Two and a half years ago, Judd Apatow released This Is 40, the most personal film of his career. He was anxious. He usually is. His default setting is inward panic.
"I don't know if people can understand the pressure to be funny," Apatow says today, "just knowing how badly you can fail and how embarrassing it will be."
To the public, Apatow had nothing to fear. He was the king of comedy, the overlord of an unprecedented seven-year, 21-film barrage of hits and near-hits that he'd either directed, written or produced. His leading men had become marquee names: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Paul Rudd. And Bridesmaids had recently given him his biggest box office haul ever.
But Apatow is fueled by his obsession with flopping. "I work hard and I'm pretending to be positive," he admits. "In my head, I'm not positive at all."
Like the George Bailey of comedy, Apatow is less aware of his successes than of his stumbles: the stand-up career he abandoned 25 years ago at age 22, when he realized his roommate, Adam Sandler, was the funny one; the collapse of The Ben Stiller Show, which took him a decade to recover from; the quick and cruel cancellations of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared — his one-two Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after which he swore off making television and dedicated himself to film.
Today, Apatow has a therapist and a hypnotherapist, and even so, he jokes that when crossing a busy street he speed-walks as if pleading to the impatient drivers, "Please don't hate me, I'm a good guy, if you knew me you'd like me, I'll never see you again but your approval is vital to me!"
For Apatow, This Is 40 was the end of an era that began with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and had christened him, for better or worse, the Lord of the Dudebros. He had become the paterfamilias of 21st-century comedy — and his movie man-children were graduating. Rogen and Franco would go on to form their own clans. Hill would earn two Oscar nominations. Segel would stake a claim with Sundance indies. Rudd would star in a Marvel superhero movie. Apatow's film family — the one he'd held together for 12 years — was splintering.
Adding to the pressure, This Is 40 not only was a story about his marriage, it starred his wife, Leslie Mann, and two daughters, Maude and Iris, and even squeezed in a cameo for his 90-year-old grandmother. Awaiting the reviews, his guilt was intense. If people didn't like it, they weren't just rejecting him — they were vetoing his actual family.
People didn't like it.
Part of the problem is that This Is 40 is too honest about Apatow's life. He set the film in a house not too different from his current Brentwood home, a kid-perfect oasis with three dogs, two tree swings and one angora rabbit. Though the film is devastatingly direct about the frustrations of marriage — few comedies can successfully depict the nice guy, in this case Paul Rudd, wishing his wife would "just, like, drift into a coma, from which she never awakens" — the posh digs made his characters look like ingrates. Apatow had priced himself out of the audience's empathy, even though the couple's fumbling selfishness was precisely his point.
"It's almost like a therapy session to write these movies," he says. "I covered a lot of ground. I did a show about high school, college, people who just got out of college, getting married, kids, being a comedian, sickness, death, financial problems, long-term relationships." With This Is 40, he'd finally caught up to his present. There was nothing left to say.
So Apatow stopped writing film scripts. Not only personal films, all films. He attempted to write a play, then put it away. He researched a couple other theater ideas, "but I never landed on something that I thought would work."
Maybe it was time to let other people speak.
When Apatow was a teenage comedy fan, all he did was listen. At 16, he hosted a radio show called Comedy Club at his Syosset, Long Island, high school. His mother, Tamara, worked at an actual comedy club, and the show was Apatow's excuse to hang out at her job and wheedle Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling into hourlong sit-down interviews, filing away all their advice until he was ready to take the mic himself his senior year.
Apatow dug out his tapes of those 30-year-old chats to hear what spoke to him now. He's older than Seinfeld and Shandling were then, and in those three decades fame had changed all of their lives. He decided to turn his archive of interviews into a book, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, out this June.