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Judd Apatow launched his comedy career as a stand-up comic, but he only began to make a name for himself upon stepping behind the camera. He has a tendency to get involved with shows whose small audience doesn't fully suggest their influence: The Ben Stiller Show only lasted one season on Fox, but it was an important jumping-off point for Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and, of course, Ben Stiller. Apatow went on to write and produce for HBO's boundary-pushing sitcom The Larry Sanders Show and the animated series The Critic. At the same time, Apatow began to edge into film, working as producer and uncredited script doctor for The Cable Guy and other projects. Another short-lived series, Freaks And Geeks, earned Apatow his fondest following. Created by Paul Feig, with Apatow serving as executive producer, the critically acclaimed chronicle of high-school life in 1980 Michigan suffered from low ratings that can be at least partially attributed to a lack of network support. Rerun on the Fox Family Channel, it's become a cult favorite. Freaks And Geeks fans will find a few familiar faces (particularly series regular Seth Rogen, who does double duty as a staff writer) and an extremely similar sensibility at work on Apatow's new series Undeclared, a college comedy following a freshman class at the University of North Eastern California. Jay Baruchel anchors the cast, playing a first-year student who's eager, after a recent growth spurt, to put his new look to work in an environment where nobody knows him. The usual humiliations of college interfere with that impulse, as does much-admired Canadian folk-rocker Loudon Wainwright III, playing Baruchel's lonely dad. Shortly before his show's première, Apatow spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Undeclared's genesis, very special issue episodes, and how to be a comedian who writes for other comedians.
The Onion: Undeclared, that's just Freaks And Geeks in college, right?
Judd Apatow: Uh, no, it's more like, "Geek goes to college." It's different, because it's more of a comedy than a drama. Basically, Freaks And Geeks was 60 percent drama, 40 percent comedy. This is 80 percent comedy, 20 percent drama.
O: Any particular reason you wanted a more comedic show this time around?
JA: No, I just kind of take it idea by idea. I wanted to do a show where I could continue to work with a lot of the actors I was working with, because it's rare that you can find so many talented people to collaborate with. So I just thought, "Well, what would they be doing now?" By the time I got a show shot, they were all about 18. "I guess I should do up a show about college."
O: But only one of those actors really stuck around and became a regular, right?
JA: Well, Seth Rogen is on the show, and Jason Segel has a recurring part as the boyfriend of Lizzie [Carla Gallo]. He's the long-distance boyfriend. He's in a lot of the episodes, and Busy Philipps is doing a recurring part as a girlfriend for Seth Rogen. And we did a two-parter starring Samm Levine, where he plays the evil president of a fraternity. So, slowly but surely, everybody's coming on for something fun.
O: And you can age some of the younger actors into college, if the series goes on long enough.
JA: Yeah. I mean, the youngest kids on Freaks And Geeks are all about 16 or 17 now. I was 17 when I went to college, so everyone can come on and do something.
O: Your title is like That '70s Show—it's kind of got an expiration date stamped into it. What are you going to do as the characters get too old to be "undeclared"? Or is that looking too far ahead right now?
JA: I never assume that any show I do is going to go past 18 episodes, so I never think about season seven. The lead of the show, Jay Baruchel, is only 19. There's plenty of time for him to look like a college student. Or he could be like Sabrina and do Undeclared: The Graduate School Years. Hopefully, there's plenty of time. I do worry about having the Gabrielle Carteris situation, where she was as old as everyone's mom on Beverly Hills, 90210.
O: And Sabrina's not looking like a... is she still in high school now, or what?
JA: I cannot tell you that I keep close tabs on the program.
O: Based on the episodes I've seen, you don't seem terribly interested in doing issue-oriented shows.
JA: I never look at it like I want to do issues, or not do issues. I just try to be honest and funny and responsible. Will we do episodes where kids are doing drugs or binge drinking? I'm sure we will, and at the end of the day, I doubt my position will be, "I'm pro-binge-drinking." So, as a result, I guess I handled the issue, but I tried not to hammer kids over the head with a message. If you watch the shows, I'm certainly trying to put the positive ideas out there. Just like when we did Freaks And Geeks, there was drug use, and a lot of pot being smoked, but we certainly took a position that it was screwing up all of these kids' lives, without saying it explicitly in a way that would make you feel like you were watching a very special Diff'rent Strokes.
O: With the drug use and frank sexuality in Undeclared, have you had any problems with the network?
JA: We're always negotiating what we can and cannot do, because they're very sensitive about drug and drinking issues. At the same time, we want the show to be fairly accurate as to what kids are doing in college. But I could make a choice to not have my kids be the biggest drunkards on campus. So we play by ear and take it story to story. For example, we were talking about writing a show where one of the characters, Rachel, gets drunk at a party and ends up taking off her shirt and dancing topless on a table. Then, as a result of her embarrassment, she becomes really hardcore straight-edge, and is always trying to stop everybody from drinking or doing drugs. There's a way to do a show like that that's really funny, but is also making a subtle message about the bad things that can happen if you're high all the time.
