After mega-success crafting vehicles for the best performers in the business, comedy's greatest producer is applying his Midas touch to the last comedian anybody expected: himself.
Judd Apatow debuted his first stand-up special to three sold-out crowds and a slew of Netflix cameras at this summer's Just tor Laughs Festival in Montreal. Montreal’s JFL is the Olympics of comedy, except it happens every year and performance-enhancing drugs are perfectly welcome. The weeklong celebration of comedy felt like the right home for Apatow, who told the crowd during a standing ovation that “Montreal has the best comedy audiences in the world.” Quebec native Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) elaborated: “There’s a unique sense of humor [in French Canada]. It’s a clowning culture.”
Apatow has shown a lot of love to the festival over the years, moderating panels, attending award ceremonies and putting on events, such as this year's screening of The Big Sick and subsequent Q&A with Kumail Nanjiani and friends. But Apatow's true statement of love came when he chose Just for Laughs (or Juste Pour Rire), to host the live taping of his special (which premieres late this year). For a comic, it's akin to choosing the venue for your first wedding.
He's spent years producing films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids and Knocked Up, along with well-liked shows including Girls, Love and Crashing, but a little over two years ago, the former stand-up comic shocked everyone by picking up the mic, humbly rekindling a lifelong romance that had lain dormant for 20-some years.
In the ’80s, Apatow moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy, daylighting as a USC screenwriting student. However, after a time he began to feel as if the universe was telling him to go toward writing and directing, not stand-up. (When your roommate is Adam Sandler and you’re working for Jim Carrey, you may have distorted views about your own skills.) He turned his back on the mic to pursue writing, and the rest was history — until now.
“I was doing Trainwreck and I was around [stand-up] more than I had been in a long time. I thought, ‘I have to do this,’” he said in an interview in Montreal. That, combined with the crippling stage fright he felt when asked to toast Mel Brooks at a star-studded gala, was the recipe for him to get back into it. “I was looking for a way to lower my self-esteem and my salary at the same time.”
He began hitting the clubs. Hard. He pursued comedic perfection with the same eye that has yielded some of the funniest filmed comedies in recent history. The question remained: Is he hungry enough?
Most stand-ups succeed because they’re dying to; Apatow has enough success, respect and money to last lifetimes. Nonetheless, he began paying his dues with the meek fervor of an open-mic comic.
“He's at the clubs every night, grinding it out, just like the rest of us,” says Jeremiah Watkins, breakout comedy star whose signature is freshly painted on the famed black wall of the Comedy Store. “He could easily phone it in and get up because of his name, but you can tell how much he genuinely loves stand-up and cares about getting better.”
At first, his rusty skill set made for frustrated audiences. It's a different medium, and Judd had been away a long time. “Like Seinfeld once said, ‘Your fame will only carry you the first two minutes; after that, you've got to deliver the jokes,’” says Argus Hamilton, a longtime host at the Comedy Store. “Judd’s done it so well,” he adds.
Indeed, Apatow pushed past the awkward phase. One fateful night after performing, a Netflix exec approached him and offered him a special. “Give me a year,” Apatow replied. He's since come out the other side with a highly polished act he’s deemed worthy of exposure on a network that's released specials by comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt and Louis CK.
“I feel more like part of the tribe again,” Apatow said a few hours before the taping.
As for the act, we won't give anything away here. But it’s not every day someone who has everything to lose and practically nothing to gain puts his neck on the chopping block voluntarily. “When you put it that way, I’m not sure I should!” Apatow said before the act. Comedy has no mercy, not even for its own patron saints.