Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow might now be the most successful, dependable brand in comedy, thanks to a productive stretch of work spanning Freaks And Geeks—which he executive produced with creator Paul Feig—through The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and beyond. Yet throughout his early career, Apatow was synonymous with beloved cult projects whose prestige and acclaim far outstripped their negligible-to-modest commercial performances. Apatow began his career as a stand-up before hooking up with Ben Stiller to become one of the primary voices behind the zeitgeist-friendly cult sketch-comedy series The Ben Stiller Show. He later re-teamed with Stiller as a producer and script doctor on 1996’s The Cable Guy, a dark satire that was widely considered a flop upon release, but rapidly attained a cult following. In connection with its recent Blu-ray release, The A.V. Club recently spoke with Apatow about traumatizing the kiddies, loneliness, television addiction, and the peculiar psychology of stand-up comedy.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved with The Cable Guy?
Judd Apatow: When Jim Carrey signed on to star in it, and then they asked me to produce it, I made a very brief plea to direct—which was rejected really as quickly as anything can be. [Laughs.] There was no support for that effort. And then we talked about who could direct the movie, and I had recently come off making The Ben Stiller Show with Ben. And so I was lucky enough to have that all come together.
AVC: Do you think you could have directed The Cable Guy at that point in your career?
JA: I don’t know! I always look back and think, “Did I know what I was doing? Who knows?” [Laughs.] There’s no telling if I could have done it or not. I was so scared to direct generally, I very rarely made any move to direct anything. I didn’t have any faith in myself. That’s why it took me another eight years to direct anything.
AVC: What appealed to you about the screenplay?
JA: I thought the idea Jim had, which was to do a comedic version of movies like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Unlawful Entry, was really funny. The movie was a little lighter when we first came on, a little more like What About Bob? or something.
AVC: It was supposed to be a Chris Farley movie, was it not?
JA: I don’t know if [screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr.] wrote it with Chris in mind, but Chris was attached at the beginning before we came on, and it was in that spirit of that annoying-friend movie, but without the dark thriller aspects that I thought that were very funny. I went off and watched all those movies. There was one with Rob Lowe and James Spader. In that time period, there were a lot of movies like that. A person comes into your life who seems really nice, and then tries to destroy you. And that made us laugh to no end. We would watch those movies and just crack up when we thought about Jim doing it. And Ben is also a great visual director, and came up with a great look for it. It was 1995, so the idea of doing a soundtrack that was mainly grunge music was really fun. We also had John Ottman, who had just done the score to The Usual Suspects, do our score, so that was really exciting for us.
AVC: How much did you rework the material once you and Ben Stiller took over?
JA: Me and Ben went to South Carolina, where Jim was shooting Ace Ventura 2, and over a few days, riffed a lot of the setpieces that were added to the script, and how Jim wanted to perform this character. I still have the napkin, sitting at the bar with Jim, when he thought up the idea of making fun of the scene from Midnight Express, where the woman pushes her breasts up against the glass, so I have a napkin at home that just says, “Tits on glass.” [Laughs.] So a lot of it happened over that weekend. Jim was very intent on dying at the end of the movie. That was something we couldn’t get past everybody. [Laughs.] He thought he should sacrifice and die at the end.
AVC: Why do you think he was so keen on that?
JA: That’s how most of these movies would end. They would die, and the second before they died, they would either look like a child who felt bad, or they would look like they still wanted to kill you. But it was the organic ending of that genre.
AVC: And there was always that hand coming out at the very end. “I’m not really dead!”
JA: Yeah it’s going to start up again, which is the ending we have. You can tell he’s going to stalk the EMT on the helicopter.
AVC: The Cable Guy, like a lot of Stiller’s films, is concerned with the media and its capacity to corrupt. How much of that was overt?
JA: I think we all have a love/hate relationship with the media. I used to watch 10 hours of television a night, my entire childhood. And I don’t think it did all good things to me. I certainly still have social problems that are a result of being in my room alone too much. That was something we wanted to talk about. And also the idea, especially in 1995 when we shot it, you did feel like the Internet was just starting up, and that everything was about to change and get crazy. So there are these monologues from Jim where he’s saying, “One day, we’re going to combine your television, telephone, and computer, and you’re going to be able to play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!” [Laughs.] And at the time, that was kind of a joke, but not today. There are people doing that right now. And the O.J. Simpson trial had happened the year before, and we were all somewhat obsessed with the O.J. trial and the Menendez trial. So there was a lot of true crime on television, and violence as entertainment. The country was really obsessed with watching the trial. And they were so popular that they stopped allowing people to broadcast them.
