On this episode of Unlocking Us
I’m talking with Judd Apatow, who has directed, produced, and written many of the biggest comedy films and hit TV shows of the last two decades. We look at what’s funny, why it’s funny, and why laughter creates connection. We also uncover that thin line between humor and grief and what it means to tell the stories of our lives in a way that we recognize ourselves and our shared humanity.
Listen to the episode
The King of Staten Island, starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr, is inspired by events from Davidson’s own life. Judd Apatow directed and produced the film, which was released PVOD by Universal Pictures on June 12, 2020, and co-wrote the script alongside Davidson and Dave Sirus.
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Today we’re talking with Judd Apatow, a filmmaker, actor, and comedian. He’s the founder of Apatow Productions, through which he has developed and produced many of the television series and movies that we have fallen in love with. For me, my first love affair with Judd was Freaks and Geeks. He’s also done many films that I just am borderline obsessed with, Juliet, Naked, May It Last, a portrait of the Avett Brothers, which was a documentary. The Big Sick, one of my all-time favorite films. He was very involved in Girlson HBO, Bridesmaids, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Now we’re into Steve’s territory here, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy; Talladega Nights. He’s just part of our culture in so many good and important ways.
BB: Judd’s new film is a fictionalized account of comedian and actor, Pete Davidson’s life called The King of Staten Island. It’s out now on premium video on demand, and I’m just honored to talk to Judd about what’s funny, why it’s funny, and the thin line between humor and grief, and what it means to tell the story of our lives in a way where we can recognize ourselves, and where we understand our shared humanity. Judd Apatow, y’all.
BB: Okay, welcome Judd.
Judd Apatow: I’m here, happy to be here. Dreamed of being here.
BB: I had the same dream, weirdly. I have a million questions for you. Can I just jump in?
JA: Please jump in, I prepared myself emotionally to open up to you. So I’ve never been more vulnerable than right now. I’ve read the books and I feel like all of it has been in preparation for this podcast today.
BB: This moment, this moment, we’re going to go there. I want to start with asking, are you quarantining?
JA: I am. I am in the house with the full family as we speak. It is a rollercoaster of emotions. Usually, one of us is melting down per day, so it’s like a carousel. There’ll be three really happy family members, and one person melting, and then it just switches, and we take turns, and that’s how we get through.
BB: And do you have days where everyone melts at the same time, where you have too a critical massive melt?
JA: Oh yeah, we have flashpoints. [laughter] And as a family, we could see it coming. Like, I think it’s going to get weird this morning and the whole thing could just blow for a moment. We’ve gotten pretty good at how quick we get to forgiveness and understanding that this is a very unique situation that is highly stressful, and I think that we’re treating ourselves and each other well in the aftermath of those moments. Because there’s so many things you’re deciding, you’re deciding what’s safe, and how to behave, and how to move forward with what you need to get done under these circumstances. There’s so much to debate about what to do and how to spend your days. But the other part of it that’s really funny is both of my kids are here, and it’s so great having them here, because I don’t know if they would be hanging out with us at all at this moment.
BB: Yeah, right.
JA: My one daughter is 22, the other one is 17, and those are certainly the ages where the kids aren’t saying, “I wish I could spend more time with my parents.” So we’re like, “This is all gravy time.” They would never play board games with us; they would never have dinners that lasted this long with us. So we’re quietly appreciating all of those special moments.
BB: God, I know. My 20-year-old just left to go back to… She’s got an internship starting for the summer, it was the most amazing 10 weeks. Let me ask you this question just before we go on, because I’m so curious about how this is working with everyone. So what if there’s a meltdown between you and Leslie during quarantine, what is it going to be about?
JA: What is the meltdown going to be about?
BB: What are the… I’ll go first, the vulnerabilities, for me, it’s because Steve’s a pediatrician and I want certainty from him about what we can do that’s safe. And he can’t… He doesn’t have a crystal ball; he just has an educated guess. And so if we’re going to meltdown about something, it’s either going to be because I can’t get enough certainty out of him to make me feel safe, or it’s because I just lose my shit about not being able to do all the stuff I normally can do, at the rate I can do it, and I need to blame someone. That would be my drill during this thing.
JA: Yeah, I think we have a variation of that, which is I might watch too much of the news, listen to too many podcasts, where people recite medical information that I don’t really understand, then I get in my fight-or-flight mode, and then I walk in and take it out on everybody else. [laughter] That seems to be what they’re getting upset about. They’ll just be hanging out, having breakfast, and then I might come in and just be like, “Did you hear that they don’t know if immunity works for people who’ve had it?!” [laughter] And they’re like, “I’m just making a salad here, can you just let me make my salad?”
BB: Oh my God, that… Let me tell you something. Okay, so this is the accidental, excellent segue into everything I want to talk to you about, including your new movie, The King of Staten Island, which I cannot wait to talk to you about all of this. So what you just did made me laugh because that’s what I do. I go in and Steve’s just sitting there and Charlie’s playing the guitar and everything’s okay, and I’m like, “We’re all going to die,” because my terror is not synced up with their chill moment.
BB: And vice versa sometimes, right? I’ve so many questions to you about funny. About what’s funny, what’s not funny, why we laugh. And why you keep, with so many of your films, knocking me around a lot.
JA: Well, I think some of it is recognition. You’re just seeing that someone has the same problems as you, or the same arguments as you, makes you laugh. So, if you’re having the same types of conflicts in your house as I am in my house, when I describe it, it makes you laugh, also because you feel less alone in some way.
