By Jeremy Smith
Judd Apatow always projects an affable vibe in person, but on the day I sit down to chat with him about his latest film, TRAINWRECK, he seems as calm and content and together as I’ve ever seen him. Clearly, he’s pleased with the film, which played to huge laughs and applause the night before, but there’s something else going on here. Could it be the knowledge that his book of interviews with comedians, SICK IN THE HEAD, just hit number six on The New York Times’ bestseller list? Is he thrilled with the progress of LOVE, the Netflix show he’s executive producing for stars Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs? Or did he just catch a whiff of his lunch, which is waiting outside his door, ready to be consumed the minute he finishes with my questions?
TRAINWRECK is Apatow’s fifth directorial effort, and it’s once again a raunchy-sweet examination of relationships: how we stumble into them, how we fuck them up, and, if we’re lucky, how we save them. The obvious difference this time is that his maturity-challenged protagonist is a woman (played by comedic force of nature Amy Schumer), and, true to the title, she’s even further off the grown-up rails than Seth Rogen’s slacker in KNOCKED UP. This is the first film Apatow’s directed where he hasn’t received a screenwriting credit, and, throughout the process, he’s been eager to let Schumer take the spotlight. Given that she’s coming off the brilliant second season of INSIDE AMY SCHUMER (the most consistently hilarious sketch comedy program since CHAPPELLE’S SHOW), it’s a wise move: Schumer’s on the verge of superstardom; her fans can’t get enough of her, and her detractors can’t stop talking about her.
In working closely with Schumer for over a year, Apatow found himself growing envious of her ability to step out and do a stand-up comedy set whenever she felt like it. After a while, Apatow realized he wanted to get back out on the stage and perform stand-up regularly for the first time in well over a decade. His return to stand-up resulted in a seven-city tour that threw Apatow in with the seasoned likes of Colin Quinn, Dave Attell and, of course, Schumer. At the age of forty-seven, Apatow is essentially doing damn well everything he pleases. And, at the moment of our fifteen-minute interview, he’s about to eat lunch. He’s got it made!
The below discussion skips around from stand-up to the movie to the book to, unavoidably, LeBron James. As a lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan, there was no way we weren’t discussing the greatest basketball player on the planet – especially since he’s actually really good in the movie.
Judd Apatow: So how are things going at Ain’t It Cool News.
Jeremy Smith: Oh, just fine. Very little changes around there. We’re just getting older. Fifteen years ago, we were the upstarts. Now we’re the establishment.
Apatow: As long as you’re the establishment making money.
Jeremy: Oh, well, you know how that is. (Judd laughs.) Having been at AICN for fifteen years, it’s been cool to watch certain filmmakers’ trajectories – yours especially. You were very much the upstart with FREAKS AND GEEKS and UNDECLARED, and then the movies started happening, and we were all so happy for you. Now that you’re an established filmmaker, you’re going back to stand-up comedy. When you started this journey, did you ever think it would work out this way?
Apatow: Well, with stand-up, I was working with Amy all the time, and she was doing stand-up on the road, and it sounded like so much fun. Then I interviewed Pearl Jam when their record came out, and I thought, “They’re so lucky. They have these songs they can play. They go through the pain of creating these songs, but then they can sing them and it’s all joy.” There’s a birthing moment, but then the rest of their lives they can play “Alive” and be happy playing it. There wasn’t an equivalent for me, because for me it was all birthing. People would either like [the film] or not, and then I’d do the next one. But I was like, “Why is everything fucking stress? I’d like to have a part of this that’s joy.” So I said, “When we get to New York, I’m going to go on stage.” Amy was very encouraging, and it was really fun. We did a big TRAINWRECK tour; we did seven cities in eight days, and raised about $700,000 for charity, and it’s been nothing but fun.”
Jeremy: It’s been interesting watching you get to this spot. Since 2005, we’ve been watching you hone your voice as a filmmaker, and I think most of us have settled on viewing it as a Ramis/Mazursky/Cassavetes hybrid. Do you feel like you’re still in that pocket?
