Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety‘s managing editor of television, Cynthia Littleton, talks with multi-hyphenate Judd Apatow on how he’s found success in helping others craft intimate comedies such as HBO’s “Girls” and “Crashing” and Netflix’s “Love” and “Lady Dynamite.” He also discusses how producing the HBO documentary “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” helped him process his grief at the loss of his friend and mentor, and as the 20th anniversary of “Freaks and Geeks” premiere approaches next year, Apatow explains why he has no desire to work in broadcast TV again.
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“There is nothing that has made my life better than not working for network television,” Apatow says. “It’s creativity with a gun to your head. They can cancel you at any moment.” By contrast, his experience in the commercial-free world of HBO and Netflix has been far more gratifying because they typically stick with a show for a full season before making the call to renew or cancel. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of your series and Ted Sarandos walks on the set and says ‘Unplug it.’ You’re getting to finish at least,” Apatow says.
The marketplace for creatives couldn’t be more buoyant these days with the influx of spending on original content by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others. For Apatow, the issue is not whether he can sell projects but how selective he needs to be in deciding how to allocate his most precious resource — his time. At present, his Apatow Productions banner is a free-agent in television, while he has a first-look directing deal for features with Universal Pictures.
“A danger of this situation is that a lot of people are over-extended. Where’s the quality control,” He says. “I have to focus on not extending myself to a place where I can’t do my best work because I made a deal where you have to deliver 11 series. That’s not really a place that I can create from. You only have so many hours in the day. You can only write so many jokes in a day, you can only read so many scripts in a day.”
Apatow has avoided offers in the past to be loosely involved in projects that only want to use his name for PR value. “I’m very uncomfortable having my name on things that I’m not like sweating blood for. The idea that ‘We’ll put your name on it and you’ll get a piece but you don’t really have to do nothing. I’m very uncomfortable because when things don’t come out well I’m so miserable.”
But he’s more than willing to bet on his instincts when it comes to pursuing projects. He invested his own money into the production of the four-hour “Zen Diaries” documentary before the project was bought by HBO. “I just decided that this needs to be made and someone will want to show it,” he says. The 2017 comedy “The Big Sick,” from Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, was in development at his company for years before Amazon bought it at the Sundance film festival. He knew the concept of the movie — a love story involving a clash of Western and Eastern cultures and a woman in a coma — was challenging.
“Luckily as a result of having the freedom and the time to write it correctly, when we did set it up it was very strong,” Apatow says. “Kumail and Emily never said ‘Can we have some money now?’ which is weird. They just wrote for years. Maybe they should have asked for money.”
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