JA: Like, “Oh yeah, okay, so I’m not crazy. Everyone’s having these weird moments where we’re out of sync.” And I think a lot of my movies are pointing out moments like that. Like in This Is 40, there’s a sequence where Paul and Leslie go away for the weekend to a hotel that’s an hour away, and they just get along great. [laughter] They get along great because the kids aren’t around, and they forget all the things that they always argue about, and they just look into each other’s eyes and they’re like, “Why do we ever fight?” And as an audience, you’ve had that experience of forgetting how many things you’re forced to debate as parents, and how it puts you in conflict a lot of the time, and when you don’t have to debate those things, suddenly you realize why you love each other, and that’s usually the type of things that I’m trying to identify and write about.
BB: I guess it’s one thing our work has in common is that, talking about the unsaid in a way where people feel less alone. I never thought, and I think about comedy a lot; I never thought about recognition being inherently funny. Are we laughing at the fact that we thought it was just us? Is that why we’re laughing? Why is recognition funny?
JA: I’m not really sure. Some people are great at talking about why things actually make people laugh. The thing that people always quote is there’s a Simpsons episode where Homer says… He’s watching something and cracking up and he just goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” [laughter] And sometimes that is all it takes to make you laugh as, “Oh my God, I didn’t know anyone else in the world thought that way or did things like that.” For instance in This Is 40, Paul Rudd always sneaks into the bathroom just to play video games on his iPad, and pretends he’s going to the bathroom for a long time, but really he’s just on his iPad, and when we made that movie, which was nine years ago when we shot it, no one really talked about it. Now, we all know that we all do that.
JA: But it was one of the first times we had seen that joke in something. Escaping to get on your phone. Your phone is a little weird mini vacation from the stresses of your life and how angry that makes your spouse.
BB: God, it just pisses me off. Yeah.
JA: Yeah, and it’s a hard one. It is hard. Phone addiction is a big fight in our house, and we’re all addicted in different ways at different levels, doing different things. One person might be online shopping, and someone else is on TikTok, and I’m tweeting, and then we all get mad at each other because we’re on the phone, but we’re all doing it.
BB: But mine’s most important, and that is something not understood, yeah. I agree.
JA: Right because I’m like, “I’m trying to save the world here. You’re looking at dances.”
BB: Ooh, I’m telling you… I’m looking at this list in my Judd Apatow briefing binder, and I read through this list of films that you’ve been involved in, produced, executive produced. What’s the difference first of all? What’s an executive producer and a producer?
JA: No one really knows, but…
JA: It’s different in television. In television, the executive producer might be the showrunner, the head writer. Sometimes it could be a high-level writer or someone from the production company. In a movie, a producer is higher than the executive producer, whatever that means. And some producers are creative, and they’re involved in all of the creative issues of the script in the movie, and some producers are very much about getting you the money to make the movie and making sure you spend it in the right way. And some producers don’t do anything, they might just work for a company that gave you the money, and you never talk to them after they write you the cheque. So, everyone laughs about those credits because there is no way to know exactly what anyone does to earn them.
BB: Okay, so I’m looking at your list and I don’t know what all these things mean, but what I do know is that some of the funniest, most poignant movies in my film-consuming experience have been in these movies. Starting with, I think my love affair with your work had to have started with Freaks and Geeks.
JA: Yes, yeah. [chuckle]
BB: But yeah. Let me just tell you, The Big Sick, Juliet, Naked, May It Last, which is a documentary on the Avett Brothers who I love, how did you learn to understand people?
JA: That’s a good question. I never thought about that. Well, I think as a child of divorce, you start paying attention, because you don’t feel safe.
JA: You feel like, “I don’t know if these people are giving me the best advice, because they are fighting with each other, so clearly one of them must be wrong in all these situations.” So it just disturbs your sense of, I can rely on the guidance of these people. Because if they hate each other, then what does that mean about me? Because if my mom hates my dad, I’m kinda like my dad, and vice versa. So it scrambles your head a little bit, and it made me feel like, you better figure your stuff out. You better know how you’re going to survive in this world. And they were both very loving and incredibly supportive of everything I wanted to do, and I think I’ve been able to do it because they always said, “You can do it.” But as a kid, I didn’t really understand why they were fighting. I don’t think I really learned what their fights were about, and the actual reasons why they behaved in certain ways, until right before my mom died, and maybe in the last couple of years in some conversations with my dad. So it was all a mystery to me. No one sat me down and said, “Here’s exactly what we’re going through. Here’s what we’re fighting about.” It was all top secret. And so I didn’t know and that made me feel like I couldn’t trust their opinions because no one shared anything with me. And very rarely would they in a deep way, go, “What are you going through? How are you doing?”
JA: So I think they might have been too lost in the conflict to be able to make it about me. So I felt at times ignored in that way. And as a result, I started looking for answers, and a lot of those answers came through comedians who complained about the world, and tried to process everything that was unfair about the world. So I love the Marx Brothers and George Carlin, people like that, who said, “This is bullshit, and that’s bullshit, and these people are lying to you.” And I loved those people. And at the same time, my dad would drive me at night to comedy clubs, and couldn’t have been more supportive. And my mom got a job at a comedy club as a hostess after they got divorced. And I always thought, “She only got that job because she knew I wanted to watch comedy shows when I was 16.” And, “What could they have paid her?” How much do you pay someone to see people at a comedy club? That was only a gift to me, but she never said that. She never said, “I took this job for you.” And only decades later did I realize it. It made me cry when I thought about it, like, “Oh, wait a second. She only did that so I could have access to that world. She took this job.”
JA: We owned a restaurant when I was a kid, and the bartender left and he opened up some comedy clubs, and then after she got divorced, she got a job working for him. So she went from a upper middle class person, to kinda broke, seating people in a comedy club for the bartender who used to work for her. And that was a tough time for her, and then in the middle of it, she gave me this gift. And that’s when I saw comedians for the first time. When I was 16 at East End Comedy Club in South Hampton where she was seating people. And then I became obsessed with like, “Well, how do you do comedy?” And I started interviewing comedians, and then I got a job as a busboy at a comedy club just so I could watch the shows. But I had a real hyper-vigilance that was both healthy and really unhealthy. You shouldn’t be 15, obsessed with what your job is going to be when you’re an adult.
