Judd Apatow is so dominant in comedy these days it’s easy to forgot how he got there: By way of two early-aughts sitcoms, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, that failed miserably and have only reached reverential status in the last few years. And as much as Apatow seems like The Man now, what he’s been doing for much of his career is actually helping a lot of other really talented performers and writers reach wide audiences. Now he’s picked up another young talent to nurture, Lena Dunham. Her show Girls, which he executive produces, will debut this Sunday on HBO, and that it’s on cable, unlike Apatow’s other two sitcoms, means it will just maybe last a full season. Then, lest you think he’d moved away from movies about boys or weddings after teaming up with Kristen Wiig on Bridesmaids, a few weeks after that comes the opening of The Five-Year Engagement, which was produced by Apatow and written by and stars his longtime mentee Jason Segel. Apatow talked to Vulture about finding his rightful home on cable, upcoming projects (This Is Forty, Anchorman 2), and the perception that he’s swooping in like a white knight to save female comedies from being too feminine.
Do you feel like you’re living a dream now, having a TV show that might last more than a season?
Oh, I can’t speak with confidence about that. It sets me up for disaster. [Laughs.] I’m Jewish. We don’t do that.
What does it feel like to be on cable? Does it feel like your rightful home?
It feels different because we’re not on network television and, you know, the best experience that I have ever had working in television was working for The Larry Sanders Show. HBO was always incredibly supportive of Garry [Shandling, co-creator] and every year we just made the show. We weren’t checking the ratings every week to hope we survived. It was a very creative environment, and this experience has been exactly the same. It’s strange to work with people who are incredibly supportive and keep all their promises and market you and schedule you really well. That’s something that’s never happened before.
I think there’s a desire among fans of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to do a revisionist history in which those shows go on cable instead. Could that have happened?
I wish. When Freaks and Geeks was canceled, there was a brief moment when MTV talked about picking up the show, but at a budget that was a lot less, and we didn’t want to hurt the show by not having enough money to do it correctly. Our dream was that HBO would pick up Freaks and Geeks and we could go all the way with it. When you’re on a network like HBO and you don’t have to censor yourself, the best part about it is you can be completely truthful. We don’t have to wrap up the story line every week. We can leave things open-ended. Episodes can be funny or sad. That’s what I loved about The Sopranos. Every week felt so different, and they were able to build so many dimensions of those characters, and it could be very experimental when it wanted to. So this is all very exciting.
Is it worth feeling regretful that Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared didn’t start off on cable?
No. I mean, I didn’t ever try to start them out on a cable network, so I never think about that. But we were always aware that there were aspects to the show that we had to water down because we were on network television. On Undeclared, everyone’s always holding a red cup because we weren’t allowed to show liquor. It was an enormous triumph that we showed marijuana on Freaks and Geeks and did an episode where [Lindsay, played by Linda Cardellini] got high for the first time. But we were canceled the next day. [Laughs.] So [director] Jake Kasdan thought maybe that didn’t help our case.
That didn’t directly cause your cancellation, though.
Who knows? You never know what was going on inside of G.E.’s brain.
And yet you went back and did another network show. Did you feel like you were just pounding your head against a network door hoping that things would be different the second time around?
Hold on. I need to get a charger for my phone because I just realized I’m at one percent.
[Shuffling ensues. Pause. Pause. Pause.] Hello! What was your question again?
When you did a second network show, did it just feel like pounding your head against a door, hoping things would be different but they never were?
On Undeclared, I said, “I’ll be happy to do the show for you: I need to get the cast I want approved, and I also need to stay on the air for a year so we can find our audience.” And at the very first casting session, I was trying to get Jason Segel approved as the lead and they said, “Absolutely not.” They didn’t like him. And then I said, “Well, what about Seth Rogen?” And they laughed at me. Luckily we found the great Jay Baruchel, but that was basically how it went in that experience. And they didn’t give us the entire year. They gave us about six months before they canceled us. In a lot of ways, I continue to work with actors from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared because I refuse to acknowledge that those shows were canceled. Working with everyone, it’s my bizarre form of revenge. I’m continually trying to prove that they were wrong for canceling us, decades past the moment when all the people who treated us badly were fired. It doesn’t make any sense. [Laughs.] I’m proving a case to people who are no longer there. [Laughs a lot.]
When are you going to do a star vehicle for Linda Cardellini or Busy Philipps?
I’d love to work with them. They’re so great. You know, Linda was on ER for so many years, which is a gigantic show, and Busy works on Cougar Town, and works all the time. We love them. They’re two of my favorite actresses of all time. As the years go by, eventually we’ll get to everybody.
