Interview with Judd Apatow
Judd Apatow might not be a household name, but it’s safe to say that, if his name isn’t known in your household, you haven’t been getting enough comedy in your diet. He spent the early ‘90s as a writer and producer on series like “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Critic,” and “The Ben Stiller Show” before moving on to the show which really helped him make his mark in TV history: “Freaks and Geeks.” After that, Apatow moved on to the college sitcom, “Undeclared,” then produced the film “Anchorman.” Most recently, he wrote, directed, and produced “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” which hits theaters this summer. Apatow spoke with Bullz-Eye predominantly about the release of “Undeclared: The Complete Series” on DVD, but we managed to steer him into a bit of “Virgin” talk as well.
Bullz-Eye: Glad to finally get up with you!
Judd Apatow: Sure!
BE: Sorry about all the false starts and delays; I think my wife might’ve told you that we just had our first child.
JA: That’s much more important; I’m impressed that you’re already up and at ‘em! It’s gonna be fun for you!
BE: It’s gonna be something! So how’s it going with you?
JA: It’s going good! Just waiting for everything to hit here.
BE: Are you still mixing “The 40 Year Old Virgin”?
JA: Yeah, I’m just done with that. All the press starts this week, so, with “Undeclared,” we tried to time it out to combine some of the “Virgin” / “Undeclared” attention.
BE: Well, I was glad to get the set; I watched “Undeclared “when it was on, but by no means did I catch all the episodes, so I was glad to get them all in one place.
JA: Yeah, I’m always excited to get those things out the way we intended them to be seen. There’s nothing worse than working really hard and then having these disappear off of the face of the earth.
BE: I’m sure you’re already cringing when you look back at the Museum of Television and Radio segment (the stars and creators of the show did a Q&A segment at the Museum, which was filmed and is included on the DVD set) and hear yourself say, “Now that they’re paying tribute to us, we should be cancelled any day now!”
JA: And we always are! Every time I do the Museum of Television and Radio, I get cancelled within a week. Same thing happened with “Freaks and Geeks.” The exact same thing. It was hilarious. I never could watch that Museum of Television and Radio Q&A because they always are done at a time when I’m really raw and emotional and feeling out of control because I know the show’s about to be cancelled, so they’re hard for me to watch. But I know they’re funny; I always remember that I was funny. But I always tell my assistant that if I watch it, I won’t want to put it on the DVD.
BE: You know, right off the bat, I have a very specific question about one of the episodes – the Ted Nugent episode. Was the episode that originally aired...well, did it actually have Ted Nugent in it? (There are two versions of the same episode included in the set, identical save the fact that a subplot involving two of the characters attending a Ted Nugent lecture has been removed and replaced with a completely different subplot.)
JA: No, the other one did...the one where they watch “American Pie,” instead.
BE: What led to him not being in it?
JA: Well, it’s one of those weird things. You’re doing a TV show for a network; you’re trying to please them so they will allow you to continue to make the show. We did six episodes -- I guess we may have shot them as early as the fall / winter of 2000, maybe as late as the very beginning of 2001 -- and we were hoping that they would put us on right away, and then we would maybe do some more to air in the spring of 2001. But, suddenly, they had a lot of hits! They were desperate when they hired us, but then suddenly they had all these hits and didn’t need us...so we actually didn’t start airing for almost a year after we shot the first episodes. And in that time, there was so much time that they began second-guessing everything, saying, “Do you think we can make this better? Is this Ted Nugent thing too obscure?” So my usual instinct is to tell everyone to take a hike, but I was in the mood to not be cancelled immediately, so I said, well, I’ll just do my best to make things even better, even if I’m taking notes I don’t agree with, because you can always make it better any time you change it. So we shot a different version of half of that episode, and we liked the new version, but we liked the old version, also. It’s just an odder idea of taking a girl to see a Ted Nugent lecture, then having Ted Nugent humiliate you. The other version is kinda funny, also, but, as always happens with me, all of my ass kissing did no good!