JA: And it certainly helped me get where I am today, but it also made me super crazy, because it’s a form of workaholism. It’s like being in terror all the time, that you’re not going to be able to take care of yourself. So, the hardest part about it is, it’s hard to shut it off because you’re so driven. But driven out of terror that the world is going to fall apart. So it makes you a good producer because you anticipate problems and… You were talking on one of the podcasts, I forgot what the word was for someone that is too… On top of everything?
BB: Oh, over-functioning, yeah.
JA: Yeah, so it’s all that. This super over-functioning person. But then you’re just a pain in the ass to everyone around you, because you’re always looking for a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You literally try to… It’s like Minority Report. You’re trying to find the problem before it happens and solve it before it happens. And you’re rewarded in business, but it’s not nice for your family to be around.
BB: So I’ve got a question about that. I’ve got a question about your problem… I know that in our work, we call it “foreboding joy”, the terror that comes with experiencing too much joy, too much goodness and like that perpetual…
JA: That’s a hard one.
BB: It’s a hard one. So I want to think about this question because, when I look at all the films that you’ve been a part of, when I got to watch an early screener of The King of Staten Island, which was… Which is a perfect exemplar of this question that I’m going to ask. I don’t understand fully, and maybe it’s not to be understood, the razor-thin line between what’s… It’s a razor-thin line of vulnerability that separates what breaks my heart and what makes me laugh. I don’t understand it. Help me understand it. Even going back to Freaks and Geeks, but also there’s a scene in The Big Sick that was like, there’s a very thin line between “You’re breaking my heart,” and “You’re making me laugh,” and it’s so confusing.
JA: I never thought about it in those terms, but I do understand what you’re talking about, and the scene that comes to mind when you say it, there’s a scene in Freaks and Geeks where Bill is at a game of spin the bottle, and he feels unattractive to the girls. They’re playing with all the pretty girls, and they start playing another game, seven minutes in heaven, where you have to go in the closet with somebody, and they spin the bottle and now the prettiest cheerleader has to spend seven minutes in a closet with Bill and she really doesn’t want to. It’s painful to see the look in her eyes at having to do this. And they go in the closet, and it’s dark, so they start talking, and she’s so pissed to be there, and he’s really shy and sweet, and they just start talking a little bit, and he makes her laugh. And in the dark… It actually makes me cry talking about it. [chuckle]
BB: I know, I know the scene.
JA: She just realizes he’s cool, just in the dark. She decides she likes him, and you feel it happen, and Martin Starr and JoAnna Garcia are geniuses doing it. And you realize the unfairness of that judgment that kids go through if they’re… The perfect idea of beauty to other kids, when in fact, these are the coolest kids in the world, and that’s what the show is about, the people you think are outcasts are actually the cool kids.
JA: And then there’s like a moment where she kisses him and you believe it, that in that moment, she saw the beauty in this kid, and they have a real connection just for a moment. And that’s maybe the definition of it, it’s very sweet, and it’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, but it also kinda opens your heart up in a beautiful way. And that’s in a lot of ways, what I’m attracted to in your writing, because you write a lot about vulnerability and shame. And that’s what The 40 Year Old Virginis about. It’s someone who’s ashamed to admit that he didn’t ever make a connection with somebody, and he’s afraid that if he does, it’ll go terribly wrong, and the person will decide they don’t like him, or they’ll think he’s a freak. And so as a comedic premise, it sounds like a silly movie, “Oh, it’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I wonder if he’s going to have sex.” But really, it’s about shame. And it’s about somebody who thinks that he’s going to get confirmation that he’s unlovable. And he’s terrified to find out if he’s unlovable. So that was our approach to it. Can we approach this very seriously, the psychology of this very seriously, and it’s so funny with funny characters, but at the core of it, is that issue.
BB: I see very little… I don’t think I’ve seen anything that you’ve ever done or been a part of that does not have vulnerability and heartbreak as part of the story. I just don’t. I’m thinking of… One of my favorite movies that I just… My kids are like, “Oh my God, are we really watching that again?” Juliet, Naked.
JA: Oh yes, yes. Yeah, all of those movies are about people trying to connect. That movie’s directed by Jesse Peretz who worked on a ton of episodes of Girls; he’s a great director. And I think we all connected also to the idea of the really annoying pop culture obsessed person, [laughter] who’s kinda driving everybody away with their craziness. And I’m always interested in music. We did Walk Hard, and Popstar, and Paul Rudd runs a record label in This Is 40. So I’m always interested in musicians, and in a lot of ways, that’s what… Pete is like your musician, in a way. I think people are attracted to Pete the same way they’re attracted to certain vulnerable rock stars who feel, who seem like they’re wounded in some way, and you’re fascinated to hear their stories from them, and to see how they’re doing, and how they’re evolving. Yeah, that must be the kind of characters that I’m most interested in. I always think that most of my movies are just about people trying to get through the day. [chuckle] They don’t need villains, they don’t need superpowers. It’s hard enough just to get along with the people around you, or find love, or have the confidence to be around anybody. That’s a very difficult thing. And so, as I make more movies, I do see what’s similar about them, and that must be something that I’m working out, [laughter] in some way, through writing these types of stories about people.
BB: Yeah, they’re just deeply human. Tell everyone about the premise of The King of Staten Island, what it’s about, Pete Davidson’s story. Tell us about it a little bit. How you came to it.
JA: In real life Pete Davidson’s father was a firefighter who died on 9/11. And Pete was seven years old when that happened. And it led to a lot of issues that anyone would have if they were seven years old, and had to go through a trauma that also became a national trauma, that also never really goes away, people talk about it constantly. And we would talk about that at length. I would always say to him, “My mom died 12 years ago, but no one talks about it.” So it’s… I’m not re-injured by it on a daily basis.
