Wednesday 7 August 2013

Career advice: Judd Apatow

Last June, GQ magazine published an interview called How to be funny with Judd Apatow.

In reality, the interview addresses key moments and discoveries made by Judd, on his journey to the top. They might be helpful for some of us as well.

1. Know your strengths

I started out as a stand-up comedian over 20 years ago. Me and Adam Sandler, we were both trying to break into the business and lived together in a small apartment in the Valley. I looked up to Jerry Seinfeld, and older comedians such as Jim Carrey were very nice to me. But at the time, there was always a sense that Adam was going to be the big star. Everyone around him thought, ‘This is the next guy’. And no one thought I was the next guy. So at some point, I figured, I should be a writer, because I’m clearly not as interesting, not as attractive, not as charismatic as the people I’m hanging out with. There were things I had to accept. I was better at creating sketches or dramatic situations to get my point across. So I quit stand-up and started writing for other people.

2. Make it Personal

Comedy all starts with the idea and the story. It has to be great drama for it to work. A lot of movies start out with a joke premise, then try to jam emotion in, it’s very insincere. When comedies don’t work, you can tell they just had five great jokes and a funny character. I learnt on The Larry Sanders Show to write about what you care about and be truthful. Just the struggle of being alive is funny, it’s inherently tragic and hilarious, and that connects with people. So I direct movies that are personal to me, about different dilemmas I have: my sexual problems, issues with my own ego, terminal disease and death, my marital and family troubles. It’s a kind of therapy. It’s cathartic. But there’s no situation in life I don’t think is funny. However bad it gets, I think it’s hilarious. It’s messed up.
3. Let Your Cast Go to Town  

On my sets there’s an enormous amount of improvisation and collaboration. I hire people who make me laugh. We shoot the scripted version first, then I say, ‘Can you beat it?’ Most of the time, they can. We’ll improvise in rehearsals and talk about ideas, then on the day of shooting, I really take the handcuffs off and let people go. That’s often when the best stuff happens, because when you’re watching your cast, it hits you what a line should be, so I literally just throw stuff in. Most of it is pretty juvenile. I think of the world through my weird, childish-male sensibility, and men are dumbasses, so I like guys who just say, ‘Fuck you! Give me my bong back.’ Immaturity is funny.
4. Always Listen to Your Wife  

I met mine, Leslie Mann, when she came in and auditioned for The Cable Guy. When she left, I turned to Ben Stiller (the film’s director) and said, ‘I just met the future Mrs Apatow.’ Then I tried to get her to marry me as quickly as possible before she realised what a terrible mistake it would be. I like directing her [Knocked Up, among others] — it’s the only time I have complete control over her and she can be dramatic and show pain and get laughs at the same time. Leslie makes a big writing contribution too. She’ll say, ‘Let’s do a scene where he’s weird about having sex during pregnancy.’ So my wife, in many ways, has been influential.
5. Have Not-So Famous, Not-Too-Good-Looking Best Friends 

I like working with people I know because there are aspects of their personality I can tap into. And when actors aren’t mega-famous yet, they usually have a really fresh take. No one really knew Zach Galifianakis when The Hangover came out, and it’s exciting. When you see what someone like Melissa McCarthy can do, it’s a treat. I think what viewers like are actors and actresses who are giving a part of themselves to the audience, who are vulnerable. No one wants to watch a smart, handsome guy. There’s nothing funny in that.
6. Gross The Audience Out  

After Monty Python, you can’t do a shocking vomiting scene — they mastered it and put us all to shame. But it’s important to me to tear down the house at some point in a movie. I say to my cast and writers, ‘We’re here to make the funniest film we have ever seen. We want it to be sweet and to be about something, but there needs to be a moment where you fall out of your seat.’ I am a real cheerleader for that. So we amp up certain sequences and say, ‘Let’s do something that’s not just kind of funny but that’s crazy funny, that lasts a really long time, where the laughs get bigger and bigger and bigger, until people are soiling themselves.’ 
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