BE: I think the biggest laugh I got out of the Ted Nugent segment was when somebody – clearly added in later – yells, “Damn Yankees suck!”
JA: (laughs) Yeah! That’s something that Jay Baruchel (who played Steven Karp) yelled on camera when he and Ted Nugent were improvising insults at each other. I was surprised he had the balls to yell that at him!
BE: Wow, that’s why I made that comment; I couldn’t imagine it was said in his presence!
JA: No, he did, right to his face!
BE: Well, to jump back for a minute, how did “Undeclared” come about? Were you kind of coasting on the critical acclaim of “Freaks and Geeks” and made the move to have your own show...?
JA: You know, at the time, I enjoyed my writing staff and production staff so much that I just wanted to try and keep everyone working. So we thought, what would be the best show we could come up with that allows us to hire a lot of these same people and a lot of these same actors? And we thought, well, by the time we get this on, most of these “Freaks and Geeks” kids will be college age; let’s do a college show! It was as lazy as that. And then you think it will be really easy, that you’ll do a show that’s a little lighter than “Freaks and Geeks,” but it turned out that a half-hour show is actually twice as hard to do as an hour show because, when you’re doing a half-hour comedy, if it’s not funny, it’s just not funny. If you’re doing an hour dramedy and something’s not funny, you just say, oh, those characters think they’re funny, but they’re not. It’s just part of the drama. So it was just a lot more intense to make the whole thing amusing.
BE: Now, with Seth Rogen (Ron), I think I remember hearing that he came on the show as a writer, originally?
JA: Seth Rogen, you know, we found him in Vancouver and he was just this odd, funny guy that, when we met him, was 16. And when we were shooting “Freaks and Geeks,” he was just so funny to hang around with, and he would improvise some hilarious lines that no writers could ever come up with that, when it was time to do “Undeclared,” I thought I needed young people to tell us how young people talked, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a kid on staff. And he was 18, so we made him one of the stars of the show and a writer. Then it turned out he was such a good writer that it was almost embarrassing, because his scripts were better than most everybody else’s scripts, and he was a kid, so we were all somewhat humiliated having him around. Then, when I got this movie, “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” I made him one of the stars of the movie and the co-producer of the movie, so I could have him be in the movie and force him to come to the set every day and pitch jokes for all the other actors.
BE: Now, was there ever any hesitation about adding Seth to the cast of “Undeclared,” since he’d also been in the primary cast of “Freaks and Geeks”?
JA: Was there any hesitation? You know, I would’ve hired most of the cast of “Freaks and Geeks” to be on “Undeclared,” but the studio stopped me at one. I wanted to bring Jason Segel (Nick Andopolis on “F & G”) on the show full-time, and they said, ‘No,’ so I just made him the off-screen voice (of Lizzie’s boyfriend, Eric), and then, before you knew it, I forced him on the show and tried to do as many episodes with Jason Segel as I could. But, by the time the show was done, we had Sam Levine on – who played Neal on “Freaks and Geeks” – and he played the president of a fraternity who was sadistic with pickles (laughs), and we had Busy Phillips as Seth Rogen’s love interest, and Martin Starr (Bill Haverchuck on “F & G”) came on as Jay Baruchel’s geeky friend from high school who comes and visits him and outs him as a geek.
BE: And, yet, Martin Starr looks pretty hip on the show!
JA: Yeah, that was the new Martin Starr...the college-age Martin Starr, after he got tattoos and whatnot!
BE: I’ve heard the story of how Loudon (Wainwright III, the singer-songwriter who fathered both Rufus and Martha Wainwright) came to the show as Steven Karp’s dad, Hal (Apatow was a fan of both Loudon’s music and his work on “M*A*S*H” as Captain Spalding), but I understand that, with the audition process, he stayed far, far away from auditioning before the network if he could get away with it.
