Judd Apatow, who receives Variety’s Creative Leadership Award today, has almost singlehandedly spearheaded a new generation of comedic talent.
The writer/director/producer has mentored many of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, including Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, both of whom Apatow met while they were teenagers, as well as Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Lena Dunham and others. In addition to fostering their creativity, he has often put his money where his mouth is by serving as producer on their film and television projects.
Apatow swears he is merely passing on what was so generously given to him by his famous and not-so-famous mentors throughout his life, starting as a high school student in Long Island, N.Y.
“It feels natural to me to want to mentor people because people were kind enough to do it for me when I was young. It just feels like what you do,” Apatow says. “I meet somebody like Seth Rogen [or] Jason Segel, and I think, ‘Wow, that person’s really talented and they don’t understand exactly how the business works yet because they’re not even 20 years old.’ Maybe I can tell them some of the things I know to make their life less painful.”
Casting director Allison Jones, who has worked with Apatow since his first series, 1999’s “Freaks & Geeks,” credits him with a confidence that allows him to embrace his intuition. She has seen him give auditioning actors “second and third chances” because he saw a spark in them that he felt he could help develop.
“His faith in actors is everything,” she says. “He takes big chances, trusts his instincts about their instincts, pushes everyone and wants to hear new stuff all the time. He loves comedy performers of all kinds, and he is never wrong. Ever.”
Apatow’s first inkling that comedy could be a big part of his life came as a young boy, when he saw comedienne Totie Fields, who was a friend of his grandparents. “It was powerful because she had one of her legs amputated due to complications from diabetes, and she went on this comeback tour and tore down the house,” he says. “She was getting so much appreciation and approval even though she was this hilarious, odd woman in a wheelchair. As kind of a nerdy kid who felt like a bit of an underdog, that had a big impression on me: Comedy could be my way out.”
That notion was reinforced in high school by two teachers. His English teacher, Mrs. Farber, told him, “You could be a writer like Woody Allen,” after he turned in “an insane essay that she should have been angry about.” Then, Jack DeMasi, who oversaw the high school radio station, gave the students free rein to interview celebrities. Apatow, who worked as a dishwasher at the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington so he could be near the comics, began interviewing them for the radio station. Among the 50 or so comedians he talked to were John Candy, Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Sandra Bernhard and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
“Anybody who had information about how to be a comic, I would try to talk to,” Apatow says, admitting, “I didn’t air most of the interviews because I didn’t care about other people hearing them. To me, that was my college education.” Seinfeld schooled him on digging through the different angles to get to the joke. Harold Ramis talked to him about how to write screenplays.
After Apatow dropped out of USC’s screenwriting program, he started honing his standup career at Jamie Masada’s famous Laugh Factory on Sunset Blvd. Comedian Kevin Rooney took him under his wing. “I would be on the road with him, and he was nice enough to tell me how to make my act better and to be brutally frank about it,” Apatow says.
Rooney also helped Apatow submit monologue jokes to Jay Leno, which he would buy if he liked them. “One night I’m home, I live with my grandmother and mother, and I’m 19 years old, and the phone rings and Jay Leno is calling me. Maybe it’s 11 at night — it was really late. And they said Jay Leno is on the phone!” Apatow says. “He basically said, ‘None of these jokes are exactly right, but you’re close,’ and he took a few minutes to tell me what was wrong with the jokes. … It meant a lot to me that he read the jokes and that he was honest with me. I appreciate that he told me they weren’t good and he told me why.”
After these fleeting exchanges, Apatow met his most enduring mentor, Garry Shandling. Apatow’s manager suggested to Shandling that Apatow help him write jokes for the 1991 Grammy Awards, which he was hosting. Shandling didn’t say much at the initial meeting, but called Apatow a few months later and asked for his assistance.
“It was right at the beginning of the first Gulf War. It was a very strange time,” Apatow says. “I sat up all night and I wrote 100 jokes for him because I thought, ‘I need to make myself indispensable to him.’?” Shandling liked the material so much, he invited Apatow to join him in New York to help out the night of the Grammys.”That led to a relationship that lasts to this day,” he says.
Shandling hired Apatow to write for “The Larry Sanders Show” and Apatow ascended up the ladder to director. Along the way, Shandling taught Apatow to write comedy that is character-driven, which became the bedrock of Apatow’s own work. “He used to say, ‘?”The Larry Sanders Show” is about people who love each other, but show business gets in the way.’ And I had never thought about concepts like that before,” Apatow says. “These stories being about love and obstacles to love. It was all new to me. Everything that I’ve done since has been a result of what Garry taught me.”
Now that he has the clout and means to do so, Apatow goes far beyond sending his proteges into the world to fend for themselves. He often produces their projects as he continues to shepherd them through their craft.
“There are 1,000 minefields in front of you when you’re trying to make a film, so one good thing about my standing in the community is I can protect younger people because the studios trust that I’ll be hard on them and push them to do their best work,” he says. “You can’t do good work if your vision is watered down too much. So I think one of the reasons some of these people have succeeded is because we’ve found a way to have a really great relationship with the studios, where their input is taken very seriously, but at the same time, they have trust in me helping synthesize all of these ideas so that the movies actually work well.”
For Apatow, it all comes down to creating projects with his favorite people: “The most exciting part of my job is getting to collaborate with all of these people. I get so much out of it,” he says. “Spending time with people like Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo and Lena Dunham and Seth and Jason, I get completely invigorated by them. I’ve learned as much from them as they’ve learned from me. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”
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