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Career Arc: Judd Apatow

From The Larry Sanders Show to Freaks and Geeks to This Is 40, we look back on the professional life of a comedy auteur

I n 2006, Judd Apatow produced a small movie called The TV Set. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan, who’d worked with Apatow on Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks, it starred David Duchovny as a put-upon TV writer struggling mightily with interference by clueless network suits. And, as has been noted, Duchovny’s character bears — between the beard, the belly, the history of back problems, and a penchant for polos — at least a passing resemblance to Apatow himself. Now, it doesn’t really matter if Kasdan did or did not make a movie about his old boss having his soul crushed by television’s powers that be. What matters is that it’s at least a plausible theory. Because Apatow’s bouts of behind-the-scenes teeth-gnashing aren’t just infamous. They’re what make him tick.

As Apatow happily admits, half his drive comes from wanting to prove wrong all those faceless studio hacks who once told him “no.” But all his exec-battling stories — the passive-aggressive review framing, the “How can you fuck me in the ass?”–asking — would have been so much industry ephemera if he hadn’t, eventually, broken through. It was only when Apatow found himself a member of the Hollywood Comedy Cabal that the legend was formed: “Here is the true artist who failed, again and again, but never wavered, until, finally, he succeeded.” And so when the inevitable comedown did arrive, with the soft landing of Funny People, it may well have offered some perverse succor. Because then, written off as trite, or spent, or extended beyond his means, Apatow rediscovered his raison d’être. With This Is 40 (out December 21), once again, he has people to prove wrong. Oh, you think failure is your ally? You merely adopted it. Judd Apatow was born in it.

The Background

Growing up in Syosset, Long Island, Apatow was a ne plus ultra comedy nerd. In an excellent, expansive profile from 2007, The New York Times Magazine explained: “He began audiotaping ‘Saturday Night Live’ when he was 11, transcribing the show and then trying to figure how they made it funny. When TV Guide arrived each week, Apatow would underline all the comics scheduled to appear on ‘The Mike Douglas Show.'” He also interviewed working comedians before their national fame beckoned — Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright — for “Club Comedy,” a high school radio show he hosted. Later, he’d explain it as a survival tactic.

Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 13, and split up the siblings. “On one level, that was really hard,” he’s said. “On another level, I thank God because it made me work my ass off. It made me connect with people suffering.” Making up his mind on a future in comedy, he saw the “Club Comedy” interviews as research. “[The divorce] made me think: What am I going to do with my life?How do I get there? I started thinking: OK, I’ll just start interviewing comedians. I’ll start doing stand-up at 17, it will take 10 years to get good and at 27 maybe I will have a career.”

He got himself to L.A. via USC, but dropped out after two years in the screenwriting program. By that time, he was already emceeing at comedy clubs and making friends on the scene; he’d play poker with Paul Feig or chop it up with Rob Schneider and Jim Carrey. For two years, he lived with Adam Sandler. “Every moment of the day,” Judd says, “he was funny.” Years later, Apatow would open Funny People with vintage footage — the two prank-calling a diner to complain about the roast beef.

Hanging with to-be-big names convinced him he wasn’t that dude. “It was hard to be around Adam when you really felt the room drawn to him, and you’re the guy on the other side, drinking a beer by yourself,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. A low point in his career as a performer came after an audition for a comedy-reality show produced by Jim Henson: “Afterward, my manager told me, [Henson] said I lacked warmth. The guy that taught me how to read? Kermit the Frog says I’m not warm?!”

Instead, he wrote jokes for stars. “I would go to [Roseanne’s] house and write jokes at her breakfast table,” he’s said. “I wrote this whole bit about … how the only way to get rid of stretch marks is to gain weight. Y’know, put on an extra 30 pounds just to bang ’em out. I didn’t think I even really understood what a stretch mark was.”

The Flailing

The actual beginning of Apatow’s career is conventionally marked here, with his gig as a producer on 1992’s The Ben Stiller Show. The show lasted — foreshadowing! — only a season, but found its way into the comedy-nerd canon. And Apatow’s rep here isn’t tied so much to what he produced on-screen (there’s no one particular sketch he’s best known for) as what he did off of it.

As he’d later explain, Fox execs regularly butted in with unbelivabley cliché-actualizing advice: e.g., “Judd, I am a moron. And everyone in America is a moron. So if I get it, America will get it.” And so Apatow fought back against every note: “Well, I’m not going to change anything. So what happens now?” The show was canceled swiftly, and the seeds of the Apatow Hero’s Journey — brave comedy warrior, cut down too soon by ignorance — were planted.

Apatow moved on to The Larry Sanders Show, working with his idol Garry Shandling. It was a formative learning experience but not an overly fruitful time. During his Shandling stint he re-teamed with Stiller on Heavy Weights and wrote the (somewhat accurately) maligned Celtic Pride. He also did some punch-up work on Happy Gilmore, which, come on, props due. But what he’s best known for from the mid-’90s is a losing battle to get a writer’s credit on The Cable Guy. “People would laugh at me later because the movie wasn’t a big hit,” he’s explained. “‘Why are you trying so hard to get your name on it?'”