JA: Yeah, I mean, I knew that Loudon hated auditioning, and there’s nothing worse that auditioning for the network, where you get thrown into a room full of thirty people who barely crack a smile. It’s very easy to get thrown off your game and not get the job, even though you really deserve it. So I told them he was out of town, and I showed them a tape of him...so I saved him the trouble, even though he was really only five minutes away at the time!
BE: I saw that Joey Santiago of the Pixies did the music for the show.
JA: Joey Santiago was just an inspired choice of the moment. Somebody sent me some CDs of some potential composers, and one of them was Joey Santiago, and I thought, ‘How perfect: a show about college, scored by, like, the coolest alternative rock guitar god of all time!” And then it turned out that he’s the nicest guy you’ve ever met, and he couldn’t have been easier to work with. The score’s way too good for the show! That’s why, on all the menus, we put all his scores, because it sounds like the lost Pixies album.
BE: With all the success of TV shows going to DVD and scoring big sales, any thoughts of doing a post-college “Undeclared” straight-to-DVD movie?
JA: Uh, yeah, no, not at this point.
BE: So how’s “The 40 Year Old Virgin” coming? If you can trust Ain’t It Cool News, it sounds like the test screenings have gone really well.
JA: Yeah, it’s so terrifying when you make a movie now, because when you show it to anyone, even in the earliest stages, it is reviewed instantly on the ‘net. So you can’t suck even if your roughest form. But we were lucky enough to get a ton of good reviews. Every time we screen it – and we’ve screened it about 7 times – there would be a review the next day. They even screened in London once, to see if Europeans would like it, and someone in London put it up on Ain’t It Cool News! But the movie turned out great, we’re really excited about it. What I’m really proud of is the fact that everyone in the movie is really funny. It’s not one of those movies where, like, the lead person is funny and no one else is. Everyone in this movie kills pretty hard. Paul Rudd is in it, Jane Lynch from “Best in Show” is hilarious, there’s this guy Romany Malco who’s on the show, “Weeds,” who’s great in it. My wife, Leslie Mann (“Stealing Harvard,” “Big Daddy”), has a hilarious sequence where the 40-year-old virgin is told to hit on a drunk woman, and he hits on my wife, and he has to take her home...but he can’t drive, because he rides a bicycle, so she has to drive...and she’s really drunk, so there’s almost no way to get home alive. And Elizabeth Banks (“Spider-Man 2,” “Seabiscuit”) is in the film, too, so I’m really excited for people to see it.I just saw “Wedding Crashers” last night, and everyone was talking about how R-rated movies are doing well this summer, and I was shocked to realize that our movie is FIFTY TIMES DIRTIER than “Wedding Crashers!” I thought, O-mi-god, we’re really going to surprise people, because we’re a LOT dirtier than this!
BE: How much of that is going to make it to the actual film, rather than the DVD?
JA: Oh, it’s all in! I mean, it is truly blue! (Laughs) It’s among the dirtiest movies ever made, I think. I mean, it’s a sweet movie about a guy trying to take a chance, but the whole world is very sexualized, and that’s what he’s afraid of, so there’s a lot of dirty stuff. When I was watching “Wedding Crashers,” I realized that they’d only said the F-word, like, 3 times. I think we say it, like, two HUNDRED times in our film!
BE: You said that Seth has a pretty substantial role in the film?
JA: Seth is one of the leads of the movie. And he kills so hard that I had to take some jokes out, because it was just weighing the movie in an odd way towards his character when it shouldn’t be that much about him. But people love Seth. I was very gratified, as a big Seth supporter, to see audiences really like him, and so it’s fun to see him do so well.
BE: Getting back to the show, on the “Undeclared” commentaries, did it take a lot of arm-twisting to get the stars and guest-stars to come back? Because it seems like all of them view the show as a high point of their professional careers.
