Judd Apatow is one of those creators with a killer eye for talent. As a director, he’s helped launched the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Steve Carell, and most recently Amy Schumer, and as a producer, he’s always on the lookout for the next good laugh, throwing his support behind films like Anchorman, Superbad, and Bridesmaids. Now, he’s backed the The Lonely Island — Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer — the comedy trio behind the irresistibly goofy comedy songs ‘Jizz in My Pants’, ‘I’m on a Boat’, and ‘Motherlover’, and given them a platform to do what they do best on the big screen with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
What they do best is utterly ridiculous, over-the-top humor that somehow manages to toe the line between clever and deeply stupid. That, and really catchy songs. We got our first taste of what a Lonely Island might be like with the absurd and delightful 2007 comedy Hot Rod, which starred Samberg and Taccone with Schaffer directing, but the project was penned by South Park‘s Pam Brady and initially developed for Will Ferrell, so it was more of a hybrid project with a potent Lonely Island flourish. With Popstar, which they co-wrote, starred in, and directed, we’ve got our first fully-fledged Lonely Island film, and Apatow has picked a winner, once again.
With Popstar arriving in theaters this weekend, I recently hopped on the phone for an exclusive interview with Apatow. We talked about why he thought The Lonely Island needed to make a movie, balancing the songs with the story, and how actively he was involved as producer. We also chatted about why Freaks and Geeks will never die, how the state of television compares to when he first started, if it’s harder to push the envelope with today’s audience, and a lot more.
Just as a bit of a starting point, tell me how you got involved with this film and why you thought The Lonely Island needs to do a movie now.
APATOW: I had been talking with them since they all joined Saturday Night Live way back in the day. We hoped to make a movie together, but that show is so time-consuming that it became impossible to develop a script while they were so under water over there, working so hard. When they left the show, I said, “I think it’s time for the Lonely Island movie. Let’s put that effort in now.”
Because this movie’s so complicated, because you’re really creating an entire fictional career with all of the songs from an entire career, then they took a year to write the movie, and then they took another full year to write the music. That’s why the movie is so strong, we definitely said, “This is going to take this much time to create this.”
It’s definitely a movie where you get a joke a minute. It’s a crazy ratio of laughs per time.
Talk a bit about developing the script with The Lonely Island guys and that rapid fire style of humor.
APATOW: I think there have been so many documentaries about pop stars, made by pop stars. It’s a new phenomenon. People making these movies where they praise themselves and show their own weaknesses. it’s all designed to make you love them even more. We’ve all seen these made by people like Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Katy Perry, and One Direction. They’re really well made. They’re incredibly entertaining, but they’re always kind of funny, because they’re meant to sell records, and they’re meant to make you love them.
We thought it would be funny to make one of these where the guy bring the camera crew around, and then his life just completely falls apart. These guys are so great at music and having fun with that world. In a lot of ways, it’s just a great dumb guy movie. It really feels like … It’s both very modern, but also in the world of movies like The Jerk, and Airplane, and Anchorman. They’re so hilarious, and they’re amazing filmmakers also. They found a way to make this movie with these gigantic documentaries which they shoot all around the world.
It’s also pretty easy to draw a parallel to their real life counterparts, in the way that Andy Sandberg blew up as an actor; Jorma does a little acting and a little behind the scenes; Akiva usually kind of stays behind the scenes. Was that an intentional parallel?
APATOW: Yeah. I think that these things always work best when you really care about what you’re talking about. You know, we talked a lot about bands where one person seems to grow out of the band, like Destiny’s Child, or N’Sync, or The Police even, and the problems that creates. I remember all those No Doubt videos, and they were all about Gwen Stefani getting more attention than everyone else in the band. They would make videos about it. We thought that was a fun relationship to dissect, and what happens when one guy gets way more popular than the other guys. At the same time, the key is to remember great performers, and also they become these incredible directors. Everyone in that group has different skillsets.
When you’re working with a trio of talent like that, a group that really knows how to work together, what is your role as producer? How much are you involved in hands-on on crafting this thing and shaping it?
APATOW: A lot of it is just organizing their time. Just sitting down with them years ago and saying, “This is what it will take to make this,” and then getting them all the money and the tools so that they can be creative. Then, you know, we spent a lot of time talking about the story, and then they went off and wrote an amazing script.
