Judd Apatow: ‘When people tell stories about being horrible, it’s always hilarious’

Comedy’s fairy godfather goes serious for his new film, The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow: ‘I still just look at it from the point of view of a fan.’ Photograph: Magdalena Wosinska/New York Times

Since Saturday Night Live exists only as second-hand Instagram posts on this side of the Atlantic, cast regular Pete Davidson is more easily recognised for his very public break-up with Ariana Grande or his very public dalliance with Kate Beckinsale than for his work. That is about to change for the first SNL star born in the 1990s. As the lead and co-writer of the semi-autobiographical comedy The King of Staten Island, Davidson’s frank brand of stand-up will be beamed toward a device near you.

The film was scheduled for a South by Southwest premiere and global release before Covid-19 demanded an international digital release. It’s a brave new world for the film’s producer, director and co-author, Judd Apatow.

“It’s always a surprise and that’s the fun and terrifying part of making movies,” says the hitmaker behind Knocked Up and Bridesmaids. “You just don’t know when people will show up. With this one you don’t know whether people are going to hit a button on their computer that says: I want to rent this. What does it take on a Saturday night for someone to say: Alexa, rent The King of Staten Island. Or will I just wait and see this for free on cable. There’s no way to know. I just try to do good work.

“The thing that we laugh about is that it doesn’t really matter because sooner or later everybody sees everything. It all winds up streaming somewhere. In 10 years if someone stumbles upon Knocked Up or The 40 Year old Virgin and they go: oh good, I like that one; great. Or sometimes you make things and you’re like: oh no, I don’t want people to watch that; I didn’t do that one right and I’ve wasted everyone’s time.”


There is a moment early in someone's career when they have so much to say and so much that's left unresolved. That's great material to make a movie or TV show

Nobody knows anything, but timing, we can say with certainty, is important. And The King of Staten Island’s careful appreciation of first responders, and firefighters in particular, arrives at a moment when essential services are being cheered on (if not necessarily recompensed) as never before.

“When we started talking about the release on VOD [video on demand] around the world we knew it was strange,” says Apatow. “Because so much of the movie is an acknowledgement of first responders and their willingness to risk their lives in order to help other people. And how we don’t really acknowledge them in a way that we should. And the movie is also about sudden trauma and grief and loss and how people handle it.

“So I was expired to get it out quickly because I thought maybe this will help in some way . . . I’m hopeful that it’s really funny and entertaining and gives people a break. But that it also might help with processing some of the emotions we are dealing with.”

Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island

Apatow had already amassed a series of credits as a writer for the 1991 Grammy Awards, The Critic and The Larry Sanders Show before he produced and developed the wildly influential Freaks and Geeks for TV in 1999. Since the turn-of-the-millennium, his films have been nominated for Golden Globes, an Oscar and several Guild awards. He has developed a reputation as comedy’s fairy godfather, having shepherded Steve Carell, Kumail Nanjiani, Lena Dunham, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell and Amy Schumer from the sidelines.

For all those successes, Apatow has changed little, he says, since he landed in Los Angeles in the mid-’80s as a comedy-obsessed 17-year-old.

“I still just look at it from the point of view of a fan. As a kid, if somebody like Andy Kaufman was funny on Saturday Night Live, then I would become aware and suddenly I was on the hunt to see what else he might do. So then I watch Taxi. And then he’s in a movie. I would follow comedians the way other people follow athletes. And now that I’m in the business I’m doing the same thing. Except when I see someone I like, I wonder if they would collaborate with me on something.

“I think it’s fun to work with people who haven’t tapped their great stories or their personal resources too much yet. There is a moment early in someone’s career when they have so much to say and so much that’s left unresolved. That’s great material to make a movie or TV show. Just like there’s a lot of bands and the first couple of albums are the best ones. I feel like that with a lot of performers. There are only so many great stories.”

Pete Davidson’s story is certainly compelling. His father, Scott Matthew Davidson, was a firefighter and first-responder who died on September 11th. Davidson has his father’s badge number, 8418, tattooed on his left arm, one of more than 40 inkings on his body.