JA: No, everyone was really excited. We’re all really proud of the show and happy that it’s getting out there, so everyone was more than happy to come back. We were even able to get Fred Willard (who plays Professor Duggan) to do one, which is a hilarious commentary. It was just me trying to ask him odd questions to put him in funny areas to say crazy things. I’m really proud of the fact that we have a half-hour mini-concert by Loudon Wainwright on the DVD, which, to me, is worth the price of the DVD right there, because he’s so funny and his songs are so inspiring to me as an artist. He’s just honest and hilarious...and, then, his commentary, I thought, was really interesting, too, talking about what his journey in the business has been like. So some of the commentaries are brutal and all the kids are mean to each other and it’s funny to hear them dog on each other...and, then, we try to do a few where we try to explain our intentions. It’s usually me and Jake (Kasdan, who directed a few episodes) being very boring.
BE: The Will Ferrell episode was definitely one of the highlights of the show’s run.
JA: Yeah, Will came and did the show right when he was leaving “Saturday Night Live,” and, around that time, he showed me a script that he’d written with Adam McKay called “Anchorman.” So, during the last days of “Undeclared,” Will and Adam would come to the office every once in awhile and kick around how to get someone to allow us to make “Anchorman.”
BE: ...and the rest is history.
BE: I noticed in the press release that they hype some of the show’s other guest stars who, at the time the show was on the air, were in no way actual guest stars...like Tom Welling (a.k.a. Clark Kent on “Smallville”).
JA: Yeah, we had Tom Welling in our pilot episode, and he read to be a regular on the show. I remember when I called his manager to, y’know, tell him that we didn’t have a part for him, I made sure to point out that he was going to be a huge star and that there was no stopping him. And so we had him do some fun in the pilot, but we all knew that we had just met the next Tom Cruise...and, then, a year later, he had his own show. And we had Amy Poehler on a bunch of times as the R.A.; she was hilarious as the crazy resident attendant. She’s always been one of my favorites, and I think some of the episodes with Amy are classic, especially the one where she has an affair with Steven’s dad.
BE: And you pretty much had an all-star cast as far as directors go, too.
JA: Yeah, the guy who directed “The Dukes of Hazzard,” Jay Chandrasekhar, directed a few episodes, and Greg Motolla, who did “The Daytrippers,” directed a bunch of episodes. That’s a great independent movie, really funny.
BE: That’s with Parker Posey?
JA: Yes. And Liev Shrieber and Anne Meara. Jon Favreau did our last episode, Jake Kasdan did our pilot, and John Hamburg, who did “Along Came Polly” and wrote on the “Meet The Parents” movies, directed a couple of episodes. I hired him because I knew that, if he directed a few episodes, I could force him to help us punch them up. (Laughs)
BE: And I guess Paul (Feig, creator of “Freaks and Geeks”) came in and directed one...?
JA: Paul came in and directed the second episode. That was a ton of fun, having Paul do one. He has since become one of the great episodic directors.
BE: You know, I just picked up his new book (“Superstud: Or, How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin”).
JA: Oh, his new book is so funny. I just can’t believe he had more stories that he didn’t tell me! I was reading it, going, ‘He held these back!’ He told us so many horrifying stories; I can’t believe there were another 50 that he didn’t tell us!
BE: Now, when “Undeclared” came to its conclusion, were you aware that the episode you were making was the last episode? Because it feels like...
JA: We did know it was the last episode, and what was funny was that they had reduced our order. We were supposed to do 9 episodes, and they cut us back to something like 4 for our back order.
JA: And I knew that that meant that they didn’t believe in the show, and that it was going to end soon. So we wrote an episode about Jason Segel’s character, Eric, and his two friends that he works at the copy shop with – which is David Krumholz from the show “Numb3rs” and Kyle Gass from Tenacious D – and, so, almost as a big f-you to the network, we made an episode that had very little to do with our show. It was more like a spin-off for another show...
BE: Which it could have been...