Like all the movies I’ve worked on, I just look for holes in the ship. If anything is leaking, I try to plug the hole. I’m just looking for problems, and ways that I can support them. We all have a very similar sense of humor, and we had a great time, it was really fun. Then, they got to make all these songs. They hired the producers of some of the biggest songs in the world, to produce their funny songs. Our friend Greg Kirsten, who, you know, produced and co-wrote Adele’s ‘Hello,’ also did our Bin Laden song. It was fun to try to make the songs sound exactly like modern pop.
They’re so good at that. The equal rights song just had me in stitches.
APATOW: It’s great. That’s one of my favorites.
It killed me. How did you guys determine the ratio of how much song and performance to put in, and how much to focus on the story, because it seems like it might be a movie that doesn’t have a story, but it’s really cinematic, and they all have arcs. Goofy arcs, but arcs.
APATOW: Yeah. I think that was the delicate dance of the movie. We were recording a lot of songs. There was a lot of songs that we didn’t put in the movie, that we shot. In a way, you have to approach this movie like a real documentary. You shoot a lot of story and a lot of songs, and then they go into the edit room and try to find the best way to present it. All of that was so fun.
I was in the recording studio when Pink was recording for a part of the gay rights anthem. It was just amazing to watch her perform. She’s just such an incredible singer. She so funny, and so smart, yet she’s doing it for this silly, silly song. You could feel her power and brilliance, just watching her have fun with this ridiculous thing that we were creating.
Absolutely, she’s so good. As a producer, a really good eye for finding the best comedic talent out there, and sort of helping skyrocket their careers to the next level. You did it Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, it goes on. What do you look for in these projects? What is your eye attuned for in talent?
APATOW: I genuinely just think of what do I want to see. I love the Lonely Island. I wish there was more Lonely Island movies. It’s not more complicated than that. I hear Amy Schumer on Howard Stern, and I think, “I wish there was a movie that starred her, because she’s so interesting,” and then at some point I go, “I guess I have to get involved, because it’s not happening right now. Maybe I should help try to make that happen.” That’s really about it. It’s just my own personal taste and interests.
You seem to have very good taste.
APATOW: You know, I’m a big comedy fan. I often say that … I’m just involved in comedy, so I can be around it. I have to make good things so good comedians want to talk to me.
With Love, you returned to TV for the first time in a long time. How has the television landscape changed since you were last involved? Obviously, there have been huge changes, it’s a much bigger part of entertainment now, but what did you find on a creative level?
APATOW: Something economically changed. It used to be that you needed 20 million people to watch a TV show for it to be a hit. Now, with just a few million people watching, you’re considered very successful, for a lot of these streaming services, or cable channels. Now, that allows people to do much more creatively ambitious work, because it’s not lowest common denominator. We are at this weird moment where there’s an economic model that supports creativity. People are demanding something new and fresh. It’s really shocking that this happened, because at network television you could make a show like Freaks and Geeks, and even though 7 million people watch is every week, you were considered a terrible failure, and they got rid of you and staff. Now … It’s like a world where the replacements are the biggest fans in the world. It’s, the Elvis Costellos of television are the winners. Creativity is king and it’s very very exciting.
You must get tremendous vindication that still, to this day, people are not over Freaks And Geeks being cancelled.
APATOW: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that people still watch it and are touched by it, I think it’s still gratifying to for Paul Feig and myself. We love that kids watch it, and it reaches them, and tells them it’s okay to be different, and that there’s a bright future ahead even if you’re taking beatings in high school [laughs].
I know IMDB is not the most accurate thing in the world, but just in research on sort of looking at your upcoming projects, you’re one of those producers with a list of projects in development that’s just insane. There are so many.
APATOW: I haven’t looked lately, but most of them don’t happen.
APATOW: If you develop 10 things, and you can get two or three made, that’s a very high ration. You have to write a lot of scripts to get any scripts that are worth making. You know, we always try to hook up with people that we like, and give them opportunities to express themselves. Sometimes, something seems dead, and then out of the blue, someone just figures out the way to fix a script and it goes. We try to have a bunch of things going at once.
One of the one’s that’s definitely on is The Big Sick.
APATOW: Yes. We’re shooting right now.
What can you tease about that movie? It’s got a really exciting cast of talent.
APATOW: Yeah. I’ve been working on my movie with Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife Emily, for three or four years. It’s a very unique romantic comedy that’s based on some events that happened in their lives. Zoe Kazan is playing Emily, and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play her parents. Bo Burnham is in the movie, and Aidy Bryant. It’s going to be great. It’s directed by Michael Showalter. We did the recent movie with Sally Fields, My Name Is Doris. I’m very excited about it. I’ve always thought Kumail was a special talent, and he’s got amazing comedic mind, and their story is so surprising, that it was a way for us to do something that we hadn’t done before.