JA: I can go years without someone mentioning my mom to me, and I think it’s an experience that most of us know nothing about, when something like that is constantly re-imprinted on you every single day of your life. And so we started talking about making a movie about what would happen if Pete didn’t find comedy, because in real life he is a very ambitious person. If he didn’t find comedy and he was living at home with his mom, his really smart sister goes to college, and his mom decides that maybe she should be more social, and falls in love with another firefighter, and now this slacker kid is really having a lot of problems, has to try to bond with this potential stepdad, who he hates, and it forces him to confront everything that has been an obstacle in his life. And Bill Burr plays Ray the firefighter, and he’s one of our great comedians, and Marisa Tomei plays his mom, and Steve Buscemi is in the movie, and my daughter, Maude Apatow, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez, all sorts of great people. And it is the rare comedy, which is an exploration of grief. And it’s about how it affects a family…
BB: Wait, wait, wait. Wait. You gotta say that again. The rare comedy that is an exploration of grief.
BB: What part of that is rare?
JA: I think that it’s a difficult subject to attack directly, and usually people don’t do it in a comedy. [chuckle] It has been attempted, but to go all the way into it, to where you really feel it, is not something that people try to do that often. The great example of it is Terms of Endearment, which was always the movie that I look up to as one of the greatest movies of all time, because it’s human, and it’s so alive, and it’s about so many different things and family, but it’s also a comedy about cancer. And James Brooks always hits that balance of comedy and drama so perfectly. And he’s someone that I’ve worked for that I really look up to. His work has been a big inspiration to me. And that’s what we wanted to do with this movie. We wanted to tell a story about how someone might grow. How he might get to the next place.
BB: So I would say this one comment that’s not… It won’t be… I don’t know if it’s an aside, but I will tell you that when I was watching it, and your daughter playing the smart younger sister who goes off to college, I thought, “Whatever that thing is that I can’t name, that Judd has and is in all of his films, Maude has it.” When she… You couldn’t take your eyes off of her in that film. When she was talking about the attention that Pete’s character in the film demands of everyone in the family, “And now who’s going to worry about you all the time? And don’t take your crazy shit out on mom,” and I’ve been in those conversations. It was as real as me sitting here right now, and I guess, I just thought, “Well, she’s got her dad’s, whatever that thing is, where you can straddle that razor line of vulnerability around the knowing laughter of what it means to be universally human, and this is hard as shit right now.” Whatever that thing is that you have, she clearly has.
JA: Well, the main thing with a scene like that, is that Pete is a very brave writer and an artist, because he observed something about a dynamic with his sister that he expressed to me and Dave Sirus who wrote the movie with him, and he found a way to communicate something that maybe is hard for him to just say in life, which is, “I understand your frustration with me. I understand that I take up a lot of the oxygen in the room and in the family,” and so Pete has talked a lot about there are ways to connect and apologize to people in his family that are easier to do by writing a scene like that, so that his sister can feel heard and understood, that it’s easier to make a scene of it, than just to walk in her room and talk to her about it. And that’s what’s been fun about this, is that Pete’s been really smart and deep about owning up to things and sharing them, and finding a way to make them both funny and entertaining at the same time.
BB: Yeah. And the generosity of his writing about himself was really big to me.
JA: Sure, because he doesn’t have to share any of it, and the thing about Pete is, he has dealt with a tragedy by being completely honest and transparent. Where most people might push it down and just suffer with it for the rest of their lives, Pete has shared it and been open. Pete never puts on a false mask. He tells you what he’s feeling all the time. He’s completely open, and that’s the way he approaches life, which is, “If I’m in a bad mood, you’re going to know it. If I’m in a good mood, you’re going to know it. I’m not going to pretend at all.” And especially as a writer, it’s incredible, because he is willing to go as deep as you can go with him, and he does understand the cathartic nature of that, and also how important that is for other people. He is aware that it helps other people through these things for him to show them how he’s feeling. Because the movie’s fictional. Nothing in the movie happened. But…
BB: But it’s true.
JA: It’s all true. It’s all emotionally true. And you see it in Pete’s eyes. It’s almost like the movie’s part documentary. You feel him throughout this performance and it’s great. And Maude, Maude takes after her mother much more than me. Leslie is a very raw, present, real actress, who also knows how to be funny simultaneously, which almost no one can do. Leslie could play it straight, and hard, and funny, and truthful, all at the same time. And it’s just…
BB: At the same minute. Yeah.
JA: Yeah. And it doesn’t even make any sense. You don’t even know how it happens. It’s just, it comes out both funny and heartbreaking simultaneously.
BB: When I was watching, it’s funny that you said that about the documentary. When I was watching the film, I laughed hard, and music is a big part of it too. It was for me, reminiscent of watching The Big Sick. When I was done with both of those films, I had cried, I had laughed a lot, and I just felt better about people in general.
BB: Just the human race, I think in general. I also felt, I guess, I left that film, The King of Staten Island, feeling protective of Pete.
JA: Sure. That was something we talked about, that when you watch the movie, you feel like someone in Pete’s life tracking him, worrying about him, riding the ride with Pete. Here’s where I’m scared for him, here’s where I’m rejoicing about him. And that definitely was what we were going for, which is, when sometimes when someone’s struggling everyone around them becomes consumed with helping them, or just being worried that they’re going to be okay. And that’s something that Pete wanted to write about, because he has a real awareness that his mom has been such a hero to him, that she was just so there for him, dedicated her whole life, worked as a nurse at a school, and an emergency room simultaneously for most of his childhood to take care of…
BB: Oh so that part was true, as the character does that?
