EXCLUSIVE: How Judd Apatow Has Cultivated Success on TV

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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
, 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. 

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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

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.”


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

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.”