'Funny People' director talks Sandler, TV

Variety speaks with “Funny People” director Judd Apatow about the virtues of unemployment, why TV is a disaster and the inviolability of the goofy guy-hot girl dynamic. Universal Pictures opens “Funny People” on 3,000 screens July 31.

VARIETY: The Apatow brand is a force right now. Do you feel like the Godfather at this point, running all of these comedic operations?

JUDD APATOW: (Laughs) I never really think of it in those terms. If I have any leverage, then I try to help out my friends and colleagues. My main intention is to work with people who I think are great and to help them avoid the difficult part of the business.

Q: How many scripts do you read in a given week?

A: It’s funny, I don’t read that many scripts and I don’t really take submissions. I like working with a writer when they have an idea and helping them figure out how to develop it. We had a very busy period because we couldn’t get movies made for several years, so we kept writing scripts because we were all unemployed (laughs). Then we have this gangbusters period where we had a bevy of great scripts, but now that’s passed so we’re kind of scaling back. In fact, after “Funny People,” I only have one movie next year. (Apatow’s producing “Get Him to the Greek,” starring Russell Brand.)

Q: You started off in television and despite critical acclaim, all of your projects were eventually cancelled. Do you think you can ever go down that road again?

A: I really enjoyed single-camera comedy or dramedy. At the time, they were a lot rarer than they are now. And I think it’s a great time to do it again, but no, I don’t have any plans to do it in the near future.

Q: Scripted programming, especially on network TV, is nearly extinct, whereas cable is thriving. Why do you think that is?

A: It’s probably because those shows are more suited for cable. I think you can do better work when you don’t have the language and behavior restrictions that network television presents. So if you look at television not as network television but just as, “Are there good shows?” it’s a better time now than ever in the history of television. “Mad Men” is on at AMC; “Hung’s” at HBO; everything is spread out on different channels, so it’s painful for networks. But the audience doesn’t care at all because it takes them four seconds to click over.

TV is a disaster because the creative people have the threat of extinction hanging over their head and the networks use it to manipulate the creative side. And I think that dynamic is very destructive. How do you say “no” to network notes when they say they can take you off the air if you don’t listen? It’s much easier with a movie: You hand in the script and if they disagree with you, then they don’t make it.

Q: Your ex-roommate, Adam Sandler, stars as a stand-up comic in “Funny People.” What were you guys like back in your early twenties?

A: Every waking hour was spent trying to figure out how to create an opportunity for ourselves. We lived in an incredibly cheap apartment and there wasn’t an enormous amount of pressure to make money. I was writing for other comics and working at a Comic Relief benefit during the day and Adam was a VJ on MTV and had appeared on a few episodes on “The Cosby Show,” so most of our time we were either goofing around or trying to figure out if we had enough courage to write a screenplay.

Q: There’s a lot of familiar Apatow faces in “Funny People.” Is that a comfort thing to you, casting friends and family? 

A: I think some great work has happened because people were intimate collaborators, whether it’s Scorsese, John Cassavetes movies or Woody Allen films, a lot of these people were friends or were married. So when they’re more comfortable around each other, sometimes they can reveal more of themselves on film and that’s what we intended to do with this project.

Q: It seems with each movie you’ve done, from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Knocked Up,” emotions are getting deeper. Do you ever see yourself directing a drama? 

A: I don’t, because I think that there’s no part of life that doesn’t make me laugh. My goal is to talk about things that are important to me. But I think when the stakes are high, people care more and they laugh more. I rarely think about it like serious vs. laughter; instead, I’m trying to remain passionate about the subject matter and hopefully we got it right this time around.

Q: Although everyone seemed to love “Knocked Up,” you always hear the comment, “There’s no way she would’ve fallen for a guy like that!” It was even the topic of discussion on a recent episode of “Entourage.” What’s your response to this?

A: I thought it was great on “Entourage” because it’s a wonderful self-referential joke. Goofy guys on “Entourage” debating whether or not goofy guys can get hot girls when those guys have been getting gorgeous girls for the last half a decade! (Laughs) The whole subject is ridiculous. I’m in my Manhattan hotel room right now and can walk outside and, within minutes, could see 25 couples in which one person is insanely better looking than the other. I mean, that aspect has been in movies for years. Take Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” Better yet, look at me! All I have to do is take a look at my wife in the other room! So I don’t think odd-looking couples are a new thing or even a myth. Unless, of course, I’ve gotten incredibly handsome and nobody’s told me.

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