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By Kevin Nelson · October 11, 2021
Judd Apatow is the kind of comedic visionary that comes along once or twice in a lifetime and completely changes the course of the film industry through his monumental impact. Perhaps his greatest strength is recognizing and surrounding himself with talented screenwriters, then giving them the opportunities to tell their stories by nurturing and working with them.
As a teenager, Apatow leaned into comedy after his parents divorced as a defense mechanism, finding comedy in the dark undertones of human misery and struggle. He even wrote a poem that he shared with Rolling Stone that eerily predicted his future. It showed his ability to laugh at the things that made him sad or might hurt him.
“Humor is everyone’s defense mechanism, so to remove it from art is dishonest, but sometimes people are afraid to show that. Will people be offended if I show the joke I made when something horrifying happened? But we all know that sometimes you have to make that joke to get through it.”
He likes to create characters that are a reflection of him. From childhood to being the king of comedy, Apatow has always felt like an outsider. Maybe that’s one of many reasons why his characters resonate so much with people. They’re goofy, deal with shame, and show a lot of the same insecurities that everyone feels daily.
Whether writing, directing, and producing the film himself or ushering in the latest voices of the comedy world, it’s clear Judd Apatow has made an enormous impact on comedy. In fact, he actively provides guidance to new generations of storytellers and filmmakers through his online Masterclass courses, as well as his Pro Talk on Coverfly Career Lab.
Let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn from the hilarious stories he’s brought to life.
After filming Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Apatow approached Steve Carrell to be a leading man. Based on an improv character that Carrell performed at Second City, the two wrote the screenplay together and the film served as Apatow’s directorial debut.
The protagonist, Andy, likes to stay behind the scenes. He’s a fixture in the store he works in but has no real relationships. He’s awkward, lonely, and is hiding a huge secret in plain sight. When his coworkers are short a man for poker night, they invite him over and once they start talking about sex, it’s clearly apparent that Andy has never had sex.
He and his coworkers go on a mission to get him laid, but he soon finds that what he’s really looking for is a deeper connection with someone. The comedy in the dialogue is found in the awkward nature of forging relationships, platonic and romantic, later in life. It starts with raunchy intentions but then transforms into a sweet love story about a man breaking out of his shyness.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Judd Apatow is known for recognizing, encouraging, and producing talented people. It’s a recurring theme in most of his breakout films. After working with Kristen Wiig in Knocked Up, Apatow asked Wiig if she had any ideas for screenplays much in the same way he asked Carrell. She turned to her friend, fellow actor and writer Annie Mumolo and they developed the idea behind Bridesmaids.
Kristen Wiig’s character Annie’s life is falling apart. Just when she feels she’s hit rock bottom, her best friend asks Annie to be the maid of honor at her wedding. It’s a film about the friendship between women — with all the insecurity, jealousy, and calamity that can ensue during the festivities leading up to a wedding.
The film broke ground as a woman-driven comedy that proved that leading ladies can tell dirty jokes, cuss, pull off gross-out gags, and make the entire audience laugh until they cry — no matter their preferred gender pronoun.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Another example of Judd Apatow supporting his collaborator’s visions, Superbad was the first feature screenplay written by childhood friend Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They started writing the initial pieces of the script when they were thirteen years old and based the narrative on their high school experience.
Superbad is the story of two best friends, Seth and Evan, as they wrap up their final days in high school. When Seth is invited by his crush to a party at her house and their third-wheeling friend reveals that he’s getting a fake ID, Seth promises to get booze. In an attempt to buy the alcohol, all hell breaks loose and the boys endure a hellish night in an attempt to get to the party and live out their best high school lives.
The boys are awkward in how they relate to and communicate with girls, while constantly finding themselves in extreme situations. Rogen and Goldberg are able to balance immaturity with sensitivity, vulgarity, and maturity, in order to offer an authentic one-night tale that shows what it’s like to be a white suburban teenager.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
By 2004, Apatow had several series and films with A-level talent attached under his belt, but his first huge hit was Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Anchorman served as Adam McKay’s directorial debut before he’d go on to win academy awards for his work in drama.
The comedic edge of Anchorman is that it parodies the era in which it’s set, from the misogyny to the cheesiness. Almost every line of dialogue and situation is laugh-inducing, the stupidity of the crass male characters are like caricatures, they’re ridiculous in every sense. Despite the main character’s flaws, he does evolve into a better person.
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“I think part of storytelling is people making terrible mistakes. So we’ve had plenty of characters who were idiots and our intention is always to have them learn a lesson and stop being a fool by the end of the movie.”
