Name any of the top comedic films and television shows of the last 20 years and chances are Judd Apatow was involved. He is responsible for not only shaping the current strain of comedic content, but also for discovering some of the funniest voices in Hollywood. Apatow gave a hilarious and inspiring talk to LMU film students during a recent installment of The Hollywood Masters with Stephen Galloway.
The Marx Brothers were the first people that made Apatow laugh. He related to their rebellious style of comedy, which extended to an appreciation of the work of George Carlin and Steve Martin. At 13, Apatow asked Steve Martin for an autograph outside Martin’s Brentwood home; he was refused and left an angry note in his mailbox. Months later, Martin sent him an autographed copy of his book, Cruel Shoes, with the message: “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was talking to the Judd Apatow.” Of the incident, Apatow said, “It dawned on me that my note probably made him laugh and that made me happy.”
The stand-up comedy years
Apatow took a job at a comedy club his senior year in high school “just so I could be in that environment and watch those people work.” Apatow soon found himself on stage and spent years as a stand-up comedian. But after seeing the mega-talent of people like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, Apatow took a different route. Being in the stand-up world helped him survive by selling jokes to other comedians, and it also introduced him to people he would later work with.
“My films are only about 20 percent improvised, but the actors know they always have full license to come up with something funnier than what’s written in the script. Improvisation keeps actors in the moment because they don’t know what’s coming and they give real, honest reactions.”
What makes Apatow laugh
“I think immature or awful behavior is funny because it’s so wrong and we don’t want to behave that way so the best thing we can do is laugh at it. But nothing is off limits if your heart’s in the right place. For me, the best comedy is very personal, honest and balances humor with heart. When someone reveals their truth to me, I respond to it.”
On working with women
Although he’s largely associated with male-driven humor, that hasn’t kept him from being drawn to female voices. “Between my wife (actress Leslie Mann) and my two daughters, I’m surrounded by women and that definitely inspires me to write better female roles.” For Apatow, it’s all about someone knowing what they want to say with their work and it’s led him to Lena Dunham’s Girls, the Kristin Wiig/Annie Mumulo film Bridesmaids, and the upcoming Amy Schumer film, Trainwreck.
Apatow encouraged students to keep writing because, he said, it’s the only way to get better at it. “You never know if a joke is going to work so you’re always insecure about it; success doesn’t change that. But patience is the best lesson. If you’re patient, open to learning, and prepared not to quit, that helps you get through the difficult times.”
The Hollywood Masters is a new series that examines the careers of award-winning filmmakers and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.