Judd Apatow may be the busiest man in show business. The 49-year-old has directed and/or produced a generation’s worth of comedy classics, from Freaks and Geeks to Superbad to Girls. His documentary on the Avett Brothers, May It Last, premiered at SXSW in March; the HBO vehicle for Pete Holmes that he oversaw, Crashing, just finished its first season; and the Apatow-produced Sundance sensation The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s semi-autobiographical story about love, sickness and culture clashes, hits theaters on June 23rd. “At the time when we started developing it there were details to this relationship that we thought, oh that’s an incredible story,” he says. “Then, suddenly Trump is in office, and we’re very proud of the fact that it’s a movie about an immigrant family.”
Apatow spoke to Rolling Stone about some of the lessons he’s learned along the way, how he beat the panic attacks that dodged him throughout the Nineties and as a dad trying to avoid the mistakes his parents made.
What have you learned about comedy as you’ve gotten older?
I’m working on a documentary about Garry Shandling, and I’m constantly reminded of how much I learned from him [while writing on The Larry Sanders Show]. He was fascinated by the masks we wear to appear presentable. He said that people rarely tell the truth to each other – so when they do, it’s a big deal. He’d also say, “If you tell the truth, the comedy will come.” When you’re writing something, you have to start with your dramatic story, then worry about the comedy afterward. When we’re in the outlining stage, we don’t think of these movies as comedies.
When have you learned from failure?
Garry once gave me a book called Transforming Problems Into Happiness. It’s a Buddhist book with a simple premise, which is anytime anything difficult happens, you should look at it as an opportunity to learn something about yourself. When Freaks and Geeks was canceled, I thought it was tragic, but I felt like I’d succeeded creatively. I used it to take pressure off myself: “Well, it happened once, so now you can keep creating and you don’t have to get neurotic about it.” Now, that show is seen by more people than when it aired in 1999. Someone said to me, “You don’t know how the world feels about any of your work till about 10 years after it comes out.” I’ve noticed that that’s true.
The same could be said for Walk Hard, your parody of music biopics.
It’s one of my favorite movies that I’ve worked on. The song “Dewey Cox Died Today,” which he sings in tribute to himself, is actually one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard. It hurt when it wasn’t a big box-office success. But when you bump into John C. Reilly and he says, “Robert Plant told me he loved Walk Hard,” then you think it was all worthwhile.
What music moves you the most?
I’ve always thought Loudon Wainwright was the best. The first song of his I heard was called “Unrequited.” I think I saw him perform it on David Letterman’s morning show in the early Eighties. It’s basically Loudon threatening suicide to make some girl who broke his heart feel bad. As a kid in junior high, it made me laugh so hard, but it also reflected how crappy I felt. Coming from a Jewish family, I lived in a world with that kind of guilt, where guilt was used as a weapon. I found a voice that I understood!
Are there traces of that guilty kid in you today?
I think of lots of things I could say to make my kids feel guilty. But the difference between me and how I was raised is I try to not speak. If my daughter says, “I don’t want to watch TV with you” – in my head I say, “Fine. I won’t be around forever, and one day you’re going to regret that you didn’t sit down with me and watch Shameless.” I’m fully programmed by guilt masters to think of the worst things you could say to anybody, and it takes enormous effort to just shut up and to realize how wrong all of that is.
You produce Chris Gethard’s new comedy special for HBO (Career Suicide), about depression and a suicide attempt. Why did you get involved?
I was really moved by it. I had panic attacks in the Nineties, really bad ones. The hardest part was that I’d never heard of them. When someone explained it to me, I felt so much better.
What was the root of those attacks?
I think it was just not paying attention to my mental state. I felt a lot of pressure: “This movie is about to shoot. I’m supposed to do this final punch-up, and if I do a bad job the movie is going to be bad and then all my friends are going to be embarrassed.”
How did you get over that?
Just therapy, which has never ended. If you have a people-pleasing personality, you can get stuck on the treadmill of your life and not look at how you’re doing.
What rules do you live by?
All my philosophies go back to Mr. Rogers. I feel like that simple ideology is not forefront enough in our culture – kindness, compassion, wanting the other person to be happy. We live in a world where Republicans want to create laws to make it harder to vote because they know that if more people vote, the party will have a tougher time. Everyone is suddenly allowed to be a hypocrite because it’s just about winning, and I think that will be the death of us.
What’s the best part of success?
When you have an idea, people don’t immediately think you’re crazy. When I was failing all the time, people thought, “Why would we do this with him? He always fails.”
What’s the worst part?
It’s helpful to create when no one knows your work, because people haven’t defined you in any way. If I said I think I should direct the next Harry Potter movie, people would be like, “What are you talking about?” Scorsese can make a hilarious movie and then a terrifying movie and then a romantic movie – that’s what I aspire to. I tend to want to write about things I’ve experienced in some way. That said, maybe my next movie will just be a bloodbath of murder. It seems like at some point I need to make a movie where a lot of people die.