I, for one, am totally onboard with Cable Guy‘s latter-day rehabilitation: I mean, my buddies and I loved it the first time. Deeply unsettling, vaguely forbidden, and eminently quotable (“Waterworld — I don’t know what the big fuss is about. I saw that movie nine times. It rules!”), it was perfect for the sixth grade. But note that so far, the adjective Apatovian — that particular offering of gushy pathos and primary colors swirled around a strictly regimented joke schedule — can’t yet be applied to any of his work. At this point, this is still a man building a name on the ability to fail nobly.

The Cult Classics

Which segues nicely to Apatow’s twin titans of gone-too-soon television, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. By the end of the ’90s, Apatow was an old hand at rejection. But working with kids, on the most vulnerable material of his career, and having that taken away — well, something appears to have snapped. “Physically how it manifested itself [is] he literally blew out his back,” Seth Rogen has said, of the herniated disk that Apatow suffered when Freaks got canceled. “After his surgery, he was fucked up on painkillers, 24 hours a day for six months.”

According to Apatow himself, “I tend to take cancellation particularly hard. I cry and I have back surgeries and I’m bitter for decades. I go so far as to attempt to turn every single person who ever acted in any show I’ve ever been involved in a feature film star just so I can prove that I was right about the TV show. Sometimes the actors will say to me, ‘Wow, you must really think I’m good.’ No, I don’t think you’re good at all. I just have to prove to that goddamn TV executive that he made a mistake.”

He’s only semi-serious. Apatow knew how good what he had was.

Freaks and Geeks was mostly co-creator Paul Feig’s vision. He was the one who channeled life as a young nerd in suburban Michigan in the ’80s into the raw, aching brilliance of Freaks. “I wanted to leave a chronicle … for kids going in,” he’s said. “‘Here’s what you can expect. It’s horrifying but all you should really care about is getting through it.'” Apatow embraced Feig’s material, then added some nuances lifted directly from his own history with divorce. The Judd-crafted scene that’s always pointed to, and rightfully so: Bill Haverchuck, home alone — with a mouthful of milk and grilled cheese, and vintage Shandling on the TV — utterly blissed out.

Apatow walked away from the cancellation of Freaks with two things (besides the, uh, wrenching back pain): a desire to mine a similar “emotional shit that’s funny” milieu, and Seth Rogen. Judd found him at a Vancouver open casting call at the age of 17, fell in love with his chops as the mumbly Ken Miller, then hired him as a writer-actor on his next project, the college-freshman sitcom Undeclared.

OK, so: I’ve been proselytizing for Undeclared for so long that it’s hard for me to stop now. Rationally, I don’t care to argue with the consensus that Freaks is the superior of the two. I know that Freaks was the tougher, more ambitious show; its pain was true. But personally, I believe Undeclared is still the best thing Apatow’s ever done.

There’s Rogen, plaintively spot-on as Ron, the kind of chubby smartass who’s secretly too nice, or secretly too scared, to sleep with his friend’s younger sister. There’s Jason Segel, putting on a goddamn clinic as Eric, the psycho ex-boyfriend masterfully pinging back and forth from rage blackouts to weepy meltdowns. And there’s this one scene, toward the end of the first episode. It’s the first night of college and the gawky virgin Steven is flirting with Lizzie, who’s just broken up with her long-distance boyfriend. She’s on his bed, and she’s geeked up, but she wants to shake it off, so she impulsively blurts out, “You know what we should do? We should have sex!” And then: “Do you have a condom?” “I have, uh, eight condoms,” Steven answers. And he begins to fumblingly undress her, shoe strap first.

Over the 17 episodes of Undeclared you cringe and you aww, you cringe and you aww. It’s almost a familial relationship with those kids: You don’t wanna go get drunk at the club with them, you wanna while away an afternoon at Costco pushing the carts around and making fun of weird shit. And so when it, too, was canceled after one year — and this time by the same exec who killed The Ben Stiller Show — Apatow allowed himself to go just a touch off the handle. He framed the Times‘s rave of a review and mailed it to that exec, along with a personalized note: “How can you fuck me in the ass again when your penis is still in there from last time?”

You hear that anecdote and you want to get all worked up right alongside 2001 Apatow. But the thing is, early death was crucial to how we perceive both of those shows — too perfect to live. Apatow’s sodomy notes and painkillers enhance the haze of glory. People still lament how we never got more Freaks or Undeclared. I like it going down exactly as it did.

The Rise

“I can’t keep making stuff that loses people money,” he told Feig in 2004, before Anchorman, which Apatow co-produced, was released. “They’re going to figure out it’s me.” It came out smelling exactly like the opposite of a used diaper full of Indian food: a $28 million opening weekend, an eventual $90 million box office haul, and an incalculable cult influence — good for the first out-and-out success of Apatow’s career.

By the next year, with his directorial debut, The 40 Year Old Virgin, it was on and popping. Virgin was as incessantly quotable as Anchorman (if you’d like, call me and I will rattle off for you large chunks of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene) but with that all-important extra oomph. You really wanted Andy to get laid. And when he did, it really felt like he’d earned the right to frolic freely to “Age of Aquarius.”

