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Judd Apatow On His Characters: 'If Everyone Is Mature, There Is No Comedy'


Judd Apatow started writing stories from his own life into his comedy on the late-90s TV show "Freaks and Geeks." It was about a kid named Bill Haverchuck. When Judd Apatow was young, he says he would make himself hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches and watch talk shows to get through his parents' divorce. So he wrote a scene for "Freaks and Geeks" where Bill comes home from school and turns on the TV.

JUDD APATOW: And he just watches Gary Shandling do standup on "The Dinah Shore Show" and slowly goes from being depressed to laughing his ass off. And after I made that, Jay Katzen, who's our producer and one of the directors, said that's the best thing you've ever done, and it's the most personal thing you've ever done. And that changed how I approach all of my work. I just realized for the first time that my stories might be interesting.

MCEVERS: When Apatow was young, he moved here to L.A. and did standup. But then he says he had more success with writing. Apatow and I sat down the other morning to talk about his movies, about the HBO show "Girls," which he executive produced, about politics and about his latest project. We started with the bromance movies he's made like "Superbad" and "40-year-old Virgin," which he says are sometimes misunderstood.

APATOW: You always have to start people in an immature place or in a place where they need to learn a lesson. And there are always people who don't quite understand that if everyone is mature, there is no comedy.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Which just wouldn't be funny.

APATOW: It's like asking Jerry...

MCEVERS: If like Seth Rogen started out as like this fully-formed - you know?

APATOW: Yeah. It's like asking Jerry Lewis not to go, lady. Like, that's the whole thing for female characters, for male characters. I was just reading an interview with Lena Dunham in Rolling Stone magazine, and she was talking about how some people don't get that she wrote the joke of the show - the idea of white female entitlement - that we were making fun of that.

MCEVERS: He's talking about the show "Girls." Lena Dunham is the creator and star. It's now in its final season. Apatow says the show about four young women in Brooklyn definitely has some haters.

APATOW: If a woman says, I love myself; I love my body; I'm comfortable with my life, comfortable with my mistakes, and I deserve a seat at every table and everything should be completely equal, there are guys who lose their minds. And she certainly has decided to go right at all of that and to be outspoken. And I think she's been an incredible inspiration to millions of women.

MCEVERS: One thing I just recently read is that you are one of the writers for the, you know, sort of now infamous speech that President Obama gave in 2011 at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. We actually have a clip of it. We're going to listen.


BARACK OBAMA: No, seriously. Just recently, in an episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn't blame little John or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.

MCEVERS: Of course, this is President Obama making fun of Donald Trump. And, you know, the camera pans to Donald Trump. He's obviously very upset. He's not laughing.

APATOW: Here's the thing. He runs the country like he ran "The Apprentice." The premise of "The Apprentice" is a crazy rich guy has his daughter and his son oversee celebrities doing tasks. And then they come back to him, and they tell him how they did. So in every episode he's like, how did - how'd Meatloaf do, Ivanka? And then she says, Meatloaf really did a great presentation. And then he makes some impulsive decision about who to fire based on not being there, not really even understanding anything. Except now he's the president, and he's literally going, hey, Ivanka, how did North Korea do on that ballistic missile test? What should we do? Did you ask your husband?

MCEVERS: So you have very strong feelings about this administration.

APATOW: Why you working me up in the morning.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

APATOW: It's like so early.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) I know. I'm sorry. You're obviously - you know, you favor the Democrats.

APATOW: It's not favoring the Democrats. There's no logic in how he thinks. I don't want someone who's the president who says 3 to 5 million people voted illegally when there's zero proof. It's a crazy person.

MCEVERS: You can say this stuff. But I guess the real impact - right? - is, like, a couple of things like how you spend your money and the kind of stuff you make, right? I mean, it's how do you think about yourself in this moment and what you can do.

APATOW: As a Jewish man who has no interest in Judaism whatsoever, there's something in me that says when bad things have happened in the past, people were supposed to get more active and speak up and prevent them. That's what's important to me is that everybody - and I don't care what side you're on. You can disagree with me, but everyone better get active. Everybody better vote and be thoughtful.

MCEVERS: Are you doing that? Are you like doing registration stuff? Are you doing activism like organizing? Are you...

APATOW: Well, I do benefits. I did a benefit for the ACLU a few weeks ago. We did a benefit for the USO last week in New York. I try to work with people like Rock the Vote, and it was effective. I think we were part of a campaign that got about a million and a half new people registered.

It would be so irresponsible not to speak up. I don't know what I would do in my home and in my life if I didn't rant a little bit and as thoughtfully as I can with some humor.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I was going to say, how's it going to affect your work like projects in the future? Like, do you think that's going to seep in?

APATOW: I don't think it will. I think my instinct creatively is to make things that are very funny and happy and silly. And in this moment where the world is very scary, I feel like my role is to make people laugh really hard.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

APATOW: And it doesn't make me think I want to write a new TV series about the Trump surrogates. Although, I keep telling the world someone should make that show. The Trump surrogates. It's free. Go take it.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) I want to talk about your latest show, "Crashing." It's coming out soon on HBO. And I want to be honest. When I first heard, I was like, a show about a white guy trying to make it as a comedian? And I'm not trying to be a jerk when I say that. I'm just - you know, I wanted to know...

APATOW: It's just because I'm not Asian. People are like dying for this show about an Asian comic written by Judd. But, you know, the show is multicultural. There's a lot of different types of people on this show.

MCEVERS: Yeah, it's not even the white thing. It's like another show about a comedian dude trying to make it in the world.

APATOW: Well, you know, the show is also about God and religion. It's about a guy who's very religious. He marries the first woman that he's ever dated in his life. She's unhappy with him and cheats on him. And it forces him to pursue his love of comedy. So he moves to New York. He's not good at all.

MCEVERS: Right, right, right, I was going - can we listen to a clip really quick?

APATOW: Yes, please.


PETE HOLMES: (As Pete) I feel like I won an award. Like, you brought me up like I won something. I think it's weird when you win an award, you're supposed to point to god if you thank him. You go, thank, God, and you point to the sky because that's where God is. But we're on planet. The sky is that way, as well, right? So I want to win an award like a Golden Globe, so I can go up and just be like, I want to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) He points sideways and like...

APATOW: You pick the one clip that only works with a visual joke.

MCEVERS: You can see it. I mean, yeah, he's like pointing sideways.

APATOW: That's an NPR blooper. He says I want to thank God, then points down. But what's interesting about the show is that he's a very religious person hanging out with dark and wounded comedians like Artie Lange. So within this attempt to pursue his dream, he's also talking about his spirituality and trying to keep his soul while hanging out with a lot of people who do a lot of things that maybe some people should not do.

MCEVERS: How much of your life is in there, too? I mean, we talked about you doing standup.

APATOW: Yeah. I mean, my love of comedy is certainly in there, also how uncomfortable I get around successful people. When I was young I wanted to be at the table with the good comics but terrified to talk, terrified to make a joke. All these characters - the 40-year-old virgin - they all have some part of my Bill Haverchuck nerdy terror.

MCEVERS: Right, going back to that Garry Shandling scene. Well, Judd Apatow, thank you so much for coming in today.

APATOW: Well, thank you.

MCEVERS: Judd Apatow's show "Crashing" premieres on HBO on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHO SONG, "I'M ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
Anjuli Sastry (she/her) is a producer on It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders and a 2021 Nieman Journalism Foundation Visiting Fellow. During her Nieman fellowship in spring 2021, Sastry created, hosted and produced the audio and video series Where We Come From. The series tells the stories of immigrant communities of color through a personal and historical lens.