I think watching too much TV as a kid led me to being very uncomfortable in new situations. To this day, when I drop my kids off at school, I still feel like I’m in 9th grade and I’m uncomfortable and insecure. Like anyone is paying any attention. No one is. People couldn’t care less. But I get literally a physical sensation of low self-esteem that is a result of not engaging the world and getting comfortable that way.
AVC: Jim Carrey’s character doesn’t really have a personality, he just sort of plays things he’s seen on TV.
JA: Yeah, exactly, which always made us laugh.
AVC: Do you see him as being a sociopath?
JA: I think he is a sociopath. The line has blurred too much for him. I always liked the line at the end of the movie, where he says, “I learned the facts of life by watching The Facts of Life.” That can’t lead into anything good.
AVC: His character was never referred to by name. What was the thinking behind that? Did he have a name at any point during the film’s development?
JA: Well, he says his name is Chip Douglas, eventually, which is one of the characters on My Three Sons. So, yeah, he’s a faceless guy. That’s why we thought it was interesting, that at the end you realize he doesn’t even work for the cable company, he just stole the truck [Laughs.] and that it’s all a scam. He’s a complete madman.
AVC: Do you think his intentions are good? There’s this kind of daffiness…
JA: I think he wants to connect. He just doesn’t know how to do it. He doesn’t understand what friendship is, and he doesn’t believe anyone could like him if he doesn’t provide them with something, whether it’s free cable, or a great night at Medieval Times, or free stereo equipment. He does feel he has to give them something. He’s a classic people-pleaser. They always say that with people-pleasers, if you don’t respond appropriately, it instantly turns to rage. And that’s what the Cable Guy does.
AVC: At a recent screening for Take Me Home Tonight, Topher Grace told the crowd that six of the film’s cast members would be making $20 million five years down the road. The Cable Guy is probably one of the only films in the world where that’s actually true. Did you have a sense that your cast was destined for great things?
JA: We definitely thought, “These are our favorite funny people of the moment.” We saw footage of Bottle Rocket before the movie came out, and we loved the movie, and Owen [Wilson] was instantly one of our favorite comedy people of all time, so it was really exciting having him in the movie. We knew someone really special was in the movie. He didn’t even know how cool it was that we were able to get him in the movie. This was his first job outside making Bottle Rocket. So that was exciting. And having Jack Black in the movie, Jack hadn’t taken off yet, and we both really believed in Jack, and thought he was one of the funniest people we’d ever encountered. So we felt like we were planting all the people we admire—Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo make appearances in the movie. It is a collection of what was happening in that moment in Los Angeles.
AVC: It is definitely of its time. The O.J. thing lends it an interesting resonance.
JA: And this grunge music—Ben thought it would be fun to do a movie with a lot of grunge music, which hadn’t been done before, and the soundtrack came out—
AVC: Wasn’t that the essence of Reality Bites, though?
JA: That wasn’t really grunge, it was a different kind of early-’90s music. It was a little more indie. This was more Silverchair; Mark McCready from Pearl Jam gave us a song. There’s a song by Filter when we had the big basketball scene. Jerry Cantrell did the closing song, “Leave Me Alone,” the guy from Alice In Chains. So that was fun. But when the movie came out, we realized that grunge had died three weeks before the movie came out. Grunge was over! [Laughs.] We just missed it.
AVC: How old were you when you were producing this?
JA: Let’s see, I’m born in ’67, and we were shooting in ’95-’96… so 29?
AVC: When you’re that young you don’t realize how intimidated you should be, you don’t realize how stacked the odds are against you.
JA: Oh yeah.
AVC: It seems like that came into play, definitely with The Ben Stiller Show, but with The Cable Guy as well.
JA: Yeah, I was very combative as a creative person at that time. I didn’t understand how to play politics with the studios. I didn’t know how to creatively collaborate with the people who were paying the bills, and that came up all the time on every project I was doing, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to collaborate in a healthy way.
AVC: So what do you think changed?
JA: Well, some people make movies and think, “Well, I’ll just keep asking for more money if this isn’t enough.” And then there are other people, like Clint Eastwood, who always come in under budget. And I realized, “Oh, you want to be the guy that always comes in under.” And 80 percent of the stress of your life disappears. The Cable Guy was underbudgeted, so it was always a debate about whether we could have more days or certain things that we needed, because the budget was determined before the script was written. So that made it a hard production on everybody. But it’s also a funny thing, because it’s one of those movies that cost $40 million to make and made $100 million around the world, but at the time, it seemed like a disaster that it didn’t make hundreds of millions of dollars, because Jim was on such a tear. But it was actually a successful movie. It was just a small success.