JA: ...about these lunatics who work at the copy shop. And Ben Stiller played the ex-stepdad of Eric, who had just gotten out of rehab and, if he even took a whiff of marijuana, he would be in an alley with a needle in his arm. It was something like that; I can’t remember the exact quote. (Adapts an impression of Ben Stiller’s character) “If I even get a whiff of that, I will be dead in an alley!” I don’t know. And so we just shot this crazy episode, which we loved doing, and called it a day. So it doesn’t have the sense of completion that “Freaks and Geeks” had. It has kind of an odd asterisk at the end of it. But it’s a really funny episode. It also has a really funny subplot where all their videotapes have just come in of “Girls Gone Wild,” and they’re just eating candy and watching “Girls Gone Wild” the entire episode.
BE: You know, I thought it was hysterical when Lloyd (played by British actor Charlie Hunnam) was called out for looking like Heath Ledger.
JA: (laughs) Yes, you have to call these things on the nose when you notice them, so, finally, someone gives him shit for looking like Heath Ledger.
BE: I just thought it showed tremendous restraint that you waited that long, since I noticed the resemblance from the first episode!
JA: Well, you have to get to know the actors well enough to be that brutal in your chiding. But we were really lucky. That cast was a great cast. That’s what’s always heartbreaking when a show ends. Jay Baruchel was just in that movie, “Million Dollar Baby,” as Danger Barch, and Charlie Hunnam was in “Cold Mountain”. Carla Gallo (who played Lizzie) was in that HBO series, “Carnivale,” and she’s in the “Virgin” movie. Everyone has done so well that you almost feel bad that they weren’t doing well on your show! (Laughs) That’s how we felt about James Franco and Linda Cardellini when they did “Freaks and Geeks.” Wow, they’re huge stars...for someone else! That’s not really good for us; we’re all unemployed! But I’m really proud of the show. I think we did some fun episodes. I’m so glad that TV shows on DVD have become so popular, and I spend way too much time attempting to make these sets. I don’t think anyone works harder at trying to make our sets unique. We don’t get paid any money for them, because I lost the networks and the studios so much money on these shows to begin with that I don’t get paid for putting them out on DVD.
BE: A labor of love.
JA: Yes, so they are true labors of love, and we do put literally a year’s work into each set that we put out, and hopefully it shows.
BE: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any question that the fans appreciate it; they’re a rabid bunch, and I count myself among their number.
JA: Well, good.
BE: As kind of a closing question, how many of the stories come from your own personal experience in college, if any?
JA: Well, when I first started, I didn’t think the show was about me. I thought it would just be a goofy show, but when I got into it, I discovered that it had become personal, much to my chagrin. I had a long-distance girlfriend in college, so I knew what that was like. I related more to Eric, the obsessed boyfriend at home, having lived to live through his girlfriend going to college. But I was a lot like Steven...kind of nerdy, but thinking I could pretend I was cool and convince people that I wasn’t a nerd, and they could always figure it out in about six days. And my parents were separated, so a lot of the stuff about Steven dealing with his dad’s newfound bachelorhood was taken from my life. But whenever you do these shows, the whole staff tells all their stories and it becomes an amalgam of everyone’s experiences.
BE: Opening all their own wounds.
BE: Well, to wrap up, I have my fingers crossed for “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” I’m totally psyched to see it.
JA: Oh, yeah, you’re gonna love it. It’s one of those things where you can’t believe it came out so well. Sometimes I tell people, when I’m describing it, that it’s like the best dirty episode of “Undeclared” ever made. (Laughs)
BE: And I saw on the Internet Movie Database where they refer to your next project as “Untitled Will Ferrell NASCAR Comedy.”
JA: Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do next. I’m going to North Carolina in three weeks to shoot our follow-up to “Anchorman,” which is called “High, Wide, and Handsome,” about NASCAR.
BE: Excellent; I’m right around the corner, in Virginia. Well, thanks for finally getting up with me, and sorry about the delay because of my convoluted schedule lately.
JA: Hey, no problem. Congratulations, and good luck to you.
BE: And to you as well.