What took so long between Undeclared and Girls? Were you just scarred by TV?
I just … There was an article that said that our television shows were more like independent films and maybe there’s no place for that on television, and I took that to heart [laughs] and decided to focus all my time working on movies and trying to get my directing career going. I would have come back and done a show for HBO, but I only thought of one idea and I wasn’t able to get the actor I was interested in interested in doing it. But I didn’t even intend to do this. I just wanted to work with Lena and Lena wanted to do a TV show. So I made no conscious decision to work in television. I just knew that it would be fun to collaborate with Lena and Jenni Konner [who executive produces].
Was there a sense of dread you had, even knowing it was HBO?
I’m always a little hypersensitive and defensive, so when we set up a deal, there’s always a part of me that thinks this is going to go horribly wrong, and I lose sleep as a result way before anything has been decided. But that’s how I am about everything, not just work.
What was it about Lena that you compelled you to be a part of whatever she was doing?
Well, I saw the movie [Tiny Furniture] and had a strong emotional response to it. She felt like a kindred spirit. It was very personal. She worked with her family. It had a great underdog quality to it. I’ve always loved stories about trying to figure out who you are and awkwardness. It definitely felt like, if I had worked on a show about high school and another one about college, then it would be great to work on a show about those years after college when you’re flailing around. And she’s generally one of the nicest, hardest-working, least defensive people I’ve ever collaborated with. So, you know, it’s really an enjoyable experience to bat things around with her and to try to help her get her vision through, without it getting watered down.
I know she pitches story lines from her own life. Have you pitched any awkward sexual experiences from your life?
Usually when she pitches a really awkward experience in the writers’ room, I’ll just say, “Yeah, that happened to me.” [Laughs.] I usually don’t have the courage to pitch it, but when someone else pitches something that sounds familiar, I will fess up.
Fess up! What on the show have you experienced?
[Laughs.] I can’t. I can’t. Uh … no, I can’t do it. You know, it’s fun to talk about those years, and I certainly relate to that moment in your life when you feel like it’s possible that you could do some interesting things in your life, but you don’t know how to pull it off. And you know you want to meet a great person to go out with, but you’re going to pick twenty of the wrong people first. I’ve always found that really funny and sympathetic, so she’s right in the wheelhouse of everything that I find amusing.
Do you feel like you’ve become the comedy Establishment now, and that you’re trying to hold your ground against insurgents? There are these waves of style in comedy, like the Airplane gang made Mel Brooks seem slow and schtick-y, and then you kind of took over for the Farrelly brothers and did outrageous stuff, but with more heart.
I never think in those terms. I’m happy if I have a job and I’m allowed to continue to make things. But I’m a big fan of comedy and I try to support anybody who’s got a new style or a new way to approach it. So as opposed to worrying about it, I try to get onboard with the next innovative person.
How are Lena and Kristen Wiig different in their approaches to comedy?
They’re very similar in the sense that they write from a personal place. They’re very comfortable performing. Neither of them is very anxious about the acting side to it. They both have a lot to say and they think it’s important to say it, so in that sense, they’re very similar. What’s different is that Kristen has another gear that comes from Groundlings and Saturday Night Live, where she can be grounded and real, but, you know, there’s only a few people who can get to rip-down-the-house funny while not losing her reality level. Lena’s universe is very realistic, and so a lot of time when we talk about broader comedy, we talk about how in real life, people are broad. And that’s our bar for human behavior. It’s been a great experience working with both of them. Lena’s a very serious writer. She likes to sit home and write by herself and bang out drafts. Kristen has a very strong point of view but also comes from improv and collaboration from her stage work. A lot of comedy also comes from that interaction.
So you won’t tell me what sexual experiences you’ve had that are similar to Girls, but did you mine your own engagement at all for The Five-Year Engagement?
I had a very brief engagement [laughs], so I didn’t have a lot to pitch in terms of things that slow down the path to marriage. I was trying to get Leslie [Mann] to marry me as fast as I could before she realized she was making a mistake. [Laughs.] But I always have some thoughts on how people handle things badly. A lot of The Five-Year Engagement is about moving somewhere because your girlfriend gets a great job, and what I found really funny about it is when you agree to move somewhere and you don’t actually want to do it, you know if you make that sacrifice they owe you one! [Laughs.] There’s a passive-aggressiveness to that. That’s something that I understand, having a chip on your shoulder.
