In a business full of ups and downs, it is not uncommon for a person to find out what they’re good at, stick with it, reap all of the benefits, and have that be what they’re forever known as doing. Whether it’s as an actor, comic, producer, director, or a writer, once people see what works for you, they’re not going to buy anything else you have to sell them.
But for every rule, there is an exception. And with a career that has taken many forms, from his early days as a stand up, to producing beloved, albeit short-lived television shows, to making hit comedy films, to producing long-running hit television shows, Judd Apatow not only defines that exception, he thrives within it.
On December 12th, Judd Apatow will embark on a dream that’s been 40+ years in the making when his first ever stand up special, The Return debuts on Netflix. Watching his stand-up special feels a lot like being inside his living room, given the very personal nature and perspective of his act. It literally feels like it’s an intimate conversation amongst old pals.
We recently spoke to Judd Apatow over the phone about his first special, his approach to stand up, his family, Gary Shandling, and all else in between.
The first thing I noticed about your special is that you’re a more personal in your stand-up this time around.
When I first started doing stand-up, I was terrible. I never got THAT good. I was well on my way, but I was so young. I stopped doing stand-up when I was 24. I had done it for 7 years, and I didn’t really have any life experience or strong opinions or anecdotes of any kid. So it’s so much easier to do it now than back then. There’s a lot of road behind me.
A lot of your films tend to come off as being very personal in a way, so it would make sense that the same would work its way into your act.
I think that stand-up is very personal. When you make movies, even when people think it’s personal, you’ve made up almost all of it. So it has the illusion of being personal, and it’s personal in the sense that it’s what you care about and they’re ideas you’re thinking about. But very little of it is true in any way. When you do stand up, you’re directly expressing your experience. There are people who are more absurd, but a lot of great stand up is about sharing your life with people. I remember I was doing stand-up a few years ago and I asked Garry Shandling what he thought and he said, “You’re doing great, and the only time you’re not is when you’re trying to act like a comedian.”
So, the secret to it is being yourself on stage
Absolutely. And that takes years to do. It takes a long time to figure out who you are and what your voice is and having it comfortable enough to express yourself.
Comedians talk a lot about having a persona on stage. But you don’t really seem to have a persona on stage. That seems to be really you, is that fair to say?
I’m trying not to have a persona onstage. That’s what I’m attempting to do. If I can talk offstage and walk onstage and have it be very similar, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
How does your family feel about you being so open and personal about their lives in relation to yours?
My kids walk the line between being amused and just being bored and disinterested. They watch me do a lot of sets and my daughter always says. “Why do you say the same jokes every night?” They don’t quite understand that’s what a comedian does. But they’ve gotten a big kick out of it. I’ve certainly asked them if there was anything that they were uncomfortable with. And the truth is now that this set is done, it captures what they were like 2 years ago. So now it’s the beginning of a whole new era. And a lot of what I’m going through is trying to figure out how to be a parent in the modern age. And really it’s a lot different than when I was a kid and my parents never step foot in my high school and the only technology was I spent all day at home watching Merv Griffin and The Dinah Shore Show. That terrified them, and it would probably be the same way that I’m terrified with my kids on their phones and Snapchatting and Instagramming all day long. We don’t know how to manage this new world and we don’t know how concerned to be. So that’s mainly what I’m discussing. I don’t think my kids are any different than anybody else. I think we are all struggling with this.
When did you start performing stand-up again? What is around the time you were working on Funny People?
When I started writing Funny People, I was thinking a lot about why I like comedy and what was it about it that interested me? I wanted to explore the relationships that comedians have with each other and what a successful comedian looks like, what a struggling comedian looks like. So I started going to clubs and doing stand-up, but just to write jokes for Adam and Seth’s characters. I wasn’t doing anything personal, I was trying to do it in THEIR voices. But it certainly reignited my interest in stand-up. I have 2 children, I didn’t really see how I could have a life now where there was room to go to clubs and work on an act. So every once in a while, I’d go to UCB and do a strange show. I went there a few times and did a show I called “How to Make Thousands Writing Comedy,” where I would give fake screenplay seminars and then bring people onstage to pitch me their real screenplays and then I would give them advice. That was really fun. But when I started working with Amy Schumer on Trainwreck, her career was skyrocketing and it all seemed like so much fun, and I think watching her rise made me realize how much that was also my dream when I was a kid. And then when we went to do Trainwreck, I was in New York for a few months, and I had plenty of time on my hands, so every night after we shot the film, I’d stop at The Comedy Cellar and do a set. I think it made the movie a lot funnier because it had reawakened parts of my brain that were probably dormant. And it chained me into the audience. I think it certainly keeps me from being crusty.
One thing I really liked about the special was the opening where you show yourself backstage wondering if you could go out there and be funny. That’s a side we don’t typically get to see.
I created some dramatic tension there. But I was terrified. I’m not used to performing for an hour. I’m certainly not used to shooting an hour special. I’d never done that before. So even though we taped four shows to make sure I got a good one, there was always a part of my brain that thinks, “There’s a chance that you could bomb four times in a row right now.” Luckily it went well. The audiences at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal are so great. That’s where they asked me to do it the year before. I was doing a show, and afterwards Netflix said, “Hey, we were in the crowd. Would you ever want to do a special?” And I said “Yeah, but give me a year.”
So you weren’t doing a lot of hour headlining sets around then?