AVC: Why do you think so much of the press revolved around how much Jim Carrey was getting paid?
JA: There was the issue, that Jim was the first person getting paid $20 million. That was gonna happen that year for somebody, but he was the first person it happened to, so whenever they talked about the movie, it was always in terms of the movie Jim was getting paid the C for. Also, there was a book written about Sony the year before—
AVC: Was that Hit And Run?
JA: Yes. And it did create a weird buzz around the studio, where people were gunning for them. I never really understood why, but it was just a different era at that studio, and people weren’t necessarily rooting for them. I’m always surprised when you do something very different that people don’t get behind you more, because you’re always told, “Take chances! Stretch!” And when you do it, sometimes people get really supportive and excited, but sometimes people go at you because you’ve tossed out the formula. And at the time, it felt like “Aren’t I supposed to toss out the formula? Don’t you want us to come up with something new?”
It was interesting to go through. I remember at the première, someone hands me two faxes—one was the Time review, and one was the Newsweek, and they were both vicious. And I remember the Time review said that there wasn’t one laugh in it. And I had watched the movie 50 times with audiences, and it always played great. There was certainly a moment where you could tell the audience was like, “Wow, this is really getting weird.” But it got gigantic laughs, and there were big setpieces. So I remember thinking, “Really? It doesn’t get one laugh? I’ve seen this movie a lot of times, so this must be about something else if people are going at it this hard. ’Cause at the end of the day, it’s still a silly comedy. It’s nothing to get up in arms about.” And there were people who really got it. There were some reviewers that understood what we were going for and supported us.
AVC: Charles Grodin said he always found it weird that people were so obsessed with what Ishtar cost, since it wasn’t as if the film’s budget was going to come out of the audience’s paychecks.
JA: There are some hilarious… You should look up some of the reviews. The New York Times review is so over-the-top funny. It’s hysterical. You should dig it out. I remember the review from Michael Wilmington in Chicago, and Gene Siskel wrote really smart reviews where I thought, “Oh, they totally get what we’re attempting to do.” But it is one of those movies when you do something different, sometimes it takes a long time for people to catch up with it. And it’s really got this nice cult following from being on cable and DVD for a long time. I’ve always thought that one of the issues of the movie is that when you watch it for the first time, you think Jim is actually gonna kill somebody. So when you watch it a second time and you know he doesn’t kill anybody, you can enjoy all of the humor. But on first viewing, you’re actually scared.
AVC: Did you see The Cable Guy as a work-for-hire gig, or something you were able to put a lot of yourself into?
JA: I went to as a personal a place as I could in my work when I did the revision and producing. I certainly wasn’t unfamiliar with being that needy. I was an unhappy single person at the time. It was not a big leap for me to write a desperate person.
AVC: On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, you talked about how when you were a stand-up, you didn’t have much of a persona. What kind of act did you do?
JA: I worshipped guys like Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and Jerry Seinfeld, and was doing my variation of that. But as a young person with no political point of view or life experience, it was as funny as you can imagine. I did get good enough to get on HBO’s Young Comedians Special, but I certainly wasn’t the person who got launched off of HBO’s Young Comedians Special. That would be Ray Romano that year. I had some semi-intelligent jokes, but when people would see me, they would think, “Oh, that’s a good writer.” No one would ever have said, “Oh, that’s a good performer.” You would just notice that certain things were well-written and thoughtful, and then want me to get off the stage.
AVC: Did not having a lot of confidence in yourself as a stand-up comedian actually make it easier to write jokes for other people?
JA: I loved the idea that I could write a joke and someone else would have to take the risk of performing it. There’s something so scary about trying out new material and being completely comfortable jumping into the abyss with a comedic idea. So it was always the most fun thing in the world to think of a joke area and talk about it with someone like Jim Carrey, and then he would get on stage fearlessly and tear the house down. That’s something I always enjoyed. It also allowed me to not be terrified.
AVC: Who did you write for early in your career?
JA: I used to tour a little bit with Jim Carrey and help him out on his first Showtime special. I wrote for Roseanne. I wrote her stand-up act with her. I wrote with Tom Arnold. There was a period when I was working with them pretty steadily. But I would take brief gigs here and there. I wrote on the Grammys, and a few times for Garry Shandling when he was hosting. I couldn’t have enjoyed those gigs more, because I would get to collaborate and try to make people I looked up to laugh, but for the most part, when you’re as talented as they are, what they really want is someone who can type fast and whose presence makes them feel in the mood to write and spew and be creative, and I was a good person to have in the room. The vast majority of what came up, came out of them. But I was good at prodding them and knowing what areas they should think about.
