofy guys and goofy women, so suddenly there’s a place for me.

HEMISPHERES: You work with the same people over and over— Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel.

APATOW: It’s hard to find people you’re both in sync with and like spending a lot of time with. When I made Funny People with Adam Sandler, it was the first time we got to hang out every day since 1991.

HEMISPHERES: You lived with Sandler. How was he as a roommate? Did he leave the cap off the toothpaste?

APATOW: He was a great roommate. It was a very fun time, because we all knew that he was going to be a big star. There was just an energy around him that was undeniable. He was very charismatic, his stand-up act was experimental and strange, and he never cared if he did well or bombed. He wasn’t making movies yet. Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller were around in those days too, before they had done anything that people remember. We all used to hang around and try to figure out how we were going to get into the business.

HEMISPHERES: You’re editing a book to benefit a charity, right?

APATOW: The writer Dave Eggers cofounded a nonprofit tutoring, writing and publishing organization called 826, and one day I was talking to him about how he could raise some money for it. I told him I could put together a book of all of my favorite pieces of humor. So now we have this book called I Found This Funny. It is a humor collection, though several pieces aren’t funny at all. I spent a year putting together this almost-five-hundred-page book. We have the pilot to a sitcom that Conan O’Brien cowrote for Adam West twenty years ago called Lookwell. It’s about a retired actor who once played a detective on television trying to solve actual crimes with an honorary badge made out of Lucite. It’s one of the funniest television pilots I have ever read. There are excerpts from Steve Martin’s memoir about being a standup comedian, and short stories from Raymond Carver and James Agee.

HEMISPHERES: How did you swing the rights to all that stuff?

APATOW: We just begged everybody to do it as cheaply as possible. I find it’s much harder to convince the dead people to give it to us cheap than the living ones.

HEMISPHERES: You can’t threaten to kill them, for one thing.

APATOW: Exactly. You never know when a dead writer’s great-great-great-grandson’s nephew wants to get paid. But even the dead people came around eventually. I have been inspired by Eggers’ level of giving. For someone who is very productive as a writer and a publisher, he makes a lot of time to tutor kids and run all of these tutoring organizations around the country. I think teachers can have a huge impact on a kid. In eleventh grade, I had a teacher who asked me to write my autobiography as an assignment. I was embarrassed about my own life, so I made one up about how I was actually in the CIA, undercover at the school and how I was having all of these romances with the teachers. I thought I was going to get in trouble but she pulled me aside one day and said, “You’re very funny. You could write like Woody Allen. You should pursue that.”

HEMISPHERES: Speaking of formative experiences, you have a pretty good Steve Martin story.

APATOW: I always feel bad for Steve when I tell the story.

HEMISPHERES: So stipulated—can you tell it anyway?

APATOW: Okay. When I was a teenager I would always drive by Steve’s house. One day he was out front and I asked him to sign a piece of paper for me. He said he didn’t sign autographs at his house because he didn’t want everyone to start knocking on his door, which is a completely reasonable request. I asked him if he could step out on the street and sign it, and he said sorry. I put a letter in his mailbox the next day that said I think you’re the funniest guy in the world, but if you don’t send me an apology I’m going to send your address to Homes of the Stars and you’re going to have tour buses passing by twenty-four hours a day. I told him you wouldn’t live in that house if I didn’t buy all of your records and go to all of your movies. It was a very nasty letter, but it was also probably funny. So six months later in the mail, he sent me his humor collection Cool Shoes, and he signed it, “To Judd: I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was speaking to THE Judd Apatow.” This is 1981. That was when I decided to be a comedian. I realized that he didn’t just send me a note—he sent me a book, and it felt like he took extra time to do something extra funny and kind.

HEMISPHERES: So he’s funny and nice.

APATOW: Steve Martin is the funniest man in the world.

DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for The New York Times, will happily sign autographs in front of his house. For a small fee.

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