Film

Judd Apatow on Comedy and Trump: ‘The Worst Thing We Can Do Is Not Pay Attention and Not Speak Up’

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With Crashing landing on HBO, Love hitting its stride on Netflix, Girls offering a heart-wrenching (and hilarious) final season, and through his latest salvo against the forces of ignorance and intolerance in this country, Judd Apatow is ready for the fight.

I want to talk about four things: Crashing; your relationship with stand-up comedy as a performer; your role as a sort of comedian whisperer; and, in light of the ACLU benefit and your outspoken activism, the current political climate.

Pete is into both comedy and spirituality, so he’s coming at this from an angle that very few people do. And it seemed like an opportunity to explore something I’ve explored before — the world of comedians — with Funny People. But I also like the idea of using it as a way to discuss how different people approach their own religious beliefs, and how it affects their behavior. So there’s an interesting journey there that he tries to navigate: the world of comedians, but also figure out what to do about his soul.

Was it through listening to Pete’s podcast that you realized he had this weird, unique point of view?

Yeah, I did his podcast at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, but I didn’t know who he was. I was doing it as a favor to his manager, who’s a friend of mine. And then I went and listened to tons of the You Made It Weird podcast. He goes much deeper than most people. When we started kicking around this idea, it felt like there was a lot of fresh terrain. Because spirituality is an area that most people don’t take on, especially in comedy.

I know Garry Shandling was a big influence on you, and he had a reputation as a Buddha-like spiritual being in the comedy world, and I wonder if you saw any similarities in Pete.

Pete is interested in a lot of the same ideas that Garry was interested in. Pete is fascinated by all religions, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I feel like his beliefs are always changing or expanding, because he’s on some sort of journey. Garry didn’t define himself as a Buddhist, but certainly leaned that way in his beliefs. And a lot of his approach to the work was about trying to get to the core of people, talking about what ego does in people’s lives. He was fascinated by characters whose egos were out of control. That’s what he found funny, but I also think he was exploring how ego affects his own life at the same time.

In the context of Crashing, what makes Pete’s religious background, combined with his struggling to become a comedian and the ego that involves, work as comedy?

People want to be funny for so many different reasons. Some people are deeply wounded, some people are really smart, there are desperate characters, there are ridiculously overconfident characters, and on some level they’re all seeking something. They’re trying to figure something out, which is why they perform, because they’re communicating with other people what their journey is and what they’re learning along the way. So there’s always been a connection between spiritual thinkers and comedians. You know, a lot of comedians have their doubts about God — they’re typically skeptical, and that’s part of the job. So to have a lead character who fully embraces religion, it makes him a funny comedy team with anyone else he’s talking to.

Right, because as secondary characters you have comics like T.J. Miller, who can’t turn off the entertaining switch. You have Artie Lange, who’s sort of a damaged guy who, at the core, is just hilariously funny. And Pete’s a completely different model.

Yeah, and then in later episodes, Sarah Silverman is on the show, and there’s an interesting storyline with her where she has some soft spot for comedians who are not doing well, and she lets them live in her apartment. Sarah’s just very kind and nurturing to a lot of comedians who are having a difficult time. So we just exaggerated it, and have her apartment filled with comedians who are a mess.

Do you feel a sense of urgency in your comedy to deal with some of the issues facing the country right now, especially in light of the new administration?

Unfortunately the timeline doesn’t work well to do political satire on these shows, because when we write a show, we’re aware that it won’t air for almost a year. So we generally try and talk about these characters, and the way they’re trying to find happiness or success. And there might be some ideas that are stitched in there, but we can’t be topical because it just doesn’t time out at all. When we started this show, we didn’t know that Donald Trump would be the president. But I feel on some level it’s a good time to talk about the choices we make to be good people. What are our values right now? Who do we look out for? Who do we care about? How much are we in it for ourselves? What does it mean to be obsessed with winning? So there’s a way to have a discussion about it which isn’t so direct.

You have a platform and an audience, so do you feel you’re obligated to lend your voice and use up some of your capital and credibility?

I think everyone should speak up. This is a democracy and we should have freedom of speech, and it doesn’t feel right to me to remain silent at this moment in history. In addition to disagreeing with policies, I have concerns about the morals and ethics of a lot of people in our government right now. So the worst thing we can do is not pay attention and not speak up.

So performing at this ACLU benefit next week [March 6 at the Village Underground], that’s a way to do that?

I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do that’s constructive beyond just making jokes and commentary. And one thing that I can do is put on shows and try to raise money for causes we believe in. I think a lot of what this administration is trying to do has questionable legality, and the ACLU tests that. I think a lot of these things need to be brought to the courts, like the travel ban was, so we’re doing a benefit for the ACLU, and it sold out very quickly, so people are very interested in these issues. So that’s one thing that I’ll continue to do, is put on shows and donate some money to different causes. Mainly ones like the ACLU and organizations that fight voter suppression, which is another gigantic problem right now.

Do you feel like the moment has galvanized the comedy world?

We’ll see. All this has just begun. But comedians are generally very empathetic people, and they’re outspoken and want to do some good. So you’ll obviously be seeing a lot of people figuring out what they can do that’s constructive.

Since this show is in less than a week, and Trump will finally be coming back to New York for the first time since the inauguration, how do you anticipate the city welcoming him home?

I don’t know what the vibe is in New York. Everyone I’ve talked to seems concerned that he has no problems with shutting down an enormous part of the city just so he can stay in his apartment occasionally. And that slows down the city, and costs millions and millions of dollars, so that’s of concern to people. He’s already spent more money on travel and security in a month than Obama spent in a year. And that money could go to things like education and the homeless or curing diseases or fixing bridges. It’s very real money. And there’s no purpose to it. You know, he doesn’t have to do meetings in Florida all the time. And the fact that he doesn’t care certainly says something.

But do you think that because so much of his identity is based around being this New York big shot, that the city rejecting him might have some impact?

I think he’s in his own universe that none of us will understand. And I don’t think that anyone knows what actually impacts his thinking.

So much of Crashing focuses on the lowest rung of the comedy ladder in New York, and that’s a world that hasn’t really been captured onscreen.

Well, the show is about people who have a dream. So it’s not about a successful comedian, it’s about how hard it is to break in. In order to become a good comedian, you have to go through being a bad comedian. You only learn by being bad, and suffering, and doing hell gigs. And then you slowly figure it out. So this show is about that period, which is something that I’ve never seen before. And at the same time, you have to figure out how to make a living while being terrible at a job that you really want to do. I think a lot of people relate to that, because that’s what everyone has to do. If you’re working your way through medical school, you’ve got to pay for it, and it’s the same with being a comedian.

So did you have to direct Pete to be less funny, to make him more convincing as a beginner?

We’re trying to indicate that Pete has some good ideas and some promise, and to find funny ways of showing that he doesn’t have the experience to write well or perform well is tricky. How do you make someone bombing fun to watch? And sometimes we just have Pete do good jokes badly. And that seems to help.

Catch “Judd Apatow and Friends” at 10 p.m. on Monday, March 6, at the Village Underground.