Being funny must be a lonely business, because the world tends to have a hard time taking funny people seriously. That causes Robin Williams Syndrome, an affliction that inspires celebrated goofballs such as Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller to lash out against their populist comedic personas with periodic forays into far less successful dramatic films. Historically, films that have taken comedy seriously—like Bob Fosse’s Lenny or Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling—have failed because nobody laughs when you explain a punchline. (See also: Tom Hanks in Punchline.)
Flying in the face of all conventional wisdom comes writer-director Judd Apatow with his third film, Funny People. It’s the story of a megastar stand-up comedian (Adam Sandler, in a winking parody of his own career triumphs and missteps), who re-examines his life after being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Its two-and-a-half hour balancing act between melodrama and slapstick is elegantly risky, and works largely because of its obvious sincerity. Judd Apatow recently visited with The A.V. Club to talk about Warren Zevon, Eminem, and why test audiences are helpful.
The A.V. Club: A lot of Funny People plays like a love letter to the life of a working comedian. Was this film a way for you to get back into that world, to revisit a lifestyle you’re nostalgic for?
Judd Apatow: I loved working in stand-up, and I always dreamed that I could make a movie about it. I didn’t know if I would have the courage to, because if you make a bad movie about stand-up, then comedians will mock you for the rest of your life. They’re still mad about movies made 25 years ago. But it was always a dream of mine, and I was glad I finally came up with an idea that allowed me to explore it in such a way that it’s not all about stand-up, but stand-up creates a great backdrop for another type of story.
AVC: Was it particularly challenging mixing elements of comedy and drama into a believable film?
JA: I thought that if this situation happened to a comedian, you would see it through someone’s eyes who looked at everything with humor. Humor is his defense mechanism, so that would allow me to talk about some serious subjects, but get a lot of hilarious jokes in. Some of what the movie is about is how he’s in denial about what’s happening to him. He’s not religious, so he has nowhere to turn except the stage. And getting sick just makes him want to go onstage all the time. It’s a very serious subject, but because it happens to a comedian, you can enjoy it. And he’s in denial, he doesn’t want to face what’s happening to him, and how he deals with it is trying to be really, really funny and forget about it.
AVC: Did the idea of putting this existential drama into the middle of a comedy come from any real-life experience of your own?
JA: Well, unfortunately, I’ve been around a fair number of people who’ve been sick over the years. I’m getting older, so how people face grave circumstances is of interest to me. And you meet a lot of people who are very courageous, and it doesn’t reek of something funny to write about, but I always think that the higher the stakes, the bigger the laughs can be, and the more emotional the scenes can be.
AVC: A lot of the compulsion to make jokes comes from not wanting to deal with reality. Is that what led you down this path? Why do you think your childhood hero was Steve Martin and not some basketball player?
JA: The first comedians I became fascinated with were the Marx brothers. I couldn’t get enough of them. Later in life, I thought, “Well, maybe it’s because they were so rebellious and they were just flipping the bird to society and all the rules we’re supposed to follow.” They were saying that none of it is fair. And so I love movies like Duck Soup and The Cocoanuts and Night At The Opera. Then later, when I was 8, Saturday Night Live came on the air, so I spent my entire childhood trying not to fall asleep during Saturday Night Live; it wasn’t easy to stay up ’til 1 a.m., but those were glory days for comedy. You had Steve Martin and his stand-up and movies, all of Richard Pryor’s stand-up and movies, Monty Python, George Carlin was on fire. I couldn’t have been more of a fan.
AVC: So comedy wasn’t compensating for any void in your life?
JA: Well, I was bad at sports and picked last every day. I couldn’t quite figure out what my role was in the social order, so I decided I was interested in this. And what was then interesting was, nobody else was interested in it at all. I didn’t find one friend who was interested in comedy until I moved to California and met other comedians. And suddenly I knew hundreds of people who knew as much about SCTV as I did. But it took me 20 years to find those people.
AVC: Funny People delves deeply into the lives of a lot of characters, and develops a story that winds up far from the original premise. Knocked Up was like that, too. Do you ever get asked to fall in line with more traditional R-rated fare and stick to a less-complex narrative?
