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Judd Apatow Tells Us the Legend of The Cable Guy, the Bomb That Wasn't

The Cable Guy was long used as a go-to reference for people joking about movie bombs, a handy punch line to use when someone else took Gigli and Ishtar. However, its bad reputation was unfairly earned: Not only did the 1996 film about Jim Carrey's creepy cable-installer stalker actually make money, but it's legitimately funny. Directed by Ben Stiller and produced by Judd Apatow, it was tarred with the "bomb" epithet because it didn’t jibe with expectations: Jim Carrey, coming off of the Ace Ventura sequel (which grossed $108 million) and Dumb & Dumber ($127 million), earned Hollywood's first $20 million paycheck for The Cable Guy, and his fans expected more dumb-guy humor and cartoonish gesticulating. While Carrey's vengefully lonely cable man was goofy on the surface, with a lisp and fever for karaoke, he was also creepy and sinister, and the movie was a bleak social satire. Many bewildered Carreyites were confused and turned off, while critics piled on, and it was declared a disaster. Over time it became a cult favorite, and now, fifteen years after its original release, it is being rereleased on Blu-ray today, with a new commentary from Carrey, Stiller, and Apatow. We called up Apatow and asked him to tell us his story of what it was like to be sure he had a hit, only to have it be called something else entirely.

"The Cable Guy was an interesting moment in time because Jim Carrey was on fire in his career and we were given a lot of freedom to do something really unique and strange without much interference. And that doesn’t happen very often.

I always thought that the script Lou Holtz Jr. wrote was great, and it’s what got us all very interested. But Jim wanted to change it significantly and make it much more of a comedic version of Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Unlawful Entry, whereas the original draft was a little bit more like a What About Bob? annoying-friend movie. It had a light punch to it, and we wanted to turn it into a thriller. So it did require a lot of work. But we were all big fans of the original script and a lot of the things that we built upon were obviously in that draft.

I’m not allowed to say that I revised the script on the Blu-ray commentary because that’s put out by the studio, and they have certain agreements with the Guild about honoring the credit. The Writers Guild has a rule that, if you are also the producer, the bar that you have to reach to get credit if you do a revision is ridiculously high. It’s a much lower bar if you’re not the producer. That’s because they want to protect writers from producers trying to grab their credit. But what it does is it doesn’t give people a credit they deserve because the bar is higher in this one situation where you’re providing another service at the same time.

At the time, being denied a writer credit was a very frustrating experience because I was so proud of the work that I did. People would laugh at me later because the movie wasn’t a big hit and it took a beating at the time. They were always saying, 'Why are you trying so hard to get your name on it?' But I always thought it was a great, weird movie that would have a long life as a cult type of film — and that is what seems to have happened.

When we shot it, we laughed so hard every day. We really enjoyed watching Jim perform in that character. It was a really fun shoot. When the movie came out, the fact that it got a weird reception totally blindsided us. We didn’t see that coming at all. We just thought the movie was a weird roller-coaster ride, or a funny take-off on all of these insane neighbor movies that were coming out.

I thought the reviews would be good, that people would be encouraging us and Jim for doing something different. We were so proud of the fact that we were trying to break new ground and take chances. So I was surprised by what people said about the movie. There were fans of the movie who wrote nice articles — Gene Siskel wrote a really nice review. But then there would be these vicious reviews. The review in the New York Times is hilariously tough on the movie and acts like we’d all gone insane. And the Time and Newsweek reviews just didn’t get anything in the movie. It really hurt at the time, because I thought they would champion us. But looking back, it’s hysterical how thrown they were by Jim really changing the direction of his comedy suddenly.

Jim was the first person who was paid $20 million to star in a movie, and I think that put a little more attention on The Cable Guy than if that hadn’t happened. I mean, somebody was going to get paid $20 million sometime; it just happened to be Jim. It was the first time anyone had got paid that much money, so people were really tracking the film. Someone gave the script to Entertainment Weekly, and they wrote an article about what the movie was about. And there seemed to be a lot of people gunning for it who were shocked that the movie was so different. People expected him to do the same thing every time out, but Jim was very clear that That’s not what my career is going to be about, which is why he’s gone on to do things like The Truman Show and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because he’s really brave about the choices he makes. And The Cable Guy was the announcement of that.

I think the movie made $60 million in America and $40 million overseas, and our budget was $40 million — so it did make money. But it came out at a time when Jim Carrey’s movies were making astronomical amounts of money, so people looked at it as a failure because it didn’t make even more money.

How I always felt about the movie was, when you watch it for the first time, it looks scary, it has scary music, and Jim’s performance is so intense that you actually think he might kill somebody. So when you watch it you’re kind of scared and it’s difficult to laugh for some people. But when you watch it the second time, when you know he actually doesn’t kill anyone, you realize that it’s just wall-to-wall jokes.

It’s funny. Before we started shooting, I got a call from this friend of mine who managed Larry the Cable Guy. He said, “Judd, what are you doing? You can’t call this movie The Cable Guy — this guy has been working so hard developing this character. You’re going to destroy his career!” There was nothing I could do to change it. But clearly, Larry the Cable Guy has done way better than the movie The Cable Guy. If you had to compare the career of Larry the Cable Guy and the movie The Cable Guy, Larry wins, hands down."

Photo: Columbia Pictures