I was doing a lot of sets at The Improv, The Comedy Store, Largo, and The Laugh Factory in L.A. The Comedy Cellar, and Gotham in New York when I was there. But I wasn’t doing a ton of hours. I was trying to sneak out and do them when I was able to. So I did the Ryman, I did Carnegie Hall, I did the Kennedy Center with Pete [Holmes] and Michael Che. But before I taped the special I went on the road and worked on the set so by the time I shot it, I had done it a lot of times and had a sense of how it would work. I also tried to do things that I hadn’t seen people do before which was tell stories using photographs and adding a little bit of a multimedia aspect to it so it would be a little bit different than what other people had done. And because I have so many ridiculously stupid photos from my life that illustrate these stories. And I think that part of the special came out really well.
Do you feel with Netflix becoming a new medium for stand-up, that the comedy special has changed at all with the progression?
I think as a result of the internet, people who go into comedy have seen an enormous amount of comedy. When I was a kid, I had seen what I thought was a lot of comedy. But everything I saw in my entire childhood, someone today could watch in a week. So as a result, people are very sophisticated and they know what to do, they know to dig deep, they know to be unique and original. So I think there’s a lot of people doing amazing work. I feel like it’s a golden era, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to fade because the work is strong. I feel like when the club scene crashed in the 90s, it had to do with the fact that the boom happened so fast and because it didn’t have comedians who were qualified to do all those shows that the quality dropped. But I feel like that’s not happening right now.
Do you think we will still be looking at these specials the same way in 10-20 years?
It’s always interesting to hear people talk about their lives. So if you don’t think about it as stand-up comedy, you just think about it as hearing from somebody you care about, well that will never really go out of style. Anyone sharing what they’re going through is interesting. Whether it’s stand-up comedy or a podcast or a Ted Talk, I think we all have an insatiable need to connect through.
What do you consider to be the greatest stand-up specials of all time?
I think the Richard Pryor specials and the Chris Rock specials are among the very best. I love anything Maria Bamford does. I just saw the Tom Segura special, which I don’t know if it’s already up or not. But he is riotously funny and smart. I love all of the late-era George Carlin stuff when he was really bitter. I think most of what he said that was seen as too extreme back then is right on the money based on everything that is happening in our country. He had a great bit where he said “You don’t have any rights. You just have the rights that they want you to think you have.” And that turned out to be true.
Now that the special is being released, do you see yourself continuing on this road of stand-up again?
I love doing comedy, it made me really happy. I used to think that people doing stand-up comedy might be doing it because they need attention or it’s some sort of sign of damage from their childhood. But now I realize it’s really a matter of wanting to feel heard. I think it’s a sign of self esteem to do stand-up because you’re saying “I have something that I think is worthy of hearing.” You’re putting yourself in a place to share an experience with an audience. So I think I will continue to do it. I don’t know at what pace. What I love about stand up is I don’t have to do it. I have other work to do it. So I do it just because I love it.
Do you think that helps then that you’re not doing it out of necessity?
I think it does, because I can try to be as creative as I can be. I don’t really need to try to think of a way to appeal to people. I can just attempt to be as much as original as I can be.
So, what can you you tell us about season 2 of Crashing?
Crashing comes back January 14th. It’s a great season, we’ve had some awesome guest stars. Bill Burr, The Lucas Brothers, Jenny Slate, Jeff Ross. In this season, you see Pete begin to figure out how to become a comedian, and you also see him explore relationships for the first time since he got divorce. Since he only really had been with one woman his entire life. And I think second seasons of shows are always great because you figure out the show in the first season, then you can take all that information and make the second season really strong. I’m really proud of all the work. I’m excited for people to see it. And I also made a documentary about the Avett Brothers that’s going to be on HBO at the end of January that I think people will really like. Even if you don’t know the band, you’ll fall in love with them and then Love comes back in March.
Where are we at with Sicker In The Head, the sequel to your book Sick In The Head?
I’m in the middle of writing the sequel to Sick in the Head. I’m also putting together a book of artifacts that I found in Gary Shandling’s house. We found a lot of letters and journals and photographs, so we’re going to put together a scrapbook of Gary’s life. I also just finished a documentary on Gary for HBO that will be out in March. That’s a 2 part, 4 hour documentary on his life. I think it came out really well. Luckily Gary left behind journals, so we do know what he was thinking about everything. And most people don’t know much about him, so it’s an opportunity to learn about what was behind all of that work and that life.
After Sick In The Head, do you ever get people coming up to you saying they were inspired to start interviewing people?
Yeah, well that’s why I put it out there because this is the book I wish existed when I was a kid and now people can read it and learn about how different people found their path through their creativity. There’s a lot of great information in there. It’s really a little bit of a bible about having a great career in comedy or any of the arts. And for other people. It shows how hard people work and how dedicated they are, because you have to be like that in any field if you’re going to make it. I really do feel like in 10-20 years that will be the thing that will be most important out of everything I’ve ever done.
That book is all about passion, and I think that comes along in all of your work. So much of what you do you’re just so passionate about.
Absolutely, because I’m such a comedy nerd, that’s never changed. I get just as excited working with people and meeting people as I did when I was a kid. Well, maybe not as excited as I was when I was 10 years old and I met Don Rickles, but close.
Did you ever have the thought that to make it in comedy, you had to give up being a comedy nerd?
No I never think that. I always think that it’s okay to come at it as a fan. At some point I realized, “In order to become a part of this world, I have to be great at it or no one’s going to want to talk to me.” So that also was a great motivator. I needed to get people’s respect, and I would only get that if I was great at what I was doing.
Judd Apatow’s debut stand-up special, The Return debuts on Netflix on Tuesday, December 12th.