Apatow: Yeah, that’s the space I live in. I love human comedies. I’m just trying to make movies about people trying to figure it out. How are they going to get their relationships to work? How are they going to get through life? That, to me, feels like enough. Not that I don’t like doing larger, sillier things, or parody things – I like all of that. But when I’m directing, that’s what I’m interested in exploring: something as simple as “If Amy meets a nice guy, is she going to screw it up?” That’s enough. That’s the story of most of our lives. It’s not, “Is someone going to murder us?” It’s “Are we going to be too crazy to maintain a relationship?”
Jeremy: Amy has such a vibrant, go-for-broke personality, and that lends itself to broadness. How do you strike that balance between broadness and more grounded comedy?
Apatow: You just never know. It’s almost like music. What songs do you like? There’s just a certain vibe that feels right. We show the movie to audiences, and they tell us if we’ve drifted too far in either direction. Sometimes if it’s too dramatic, you can’t get back to the comedy, or if it gets too funny, when you have a dramatic scene it feels weird. Sometimes a movie can be so funny that it’s impossible to have a dramatic scene, because you just set such a torrid pace that the audience doesn’t want to stop to have a thoughtful moment. But I just think about the movies I love, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH or BROADCAST NEWS, and I’m always hopeful we can be in the same universe as the ones I feel work so well.
Jeremy: But still identifiably you.
Apatow: Yeah, and that comes through based on a thousand choices. Whatever that is… whether it’s the types of jokes that make me laugh, or the types of moments that are emotional in how I like to present them. I can’t even define what it is. I just don’t want it to be sweaty. (Laughs) I hate it when a joke is sweaty, when it’s trying to hard. And I hate when the emotion happens, and you feel aware of the director thinking, “This is going to get them!” It’s trying to make it organic and earned.
Jeremy: Sometimes there’s that sweaty kind of joke that’s funny because it’s so ridiculously sweaty.
Apatow: That’s true. There’s so many extremes. I love THE SIMPSONS “Cape Feare” episode, where Homer steps on the rake, and then steps on it again, like, twenty-five times. There are so many things that make me laugh. But you create the style based on the story, and this is Amy’s world. So what should that feel like, and what’s true to her?
Jeremy: So plopping someone as big as LeBron James into the middle of this world – and I might as well note that I grew up in Ohio and I’m a huge Cleveland Cavaliers fan. I’m thankful that you didn’t KAZAAM him. You gave him a real role, and he does it well. But because he’s a superstar, he lives in a world completely unlike ours. How did he react to the scenario?
Apatow: Bill and I went and pitched him the idea for the character, and he really got it. He laughed his ass off. It all timed out perfectly. He showed up really well prepared and excited, and he was a great improviser. He’s a really funny guy. But he understood the core joke, which is that he’s this bizarro LeBron who’s really cheap and unaware that anyone else’s life is different from his. He’s a fantastic friend, who’s obsessed with helping out Bill to the point of it being comic. In a way, he’s Bruno Kirby in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. He’s so sweet that it’s comic. He ran with it, and we had the best time with it.
Jeremy: The first time I saw the trailer, given the switch of the gender dynamic, I thought he felt like the Bonnie Hunt character.
Apatow: Exactly. He’s the Bonnie Hunt, the Bruno Kirby or the Tony Roberts in ANNIE HALL.
Jeremy: Before I forget, I have to ask about one particular line in the film, which is where Jon Cena calls Keith Robinson “Koko B Ware”. That’s such an oddly specific insult. Who came up with that?
Apatow: (Laughs) That’s all Jon. Jon is really funny. I didn’t even know who he was. I just got a video of a guy reading for the part, and they said, “Oh, this is this professional wrestler guy.” I hadn’t seen him in anything. Now I know, and I’ve caught up, but he’s as funny as anyone I’ve ever worked with. He improvised a ton of his performance, and he’s very in the moment. He understands comedy. We did a table read with all of the actors just to hear what it sounded like, and he got the biggest laughs of anyone by far. It wasn’t even close. We could barely follow his scenes.
Jeremy: I want to talk about the book, which I can’t wait to read.
Apatow: Oh good.
Jeremy: I promise I’ll tear into it when it arrives. I’m so happy that you did it. I remember reading the Larry Wilde interview book that had, like, Jack Benny, George Burns and a bunch of others.