O: Shows set in college don't have a great track record in terms of quality. What were your models, or did you have any?
JA: The only model I ever have when I work is, "What would James Brooks or Garry Shandling do?" I mean, there are a few teen comedies that I think are the benchmarks for this type of work, such as Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Welcome To The Dollhouse. But I generally just try to do what
I think the people that I look up to would do, and that's James Brooks and Garry Shandling. I try to be truthful and funny, and to not be afraid to be dramatic and funny at the same time. So basically, nothing I'm doing hasn't been done better in some scene in Terms Of Endearment.
O: You're not an old guy, but you're not 18. How do you ensure authenticity for your college show?
JA: That's why I hired Seth Rogen to write for the show. He's 19 now, but he was 18 when we started, so I figured if anything was way off, he could yell at me and tell me to fix it. And I hired a lot of writers that were closer to college age than I am. I'm 33. Hopefully, college doesn't change that dramatically in a 10- or 15-year period. I don't feel like it's been that difficult to stay truthful. I'm trying to make the show somewhat timeless. I don't want to do 800 Napster jokes, and then Napster goes under, and someday in reruns, my show looks ridiculous. I just try to keep it in that netherworld where the show hopefully makes as much sense in 10 years as it does now.
O: When did you become aware of Seth Rogen's skills as a writer?
JA: When we were doing Freaks And Geeks, if we were having trouble with a scene, we would bring the actors into rehearsal space and improvise the scene. And it became really clear that Seth has the mind of a writer—his improvs were just way too good. So, in between seasons, he handed me a feature-film script he wrote, which was like 200 pages of madness, but the dialogue was great. So I decided to let him write a script when we started Undeclared, and his script was so good that I gave him two more to write. He's just a guy who's way too funny for his age. It doesn't really make any sense how talented he is, for 19 years old. I am baffled that someone could have that clear a sense of what they do, and how to make other people funny, at that age. I wasn't funny at all at 19, and I was trying really hard. I was a stand-up comedian when I was 19, and I was awful.
O: You have a background in stand-up comedy, but your shows aren't particularly punchline-driven, from Ben Stiller to Larry Sanders on. How does that background play into your shows?
JA: The one thing I learned how to do when I was a stand-up comedian was write in the voice of a comedic performer. A lot of the way I survived as a stand-up comedian was writing jokes for other comedians. So when I was doing stand-up, I would write jokes for the Grammys when Garry Shandling hosted. I wrote jokes for Jim Carrey's stand-up act when I was opening up for him on the road. I wrote Roseanne's act over a two-year period. So, as a result, I picked up an ability to think how other people might think, and get a sense of their voice. That's why I tend to cast the shows before I write them. So, with Undeclared, I started casting before I wrote the pilot, because I like to
know who the actors are before I write.
O: That's an unusual approach.
JA: Nobody really does it like that, mainly because it's hard to get the studios to green-light your script in the first place. You have to have a green-lit script if you're going to start paying actors. Luckily enough for me, based on a few projects, the network was willing to order six episodes of the show before I wrote the pilot. So that's how I was able to take advantage of that situation.
O: How did it occur to you to cast Loudon Wainwright?
JA: I've been a fan of his music since 1980. When I was a kid and my parents were getting divorced, for some reason I became obsessed with Loudon Wainwright. Darkly funny folk music. I think it helped me understand what my parents were going through, because he had so many songs about people being in love and then hating each other's guts as it fell apart. I probably needed that, for some reason. I've followed his work for the last 20 years, and have always been inspired by the fact that he's able to be really funny and also dark and dramatic at the same time. That has inspired me in my work, and I had been listening to a record of his called History. There's a song on it called "A Father And A Son" about how he fights with his son, and how he fought with his dad. It sparked the idea that I wanted to do a show about a father and a son. Then, after a while, I switched to the idea of doing a show about college, but I decided to make the father/son aspect of it a big part of the show. So you'll see this kid heading off to redefine himself and start his adult life at the same time as his father has to start his adult life for the second time, because his wife just booted him out of the house the day the son left for college.
O: You knew Wainwright could act?
JA: I knew he'd been on M*A*S*H, and I'd seen him in the movie Jacknife, and I knew he'd been in the show Pump Boys And Dinettes off-Broadway. When you've worked with a lot of 14- or 15-year-old kids who haven't acted much, you quickly realize that a guy who's been performing on stage for 30 years and wanted to be an actor probably can be drawn out to do a great job on the show. I liked him because he has a great personality, and you can write to it. It's a way of having an original character without having to think of it yourself.
