“I feel like I have enough work now that, if I died, my ‘in memorium’ reel would be impressive,” joked Judd Apatow as he took to the stage of the Film Society of Lincoln Center Monday night for a loosely structured chat with one of his most devoted artistic collaborators, “Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham. The 90-minute talk about life, art and the business of being funny capped the Film Society’s weeklong Apatow retrospective leading up to the release of his Amy Schumer comedy, “Trainwreck,” which opens Friday.
“When you don’t write, it’s only half the work,” Apatow mused of the new film, which he directed from Schumer’s original script, in a response typical of an evening that alternated between writer’s-room zingers and more serious reflections by both participants on the creative processes. In comparing their respective approaches to writing, Apatow observed that “Lena loves to write. When she’s having a bad day, she’ll go write to feel better. For me, writing feels like facing a mirror that is telling me all of my unworthiness.”
Still, Apatow added, he prefers writing to most other activities, including any kind of sports or exercise. “I don’t like sweating. I don’t like moving fast. I don’t like counting. And I take no pride in physical feats, whereas I do take pride in writing a new boner joke,” he said. “That’s my four-minute mile.”
Surprising no one who follows either filmmaker on social media, the conversation turned at several points to the ongoing Bill Cosby scandal. “He must know by now about you,” Dunham prodded Apatow, before revealing that she was largely unfamiliar with the cultural legacy of “The Cosby Show” when the comedian’s rape allegations first surfaced, having spent her ’80s youth more devoted to other sitcoms of the era. “It’s interesting, because to me Bill Cosby is just a rapist,” she said, then playfully admonished a journalist in the crowd taking notes. “Don’t write that down. Don’t f–k with us.” (Asked later if she would consider participating in a hypothetical Comedy Central roast of Cosby, Dunham responded, “If Bill Cosby agreed to be roasted on a spit, I would participate.”)
Apatow then launched into the spot-on Cosby impression he’s been road-testing in a series of recent standup comedy gigs, and pulled out a yellow legal pad to try some additional jokes on the sold-out crowd in advance of his set on “The Tonight Show” next Monday. Having abandoned his fledgling standup career as a young man when he realized he wasn’t as funny as his then-roommate, Adam Sandler, Apatow said he feels reinvigorated to be back onstage, citing the instant gratification of interacting with a live audience versus the years-long process of making a movie.
Dunham, meanwhile, praised “Trainwreck” as “really great feminist art” and said she hoped it would silence any lingering impressions (stemming from comments made by “Knocked Up” star Katherine Heigl in a widely quoted 2007 Vanity Fair interview) that Apatow doesn’t feature strong female characters in his work. “I never understood the idea that I was the ‘dude guy,’” Apatow responded, noting that, as a young comedy fan in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was perplexed that a comic as gifted as Gilda Radner couldn’t land better movie roles. But he was also quick to praise collaborators like Schumer, Dunham and “Bridesmaids” scribes Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for their invaluable distaff perspective. “As a guy, I can’t say that I understand women well enough to not have strong collaborators,” he said. “I couldn’t do that stuff by myself.”
Apatow, an executive producer and occasional writer on “Girls,” hailed Dunham for the honesty and candor of her work, citing the Season 2 storyline in which her character is revealed to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an affliction that Dunham herself has battled since childhood. “I couldn’t imagine a world in which other people would want to share that experience,” said Dunham, adding that Apatow insisted she keep the storyline when she began to have second thoughts. Apatow also offered a cryptic hint about his and Dunham’s future plans together, stating that “we don’t know exactly when ‘Girls’ will end, but, uh, let’s say it’s not forever,” and lavishing praise on a new feature script Dunham had recently shown him.
As the evening drew to a close, Apatow and Dunham fielded an audience question about the need for not just gender but racial diversity in the overwhelmingly white Hollywood system. “I think it’s essential that we as artists/viewers/producers keep pushing the ball forward,” said Dunham, who cited her own efforts on “Girls” to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of New York itself, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
“It takes a concerted effort by the people in power to make that happen,” added Apatow. “There shouldn’t just be one Kevin Hart. There should be 15 Kevin Harts.”