Photo: Suzanne Hanover/Universal Studios
Judd Apatow
“I outline these movies as dramas, and then I try to figure out how to make them funny. I have a sense that certain scenes will have humor in them, but if they're not serving the dramatic story, I don't put them in the movie.”
Real Funny
This Is 40’s Judd Apatow opens up about his insecurities, avoiding maturity, and why he feels one of the most important things about making a comedy isn’t the jokes.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(December 20, 2012)

Judd Apatow’s new film This Is 40 proves that, after an absurdly protracted adolescence, the writer-director-producer is indeed growing up. While the 15-year-old boy inside still picks the bulk of the jokes, the canny, contemplative 40-something is now fully in charge.

The two make a winning pair: the 40-something feels how fleetingly precious life, fatherhood, and children are, while the adolescent understands that a father avoiding his family by pretending to poop is funny.

It’s carrot and stick, brimstone and treacle, fart joke and drama.

Apatow made his comedy bones with TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and a string of hit, juvenile-male-leaning features like Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Knocked Up. As rife with dick and boob jokes as these films are, he has always buried true emotional centers within his work – whether it’s the resonant potential loss of a best friend that fuels Superbad or the not-so-funny ramifications of unplanned pregnancy that underpin Knocked Up.

This Is 40 goes further than arguably even his most “adult” film to date, Funny People. It gets dangerously close-to-home with his wife, Leslie Mann, starring as mother to their real-life daughters Maude and Iris. Paul Rudd proves a pitch-perfect “movie version” of the writer-director – though in the film family, he is a struggling veteran of the music biz.

Apatow spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about why one of the most important things about writing comedy isn’t the jokes, why Terms of Endearment is the movie he always looks to for inspiration, and why he sometimes wonders what the point is in what he’s doing.

(Read more about Judd Apatow and his process as a writer-director in the January 2013 issue of Written By.)

Years ago I interviewed Seth Rogan for Superbad and one of the ideas he said you instilled in him was that to write comedy well you have to first find an emotional thing that’s true to you and then worry about it being funny later.  

Photo: © 2012 Universal Studios
Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann in This Is 40.

That's true. I outline these movies as dramas, and then I try to figure out how to make them funny. I have a sense that certain scenes will have humor in them, but if they're not serving the dramatic story, I don't put them in the movie. Obviously, there's a part of me that's aware of the comedy all along but what was wrong with a lot of comedies in the past was that they were based on large comedic premises and not character work. Everything I always liked about characters [came from films like] Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Terms of Endearment. They were about these people that you fell in love with and because you cared about them the humor worked.

So are you saying that this is all based on Terms of Endearment?  

A lot of it is. That's the movie I always go back to because it's a comedy. It's a comedy about a family, and it's a comedy about cancer. When it was first in the theaters, it tore down the house, in addition to being very emotional. When movies accomplish that, those are my favorite.

I was going to ask, are you a closet dramatist who’s used hysterical fart jokes to mask your true skill?  

Well, you know, when I worked with Garry Shandling at The Larry Sanders Show, he always talked about trying to get to the truth, and that's all I really care about. I just personally find the truth to be very funny. You know, when I see a drama that doesn't have any humor at all, it always feels a little dishonest to me because there's always humor, no matter how awful or dark a situation is, and that's what interests me. Because in life you can have the happiest moments and be filled with joy and then moments later are completely awful, tense, and explosive. You know, life is very random that way. It just keeps switching back and forth. That's something that I try to capture in the way I told the story.

As absolutely funny as this film is – even silly in bits – did you know going into this that it was gonna be your most dramatic film, even next to Funny People?  

Well, the stakes couldn't be higher. There's nothing more important than your marriage and your family life. People carry a lot of baggage and demons into their relationships and sometimes when you're fighting with someone you're actually fighting with their history and that leads to some really volcanic conversations at times. When all the demons, all the voices come out, all the scared, hurt, wounded voices speak out loud in a fight, it can get really ugly. I find that ugliness to also be funny sometimes.

I enjoy showing people at their worst and their best because everybody is a mix of that. We all go off the rails sometimes. The trick for me as a writer is to find a way to shoot these scenes so, in post, I can determine how far to go so it seems really difficult and tense. I also have shot a fair amount of moments that can break the tension, and I never know how many of those I will need. In post, I start showing people the movie, and I get a feel for what the line is.

So obviously your writing process and your directorial process go hand-in-glove. You're really using the directorial process to finish writing the script.  

Yeah, it's all the same to me. The writing process never ends. From the moment I think of the idea until the sound mix, I'm writing. I do massive rewrites on the stage while we're shooting. A lot of people get confused, and they think what we're doing is improvisation. We play more in the rehearsal than we do on the set. The set is usually about seeing these scenes up on their feet, noticing what they need and doing very quick rewrites or just tossing out new lines as I'm watching the scene. Then I'll do a couple of takes where the actors get to play, but most of it happens in the rehearsals, which are a huge collaboration between me and the actors.

I actually watched this entire Conan O'Brien interview you did online.  

Oh yes, yes.

You talked about how you had written a spec Simpsons episode 22 years ago. It was supposedly the first thing you ever wrote. The story’s like Homer gets hypnotized and thinks he's a 10-year-old boy, becomes best friends with Bart, and then he doesn't want to go back to being an adult. You said in the interview you've essentially rewritten that story over and over.  

Yes, yeah.

How do you mean?  

Well, a lot of my work has been about people trying to avoid maturity and avoid responsibility. So it is weird to think that even as someone is in his early 20s I was thinking about that.

I mean I'm thinking about it now

You also discussed in this interview how 20-30 years ago being a comedy writer was not as venerable a vocation. Now it has become more of benchmark of professional success. Do you think at the end of the day that that's a good thing for comedy?  

I think so. I’m sure it was always a great job. I just don't know how many people in the '70s dreamed of being Lorenzo Music or Ed. Weinberger. They should have and I did, but this new generation [has] a lot of really media savvy kids who do want to be George Meyer or Conan O'Brien. If they pull it off, it's a great job and a great life, but there are still not that many jobs out there. There are way more qualified young people who have grown up loving comedy and just thought about doing it and prepared themselves in the same way I did as a kid.

As far as your actual writing process, generally where, when, and how do you write?  

I write during the day, bankers’ hours. I used to write in the middle of the night or I would procrastinate for seven hours, watch half a season of The Real World and then start writing, but when you're married and have children you have to find a way to schedule it. I remember reading these great lectures that David Milch gave – he might have given them to the Writers Guild – about how you have to learn to turn your creativity on and off and do it at a set time, and that all the time you think about writing when you're not writing is wasted time. That's just the kind of person I was. I would walk around all day with a notebook and write 24 hours a day.


And to hear him say, “Don’t think about it. If you sit down every day at your desk at the same time, you will train your brain that it's time to work and all of the ideas you've been thinking of unconsciously throughout the day will come to you.” I think what David Milch said [was], “Thinking about writing is like thinking about working out, exercising – there's no purpose to it.”

By the time you get to the gym you're exhausted.  

Yeah, you're not at the gym, so why think about it?

So now you're kind of doing bankers’ hours, you write on a computer, I assume.  

Yes, yes. I come up with hundreds of scenes and then I slowly create an outline. Usually I spend a lot of time writing the first 50 or 60 pages… then I try to write the rest of the movie in four or five days just to get to the end so I feel like I have a draft. Then I work from that draft and start rewriting for a very long time.

I bring the actors in very early, and I workshop – I'm very lucky that when I'm writing I usually know that we're really making the movie. I'm not trying to convince anyone to make movies, my process is a little easier because all of the decisions we're making are about what will make the movie work, they're not about trying to…

Sell it.  

…have a good read of it so they'll decide to make the movie. That makes the process much harder for people, “What will this guy think of my script?” You're not thinking, “How do I make the movie work well?”

What do you do when you're not funny and how often is that?  

When I'm not funny? I just write through it. I don't write with a big concern for the joke. I try to get the basic dramatic structure correct in the scene and then I start punching it out. Often if I write really fast I'll think of all sorts of strange ideas that I wouldn't write down if I was writing slower... So I'll ramble, say, a conversation for 10 or 12 pages, take a break and then highlight anything that seems like it has value, and then I'll construct the scene out of that.

You said another amazing thing in that sit-down – how there are times where you wonder about the point of comedy, the point of what you're doing, and even if comedy is a way to avoid the truth. There's even times when you get sick of everything, you get sick of stories, yourself, and all forms of modern entertainment. Does this strike you when you’re actually writing?  

Well, usually that doesn't happen when I’m writing and in the thick of it. It happens in between. My brain is just exhausted from having… from the attempt to make all of these stories and projects work. When you think about it a lot, you notice the repetition in storytelling. There's that old adage that there are only 20-something stories, and I have found that to be true.

I was listening to an interview on Fresh Air with Todd Solondz, the man who directed and wrote all those great movies like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. In a very long interview he didn't make one joke, and it was a wonderful interview. I realized I don't think I have the confidence to do that, to not try to make sure the other person likes me. I'm making a joke so that they can laugh to signal to me that they think I'm okay.

Every once in a while I'm embarrassed about that and then I wonder if that's what we're doing with the movies. But the truth is I don't think that's the case with movies. They challenge people and help them connect and feel less alone and laugh at this bizarre existence. So it's actually very important to laugh, but every once in a while I run out of gas.