O: Do you think TV comedies will continue to move away from the studio-audience, three- and four-camera-setup arrangement?
JA: Well, I hope there's a lot more room for single-camera comedies. The three- and four-camera shows force you into a certain rhythm. When it's done well, like on Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond, there's really nothing better. But it's very hard to keep an original voice when you're forced to get a laugh at a very fast rate. Even if you watch the old shows, like Mary Tyler Moore or even a more recent show like Taxi, they weren't trying to be funny at such a fast pace. They even allowed moments where some of the jokes didn't get laughs. They didn't slam the laugh track every time. I think people are getting bored of it. Unless it's done really well, like Raymond, you're more inclined to dislike it. The thing about single-camera is, it can be more like a little movie. The problem is, it has to be a different type of joke style. A lot of times, those single-camera shows try to tell the same types of jokes as a laugh-track show, and it sounds weird that you're waiting for the laugh. On our show, we try to not have people tell jokes, and more of the comedy is character-driven and a lot of the big comedy is music-driven. So you don't feel like you're watching a show like Sports Night, where a lot of it felt like a normal sitcom, yet there were no laughs there, and it just felt empty.
O: How do you keep yourself from becoming embittered about networks?
JA: I would be more bitter if they told me I wasn't allowed to work. I'm not obsessed with making 100 episodes of anything. It would be nice if they would let me, but as long as I'm able to create things, it's an amazing job, and I appreciate that I'm given the opportunity. It's frustrating, because it certainly would have been really fun to make a few more seasons of Freaks And Geeks, and we had a lot of ideas about where the show would go, but at the same time, we were able to make 18 hours of stories that we were really excited about, and we didn't have any creative interference. We're proud of all of them. That's rare. I get more angry when people force you to ruin your own work. If you get terrible notes or terrible testing, and they make you change things, that's the thing that drives me out of my mind.
O: Has there been a particular instance of that in your career?
JA: Nothing specific, but it's always out there in the air. The idea that you should go for the lowest common denominator to get a bigger audience. Nobody wants to challenge the audience. Everyone wants to test the audience to find out what they want, and remake your shows to suit their needs. That's just not how I want to work. But I've been lucky enough to get a decent amount of freedom at an early age, and I'm still really excited about the work. And I hope somebody watches it. You really get freedom when your show becomes a hit. With Freaks And Geeks, if it had been a big hit, it would have been amazing to watch the show develop. I'm hoping that Undeclared can be a big hit, because I think that would give us more freedom to make the show even more challenging than it is.
O: It must be bittersweet to see Freaks succeed so well on cable, which seems to confirm that it just needed a bit more of a push to find an audience. How do you hope to avoid that this time?
JA: Freaks And Geeks was only on 12 out of 26 weeks. It was taken off constantly for the World Series, or Home Alone on Thanksgiving, you name it. And then, when it was on Fox Family, it was on every week, and people were able to develop the habit of watching. I'm hopeful that's what will happen with Fox. Certainly, with all the events of the last few weeks, there's a chance that we won't be on every week. We could go months not being on.
O: Right now, the marketing of the show seems to suggest that the cast will be in its underwear every episode.
JA: All I can say to the Fox people is, "Don't trick the audience into thinking this show is a giant sex romp." But I must admit, a fairly large portion of the show is about kids in college trying to meet girls. So as much as I'm somewhat annoyed by how hard they hit it in the ads, a lot of the episodes are about our lead kid being in love with this girl. It's a lot more sophisticated than the taglines or the commercials might imply, but they've been great. We've shot 13 episodes, and they've been cutting promos with 13 episodes worth of material, so there's a lot of funny commercials that have nothing to do with that. That's always scary. When we made The Cable Guy, they tried to sell it like it was Ace Ventura. They didn't tell the audience that it was a dark comedy, and I think people walked in with the wrong expectation, and it made it hard for people to enjoy the movie. I don't think that's the case here, but I certainly warned them not to make that the main aspect of our marketing.
O: Do you think your voice translates better to TV or to film?
JA: I don't know. I haven't had an enormous amount of film experience. I've done a lot of rewrites of movies, and I look forward to making a good movie. I've been a part of good movies, and I've been a part of bad movies. It's a very long process,
and unless you're very powerful, during the long process of developing a film, there are many opportunities for a lot of people to set you off of your course. That's usually why movies are awful. The thing about TV is, you make so many shows so fast that you usually get to write and shoot what was in your head, and you don't second-guess yourself for two and a half years. If I have a weird idea about doing an entire episode where Steven is being chased by the long-distance boyfriend of the girl he likes, I can write it in a couple of weeks, and shoot it and edit, and it goes on TV. In a way, you're like a final-cut director on television, and that's an amazing thing. Hopefully I'll get opportunities like that in film, but I don't know. Very few people are given that freedom.