JA: For me, it’s very simple. I test the movies a lot, and if the audience says they love the movie, we know we’re on the right track. And if they tell me they hate it, I try to figure out what I’ve done wrong. But every time out, the audience wants me to go deeper, they want to know more about the characters, and they don’t want these movies to be shallow. So they really urge me to tell them a complicated story, and then when I do so, they’re thrilled. So this experience has been very positive. It’s been amazing to see that they respond just as enthusiastically about this movie as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, even though this is a completely different type of experience.
AVC: Directors don’t often admit that they listen closely to test audiences.
JA: Well, I used to work for James Brooks, and he took those tests very seriously. He said, “If the movie’s not communicating, it’s not working.” You want the audience to get it, and you want the audience to like it. It’s as simple as that. If they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, you’ve failed. Of course, you can’t get 100 percent of the crowd to understand the movie, but you know when you’ve reached the people you want to reach.
AVC: The film opens with some video footage of Adam Sandler making prank phone calls years ago. Was that a glimpse into your lives as roommates back then—terrorizing people in the service industry?
JA: It was. Back then, we had a lot of free time, and not a lot of places to release our creative energy. Adam’s had way too much time making phony phone calls. One night, I actually came home at 2 in the morning, and I heard a noise coming from Adam’s room, and he was making phony phone calls all by himself. Which I thought was a little scary at the time. But it was so funny, I just started recording them. I never had any plan to use them, I just thought it was sad to let them disappear into the ether.
AVC: There’s a particularly affecting scene in the film where Seth Rogen’s character plays Sandler the Warren Zevon song “Keep Me In Your Heart.” You got to know Zevon while he was alive. Was that your way of paying tribute?
JA: I wanted to find a way to work some Warren Zevon music into the movie, because he’s always been an inspiration to me, because he’s both really funny and brutally honest. I love his tone. I had lunch with him once. I told him about a screenplay I wrote, and I was telling him how I was waiting for the notes to come in from the studio, and I said, “Hopefully they’ll like it.” He said, “Why do you care if they like it? Why would you listen to their notes?” Because he came at everything as an artist, it wasn’t about what anyone else thought. He was the person who was toughest on it, and it actually shamed me into really being much tougher about my work, and not making concessions. Because the look in his eyes was so shocked and disappointed that I would even care what anybody thought.
AVC: Eminem has a cameo in Funny People that proves he isn’t as humorless as he’s often made out to be.
JA: The great thing about Eminem is, he’s just hysterical. You forget, people like Eminem because he is riotously funny. And he’s a great actor, as he proved in 8 Mile, so he fit right in. I was nervous about pitching jokes to him. I didn’t know if he would say, “I’m not gonna say that.” And there was literally nothing he wouldn’t say, and as the night went on, he just started laughing his ass off every time we would pitch him some new crazy line to say. And between takes, he would play songs from his new record, which hadn’t come out yet, so it was a dream night for all of us.
AVC: Is Aziz Ansari’s character Randy really getting his own spin-off movie?
JA: We are hoping to make a movie starring Randy. We can’t stop shooting with Randy. It was a funny, small idea in the movie that we decided, “This is the funniest thing ever, and we must continue to milk this until we feel like we’ve done all we can do with Randy.” We have this big documentary that we run on FunnyOrDie.com every few days, and we’re outlining a Randy film as we speak.
AVC: This is the second film in which you’ve cast your daughters and your wife, Leslie Mann. Is it a good idea to bring your entire family to work?
JA: It’s easy for me, because my wife is just the funniest, greatest actress around, so it makes that an easy choice. And my kids are adorable, and I love seeing them at work. It’s scary how strong they are in the movies. They can improvise, they go on these runs, and it only takes two weeks for them. They just think they’re going someplace where there’s food, Adam Sandler, a crew, and a large dog to play with. They don’t even understand what we’re doing there. So I will not be loaning them out to Roland Emmerich anytime soon. And their rates stay consistent; they don’t ask for big raises.
AVC: When you worked as a writer on The Larry Sanders Show, the staff was all focused on getting Garry Shandling’s approval. Does success ever make you doubt yourself because you might not have that direct kind of constructive criticism anymore?
JA: I just try to be true to myself and write about things I’m passionate about. I think what most people don’t like about movies is they can tell that most movies are a product, and they don’t mean that much to the people who make them. So I like to make movies the way people made movies in the ’70s, where they lived and died with these stories, and cared about them, and went to war for them, and they all said something they wanted to say. And I do think there’s a way to do that while making thoughtful comedies. You can do that and it doesn’t have to be about the Communist Revolution.