JA: Yeah, to take care of him and his sister. She just really gave her whole life to make sure that he was okay, and his sister was okay, and a lot of the movie is an acknowledgement of that and what that took. And also a way of saying, I know I’ve been hard on you. And for a young man to be able to get to that so early in his life is kind of incredible. I don’t know how long it took me to come to those… [chuckle]
BB: I’m still working, yeah.
JA: Yeah, to come to that wisdom. I always laugh with Pete. I say, “Most of us make 12 goofy movies before we try to do something this emotionally ambitious. We don’t do it first.” So his achievement is pretty remarkable.
BB: The acting in the film, Pete’s and everyone else’s is really stirring, don’t you think? It’s… I guess you would say yes, but weren’t you stirred by their performances?
JA: Yeah, first of all, when you have Marisa Tomei in the movie she’s one of our greatest actresses, and her performance was so good, and when we saw it on the big screen, when we would test the movie, we would notice things that she was doing that we didn’t even notice on the screens in the editing room, we had to see it 40 ft high, and then we were like, “Wow,” just the emotion, and the little details that she was sharing would suddenly become visible, and a whole another layer would reveal itself. And I think that she was so good that it made everyone want to get to her level. I think that she was the North Star for everybody.
BB: Yeah, I could see that, yeah. Just she did so much internal dialogue on her face.
JA: Yes, yeah. And some of it, you don’t know until you get in editing that she even did it. You can’t even tell on the set what happened, and then you would start cutting it together and go, “Oh my God, look what Marisa did here.” And Bill Burr is really an incredible actor, and he’s so funny, but then he’s so emotionally accessible and sweet in a surprising way. And in real life, he loves Pete, and Pete loves Bill, and so even though in the movie they dislike each other for most of the movie, you feel this affection and chemistry between them, because the movie is a little bit of a love story between a kid trying to decide if he’s going to open his heart to a potential stepdad.
BB: Yes, it is.
JA: And you so hope that he gets a dad.
BB: And this is not… Jesus, this is not an easy set-up, because it’s not just any stepdad, he’s a firefighter. This was an introduction for me to Bill Burr. He’s another person I couldn’t take my eyes off of. When they’re having that scene at the pool.
JA: Yeah, there’s a big fight scene where they really just let it go on each other, really scream at each other, and it falls apart. Yeah, he’s somebody that has focused most of his career on his stand-up, and he has all these specials and Netflix specials, and they’re as good as they get, but he’s also has this other gift which hasn’t been his main focus. So I felt lucky to get him and to be able to show all these other sides of him in the movie because so much of what we do comes out of improvisation and rehearsals. It’s not like we write the script and everyone performs it. A lot of this is discovered, because we want to create space for something magical to happen. We want to play a little bit. We want them to really feel the scene, and if they go, “You know, I wouldn’t go that way, I would go a different way.”
JA: There was a scene where Bill and Marisa are having coffee and it’s the first time, they just got to know each… They just met each other under very negative circumstances, and they begin to flirt and they’re both uncomfortable, they clearly haven’t been in this situation for a long time. And we were trying to get the scene right, and we couldn’t really get it right, because I had written it wrong, I wrote it the way I would always write it, as like a nebbish-y guy who just keeps making jokes about how bad he is at it. And then Bill pulled me aside. He goes, “You know what, I wouldn’t be bad. I’d be confident. That’s not me.” [chuckle] And I said, “Okay, let’s try that. Let’s see.” And then it was fantastic, but I was just writing him like… He’s not some like neurotic Jew from Long Island, and on some level I’m making the mistake of making him me, apologetic and terrible and making mistakes, and he’s like, “No, that isn’t. I would just be confident.” And then when he did it, how Marisa reacted is magical and so funny, and she just blushes, and yeah. A firefighter from Boston who lives on Staten Island would not act the way I would act. And that’s why I want to rehearse a lot, and I want to let people make a big contribution, and a writing contribution, because they know things that I don’t know.
BB: People seemed very in their power, so that makes sense to me, like that coffee shop scene is kind of where I was… Because they meet under not great circumstances. [chuckle] Funny circumstances?
JA: Yeah. [chuckle]
BB: Funny slash f-ing not funny circumstances, as a parent, but funny. But that’s where I kind of fell in love with him, was the coffee shop scene.
JA: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that you see he’s a good guy.
JA: For me, I’ve always been addicted to reading self-help books. I started going to therapy when I was in my early 20s after a really bad break-up, and I remember this girl broke up with me and she said, “One day you’re going to realize how little you know right now,” which devastated me, right.
BB: Oh, my… Wait, you… “One day you’re going to realize how little you know.” Jesus, that’s tough.
JA: Yeah, that was tough. I also had a girlfriend another time say, “I just feel like I’m in the lake, and I’m in the lake, and I’m swimming in the lake, and I’m like, Judd, get in the lake. And you’re on the dock, and you’re on the dock, and I’m like, come on in. And you know what, after a while, I’m getting out of the lake.”
BB: I think I’ve dated you. [laughter] Are you the dock guy? Yeah, we’ve all dated the dock guy.
JA: So I started going to therapy, and I remember the first therapist I went to had a little doll, he called Little Buddy, and he’d make me talk to my inner child, and he’d make me hold this doll and just go, “How you doing Little Buddy?” And have conversations, inner child conversations. [chuckle] It was very uncomfortable.
BB: Full on.
JA: And so I went to all sorts of different therapists, but I think as a writer, I love self-help books, because there’s always great examples of fights and conflicts, and there’s always stories. “Oh, Rachel fights with her boss, because when she was young, her father abandoned the family. So when things come up at work, she’s sensitive,” or whatever the story is in a self-help book. So I always read tons of them, because I felt like it helped me understand people and characters, and what their motivations are. And then hopefully, it helped me in life absorbing a lot of it. And to this day, I’ll go deep. I’ll really think about these books, your books had a big impact on me, because I never thought about those words like vulnerability. It wasn’t in my lexicon of how I looked at myself. Like fear of being embarrassed, fear of shame, fear of being found out, fear of confirmation that I’m lesser than.