AVC: Alan Thicke has said that writing for Richard Pryor’s show basically consisted of winding Richard up, then recording what he said.
JA: Exactly. It’s hard to do this work alone. I do the same thing, I bring people on to the movies to type and to help punch up and look at things. But a lot of it is, you want fun people to be around, to put you in a good mood, to try and access your creative place.
AVC: It seems like a lot of what Funny People is about is the isolation, the panic and terror of being that one solitary soul in front of the world.
JA: Yeah, it’s hard to feed the beast. That is what that is about, the price you pay to be that person, if that’s your main goal, is to stay in that position.
AVC: Did you ever feel like you were starting to develop your voice as a comic?
JA: At the very end. Right when I started getting solid was when I was offered a lot of writing work. And when The Ben Stiller Show was picked up, I realized there was no way for me to do stand-up three or four nights a week and run this television show with Ben. So that was the moment when I had to make a choice.
AVC: Do you ever regret that? Do you ever wonder what the road less traveled might have been like?
JA: Not much, because every time I perform in front of people, no matter how well it goes, the next day, I feel humiliated. I hosted the Producer’s Guild Awards, and it went well, and I was very happy in the moment, and it was a fun night. But I wake up the next day like someone who did crack the night before and told off the world, and I’m ashamed of the whole idea that anyone should listen to me, or the idea that I need that much approval.
AVC: It seems like that’s what stand-up comics are in a lot of ways: people desperately in need of approval.
JA: It’s either you’re going to make this commitment to do it every day and your entire life is feeding that part of your ego, or you have to stop. And for me, I don’t feel good about it the day after. I feel like it’s a strange part of me I should shut down.
AVC: You’re left with that empty feeling.
JA: Yeah, but that’s just me. Some people are probably saner. They’re good performers, and they go about their day. I just get obsessive about it.
AVC: Speaking of obsessive, in one of the audio commentaries for The Larry Sanders Show, you talk about a single gag, it must have been about 15 years ago—
JA: I do remember the gag. It was Hank having a girlfriend who has a kid, and she leaves the kid with Hank in the office, and when she comes back, because the kid broke everything, Hank has the kid on a human leash. And Garry [Shandling] didn’t like that.
AVC: Fifteen years later, both of you are sticking to your guns.
JA: [Laughs.] We’ve actually thought that recently. We’ve re-discussed it in the last few months and thought about it again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who backed down this time?
JA: I think Garry’s beginning to back down, because I have the best argument, which is, “You don’t even remember what we replaced it with, so clearly it wasn’t better.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve recently described him as being a professional mentor for you. What was the most important thing you learned from him?
JA: Garry’s work is very truthful and very personal. He’s fearlessly open. From working with him and from the inspiration I’ve gotten from other people I admire, like Loudon Wainwright and Warren Zevon, I’ve come to realize that people connect more when they know you’re telling them the truth or some aspect of your story, some mutated version of how you are experiencing this life. And so the little details really connect for people in ways I never realized before. I think that’s why some of the movies have done well, because people are relating to things that I’m willing to expose.
AVC: Cable Guy is a transitional film in that respect, because it doesn’t have the more emotional elements of the films you’ve directed yourself. Was that something that came along as you got older?
JA: At that time in my life, I felt that way. I felt that wounded and needy and alone. So it was easy to write in that voice when I was doing punch-ups on the script. So to me, it was strangely personal, but no one would think it is. I wasn’t a 40-year-old virgin, but I certainly understood that level of insecurity and wanting to be liked. So it has evolved over time, but it all started with Garry. Because things would happen in Garry’s life, and then he would put it in next week’s show. You would see it happen. Garry would talk about seeing a psychic, and the next week, the psychic would be at the show as one of the guest stars.
AVC: Getting back to the commentary, with the obsessive sensibility, are there things in The Cable Guy that you watch now and think, “Oh God, I would like to change that.”
