The most powerful man in American film comedy today, Judd Apatow was the key force behind a cultural cross-fade that has seen the high-concept, highly physical Hollywood comedies of the '80s and '90s largely replaced by low-key character studies of losers and stoners and their sociosexual foibles. It's a transition that has turned dozens of Apatow discoveries — James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jason Segal — into multihyphenate stars. Had Apatow not existed, it's possible the term "bromance" wouldn't have needed to be invented — the bundle of contradictions implied in that contracted idiom is the hallmark of his brand. His auteurist signature is the flippant dick joke that resolves into genuine pathos.
"I love to cry, that's my favorite thing in the world," Apatow said over the phone last week. "I always tell people about things that make me cry. I think laughing and crying are emotionally very close to each other — you have to be very open to do both."
Apatow used the phrase "my favorite thing in the world" to describe two different things in our conversation. This one came up when I admitted that his new book had me in tears.
I Found This Funny is an Apatow-edited anthology due out Nov. 1 from Dave Eggers' McSweeney's press. Profits from the book will benefit the company's nonprofit youth-mentorship program, 826 National. The nearly 500-page collection unites conventional humor prose (pieces by Eggers, Steve Martin, Philip Roth and others) and artifacts of contemporary TV comedy (transcripts of Saturday Night Live sketches and a pilot co-written by Conan O'Brien; Apatow's own diary of the life and death of his first series, Freaks and Geeks) with shorts by famous authors who aren't exactly funny ha-ha (Raymond Carver, Jonathan Franzen), as well as scraps of flat-out tragedy. In his introduction to the volume, Apatow acknowledged that "one third of this book might be depressing" and suggested the reader "skip the James Agee till you can handle the hard stuff." (At Eggers' suggestion, the stories were organized alphabetically by author, so Agee's "A Mother's Tale" immediately follows that introduction-closing disclaimer.)
"I thought, as long as they're reading this, maybe they'll need a break from the humor, and I could present something that's not funny at all," Apatow explained. "Or even the opposite of funny — disturbing. It's a way to get a sense of my taste."
Another way to get a sense of Apatow's taste is to note the writers and filmmakers he chooses to mentor. Apatow mentioned his other "favorite thing" in relation to Lena Dunham, the indie it girl behind the soon-to-be-released feature Tiny Furniture; she is writing, directing and starring in an HBO pilot produced by Apatow. Both Dunham and Apatow have cast their actual family members in melan-comic studies of family dynamics; both have subsequently taken heat for blurring the line between self-deprecating autobiography and self-indulgent narcissism.
"That's what I like about Lena's work: Anything that goes too far in terms of being too personal is great by me," he enthused. "I love a compulsive oversharer. That's my favorite thing in the world, when people reveal themselves and tell me something that most people would be embarrassed to say. I can't get enough of that, in any type of writing."
That compulsion was something that Apatow, now 42, had to grow into. "When I started out, I was usually hired to write for other comedians, or write movies in the voice of other people," he recalled. "I was 21 years old, writing jokes for Roseanne. I would sit alone at the coffee table in my apartment in the Valley, where I lived with Adam [Sandler], trying to think of ideas of what a 40-year-old woman would complain about. I remember sitting there writing jokes about stretch marks. I didn't even know what a stretch mark was. I hadn't seen one. I didn't know what I was saying."
Apatow credits Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius with giving him the courage to plumb his own experience for material. "I don't think I'd ever read a book like that before," he marveled. "It felt like it was written by someone of my generation, and it was both deeply sad and moving, and hilarious — which is my favorite type of storytelling. And, it was painfully personal. It was part of a process for me of realizing that the small incidences of my life could be interesting to other people."
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Apatow seems to be in a constant process of paying his success forward: spotting young talent and greasing their way through the Hollywood machine, lending the instant legitimacy of his name to projects as disparate as the Dunham pilot and the upcoming Pee-wee Herman comeback feature film. I Found This Funny is both a thank-you to Eggers in the form of an object lesson on the multifaceted Apatow sensibility and a gift to Eggers' charity, which in itself allows Apatow to support an institution that serves a function mirroring his personal experience.
"When I was a kid, I was a bit of a mess for a long time," Apatow admitted. "I had an English teacher, and she asked us to write our autobiography, and I made one up, about how I was a secret agent undercover in the high school and I was having affairs with all the teachers. It was really out there. And I thought I would get in trouble, but she was, like, 'Oh, you're funny. You could be a comedy writer like Woody Allen.' And just to make an adult laugh completely changed my attitude about myself. That's why I'm a big supporter of 826, because it's just this warm, wonderful place where people help kids get through school and find their self-esteem and find their identity. Like I did."
On Friday night, Apatow and Eggers will host a benefit for 826 that Apatow described as "the live performance version of the book," featuring Aziz Ansari, Lindsey Buckingham, Josh Homme, Randy Newman and Garry Shandling. Proceeds from the pricey tickets ($250 for general admission, $500 for access to VIP pre- and post-parties) will help fund the mentoring efforts of 826's Echo Park outpost. Two weeks before the event, Apatow said the benefit had already helped make a dream come true.
"Randy Newman's manager e-mailed me the other day and asked, 'Is there anything you would like Randy to perform?' " he said excitedly. "And that was the moment that I could die happy."