BB: Not enough, yeah.
JA: And just understanding that, or just having the courage to take a risk. Because I write about that a lot, how hard it is to put yourself out there and take a risk. How much you have to like yourself to take a shot to see if you can do something, or if you can connect with somebody, and I think a lot of… That comes up in a lot of my movies, how hard it is to be honest with people and speak your truth, because you’re so afraid they’re going to say the thing you don’t want to hear.
BB: You know what’s weird about that? Is you, to me, take those moments. I’ll tell you who is vulnerability in shoes. Garry Shandling.
JA: Yes, yeah, and I learned a lot from him, because he always said, “People wear a mask most of the time. People are not honest almost all the time. They are trying to present themselves in a certain way as confident, or whatever they’re doing is really not how they’re feeling inside, and when they are genuine with you, and when they are honest, it’s shocking. It never happens, and when it does, it’s a huge deal for someone to look at you and go, “I love you, or I’m afraid of this, or… ” and that was his theory. But with Pete I think it’s a little bit different, because Pete’s whole thing is that he’s always transparent. But that’s not what Pete is doing. And so it’s funny, because after all these years, I finally worked with someone who is the opposite of Garry, which is, he refuses to wear a false mask at any moment. That’s just not how he engages the world, and it makes him feel better to not have to have the stress of being full of it. And The Larry Sanders Show was about all these people acting like they’re doing great, who actually aren’t, and they’re egomaniacs, and they’re not happy unless the ratings are high, and they’re on top of the world. And it was a completely different idea.
BB: It reminds me Chris Rock said, “When you meet someone for the first time you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting their representative.”
JA: Yes. [laughter] That’s it, yeah.
BB: Yeah. It’s interesting. I asked you to repeat the part about the rare comedy that tackles grief, because maybe you in that sentence said something that I was trying to say from the very beginning, which is, in the films that you produce, executive produce, write, I’m thinking also about your role in Girls, because this was certainly true. I’ve watched that whole thing from tip to tail five times probably. It doesn’t have to be bullshit to be funny, and in fact, the truer it is, and the more willing you are to look at grief and vulnerability and fear and shame, and not use humor as self-deprecation, but to laugh about the universality of the thing. The fact that we’re laughing it, we thought it was just us. It makes comedy a very powerful tool in the world, doesn’t it?
JA: Yeah, I think so. And I always say to people, “I feel like the more specific you get, the more universal you get.” So Pete’s story might feel very specific to him. It’s connected to this national tragedy, but when you really look at it, we all have our own personal massive tragedy. Any loss in our life is as big to us as Pete’s loss is to him. And so by hearing about him and his story, we all think, “Yeah, I have a bunch of those.” Sudden loss, people I cared about suddenly being gone. And so you relate to him in a lot of ways. And that is what we’re always trying to do. And it took me a long time to understand that. I really thought that my life was boring and wasn’t worth writing about, and when I started writing about it and just telling the details of things that had happened, the doctor showing up for the birth of our child and being mean to us. [laughter] Just simple things that I realize that, “Oh. So many people have stories like that,” and that that is where all the good stuff is. It’s in the simplest things. It’s in talking to Maude about technology and her not wanting to play with sticks. And she’d rather be on her phone. And so that’s what I’ve tried to focus on most of the time. Sometimes I just want to be stupid too, and just come up with silly things. Yeah.
BB: Okay, so The King of Staten Island’s coming to us. What’s it like birthing a movie in the world during a pandemic?
JA: I tried not to think about it. When all of this started I thought. “The least important thing in the world right now is this movie, so I’m going to try to give zero energy to the idea of when it will be seen.” And so I just shut my brain down and thought, “Well, I like the movie. It’s sitting on someone’s computer somewhere at Universal. It’ll see the light of day at some point.” And I tried to just focus on more important things. And then when we started talking about how to release it, it became very clear that the movie, in a lot of ways, is about what we’re going through right now. It’s about first responders, and nurses, and firemen, and people who are willing to die to help other people. People who are willing to take that risk. It is about heroes and about the families of heroes and how it affects them.
JA: And it is a movie that was made in tribute to Pete’s mom and dad. And, because it’s about grief and sudden loss, I thought, “Well, isn’t that what everyone’s going through right now? And wouldn’t be so wrong for me to hold on to this movie and wait a year until all this passes, because I want it to be seen in a theater.” It needs to be seen right now on some level, hopefully, it makes people laugh and helps them process this. So I became a big proponent of getting it out there as soon as possible, because I thought, “Strangely, it’s a movie that can be helpful right now.” I hope.
BB: I actually, I thought the same thing when I was watching it. There’s a pretty poignant scene that is threaded through a part of the movie, I think it’s in the trailer as well, where Pete is saying, “Heroes like my dad, firefighters, shouldn’t have families, it’s not fair for heroes to have families because sometimes the heroes don’t come home, and then what.” And I have to say, Steve Buscemi in this movie, and his explanation about, “Yeah, there are heroes. There are people that are putting their lives on the line.” And I had to tell you that I just kept thinking about everything that first responders, physicians, nurses, social workers, people that are choosing right now, I just think the timeliness of this movie is important. It’s important.
JA: The main thing is I hope it makes people happy. We’re all out of stuff to watch. [chuckle] So I hope that it gives them a break, but at the same time provides a whole bunch more than that. And I’m very proud of it. And I’m proud that Pete allowed me to be involved in it. And what’s funny is a lot of what’s good about the movie is also a result of just me talking to many different therapists over the years about all of these issues and trying to be sensitive and understand. And there’s a speech about what is a hero in the movie, some of it’s in the trailer. And that came out of a conversation with my therapist. We were having a conversation about this character and we were just kicking around, “What does this mean and what do you say to somebody that experienced something like this about it?”
