January 16, 2019

Q&A with writer-director Judd Apatow

In Hollywood terms, Judd Apatow is hot. His last two films, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” have been smash hits, and his second comedy this summer, “Superbad,” generated a critical buzz ahead of its Aug. 17 release.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Syosset, N.Y., who once worked as a comedy club busboy.

Apatow began performing as a stand-up comedian in high school and moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to attend USC film school. Two years later, he dropped out of USC and roomed with Adam Sandler while he honed his act.

Unable to find his own comedic signature, Apatow moved behind the scenes. He went to work writing for “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks” and was brought in to rewrite such films as “The Cable Guy” and Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer.”

After producing the breakout 2004 hit comedy, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” he wrote and directed “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Apatow has used Judaism as a big theme in his movies. Jews are mentioned numerous times in “Knocked Up” and perennial Apatow favorite, Seth Rogen, plays a Jewish police officer in “Superbad.” Apatow has reunited with Sandler and is currently filming “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” which recounts the story of a Mossad agent who fakes his own death to become a hair stylist.

The Journal recently caught up with Apatow to talk about filmmaking, the plethora of Jewish characters in his films and working with his family in “Knocked Up.”

Jewish Journal: Jerry Seinfeld and I went to see your film, “Knocked Up,” together when we were in Oklahoma City, and it actually gave us sort of a renewed faith in comedy. Why do you think it’s so difficult to make a great comedy?

Judd Apatow: It’s hard for me to know. It took me a very long time to be allowed to make comedies. I was a big fan of a lot of the people who are doing well now a long time ago. And there was a lag time between when these people first revealed they were funny and when the studios felt they could carry a movie.

JJ: Did you hear from Seinfeld at all?

JA: I did. He wrote me a very, very nice e-mail. Jerry Seinfeld is the reason why I went into comedy. I was this huge fan of his. When I was in junior high school and high school, I used to go see him at Caroline’s in New York. And he is one of two or three people that I idolized when I first started doing stand-up.

I met him when I was young and interviewed him for a high school radio station. I think I interviewed him twice. I remember after he did the first time, I asked him to do it again. And he said, “Why would I do it again?” And I said, “Well, you did ‘The Tonight Show’ more than once.”

But the fact that he liked it at all means so much to me, because he’s one of the funniest comedy writers of all time. And as I leave my younger days behind, people like Jerry, who are so funny for so long, are the people that you try to be like. Someone who stays fresh forever. As they enter a new phase of life and have children, their work evolves with their life experience.

JJ: You said about his work that you admire how he writes. His dialogue is so honest. Do you think your early days of stand-up sharpened your ear so you could write this type of honest dialogue for this movie?

JA: Well, I’ve seen Jerry’s comedy from being a fan. When I started this movie, I didn’t think of myself as an interesting person with a unique point of view. I was really frustrated, because I thought I really did have one, but I knew that I wasn’t at that point yet.

That’s why I became a writer. I was frustrated at my own inability to figure out who I was. But because I was such a fan of his and watched him the way a sports fan watches Reggie Jackson, I must have hardwired my brain to understand some of those rhythms.

I knew I could know about his act inside and out. I love watching comedy. That’s the real fun, watching your act when I was at the Eastside Comedy Club on Long Island working as a busboy at 16 and 15 years old, seeing somebody great rip the house down.

I mean, to this day, to me there’s nothing more exciting than that. But as I got older after working with Garry Shandling, I realized that in order to really do good work, I would have to turn inward, go to a more of a personal place, and I started that process. Suddenly, people are responding to it. But it took me a long time to kind of have the courage to try to work from that part of me.

JJ: There’s lots of Jewish stuff in “Knocked Up,” and even in the trailer for “Superbad” there’s a Jewish joke. Your main character is Jewish. Any particular reason you chose to go that way with him?

JA: I didn’t make a conscious effort to make him Jewish, although on an unconscious level, I’m sure I was working with some people who I think can portray my feelings or experiences. I did realize that the majority of the male characters were Jewish, and that they all kept referencing it in their improvisation. And I kept writing jokes and references in the script. And it really made me laugh.

At some point, I thought, well, this is something you don’t see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, and all of them are Jewish. And they’re proud of it and hilarious about it. It’s just not done. And little scenes, like these guys hang out at their nightclub debating the movie “Munich,” and it really made me laugh.