Judd Apatow on Returning to Stand-Up Comedy After 25 Years

The first thing Judd Apatow does in his new stand-up special is tell the crowd that he has wanted to do this kind of show since he was a kid.

The second thing he does is joke about how famous he is.

“There’s a little bit of a freak show element to me doing it,” Apatow says of his act and the need to lead it off by addressing his Judd Apatow-ness. “If I ignored that it was weird that I was up there, the audience wouldn’t [listen to my act]. They would just want to know about me and my life.”

Apatow, who is nearing his 50th birthday, sits in a conference room at his production company’s L.A. office. Behind him are photos of the casts of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Girls,” two of his best-loved TV shows. To his left is a whiteboard bearing story notes for season three of one of the current series he executive produces, HBO’s “Crashing.” The giant TV at the front of the room has just been turned off after playing footage from an upcoming HBO documentary series he directed about his mentor, Garry Shandling. For more than a decade, Apatow has been one of comedy’s most prolific writer-producer-directors — and probably its most influential. Now he has decided to be a stand-up comedian again.

“Judd Apatow: The Return,” which premieres Dec. 12 on Netflix, was recorded in July at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal and culminates Apatow’s unlikely reunion with the form he abandoned decades ago. Weirdly, it was quitting stand-up that put Apatow on the path to becoming one of comedy’s grandmasters — finding so much success as a creator that when he began to dabble in performing again, the gates were thrown open to him in a way that they never were when he was young. It’s a little like basketball god Michael Jordan returning to play baseball — the sport he loved as a kid — if Jordan hadn’t sucked at baseball the second time around.

Apatow dove into stand-up as an 18-year-old in 1985 and spent seven years trying to break through. He earned a spot on HBO’s “Young Comedians Special” but believed he would never find the kind of success as a performer that peers such as Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey were enjoying — or that he would ever be as good as his idols, Shandling and George Carlin. When Fox in 1992 picked up “The Ben Stiller Show,” which he co-created, Apatow left stand-up.

“It felt like the universe was telling me to be a writer and producer,” he says.

The universe didn’t steer him wrong. In the 22 years between quitting stand-up and picking up the mic again, Apatow wrote and directed features “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Funny People,” “This Is 40” and “Trainwreck.” He executive produced “Freaks and Geeks,” “Girls,” “Love” and “Crashing” for TV and produced “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Bridesmaids” and “The Big Sick” for the big screen. In the process he’s launched or bolstered the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Paul Rudd, Kumail Nanjiani and his own wife, Leslie Mann. He’s also launched and bolstered two actress daughters, Maude, 19, and Iris, 15.

Apatow had done a few stand-up sets while writing 2009’s “Funny People” as a way to workshop jokes for Sandler and Rogen’s characters, both comedians. But it was in 2014, while working with Schumer on the screenplay for “Trainwreck,” that he began to flirt with the idea of standing up again in earnest.

Apatow says he was “terrible” at stand-up 25 years ago. “No one was nice to me when I started out.”
Lloyd Bishop

“Amy would come back from the road to have writing sessions with me, and it just sounded like so much fun,” he says. “It reminded me that that’s all I ever wanted to do. I was seeing her get more and more successful and building this great audience for herself. And on some level I just got jealous and thought, ‘I used to do that.’”

“Trainwreck” shot in New York, where Apatow owns an apartment that’s walking distance from the Comedy Cellar. “One night when we were in prep for ‘Trainwreck,’ I said to Amy, ‘I’m going to go onstage at the Comedy Cellar just to make you laugh, so you can see what it was like when I did it.’”

Schumer and her sister Kim Caramele gave Apatow premises for stand-up jokes. “Oddly, it went well,” he says. “It annoyed Amy. She really wanted to watch me bomb and suffer.”

The club invited him to come back anytime. “So I took advantage of that,” he says. “They were so nice to me — and no one was nice to me when I started out.” During shooting on “Trainwreck,” Apatow would end most of his days performing at the Comedy Cellar. “It really felt like I was funnier all day with Amy as a result of doing these sets. It was just firing up a part of my brain that had been asleep.”

When he returned to L.A., he continued performing. He built up enough of an act to perform at Just for Laughs in 2016. The last show, which he headlined, was attended by several Netflix executives; Apatow was offered a special on the spot. He asked for a year to hone the act first.