JA: And what we were talking about was that there is no easy solution to it. The world needs heroes, and sometimes bad things happen, and sometimes people are left in the wreckage of that, but the world does not function without heroes. It doesn’t work. We must have those people and they should be allowed to have families. But when you’re a child and you lose a parent, it’s hard to understand why they would put themselves at risk in service of other people when it is really the most noble thing anybody can do. And one of the most powerful parts of making this movie was being around the firefighters. And we would be shooting in a firehouse and we’re making our little movie, and we’re all dressed up for the movie, and 10 ft over there are the real firefighters. And every once in a while, the bell would go off and they would leave, and it was scary. And they were…
BB: It was scary in the movie too.
JA: It made us all go, “This is real.” We didn’t know where they were going, what were they going to do. And we were just so impressed by their courage and also their good nature. They love it, they love helping people. That’s what I got out of being around the firefighting community. They’re not burnt out, they’re not tired, they’re not over it. From the beginning of becoming a fireman to the end, everyone I met couldn’t love it more. The guys, they don’t want to retire. They are so proud of what they do and they love taking care of each other. And that’s what we tried to capture in the movie.
BB: Can I fact check a rumor?
BB: Is it true that Steve Buscemi was a firefighter?
JA: He was. He was a firefighter for about four or five years before his acting career took off, and I think he was trying to act at the same time. And a bunch of the people in our movie are real firefighters who also act, who are active firefighters. Yeah. And so we really wanted him in the movie because we knew that he stayed very close with the community and does a lot of charity work. He was down at Ground Zero during the cleanup after 9/11, and we knew that was so important to him and that he would add such gravitas to the movie and such compassion for Pete. And it’s a really special performance, I think.
BB: You just felt… You were in the firehouse. You were one of the people in the firehouse. I’m going to say one more thing about my last scene then we’re going to… If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to do my rapid fire 10 questions.
BB: The scene where Pete’s riding in the truck on a call. I don’t know what you call it, a…
JA: A call, I think they call it a call.
BB: It’s a call, yeah.
JA: Yeah, yeah.
BB: And the way that was shot, where I am watching him watch. In this way that felt like the first time, what his dad did every day and what it meant, and the gravity of it and the… I just thought the way that was shot was like, I just had goosebumps from head to toe. He’s seeing this thing. It felt like I was with him for the first time watching it, and I just again, went to the generosity of Pete’s performance and his willingness to do that when that’s a real story, blew me away.
JA: Well, our cinematographer was Robert Elswit, who is just one of the great cinematographers of all time, who did Michael Clayton, and Mission Impossible, and the Bourne Identity, and There Will Be Blood, and Boogie Nights. He’s just one of the most talented people I’ve ever been around. So any time when people say the movie looks good, I always think, “Well, I didn’t get better, I just hired Bob.”
BB: Yeah, right, yeah.
JA: That’s why that worked so well. But we also knew that the idea of Pete going on a ride-along, watching firefighters work, would have a lot of resonance, and it was a tough scene to shoot. It was a hard day to do that and yeah, so it’s great that Pete had the courage to show that, because I… Someone said to me a very long time ago, they said, “The greatest gift you can give other people is your story,” and this is a great example of that. Because he doesn’t have to do it.
JA: And it’s also, there was a chance the movie would be terrible. We could have made a really bad movie trying to use the materials of his life, both fictional and not fictional, and most movies are bad, like most movies are bad because they’re hard to make, it rarely falls together perfectly, so many things have to line up for a movie to actually be what you hoped it would be.
BB: I can see that.
JA: So the risk of doing this is much larger than anyone really understands and I’m so glad that he did it. And I was terrified the whole time we made it. [chuckle] That somehow I would let him down, and not be able to get across what he was hoping to get across.
BB: Well, I hope people watch it. I think it’s smart, I think it’s moving, and I think it’s so deeply human, and there’s a love story, and there’s grief, and there’s trauma, but there’s funny, and I don’t know, I just… I thank you for it, and…
JA: Oh, thank you.
BB: Send my thanks to Pete for it because…
JA: I will.
BB: It felt generous. Okay, ready for my 10 rapid fire?
JA: Okay, I am ready.
BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
JA: A problem that does not seem to be going away for me.
BB: Okay, that’s funny. You’re called to be brave, your fear is real, you’ve gotta do something, but you can feel the fear in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
JA: I try to realize that if I attempt to push the fear away, it will get worse, and I try to make friends with it and allow it to be there.
BB: Something people often get wrong about you?
JA: They don’t realize that deep within me is an athlete. [laughter] That’s something my friend always says to me, he’s like, “Judd, you’re an athlete. You don’t like to talk about it, but I can tell, you’ve got an athletic body, I see you out there, there’s an athlete in you”, and that has yet to be proven, but I like to say it.
BB: I like it too, okay. [chuckle] Last show you binged and loved?
JA: The last show that I binged and loved was Fleabag. I never know what I’m doing, so I improvise a lot and I feel my way through things in a very sloppy manner, and then I try to make them appear not sloppy when I edit it together. Fleabag feels so well-written and precise, but at the same time, it feels totally spontaneous, and loose, and perfectly acted, and you would never know that it’s that precise. And it’s so funny, and deep, and smart, that it’s almost hard for me to watch, because it can make me feel bad about myself as a person. [chuckle] There are certain things that sometimes when I see something terrible, it gives me confidence, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m good, look at this piece of garbage. I should be in this business”, and then sometimes you see something remarkable and you’re just like, “Should I just quit? Is it over? Is it over?”
BB: Oh my God, yeah.
JA: And I so admire what she and everyone involved in that project accomplished, and as someone who tries to do that type of work, I’m so aware how amazing it is that that show is that brilliant.