Jason Segel has the world’s worst mountain-man beard in that movie. It’s really long, but also looks like he couldn’t grow hair on his chin. Is he incapable of growing good facial hair or was that just for comic effect?
I don’t think he could grow a good beard, and his body is somewhat hairless. He’s the opposite of me in that respect. I can grow a beard. And I actually can grow a beard on any part of my body.
Is this what you talk about in Mansome, Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about male grooming?
I have to say I did a very long interview about my personal grooming and I do not remember anything that I said, which is somewhat terrifying. I’m sure there’s a lot of discussion of how I deal with my back hair and forcing my family to trim it against their will.
This Is Forty is the next movie you directed, and it’s kind of a sequel to Knocked Up, following Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). I’m sure you mined your marriage for that, right?
Yeah, it’s about a week in their lives when they both turn 40 and they decide that they’re going to figure out everything that they could do better. And as a result, everything goes wrong. It’s about the joys and challenges of deep commitment, and how complicated it is to get along when life is so busy. I always think there’s just too many things to balance. I have to remember to be a good parent and be a good husband, and I have to get work done, and I have to floss my teeth, and keep my cholesterol down, and get along with all of the members of both of our families, and exercise or my back will go out, and I could keep doing that list for an hour straight.
It struck me that you’re producing pretty much every comedy on IMDb. How do you even have time to work on Girls?
I’ve actually been slowing down. Things just seem to come down at the same time, so it feels very busy because The Five-Year Engagement and Girls are premiering within two weeks of each other, but then my film doesn’t come out until Christmas. And, you know, Girls is a different experience, because my family falls asleep at ten o’clock and I can sit down by myself and read a script and make notes and call Lena in the middle of the night — you know, she has nothing else to do — and kick it around with her. I don’t sit on the set and look over her shoulder. I try to be a fresh set of eyes on all the writing and editing, and that’s just fun for me, because her writing is so good, it’s enjoyable to stay up late and see what she’s thinking.
How do you respond to the perception that started when you did Bridesmaids, that you’d come in to add the raunch and sort of dude-ify a female comedy so guys would watch it, and the perception that maybe you’re involved with Girls to do the same thing?
Eh, you know, that doesn’t bother me as long as people like the movie. You’ll never know who thought of which joke or which emotional idea, and there would be nothing more obnoxious than me or anybody pointing any of it out. So that’s okay. I mean, I like the raunchy stuff and I like the emotional stuff, and I’m pitching a little bit of everything. What I really try to do is push people to be honest and make something that the audience will really like. When I used to work for James Brooks on this cartoon The Critic, I remember him saying, “If the audience doesn’t like it, you’ve failed.” It’s as simple as that. So with Bridesmaids I just thought, Kristen Wiig is one of the funniest people who’s ever lived, so there needs to be a few moments in this movie that are as funny as anything you’ve ever seen. It shouldn’t be mild. And I think that people appreciated that, that it was emotionally grounded and intimate, but you also got to see Kristen be rip-roaringly funny. That’s a balance I’ve always liked. I love the Farrelly Brothers movies and I love Hal Ashby movies and Cameron Crowe and James Brooks movies, so I try to always think of the hybrid.
Is Anchorman 2 the next thing?
Yes, in the next year we’re going to do that.
We’ve heard rumors that it’s going to be either the craziest sequel ever, or a musical. Which one is it?
I don’t think anything has been determined at this point. Will [Ferrell] and Adam [McKay, the director] will disappear into a room, and then one day I’ll get a call and they’ll say, “Hey, do you want to read what we’re thinking of?” So I know less than even you.
I read that you love New Girl. Do you see it as your competition for Girls?
No, not at all. It’s silly that there aren’t even more shows about interesting women. It’s a great time for women in comedy because so many of them are succeeding, which will only create even more opportunities. There’s a giant audience that’s out there that’s at least 50 percent of the population, or so I’m told.
What else are you watching?
Well, I love Mad Men. I’m a giant Mad Men fan. I just started watching Downton Abbey, which is so good I want to watch it really slowly. The first season is so good I want to not eat it up too fast. There are a lot of shows that I know are great that I haven’t seen, and I’m so happy that I’m about to finish my movie and I’ll have a free summer, so I can sit and watch every Homeland and shows like that. I’m a huge TV fan. And then there’s always Celebrity Apprentice, which I’m not ashamed to say I will not miss a minute of, and at night I’ll sometimes think of strategy.
You dream of being on it?
[Laughs.] I dream of the advice that I would give to them.