In the year that followed, he worked on new seasons of “Love” and “Crashing,” on the Shandling project (“I thought if O.J. Simpson is worth seven hours, Garry’s got to be worth at least four”) and on another HBO documentary, “May It Last,” about the band the Avett Brothers. But stand-up moved from hobby to priority. He performed almost every evening, starting most nights with a spot at the Improv, then heading to The Comedy Store to do each of its three rooms. He would sometimes go back to the Improv for the late show. He also performed at the Laugh Factory and at Nanjiani and Jonah Ray’s Meltdown Comics show.

“I think maybe the most astounding thing about Judd is that he’s doing so many things — working on several TV shows, producing movies — and still manages to have a triumphant return to stand-up,” says “Crashing” creator and star Pete Holmes. “It’s really annoying. I can only do one thing at a time.”

 Apatow doesn’t flatter himself when asked about the stand-up he performed in his 20s.

“I was terrible,” he says. “I look back, and there’s so little to be proud of. And I was getting on TV; it shows you the low standards.”

Having grown up on Long Island, he admired comics like Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.

“There were a lot of great comedians who grew up not too far from where I grew up,” he says. “But I loved it more than I was good at it.” He ascribes his failings to “insecurity and also the result of being really young, having no strong opinions and no life experience. So I was aware that I needed something to do a better act, and now that I’m about to turn 50, I have those things.”

He has them in spades. Apatow’s act as captured in “The Return” is highly personal. He jokes about his relationship with Mann and how much more attractive she is. He leans into over-the-top impressions of his teenage daughters. Much of what he offers is classic dad-and-husband humor.

But much of it also is about Apatow’s odd celebrity. He’s no Franco. But as a producer and shepherd of comedy talent, he has achieved a celebrity shared by no one else in his station save Lorne Michaels. That fame is fueled in part by how much of his personal life is in so much of his work. Mann has starred in several of his movies — as have Maude and Iris, usually playing Mann’s character’s daughters. Maude, once the subject of a New York Times profile about her status as a social-media influencer, had a recurring role on “Girls.” Iris is recurring on “Love.”

“What I learned quickly doing stand-up was that people seemed amused to see me,” he says. “What was happening was they felt like they knew me already from watching the movies, and that the stand-up was an extension of what they already knew about me. Once I tapped into that, it all became easier.”

“It really felt like I was funnier all day with Amy [Schumer] as a result of doing these sets. It was just firing up a part of my brain that had been asleep.”
Judd Apatow

In “The Return,” Apatow merges two seemingly conflicting themes — one that he is a family man with regular problems, the other that he is a Hollywood poobah surrounded by famous women. At one point in the show, he displays a photo of himself, Mann and President Obama to set up a joke about his marriage. He closes with a story about Iris acting like a very stereotypical teenage daughter in a very rarefied setting.

“I feel like my life is basically the same as everybody else’s,” he says. “We all have a family that we’re trying to make function. All the issues that our kids have at each stage are the same. And the fact that ‘Knocked Up’ did well does not make anything easier when it comes to your kids and trying to make your family work.”

Not all the jokes are domestic. If Apatow lacked strong opinions in his 20s, he certainly has them now. He was a vocal critic of Bill Cosby at a time when many in the entertainment business were hesitant to address mounting rape allegations against the aging comic. He has been no less vocal in his criticism of President Trump, he of the “Access Hollywood” tape.

“I tried to be very careful to do stuff that I thought might hold up for a little while,” Apatow says. “But I also thought, ‘I’m outraged by everything Donald Trump is doing,’ so I can’t do a special and not make that statement with a few jokes. And I am outraged by Bill Cosby.”

In the months since the special was taped, stories of sexual assault and harassment have taken over the news cycle, spurred by the allegations against disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein. “That’s changed the core problem with this,” Apatow says. “This was always in the shadows, and it’s not in the shadows anymore, so now people have to deal with it.”

Apatow, meanwhile, is at an inflection point. His documentaries are wrapped, and season three of “Love” soon will be as well. Work is just beginning on the third season of “Crashing,” yet Apatow’s dance card is less full than usual. He wants to direct another feature soon. But having battled with network and studio executives in his early TV days, he sees lots of upside in that medium at this moment.

“The real question is how much television to pursue,” he says. “There’s so much creative freedom; it’s quite irresistible.”

There’s also stand-up. He still performs at clubs twice a week, keeping his foot in the door. He may step through again.

“I’d like to generate another act,” he says. “It just makes me really happy, with all the things that are happening in the news every night, to be able to get up and talk about it and be with people. Because that’s the best part of comedy — hearing people laugh and being part of a moment with an audience. It sounds corny, but that really was my dream. I’m so happy that people haven’t told me to stop.”

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