Funny People: Interview with Writer/Director Judd Apatow

“Funny People,” directed by Judd Apatow and starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, is being released July 31, 2009 by Universal Pictures.

“As a person working in comedy I often think, ‘Why do I do this? What’s wrong with me? What led me here?’” reveals Apatow.

Drawing Inspiration

As he began to write Funny People, he drew inspiration from a freak, life-changing occurrence that happened at his Southern California home in 1994. “When the Northridge earthquake hit, my chimney fell through the roof of my bedroom,” explains the director. “The only reason I wasn’t there was because I was painting the house. For about three days, I really appreciated life… but just for three days. The movie is based on that idea: If you survive, do you learn anything from it that you keep using in your life?”

There were also more intimate reasons that
prompted Apatow to create a screenplay in which his protagonist realizes he is dying. He offers, “In recent years, I’ve had people in my life who have been ill. You see how those who know they’re sick struggle with how to live. They also look at how they feel about the way they lived before they got sick.”

He found it sobering to see that people weren’t
always thrilled with the results of the self-examination and could easily begin to revert to old habits. “When people get better, I wondered if they can take that fear, terror and opportunity to understand what’s important in life and use it. Or are they thrown by the fact that it’s really hard, and a week later, they’re back on the same treadmill?”

For the primary comedians in his story, he imagined George Simmons, a superstar struck with a rare form of leukemia who is forced to reevaluate his life, and Ira Wright, the up-and-coming comic who idolizes George and whom George reluctantly mentors. “I’ve had a lot of people who have been kind and mentored me, so I understand that relationship,” the director says. “They were kind, generous, normal comedians, some of whom were brilliant. But I thought, ‘What if one of those comedians I knew was not very nice and had really serious problems?’ George and Ira are a fabricated version of that scenario.”

Dealing with Death

Once he’d assembled his team, the director took a moment to reflect how this might become the defining project of his career to date. “My whole life has been about family and comedy and my friendships and relationships with funny people,” Apatow offers. “It’s all in this film, especially when you add into it life-or-death issues and how people decide to live when they’re dying and when they get better.”

The two friends discussed how George lives an existence that either—or both—of them could have reached if, “we never got married and we went crazy,” says Apatow. “At the film’s core is our dark sense of humor…us at our worst.”

Shooting Sandler

About filming Sandler, he adds: “I didn’t talk a lot with Adam about the movie’s darker aspects. I knew he’s a great actor who is brave and willing to be emotionally available, and I trusted his instincts. There were moments when I needed to push something or ask for a little more or less, but his struggle with those emotions is what the movie’s about.”

Apatow was surprised by his reaction
when filming key scenes for Funny People with Sandler. “When we shot the scenes where Adam was sick, it was just devastating,” he relates. “I’m used to doing somewhat light comedy, and we would show up on set and suddenly we had to think, ‘How do we make this feel like a guy is really going to die?’ Then you realize Adam has to go there. He was performing a scene, and I was at the monitor trying to stand in a way that no one could see I was crying on the set. At the same time, some of the dramatic scenes that were the hardest to shoot had the biggest laughs because it’s happening to a comedian. His way of coping is by making jokes.”

Apatow adds that it was amusing to see his old friend a
his wife act as though they were a couple that broke up 12 years ago. One unexpected reaction from his actors was how their close friendship affected their performance on camera. Says the director: “Leslie so adores Adam that pretending he’s sick devastated her the very first time they rehearsed. She’s so committed and doesn’t always see herself as a comedy person; she just plays it real. In that first rehearsal, just thinking about Adam dying reduced her to tears. So, right off the bat, she forced everyone to go to that level.”

Joke Writing Sessions

There have been two different approaches to the company’s joke-writing sessions, says Apatow. “George is a star, and whenever he’s on stage people are excited to see him; he knows what he’s doing and is really funny. On the opposite side of that, Ira is struggling to figure out who he is and how to be funny. Our approach was to let Seth write the best jokes he could, and then we deconstructed them and screwed them up. A great joke told without confidence will bomb, and a great joke told by
someone you don’t know who screws up the set up will not get a reaction. Once we had all of Seth’s great jokes, we found ways for him to ruin them.”

Apatow walks us through the process for the
writing sessions. “We wrote the jokes by getting a few really good comedy writers, like BRIAN POSEHN and Patton Oswalt and ALLEN COVERT, who writes with Adam a lot. Also, co-producers ANDREW JAY COHEN and BRENDAN O’BRIEN had a ton of stuff they contributed to help Seth and Jonah out with their jokes. We had these bull sessions where we wrote jokes and gave them to the guys; sometimes Seth and Adam were there. At the end of the day, most of it was written by Seth and Adam. We came up with some great areas, but they still know what they do better than anybody.”

Incorporating Authentic Stand-Up

While shooting the scenes in which his actors performed stand-up, the director let their acts continue uninterrupted. Apatow explains his rationale: “When you see stand-up in movies, usually all of it’s good. Even if the jokes are bad, they are presented like they’re good; everything’s getting a big laugh, and it feels very cut down. They cut right to the heart of the joke, and you don’t get the awkward pauses before and after a joke. What I went for was to capture what a comedy club actually feels like.”

The only way he could do that was to bring in a
crowd and have his performers do 25-minute sets. The director continues: “There are sections of the movie in which you see Ira get better; he’s more personal and he’s evolving. Those jokes needed to be different than earlier ones in the movie. It was the same for Adam during his big concert [at the Orpheum] where he’s trying to show Laura he is more mature; the jokes have to reflect he is able to have a serious relationship. I also shot their acts in four or five different comedy clubs. They gave 20 to 30 minutes of material from which we needed two or three minutes.”

Apatow admits what’s tricky about stand-up is
that the jokes have to be both funny and revealing of the characters’ inner lives. He explains: “George takes the difficult parts of his life and turns them into silly jokes. You hear him talk about a dark aspect of his childhood, and then later you see him do a joke that’s clearly inspired by it, but he’s not telling you the truth. He’s made it into something goofier than that.”