JA: There’s not too much. We put a few deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. There’s one where Jim is on top of Matthew Broderick’s car as Matthew’s driving really fast, and Jim’s acting like The Terminator. We liked it, but we took it out because it didn’t get big laughs, and it was beginning to scare the audience too much. But looking back, I think we regret taking it out. I think that’s the biggest regret. There’s another scene where Jim has a drill at the end of the movie and is trying to drill a hole in Matthew’s head, but that also freaked people out. That’s maybe five minutes not in the movie. We couldn’t find all the footage in the right format to build an extended version of the movie, or we would have done that. But we were able to find it in the format that was good enough where we could show people what we cut out of the movie, and a lot of it is even stranger than anything in the movie.
AVC: I read that Ben Stiller did a light and dark take for every scene, to help establish the tone of the movie.
JA: I don’t remember that specifically, but that’s generally how we all do things, which is, “Oh, this might be too dark, let’s get a slightly lighter one also, just in case.”
AVC: Was the studio really worried about the tone of the film? There was a Cable Guy/Taco Bell tie-in. Why is junior drinking this cup from a film that would traumatize him?
JA: [Laughs.] I remember we cut a reel of the movie that had the basketball sequence and a few other scenes in the movie, and we showed it to the studio, and one of the executive producers was Bernie Brillstein, and Bernie Brillstein called me and he was very upset. He didn’t enjoy the footage. He said, “What are you doing? This is like Neighbors!” And I said, “Yeah! No, we watched Neighbors before we made it. We love Neighbors! We’re kind of trying to do it a little bit like Neighbors!” And he said, “No! Neighbors was a disaster! We don’t like Neighbors!” [Laughs.] I was like, “We do! We like Neighbors!” [Laughs.]
I always thought it would be a wild roller-coaster ride that was just really fun. And then when I saw it, it was a little bit weirder and scarier than I think we all realized when we were making it, and a lot of that is, Jim’s performance was so great, but it’s also intense. It was more intense on film than it felt like it was on the stage when we were shooting, and I think that’s why it has held up so well, because there’s something really unique about what he’s doing. It doesn’t feel like What About Bob? or one of those annoying friends movies.
AVC: Why didn’t you receive a writing credit on The Cable Guy when you worked so extensively on it?
JA: The rules, which are the same to this day, are built on the fact that many decades ago, I think, there were probably problems with show business where producers and directors would try to get the writing credit also. So they created a rule where the bar, to get your name added to the writing credits, if you’ve done a revision, is very high if you’re also the producer or director. It’s much higher than if you’re not the producer or director, and that’s meant to protect writers from intrusive collaborators, to take that incentive away. But ultimately, it’s not fair, because there’s no reason why the percentage of rewriting should be higher just because you serve another function on the movie. So what it ultimately does is create a deterrent to fix their movies, or to take on that work. So I don’t think it actually serves the movie. Most people in the world of comedy at least are multi-hyphenates, so people who direct are also writers.
AVC: That had to be disappointing.
JA: Oh, at the time, I couldn’t have been more devastated. To this day, I’m so proud of the movie, and felt like my participation should have been acknowledged in some way. And that rule has not changed. They’ve voted on it several times, and the writers don’t support changing it, probably because the percentage of people doing that kind of work doesn’t provide the votes to change that rule.
AVC: The studio might have preferred something a little safer commercially. Did they see it as a blockbuster?
JA: Oh yeah, I think they thought it was supposed to make hundreds of millions of dollars. And we thought it would too, that it would be a thrill ride and people would go for it, as just a wild comedic take on the thriller. But I think people like happy. People like everything to work out, and anytime you don’t make everything work out perfectly, you really are fighting against what most people are going to the movies for, especially in the summer. Jim Carrey was coming off of big crowd-pleasers, and suddenly he’s in a movie trying to kill himself in the end, and I think that’s what throws most people. But it’s also strangely the reason why the movie has a long life. There’s more to it, it’s more interesting.
AVC: What do you think about the Bruce Almightys of the world? It’s one of the top-grossing films of all time. It goes out of its way not to offend anybody.
JA: I’ve made movies on every part of the spectrum, and you do understand when you go into certain movies that you’re trying to elicit a certain kind of response from the audience, and people get a real sense of satisfaction when they’re rooting for a character and the character pulls it off. And in this movie, the character does not pull it off at all, and it is more like a thriller where at the end of the movie, you either kill him or he goes and stalks someone else.
AVC: Was Jim Carrey worried at all about the fact that he had this very young fan base—
JA: Not at all. I think Jim, in the best possible way, thought, “I need to do different things to establish to the audience that I’m not going to do the same thing every time.” So making this movie is what laid down the track for him to do Eternal Sunshine and The Truman Show and all the other great movies he’s done. He was very specific that he wasn’t going to be boxed in.