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EXCLUSIVE: How Judd Apatow Has Cultivated Success on TV

by Stacy Lambe 7:50 AM PST, February 27, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

Judd Apatow is no stranger to success -- or the work it takes to get to where he’s at today.

After getting his start on TV as a co-creator and co-producer of The Ben Stiller Show and, later, honing his craft as a writer on The Larry Sanders Show, he wrote and produced Freaks and Geeks as well as creating Undeclared. Though they only lasted one season each, both shows would go on to become cult classics while Apatow largely shifted his focus to film. It was there he found box office success with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, followed by an era of bromantic comedies with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.

“I didn’t really plan to do TV,” Apatow tells ET on a snowy day in January -- the first of two conversations that coincidentally happened on snow-filled days during a surprisingly mild winter in New York City. While excited about his work on his now-cult TV series as well as a few pilots that never got picked up, Apatow didn’t feel like the medium was a place for him. “And then I met Lena [Dunham, and] I just thought, Oh, this is such a special talent. I would do anything with her.” It just so happened she was about to start a TV show, which would become Girls on HBO.

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Now, while he continues to make box office hits (most notably directing Amy Schumer in Trainwreck), Apatow has experienced newfound success on TV. He is producing Girls, now in its sixth and final season, the new Pete Holmes comedy Crashing, which just debuted on HBO, and Love with Paul Rust on Netflix, which has been renewed for a third season and returns to the streaming network on March 10. His return to TV has not only been met with critical acclaim but also multiple season runs and creative freedom -- something that seemingly evaded him nearly two decades prior. “The entire landscape of television changed and people would give you a season order and give you commitments,” he says. “Now, what I like to do, which wasn’t really built for network, is suddenly more in demand.”

And this time around, Apatow is building teams of young filmmakers and writers around each show while helping to cultivate their craft like Garry Shandling did for him on The Larry Sanders Show. “I’m always thinking about the lessons Garry taught me about being honest and digging into the core if people,” Apatow says of his mentor, who influenced his character-driven style of comedy. 

Judd Apatow with Pete Holmes. Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to Girls, Apatow likens his role to a “cog in the machine” that belongs to Dunham and executive producer Jenni Konner. His responsibility is largely quality control, while writing episodes once or twice a season. “I can be very helpful at key moments, but, you know, the weight isn’t on me,” Apatow says, noting that he’s not on set dealing with any of the day-to-day production. Nor has he had any interest in helming the show, crediting repeat directors Dunham, Jesse Peretz and Richard Shepard for “doing such a beautiful job that I couldn’t have been less needed,” he says, adding: “I thought, I can only hurt this.”

Meanwhile, Apatow is more hands-on with Love, which he co-created with Rust and Lesley Arfin, and Crashing. On the latter series, about a Christian man who is cheated on by his wife, forcing him to reevaluate his priorities as he tries to make it as a standup comedian in New York City, the filmmaker not only pushed Holmes to co-write every episode of the first season, Apatow also jumped in to direct the pilot because it’s a world he understands. “I have a sense of how to work with a lot of comedians as actors,” he says. “I can help create a style that will allow for a sensibility that reveals these comedians’ inner lives. On that project I thought, It’s essential that I design this.”

“Judd opened the actors up to the improv while keeping an eye on the believability and emotional truth of the scene,” Holmes says of Apatow’s direction. And as for being pushed to co-write every episode, Holmes says it helped create a consistent voice. “I think that’s certainly true for Girls, and now for Crashing.”

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The two first met on Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, in 2012. Apatow was promoting the first season of Girls, a show that Holmes has cited as having an influence on Crashing. The two have since become friends, with Apatow heavily involved in building the foundation for Holmes’ debut TV series. “Judd was literally involved in every line on every page as well as even smaller details like wardrobe and locations -- even the font we used for the show went through him,” Holmes says. “It's crazy to think someone as busy as Judd found the time to vote on which belt my character should wear, but somehow he did and I'm very grateful!”

On Love, Apatow is very much training Rust, who wrote and co-produced Pee-wee’s Big Holiday for Netflix and was a story editor on Arrested Development, to run a show. In addition to writing, Rust also plays Gus Cruikshank, one-half of the show’s central romance opposite Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs). “You’re trying to figure out how much he can write and still act,” Apatow says of Rust, who he dubs “the Lena” of the Netflix series.

For Rust’s part, he credits Apatow with creating an environment where feelings are invited into the process. “That’s the thing I like the most,” he says of their working relationship, adding: “I so desperately want to be liked that it can keep you from being honest. If Judd wasn’t guiding us, [Love] could easily become a six-hour commercial for why you should think I’m a nice guy.”

Judd Apatow with Gillian Jacobs on the set of Love. Photo: Netflix

While keeping the stories emotionally honest is central to Apatow’s most successful stories, what you won’t find on his shows are his politics. Adamantly anti-President Donald Trump on Twitter, the filmmaker doesn’t bring it into his work. “I tend to keep it separate,” he says, only occasionally bringing it up when he does standup. The primary goal of his comedy is escape. “There’s comedy that’s about trying to be a human and it’s got nothing to do with Trump. Sometimes you need it as an escape. Sometimes it’s something that makes you happy at the end of a hard day.”

Making it even harder to capture onscreen is how fast the political world moves. During his first week in office, Trump generated headline after headline as his administration got to work. “How do you write about it? It’s hard because events are moving very fast. If events were consistent, I think you might be able to get into it,” Apatow says, referring to Crashing, which, in dealing with the clash of experiences, ethics and morals, could entertain a TV world that coexists with the real world. “We are talking about doing some political stuff, and it would make sense because there would be political comics. But who knows what’s going to happen? It’s a scary time. And by the time it airs a year later, everything you wrote about might not apply to anything that’s happening.”

Instead, Apatow is putting his Hollywood capitol into raising money for organizations such as the ACLU and People for the American Way and to support voter registration. “I’m trying to help raise money. That’s one of the things I can do,” he says, adding a sentiment akin to his role on Crashing, Girls and Love. “My ears are always open for how I can be helpful as a creative person who can communicate to people.” 

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