Jason Segel had worked with Judd Apatow since Freaks and Geeks in 1999, and the two would frequently work together over the years. In 2008 they teamed up again for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a romantic comedy written by Segel that turns so many tropes of the genre on their heads.
The protagonist, Peter, is comfortable with his life. He’s in love, he enjoys what he does — that is, until his girlfriend abruptly breaks up with him during a scene that also features full-frontal male nudity. Metaphorically, it’s like Peter is caught with his pants down, so why not have a serious conversation buck naked?
Of course, that’s just the setup of the joke — as Peter is caught again with his pants down when his new love interest expresses her feelings for him. It’s a great callback that works brilliantly as a sweet and endearing punchline, despite the nudity.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Written and directed by Apatow, This Is 40, is an unofficial sequel to Knocked Up. It’s a different kind of sequel in that it doesn’t follow the main characters of the original, but the supporting characters as they reach middle age and are knee-deep in parenthood. The writing is not afraid to confront what so many people are afraid to admit. Life’s hard, and sometimes it sucks.
Apatow has said:
“Everyone is stumbling blindly through life, trying to figure out how to live, find love, and work through their problems while being forced to learn along the way.”
Unlike Knocked Up or Funny People, This Is 40 doesn’t have a fateful inciting incident that turns the protagonists’ world upside down and propels them to make the change. This Is 40 is simply about living and accepting both the beauty and the hardships in the process.
The script holds a mirror up to the realities and pains of adulthood through sharp comedy that can sting because of the truth behind the jokes. It’s a story about two parents who are just barely holding it together.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Judd Apatow caught wind of Amy Schumer’s rising star while listening to Howard Stern. He was driving and was completely engaged by her personality. It helped that it fit his sensibility like a glove.
“She was talking about her dad having MS and what her relationship is like with him. It was very dark and sad, but also very sweet and hilarious and she clearly adores him. I thought, ‘This is a very unique personality and I’d like to see these stories in movies.’”
He and Schumer worked on another idea for about six months but ultimately circled back to a simpler story about her dating life. Apatow learned from Garry Shandling that, “The closer you are to the truth, the better the comedy will be.”
Trainwreck is a script that’s grounded in Schumer’s trademark blend of vulgarity and sharp observations.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Knocked Up was Apatow’s follow-up to The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, proving that his style of comedy was no fluke. The film is centered around a man-child who accidentally gets a woman pregnant after they have a one-night stand. Like many of Apatow’s characters, Ben Stone needs to grow up and take responsibility for his future.
When pregnancies occur by accident between strangers, it’s often a moment of anxiety and despair for those involved. It can seem like there are no right choices. Apatow tackles this topic with a brash comedic voice that relies on shock value and traditionally taboo themes yet still somehow seems sensitive and caring to the situation.
This was the first time that Apatow felt like he was comfortable enough to draw on his own life experiences for his material.
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“You get the most laughs when the audience recognizes themselves in your story or joke.”
Written, directed, and co-produced by Apatow, Funny People is an exercise in self-reflection and deprecation. Aging comedian George Simmons, played by Adam Sandler, is successful but depressed and unfulfilled after a series of low-brow films that were received poorly. After finding out that he has acute myeloid leukemia, he decides to go back to his roots and perform stand-up.
He meets an aspiring young comedian at a small comedy club and hires him as an assistant. The two form a friendship but once George’s leukemia goes into remission he reverts back to his old ways, threatening all the goodwill he’s earned trying to find redemption.
Leaning more on being a drama about comedy, as opposed to being more of a blend of comedy and drama like most of Apatow’s work, Funny People is able to find substance in its seriousness while providing plenty of great observational jokes.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Like many of the connections made throughout his career, Judd Apatow met Pete Davidson on the set of Trainwreck after Amy Schumer recommended him for a role. They developed the script for The King of Staten Island with Dave Sirus, a narrative that delves into how the trauma of losing someone you love at an early age can have profound effects on someone’s life trajectory.
And, again like so many characters that Apatow is drawn to, the protagonist Scott is spinning his wheels as everyone around him moves forward with their life. When his mother starts dating a firefighter, Scott is faced with confronting his shortcomings and becoming a functioning member of society.DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT
Judd Apatow continues to champion talented comedians by providing the opportunity to write their own starring roles. He recognizes himself in these artists, the same way he recognized a glimmer of his future self when interviewing greats like Jerry Seinfeld for his high school radio program. He’s the king of comedy with empathy for the common folks.
His comedic eye for observation isn’t afraid to tackle the tough, sometimes mundane issues that are a part of the human experience. For generations that grew up watching his films, they too find humor in the pain. Because if we’re meant to suffer, we might as well have a good laugh about it.