'I'm not as funny as Richard Pryor'

Sat, Aug 29, 2009, 01:00

His geography-teacher looks belie his string of comedy film productions, but with ‘Funny People’, his third film as director, the real Judd Apatow is becoming (almost) visible

WHO THE HECK is Judd Apatow? Regular cinema-goers could be forgiven for repeatedly asking themselves this question over the past five years.

Before 2005, his name was just something you’d seen somewhere on telly (in the credits for the untouchable Larry Sanders Show, as it happens). Then, following the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his directorial debut, Apatow launched a colonisation of American cinematic comedy that continues to this day. Knocked Up, his second film as director, was an even bigger smash than Virgin. In the space of two years he produced (and occasionally wrote) such diversions as Talladega Nights, Superbad, Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Step Brothersand Pineapple Express. This weekend, Funny People, his third film as director, makes it into cinemas. I am surprised he has found time to talk to me.

Dressed in a crumpled black shirt, a geography-teacher beard obscuring his lower features, Apatow, now 41, shrugs nonchalantly as he tries to explain his work ethic.

“Part of it was I wasn’t able to get a lot of movies made a few years back, and then suddenly I was able,” he says. “I didn’t want to say to the people who wrote those scripts I was developing: ‘Hey, let’s not make your movie because I want to take a nap.’”

If you genuinely want to discover who the heck Judd Apatow is, you might like to take a look at Funny People. Starring Adam Sandler as a hugely successful, troublingly unsettled comic who reappraises his life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, the film constitutes a lengthy (too lengthy) consideration of the traumas that afflict professional comedians. Clearly in no mood to deflect suggestions that the work may be autobiographical, Judd begins the film with ancient footage of the young Sandler making a crank call to a puzzled restaurateur. The video was, in fact, shot by Apatow 20 years ago when the two men were sharing an apartment.

“I lived with Adam and he had a real professional buzz about him,” he says. “He was on MTV a bit and we knew it was going to happen for him, but it hadn’t happened yet. We didn’t know how it would happen.

“And we were very bored. We’d do stand-up at night and then we had to fill the day. I’d come back at two o’clock in the morning and he’d be making crank calls on his own in the dark.”

A STRANGE PUDDING of a film, Funny Peoplealso features Seth Rogen, frequent Apatow collaborator, as a younger comic who agrees to become Sandler’s personal assistant. When not polishing punch lines with the star, Rogen hangs out with two other, equally insecure budding comedians. The film feels like an attempt to address both ends of Apatow’s personal narrative arc: life as a struggling stand-up; life as a hugely successful Hollywood player.

“I put it this way. It’s very autobiographical, but none of it is true,” he says cryptically. “All the feelings are truthful. The themes are all things I think about. This is how we feel about the comedic life.” There’s a worrying thought. The comedians, whether successful or unsuccessful, all come across as wildly insecure. Actors and writers seem well balanced by comparison.

“Look, all comedians feel the need for attention. Attention and affection are what keeps the engine running. They want people to laugh, but not for the laughter itself. The laughter lets them know they are liked. Actors may get the same feeling by being sexy or whatever. Comedians need the laugh.”

At one point, the film amusingly addresses the old theory that misery breeds good comedy. An older character remarks that Sandler’s generation – and, by extension, Apatow’s – had to cope only with divorced parents, while comics a few decades earlier grew up with drunk, miserable, potentially violent fathers. The implication is that comedians from sub-Generation X had lives that were too cosy to generate the really serious, really painful laughter.

Sure enough, Apatow was raised in a reasonably comfortable part of Long Island and his parents divorced when he was 12.

“Yeah, you have to remember that Richard Pryor was raised in a brothel,” he says. “I wasn’t raised in a brothel and I’m not as funny as Richard Pryor, so there you are. Sure, the divorce was traumatic, but maybe it wasn’t traumatic enough to bring me to the next level of comedy.”

The late Bob Shad, Apatow’s grandfather, a music impresario and record label boss, gained a kind of fame as the producer of Janis Joplin’s first LP and also worked with such luminaries as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan. When Judd, after dropping out of the University of Southern California, propelled himself into show business, his parents were, therefore, somewhat less wary than they may otherwise have been. “Hey, Grandpa Bobby did it, so it’s okay,” he remembers his mother saying.

Initially attempting to make it as a stand-up, Apatow found himself slowly being drawn away from the microphone and towards the word-processor. The years passed and, having devised material for Rosanne Barr, Ben Stiller and Garry Shandling, he woke up one day to discover that he had become a writer rather than a performer.

The big break came in the early 1990s with Shandling’s magnificent The Larry Sanders Show. Originally one of a pool of writers on the show – a merciless evisceration of American talk-show baloney – Apatow went on to direct several episodes and became chief joke-master on the final series.

A glance at his CV suggests that a spell in the wilderness followed.

The Cable Guy, an under-rated farce for Jim Carrey, flopped dramatically at the box-office and a whole series of scripts remained stranded in development Hades.

Does he remember it as a frustrating time? “There’s always so much happening in life that you don’t have time to feel that,” he says. “I produced The Cable Guyand we thought it was great, but it crashed and burned. If that had been a smash, things might have been very different. I would have gone straight into more movies.” Instead, he returned to television to produce the excellent – though rapidly cancelled – series Freaks and Geeks. He finally struck lucky in 2004. That year’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which he wrote and produced, became a huge hit and he finally got the chance to direct his own feature.

Including some wonderful, earthy dialogue between the male characters, The 40-Year-Old Virginand Knocked Upboth made a lot of money and gathered quite a few good reviews. However, not everybody is happy with the Apatow aesthetic. Shortly after the release of Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl, the film’s star, suggested that the picture was “a little sexist” and that the script “paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys”.

She has a point. The women in Knocked Upand Funny Peoplemay be more sensible than the men, but they also come across as shrill party poopers with very little sense of humour. The impression becomes all the more peculiar when you realise that Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife of 12 years, plays the least fun-loving member of the Knocked Upcast.

She’s back in Funny Peopleas Sandler’s estranged partner.

“I think all comedy is about insecurity,” Apatow says. “Guys tend to be guys and they need somebody to put a leash on them. That’s what changes a lot of men. It takes a woman to domesticate them. That’s a dynamic that happens in life. I am very sympathetic to women and to what a pain in the ass guys are. I don’t see women as a pain in the ass.” Well, maybe not. But just consider the language he uses. Women “put a leash” on men. Women “domesticate” men. He is describing the female sex as if they were all lion tamers or zookeepers. He must see that in Knocked Up– though slightly less so in Funny People– there’s something of Sybil Fawlty in Leslie Mann’s character.

“That’s there maybe. Or Margaret Dumont in The Marx Brothers.” Margaret Dumont? The easily deceived, middle-aged battleship who acted as Groucho’s fall gal? Now, that’s not a nice way to talk about women either.

ANYWAY, BY Judd’s own admission, he, like too many comics, has a slightly skewed view of the world. It’s not easy being a funny person.

“Oh sure, there is a heaviness to what we do,” he says. “You do sometimes stare at the ceiling in bed and wonder if it’ll all end. I had a lot more fun as a dishwasher. I’d mop the floor and listen to Foreigner, then I’d go home and I didn’t have to worry what anybody thought about the floor.” Puzzling. Who the heck is he, really?

Funny Peopleis on general release.