As his bristling account of life with borderline personality disorder in Netflix’s Alive from New York demonstrates, Davidson is fragile. In late 2018, an Instagram post detailing months of bullying and suicidal thoughts resulted in the New York police department conducting a wellness check.

How did Apatow protect his emotionally vulnerable star while simultaneously wringing comic material from him?

“It was a very long process,” says Apatow. “Because we were discovering it as we went. For years. Before the writing begins, it starts off with us just sitting around and Pete telling me his life story. I was just thinking about it the other day. Because that went on for weeks.  I would bring a tape recorder and interview him like a journalist. And then I’d talk to his mother and a lot of his friends. And slowly we realised that we wanted to do a movie that was really focused on how grief and trauma sometimes freezes up a family. And how they get into habits that aren’t allowing them to move on in a healthy way.”

Apatow with Pete Davidson on the set of The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island stars Davidson as Scott, a twenty-something stoner from the New York borough, who is struggling after his father, a firefighter, has died in the line of duty. Marisa Tomei plays his mom, and Bill Burr plays a firefighter trying to woo her. Davidson describes the film as “about 75 per cent autobiographical” but there are some significant deviations from real life, most notably that his character’s father has not died at the World Trade Center during 9/11.

“There were times when people said you should keep it in,” says Apatow. “I wanted the movie to be about this family’s grief, but when you talk about 9/11 its becomes everybody’s grief. We would meet with firefighters and when we talked to the ones who experienced it, it’s like it happened six months ago. My instinct was if I made it about a young man’s father dying fighting a hotel fire I could explore their world but on some level the audience knows what we are really talking about.”

The film also casts one of the most successful young comedians on the planet as a loser who struggles to keep a job waiting tables.

When they have to tell you what's going wrong with their life and they have to tell you why they think it's going wrong and they have to own up to things, they're always funny

“Pete wanted to write about how he wants his mother to be happy, and to be in a new relationship,” says Apatow. “Early in the conversations I said: I think you probably wouldn’t like it if she got into a new relationship. And what if she got in a new relationship with another firefighter? That would make everything come to the surface and then you’d have to deal with all of it.

“Once we came up with that idea then we had long talks where we said, well, do you want to talk about it for real? Do you want to really explore this? This character isn’t really like Pete because Pete is a very successful person who was very successful at a very young age. This character is struggling and lost. He needs to heal in order to begin his life. It is a fiction. But all the emotions are truthful; it gets to a lot of what Pete has struggled with in the past.”

If that sounds more like psychotherapy than comedy, well, Apatow is in good company. It’s not unusual, he says, for comedians to be shambolic.

“The main part of the process for me is to sit with somebody and tell a story that imagines what it would take for them to get to the next stage of their evolution,” he says. “What would it take to get healthy? What would have to happen to get out of that rut? What rock bottom would I have to hit to fix all the things and make me change?

“And that’s a fun thing to do with people. When they have to tell you what’s going wrong with their life and they have to tell you why they think it’s going wrong and they have to own up to things, they’re always funny. When people tell stories about being horrible and stuck, it’s always hilarious.”

The King of Staten Island is the latest Apatow film to feature another Apatow. Wife Leslie Mann has starred in This Is 40 and Knocked Up; the latter also featured Judd’s maternal grandmother, Molly, playing Paul Rudd’s grandmother. The director’s 22-year-old daughter Maude, who recently played Lexi in Euphoria, stars in Staten Island as the main character’s sister. Iris Apatow, Judd’s 17-year-old daughter, has appeared in several of his films and in Love, the TV show he created for Netflix.

“The easiest one to direct is Iris because she doesn’t want me to direct her in any way at all,” says Apatow. “So when I show up on set, she’s like: Why are you here? I like it better when you’re not here. She’s on the TV show Love on Netflix which was so hilarious and she really enjoyed working with all the different directors. But when I would show up as the producer, to help out, she’d say I don’t need you; I’m good. So she’s the easiest because it’s not happening.”

The King of Staten Island is digitally released on Friday, June 12th