BB: It’s amazing, for sure. Tell me a movie you will never turn off if you pass it, flipping through channels?
JA: Being There, the Hal Ashby, Peter Sellers movie about a man who is a simple-minded man, and everything he knows is from watching television, and at the end, a group of rich people turn to each other and say, “Maybe we should make him the President.” So you do the math.
BB: Yeah, yeah. My God, yeah.
JA: It’s worth watching again, let’s just say that.
BB: Yes. Prophetic, maybe? A concert you’ll never forget.
JA: I was hosting a benefit for Teen Cancer America, which is Roger Daltrey from The Who’s charity, and Roger Daltrey had his band there, and there was an auction to sing a song with them, to do a duet with Roger Daltrey, and I said, “I’m going to donate to this charity because this has been my dream since I was 11 years old”, and then I sang My Generation with Roger Daltrey, and I’m going to say it right now, I nailed it.
BB: Oh my… Did you really do this? Is this a true story?
JA: That was the best moment of my concert-going life, and I tried to twirl the microphone like Roger Daltrey and almost bashed him in the head. [laughter] But still a proud moment.
BB: Favorite meal?
JA: My favorite meal is chicken parmesan, in any setting, from any restaurant, homemade, the worst place in the world or the best place of the world.
BB: Chicken parmesan.
JA: Chicken parmesan and spaghetti always makes me happy.
BB: Okay. What’s on your nightstand?
JA: There are 11 books on my nightstand at all times, none of which I will ever read. There is some water, earplugs, there is a face mask to sleep and what other… There’s Chapstick. Lately, as I get older, I cannot sleep if I don’t have Chapstick, and I always have The Untethered Soulnear me. I don’t know if you’ve read that book, Michael Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul?
JA: That book has helped me a lot.
JA: I like those Eckhart Tolle kinds of books.
BB: Yeah, I do too.
JA: And that book talks about that your mind thinks its job is to solve all your problems all the time, to make sure every interaction is perfect, everything you say is right, everything they say is right, and you’re driving yourself crazy thinking it’s possible, and that you need to just observe your mind trying to do this, and have distance, and just observe like, “Look how crazy my mind is thinking it can get all this done,” and if you have some distance and a sense of humor about it, you can let go of it. And that’s been a helpful philosophy for me.
BB: Oh my God, this is my moment right now in this whole podcast interview right now is I need to read this book.
JA: It’s very good, yes, The Untethered Soul. And then he has a lot of YouTube videos where he talks for a long time, and when I need to go to sleep, he has a voice that, I like what he’s saying, but he also puts me to sleep.
BB: That’s good. This will be a twofer for me. [chuckle] A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life, a really ordinary moment that’s really joyful for you?
JA: Every morning, my family usually winds up around the kitchen island and we make… Can I have a cameo from my wife?
BB: Oh my God.
JA: Leslie Mann.
BB: Bye, I love Leslie Mann.
JA: Say hi, to Brené Brown, just for one second.
LM: Oh, my goodness, no, what? Oh my gosh!
LM: Hi! Oh my gosh! No…
BB: I love you.
LM: I don’t want to do this, bye. [chuckle] I love you.
BB: Bye, I love you!
BB: Oh my god, she is so, just amazing.
JA: She got… We spent a lot of time with you. We do our Oprah Sunday Show, the Super Soul Sunday?
JA: That’s a common Sunday morning for us. That wasn’t what I was going to say when Leslie walked in.
BB: Well, you were around the kitchen island when Leslie walked in.
JA: I was going to say that almost every morning we make avocado toasts ourselves, we don’t know how to cook anything. None of us are like the best chefs. Leslie is the best. I have to say she’s the best, but I know how to make avocado toast, which is basically smashing up an avocado and putting it on a piece of bread. So it sounds much fancier than it is, and also, I don’t know how to make anything else, so about 95% of the time my children are fed the same breakfast, and that’s like when we all sit and chat and talk about what’s coming for the day, yeah.
BB: Okay, last question, what’s one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now?
JA: I am grateful that we’re all here, together, and happy and healthy, and have our wits about us for the moment. I don’t know what…
BB: Yes, in this moment, right, yeah.
JA: I don’t know what an hour from now it’s going to be, but I know right now, we’re even keeled, and in a good place during a difficult moment. And hopefully, it’ll stay that way and hopefully, everybody out there will be well, and take care of themselves, and take care of each other. There’s that thing you always see in the internet where it says, everyone is going through something you know nothing about, so be kind, and I feel like that’s all you really need to know about anything.
BB: That’s everything, isn’t it?
BB: Judd Apatow, thank you so much.
JA: Thank you so much.
BB: Yeah, the new movie, The King of Staten Island, you can watch it from the safety of your own home, which is I think a pretty remarkable gift.
JA: Well, I hope people enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it, don’t tell me.
BB: Yeah, keep it yourself.
JA: Yeah. [laughter]
BB: Yeah. Thank you, Judd.
BB: Big thanks to Judd Apatow for this really, for me, compelling conversation about… Maybe it was about movies, but maybe it was just really, I think we talked about life, and I think we talked about the power of knowing laughter, the power of recognizing ourselves, and the laughter that comes when we think, “Wow, I thought I was alone. I thought it was just me.” If you want to follow Judd on Twitter, it’s a @JuddApatow, Instagram @JuddApatow, again, J-U-D-D A-P-A-T-O-W. And just a reminder that The King of Staten Island is out now on premium video on demand. And thank you to Judd for the films, for the movies, for walking with us on what feels like a journey that is equal parts right now, pain and tragedy and joy and laughter. I think comedy is really important. I still don’t fully understand it, and I still don’t fully understand the deep vulnerability of comedy, but I’m just becoming increasingly convinced that maybe comedy, and why and how we laugh, isn’t fully figure out-able. Stay awkward, brave, and kind, y’all.
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