In a fluorescent-lit hallway at a Long Island nursing home, Judd Apatow sits on an overturned box beside a collapsed wheelchair, marking a two-page printout of jokes. It’s 8:40 a.m. on May 19th, 2014: the first day of production on Apatow’s fifth directorial feature, Trainwreck. Residents mill around on walkers and canes; one wants to enter the home’s glassed-in sitting porch, but Apatow has transformed it into a set. A production assistant tasked with directing elderly traffic reroutes her: “Ma’am, I’m sorry, we’re shooting a movie in here.”
Trainwreck‘s writer and star, Amy Schumer, is on the porch, in front of the cameras, kicking off her Uggs for the heels that her character, also named Amy, will wear in today’s scene. Colin Quinn, playing Amy’s ailing father, Gordon, slumps in a wheelchair beside her. In the movie’s opening flashback we see how Gordon’s cynicism about marriage and fidelity helped turn Amy into an alcohol-abusing, commitment-averse adult. Since this is a Judd Apatow movie, these personality traits are mined for laughs at first, and then gradually, falteringly, worked through. “This scene motors the movie in a lot of ways,” Apatow says. “Amy’s troubled in her relationships because of her relationship with Gordon. And there’s personal significance to this scene for Amy, because her dad’s in a nursing home with M.S.” And yet — since this is a Judd Apatow movie — the scene is also an opportunity for a bunch of jokes about Viagra-powered octogenarian orgies. “It’s like Caligula in here,” Gordon says.
Over the past decade, Apatow has become the most prominent comedy-maker of our time. He is referred to less often as a director, it seems, than as a career-minter, a factory foreman, an emperor: His name evokes not only a particular comedic tone (heartfelt raunch), but also particular stars (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy, all of whom he helped give big breaks), particular techniques (endless on-set improv, which he helped pioneer), particular gags (Steve Carell getting his chest waxed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and particular directors (Paul Feig, Adam McKay and Rogen again, all of whom have had major films produced by Apatow.) Besides Trainwreck, Apatow, 47, has directed four movies — The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40 — and as a producer he’s shepherded Anchorman, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Bridesmaids, among other smashes, to theaters. His résumé transcends eras and involves numerous icons. As a teen, Apatow interviewed stand-ups like Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling for his high-school radio station. (These are included, alongside newer conversations, in Sick in the Head, his recently published collection of comedian interviews.) In his twenties, while trying to make it as a stand-up, he opened for his buddy Jim Carrey and landed gigs writing jokes for Roseanne Barr. Later, he wrote on The Larry Sanders Show and did punch-up on the Happy Gilmore script for his longtime pal Adam Sandler. He was a driving force behind quickly canceled, highly influential cult gems like The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks — shows that highlighted, respectively, his twinned interests in absurdity and naturalism. More recently, Apatow helped Lena Dunham develop Girls, and he just helped Paul Reubens make a new Pee-wee Herman movie.