One of the ones that there hasn’t really been word on in awhile, that I’m very curious about, is you were reported to be developing something with Key & Peele. Is that still in progress?
APATOW: Yeah. It’s just like when scripts are ready, that’s when we go. This Kumail thing, it’s been quite a few years. The longest time it ever took us to get a movie made was Superbad, which Seth started when he was 13 years old [laughs]. We’re very good at just continuing the process until it’s ready to go.
I just revisited Superbad. That movie holds up!
APATOW: Yeah. I feel like Superbad and Freaks And Geeks are somewhat timeless. That’s always gratifying, when you feel like 30 years in the future, people will still get it, and it won’t seem creaky. It won’t come across like The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
When you look at the past of comedy, the idols seem so legendary and untouchable. Like, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, they seem so next level. Do you feel that we’re still delivering comedy on that level, and that’s just a perspective of time passed?
APATOW: Yeah. Absolutely. Also, a lot of those people were breaking down barriers that are no longer there. People like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, they were the first. We all are lucky to live in their aftermath. I’m sure, in 20 years, people will speak about people like Amy Schumer, and Louis C.K., and Hannibal Burress, and Maria Bamford in similar ways, when we see their whole bodies of work.
Do you think it’s harder now to push the envelope? Is it harder than when you first started making content? Because, like you said, things have really progressed, especially over the last 20 years or so.
APATOW: Yeah. I mean, there’s only one Elvis Presley shaking his hips. That being said, there’s also always a lot of resistance to honesty and deep thought, and challenging the establishment. That’s why you don’t get that many All In The Family’s on television. That work is very hard to do. They say that there are episodes of All In The Family that you probably couldn’t do now. As a result, comedy people continue to have to fight to express themselves. That’s why I think it’s exciting to be in the Jerrod Carmichael Show. The Carmichael Show got picked up for another season, because it think it works in that great tradition, where we have shows like South Park, and Veep.
Veep is incredible.
APATOW: Amy Schumer’s show. With distance, we see how groundbreaking these shows are. There is only one show, or one comedian, who gets to be the first to go to channel for one Thursday.
Is there some talent out there, someone that’s maybe caught your eye recently, that you’re looking to hunt for new projects?
APATOW: I’m always talking to people. It’s not that complicated. I just find somebody and say, “Do you have any ideas.” If they do, we just start thinking things around. Sometimes something comes from it, and sometimes something doesn’t. There’s lots of people that I really like. It does become about the idea, the concept works. I like when people are very passionate about what they want to write about. Even if it’s silly, you can be very passionate about it. The Lonely Island guys, they love this world of music, and these bizarre celebrities, so it’s a very heartfelt movie. Also, it is about a group, and a group coming apart. Because they’re a comedy group, they really present these emotions of what happens when the music industry descends upon you.
APATOW: That’s always been our favorite thing. That’s why we loved Airplane, and The Jerk, and Anchorman. When that works well, it makes for a hilarious movie that also has some hidden, thoughtful ideas inside of it.
I think it was very smart to root it in what’s ultimately a pretty emotionally effective story about friendship.
APATOW: Yeah. That’s what I always think of when I watch these bands. Whenever I see Beyonce kicking ass, I think, “How are the rest of Destiny’s Child doing right now? How are they feeling about all of this? How are the Commodores feeling after Lionel Richie leaves? What’s the rest of The Police thinking?” It must be a very difficult thing when you have such an intimate work experience with a group of people, and then someone breaks off. My heart is always with everybody else. I know I likened that to the movie. It explores how these relationships work when money and fame hit. I used to work at the Larry Sanders Show, so I feel like it’s very related to a lot of the issues Gary Shandling wrote about at the Larry Sanders Show. It’s not that different than the relationship between Larry Sanders and Hank.
I’m out of time with you, but considering you have so much in the works, is there something that you can’t wait for people to see?
APATOW: We just started shooting an HBO series called Crashing, that stars Keith Holmes. That is something that I think people are really going to like. It’s about a young, struggling comedian couch surfing in New York City. There’s a lot of great guest stars on it, like Harvey Lang, and TJ Miller, and Sarah Silverman. It’s a fun way, and an ongoing way, for us to explore that scene.