Apatow: Yeah, that was the original.
Jeremy: Having those interviews in one book, it’s such a great resource. And there are a lot of people you talked to who aren’t as well known by younger folks today. For instance, one of my heroes is Michael O’Donoghue. I have to ask, what was he like to interview, especially since you were a teenager?
Apatow: He had just left SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He was one of the original writers, and then he came back in the early ‘80s during one of the Eddie Murphy seasons. He was really angry and bitter; he was hoping to sink the show like a burning Viking ship. He wanted to be really bold, and have the show go down.
Jeremy: He came in and started spray painting his office during a cast meeting, right?
Apatow: Yeah, he spray painted the walls and all of that. What got him fired was that he wrote a skit about [former NBC Executive] Fred Silverman trying to save his job. It was Fred Silverman in the bunker dressed like Hitler frantically trying to come up with new shows that would save his reign. One of the shows was called “Look Up Her Dress”. It was a game show, and if a woman got a question wrong, there’s a camera below her and we’d look up her dress. (Laughs) He got fired just for writing it. But he was really sweet. He was a great guy – and very nice to me, because I was just a kid. I mean, what kind of fifteen-year-old knows who Michael O’Donoghue is?
I was the ultimate comedy nerd, and there were no comedy nerds back then. There might’ve been one in every high school, but there was no way to meet them. There was no internet. There was no comedy nerd convention. So you really felt alone. But when I got to college, I met some people, and then when I became a comedian, I met a lot of people who knew every Monty Python sketch. But the book is a collection of interviews I’ve done since I was fifteen. I did a ton of them for my high school radio station. It was just an excuse to meet people and ask, “How do you do it? What’s this life like?” A lot of that information helped me a ton. And then I put in all of these interviews with other people; sometimes I’m being interviewed, and sometimes I’m interviewing them. And then I did a bunch of interviews last year with Louis C.K., Jimmy Fallon, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Roseanne Barr. It’s all the questions I want to know now. I interviewed Seinfeld in 1983 and 2014, and I was able to ask follow-up questions about his journey. I really feel like it’s a book that anyone who wants to be in any aspect of the creative arts should read. It’s a funny read just because they’re interesting, and they tell stories about their lives. And all the money goes to Dave Eggers’s charity 826, which provides free literacy and tutoring services. It’s great that it worked out so well. It’s on The New York Times’ bestseller list at number six, which is baffling! It’s a movie book!
Jeremy: It’s capturing some kind of comedy interview zeitgeist that’s out there. I mean, Marc Maron just interviewed President Obama.
Apatow: I know!
Jeremy: You’ve talked to so many great comedians, and I’ve always been curious about this aspect of it: there are some comedians who are funny pretty much all the time, and then there are others who essentially dial it all the way down when they’re off the clock. Steve Martin’s known for being in the latter camp. If he’s doing a Q&A, he’s not going to do shtick.
Apatow: But I think that depends on the day. I think he’s just being honest about how he feels in that moment.
Jeremy: What’s your approach in terms of being “on”?
Apatow: My vibe? I always try to feel out the situation. I don’t mind being funny. I get a kick out of it. In some situations people want real information, and in other situations they’re just looking to be entertained. Just like the movies, I try to do a mix. I just started doing stand-up again fourteen months ago, and so I’m enjoying talking more and being on talk shows, and figuring out my public sense of humor. For me, it’s just as challenging trying to figure out how to be funny on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON – because my original dream was just to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW. So I’ll be doing stand-up there in the next two weeks. I’ve never done stand-up on THE TONIGHT SHOW.
Jeremy: Hopefully, Jimmy will give you the wave-over.
Apatow: I hope so!
Jeremy: Real quick: the MANHATTAN gag in TRAINWRECK.
Apatow: Yeah! Bill Hader’s wife [Maggie Carey] thought of that.
Jeremy: It’s great. Were you worried that you might be desecrating hallowed ground?
Apatow: Not at all! I thought the opposite: this is not hallowed ground. (Laughs)
TRAINWRECK careens into theaters this Friday, July 17th. Go see it, or Koko B. Ware will piledrive your ass into the concrete.