Columbia Pictures
By 2007’s Knocked Up, the flood was on. As the Times magazine estimated, “Over the next year and a half, an Apatow-connected comedy will hit multiplexes at a rate of about one every three months.” This was the first wave of the Apatow family traveling circus. It was an exuberant, positive time, and so the brilliance of Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall counted tenfold against, say, Drillbit Taylor. And by consistently slotting his repertory players wherever he could, it felt like Apatow was rewarding us for sticking with him.

Knocked Up was the crown jewel. The trick was getting what seemed like throwaway one-liners and pop-culture references to work in service of the story. The scene below is an excuse to have Paul Rudd do Robert De Niro getting angry about having his shoes ruined by amniotic fluid. But it’s also about how some things never, ever stop being terrifying.

The Fall(ish)

The same summer of its release, Katherine Heigl told Vanity Fair that Knocked Up was “a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” She’d apologize, and the kerfuffle blew over quickly. But its spirit lived on. Unwittingly, most likely, Heigl sparked the bromance backlash. After a few years of living in Apatovia, there was dissension. Emotionally stunted man-boys, learning to grow up and be good to their women, were now predictable and lame.

Part of it was oversaturation; part of it was miscues of the form, perceived or otherwise, within the Apatow-production universe. (Pineapple Express: underrated. Year One: truly depressing.) But what it amounted to, in the summer of 2009, was the presence of a less-than-revelrous audience ready to greet Funny People.

“The movie … feels like the work of an artist in transition,” The New Republic wrote in their review, “an attempt by Apatow to see how far he can push his foul-mouthed bromances toward earnest drama before finally having to let go of the dick jokes.” As Splitsider notes, that was a largely positive writeup: Even the people who liked it couldn’t resist slagging it as uneven and tough. But maybe that’s because they were working under the assumption that Apatow was reacting to criticism, and therefore trying his best to fight his way out of the quicksand of bromance. Another way to see Funny People is that he was using his defined shtick to tell a more personal story. So, yes, it feels like two movies. But that’s what he was going for. Like, why would anyone want to get rid of dick jokes?

Lately, Apatow has again seemed aware of the things people say about him. “I got bored of penises,” he joked when asked how come so many females started popping up in his projects. “No, I … like to show people struggle and try to figure out who they are. I’m a guy and so it leaned guy for a while.” Whether he was looking for new talent in women, or whether he just happened to find it there, the first result was Bridesmaids — certainly a different kind of entry on the Apatow roster, and also, coincidentally, his highest-grossing movie to date. It should be noted, however, that the one Bridesmaids scene everyone knows Apatow came up with is the one where Maya Rudolph poops in the street.

He’s also got a writing credit on one episode of Girls, which he executive produces, the one where Hannah goes home to Michigan (what’s good, Freaks?). But that’s Lena Dunham’s show. He gets the small credit for providing the platform; she gets to lavish in the praise, and work through the criticism, for what she’s done with that platform.

It’s indicative of this second wave of Apatow production: He’s not the puppetmaster anymore. The darker Get Him to the Greek or the little-loved misfire Five-Year Engagement weren’t seen as extensions of his psyche; however the Anchorman sequel, his Pee-wee Herman project, or the “Keira Knightley is broke and singing in New York City” movie turn out, they won’t be seen as that either.

The reviews so far for This Is 40 have been average, but I can’t imagine it’ll be a “The Triumphant Return of Judd Apatow” kind of situation. I liked a lot of it. It’s admirably unflinching and sad and honest. There are a bunch of long, hard scenes that still manage to be really funny. Seeing Maude Apatow turn from that plucky murder-Googler of her earlier work to the shrieking banshee of This Is 40 is a particularly discomfiting bummer, and I guess that was partially Apatow’s point. But it doesn’t feel like a complete movie, more a threaded collection of prickly scenes. And if that’s what Apatow was going for, that kind of loose naturalism, then it should have been more — weirder, longer, even harder to watch. As much as I enjoy the (SPOILER ALERT) soothing, surely marriage- and or/career-saving sounds of Ryan Adams, it was getting gnarly there at the end, and going and tying things up with a bow didn’t feel earned.

I doubt Apatow’s over all the rejections and slights. I doubt he ever will be. But if he were concerned with a “comeback,” he could have gone a safer route. Instead, he actively avoided shades of the past (even though it’s billed as a “sort of sequel,” there’s no mention of Rogen and Heigl’s characters from Knocked Up in 40), and went and made this odd, rough thing. “I’ve always appreciated people like Graham Parker or Loudon Wainwright III who spend their entire lives … working their asses off just to have complete artistic freedom,” he told Pitchfork this month. “That’s the same kind of work that I’m trying to do, in my own weird way.” I think what Apatow’s saying is that the process should feel a little bit fucked up and Sisyphean and insane. If it’s not a little bit fucked up and Sisyphean and insane, you’re not trying hard enough.

Filed Under: Judd Apatow, Celebrities, Movies, This Is 40, career arc

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad