Judd Apatow did stand-up. Before he became one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, before he started producing every other comedy released in theaters, before he co-created Freaks and Geeks, before he wrote for The Critic and The Larry Sanders Show, before he teamed up with Ben Stiller to create The Ben Stiller Show for Fox all the way back in 1992, Judd Apatow did stand-up. And then he stopped. For a very long time.
Today Netflix releases Apatow’s first hour-long stand-up special, Judd Apatow: The Return. It’s the result of a slow-rolling return to stand-up that started three years ago, as one of the biggest names in comedy returned to a form that most people never knew he did. Paste recently talked to Apatow about his return (and The Return), as well as the shamelessness of the Republican party and the current wave of sexual misconduct revelations crashing down on almost industry, including comedy. Today we talk about comedy and his return to stand-up; tomorrow we’ll share his thoughts on Louis C.K., Dave Becky, Donald Trump and the GOP tax bill.
Paste: Why was this the right time to get back into stand-up?
Apatow: I don’t think there ever is a right time. I just thought now is as good a time as any. I was working on Trainwreck with Amy [Schumer] and she was doing stand-up all the time and I started thinking about how much I love stand-up and how much I miss doing it and miss being part of the stand-up community. So when we shot Trainwreck I’d go to the Comedy Cellar every night and do stand-up at the end of the day. I felt like being forced to be that in the moment and to write jokes every day made me funnier and sharper when I was directing Trainwreck. It just felt like a healthy thing to do for me. And I really loved doing it. So when I was done shooting I said ‘I’m gonna keep working on this.’
Paste: Trainwreck was the first movie you directed that you didn’t write, correct?
Apatow: That’s true.
Paste: Do you think you needed a creative outlet for your writing while you were making this movie you didn’t write yourself?
Apatow: It’s possible. In a lot of ways my stand-up is an extension of This is 40 or Knocked Up. It’s just another way for me to express certain ideas and observations about life. Stand-up is just a monologue form, I don’t try to turn it into a scene or some big story. I also like talking to people. You get really stale if you’re just sitting in your house all day long, and having a conversation with actual crowds and seeing what makes them laugh and seeing what concerns them makes you better at everything else you’re doing.
Paste: The special is out on Netflix. They’ve put out a new stand-up special every week this year. Do you think that there’s too much stand-up out in the world right now?
Apatow: I don’t know. I’m happy that great work is being done. I can see why it’s a little overwhelming, but I must say, every day when I turn on my TV and I’m looking for something to stream, I usually can’t find anything I want to watch. So overall I don’t think we’re at Peak TV because I couldn’t find a program the other night, and I just watched an old episode of Dateline.
Paste: Other than streaming and Netflix providing far more outlets for work, and there being more working comics than ever before, how has the stand-up world changed since you last did it regularly?
Apatow: I think it’s a much more educated group of comedians. When I used to do it it was before the internet. Only the military was using the internet at that time. Now you have people who have had the ability to watch everything in the history of comedy, because you can just look it up on YouTube. As a result I think people are much more sophisticated. They dig much deeper. They’re much more innovative. So overall it’s an incredible time for comedy.
Paste: How long has it been since you last regularly performed stand-up?
Apatow: ‘92 was when I stopped. I did the HBO Young Comedians special in 1992, with Andy Kindler, Bill Bellamy, Janeane Garofalo, Ray Romano and Nick DiPaulo. Dana Carvey hosted. Right around that time The Ben Stiller Show got picked up. I created that with Ben Stiller, and I got so busy working on the show I didn’t have any ability to go do stand-up. And then I just thought, well, it seems like the universe wants me to be a writer more than a performer, and I just stayed with the writing work.
Paste: It’s interesting how, despite, what, only 12 episodes, you can see The Ben Stiller Show’s influence coursing throughout comedy throughout the ‘90s and afterward.
Apatow: Ben was a real visionairy. He looked at Saturday Night Live and SCTV and the short films of Albert Brooks and came up with a very sophisticated, cinematic approach to comedy. And now that’s what most of comedy is. But when he was doing it, nobody took the cinematic aspect as seriously. We would do sketches that were making fun of a movie, and we would go to the actual locations where they shot the movie. And a lot of the sketches were really imaginative, but also beautiful. We used to say the show was like SCTV if they had money.
Paste: How long did it take you to feel really comfortable once you started doing stand-up again?
Apatow: It probably took me almost a year to feel comfortable and to figure out how I would write for myself. There was a moment when I realized, ‘oh, I’m finally able to sit down and write, I know what my voice is now.’ That took a little while. When I was doing stand-up, Garry Shandling came to see me one night and said, ‘you know, you’re doing great. The only time you’re not is when you’re trying to act like a comedian.’ And I thought that was the best advice I ever could’ve gotten, because it means just be yourself. Keep stripping away all the artifice until it’s just you.
Paste: I think a lot of people in your position might feel uncomfortable talking about their success and wealth, but you’re able to joke about it without making you seem less relatable or less human.
Apatow: I’ve just stumbled into a business that is doing well. I could’ve been somebody who loved playing the spoons. That’s what this feels like, I’m somebody who loves playing the spoons, and for some reason the whole country decided that they love spoon players. I was going to do all of this regardless of what it paid. I actually don’t have any interest in anything where I would blow my money. I’m not like Donald Trump, I don’t think that life is only great if I have a gold helicopter. The only thing I really want to spend money on is downloading music and buying books I probably won’t read.
Paste: How does your daughter feel about your impression of her?
Apatow: She doesn’t really sound anything like that, so she knows it’s exaggeration for comedic effect. Also both of those jokes I wrote when she was 13, and she’s 15 now, so it’s almost like I’m talking about a bygone era. She’s seen it a lot, she always finds it funny. I ask her if she wanted to see the special and I told her I would take out any jokes if she didn’t like them, and she said that she did not want to see the special, due to a remarkable lack of interest. The key to all those stories is that she’s usually correct, and it is more about the fact that in the modern world I don’t know what I’m supposed to do to protect my children from the internet, from technology. They’re all so much smarter, so much more knowing way earlier, and it’s very difficult to navigate, so it’s much more about my panic than it is about her.
Paste: What comedy does 15 year olds watch today? Is it all just on YouTube?
Apatow: My daughter Iris loves The Office. That’s her favorite show of all time. She’s also a giant fan of Parks & Rec. She has very good taste.
Paste: Do you have to stop yourself from trying to force her to watch the stuff you liked growing up?
Apatow: I can not get my kids to sit down and watch The Odd Couple. I wish they would sit down with a big box set of M.A.S.H. and enjoy it with me, but for some reason they don’t look that far backwards. You can get them to watch shows from the last five or six years, but to them watching 30 Rock is basically like watching The Honeymooners. There’s so much new content coming out every day that they don’t hunger for the classics. They don’t say ‘you know what, I’m going to binge All in the Family.’ It doesn’t happen. I wish that it would, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Look for the second part of our interview with Judd Apatow tomorrow.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.