We thought of it instinctively right away. We’ll just call it “Love” because it’s just so generic, it felt funny. I guess after the “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” I just thought, “What is it?” It’s “Girls.” What’s the show about? Girls. [laughs]. When it’s “Trainwreck” it’s like, what is she? She’s a trainwreck. Because “love” encompasses everything, [it works.] It encompasses both happiness and a mess. So, I like that it can be anything. And I’m amazed that we cleared the Twitter — @Love — which seems crazy that you can get that Twitter [handle]. You think Larry Flynt would have bought it. [laughs]
Judd Apatow is hopelessly devoted to comedy.
If not evident from his immediate joke in the above exchange, the already iconic comic writer, producer and director became “obsessed’ with the art at an early age — specifically, in understanding how to craft the perfect joke. When he was in fifth grade, he paid a friend $30 to write out a paper he’d already written on the Marx Brothers simply because the other kid had better handwriting than Judd did — and the paper wasn’t for a class. It was for, as Apatow states, “his own personal use.” His father would play old records of various stand-up performances like other dads would blast rock ‘n roll. His mother ended up working as a hostess at a comedy club where, at the impressionable age of 14, Apatow would sit and watch live comedy from ’80s icons like Paul Provenza and Jay Leno. From there, he snagged a job at his high school’s radio station and started booking interviews with various comedians in the Long Island area — only they didn’t know he was just a kid until he showed up at their doorstep, and by then, it was too late. They sat down, answered his questions and provided unparalleled fuel to the fire burning inside this young jokester.
Stories like this — as well as the actual interviews Apatow continues to do with comedians to this day — are explored in fascinating detail throughout his second book, “Sick in the Head,” but such background on the co-creator of Netflix’s latest original series, “Love,” is key in appreciating what makes the show work. It becomes even more applicable when trying to understand why certain parts don’t work because, above all else, the new half-hour comedy feels like one of the more subjective experiences on television. What some may find hilarious, others might see as troubling, only to have their positions reversed in the very next scene. So digging into the background and the thought process of one of its guiding figures might help fans find relevance in the 10-episode first season that could otherwise go overlooked.
For one, Apatow doesn’t see his films the way others do; the way our culture tends to accept movies that appear to fit into a specific mold. Even if it’s a mold Apatow himself helped form, like the Bromantic Comedy, that doesn’t mean one can presume to know what happens when the credits roll.
And being open to new formats is a crucial part of appreciating Apatow’s work. When he first broke out as a director, many critics slow to jump onboard the Apa-train complained about the length of his films. Seen through the lens of traditional romantic comedies — or just straight-up comedies — Apatow’s 116-minute “Virgin” and 129-minute “Knocked Up” were critiqued for being bloated, even while being praised for their consistent humor throughout. They didn’t fit the studio mold of 90 minutes and out, but through persistence and box office success came a gradual acceptance. Even if some still argue he needs to be stricter in his edits, Apatow has continued to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in comedies meant for mass consumption.
While “Funny People” and “This Is 40” weren’t met with the same praise (or financial returns) as his previous entries, each film illustrated the funnyman’s desire to find deeper meaning in his comic offerings. They not only ran longer (“Funny People” topped out at 146 minutes) and darker (“This Is 40” probably shouldn’t even be considered a comedy, even as a pseudo-sequel to “Knocked Up”), but they both continued to shed expectations associated with what Apatow was capable of creating.
“Love” feels like the next step in that process. Emboldened by the acceptance and success of “Girls” on HBO, a project he wrote and produced for the more experimental premium cable giant, Apatow is returning to TV for the first time as a creator since working on multiple one-and-done series on network TV (“The Ben Stiller Show” and “Undeclared,” both picked up and canceled by Fox, as well as the legendary “Freaks and Geeks” on NBC). And he seems excited by the possibilities, both in narrative and time.
Love. What is to you to make a comedy of it?
I think the basic instinct was, “What if ‘Knocked Up’ was a TV series?” What if you could just show the next day and the next day and how that relationship played out? I like the idea of that. I think one of the reasons my movies are long is that you need more time to explore these characters and all their ups and downs. So the idea of doing a series on Netflix is like doing a five-hour movie with pauses to go to the bathroom — which I like. That’s my ultimate dream, the five-hour movie.
I think we keep them all [between] 30-35 pages, but sometimes they expand. People improvise. In the moment, you feel this scene isn’t right. A lot of what we are figuring out in post is just how funny we want it to be. Like, should this be funny? Maybe, this is a more dramatic one and let’s lose the jokes. It’s very hard to make it real and grounded and have people be funny the way they are in life so it doesn’t feel sweaty. I don’t want to make you feel like some comedy writer thought of some witty joke. I’m trying to remove your thought that there is any production behind it. I don’t want you to think, “Oh, that director did a really cool shot there.” You really should disappear into it like you’re watching a documentary.
“Love” very much speaks to this ideology. “Real and grounded” are two descriptors that should pop up again and again for the series, whether you love “Love,” like it or run away as fast as you can. There are so many tonal shifts in the show they create their own distinctive pattern, setting a tone that’s hard to pin down and engagingly fresh.
Yet a criticism Apatow has faced a few times throughout his career does pop back up again. The central couple of “Love,” played by Gillian Jacobs (“Community”) and Paul Rust (“I Love You, Beth Cooper”) are your classic TV pair — physically. He’s a little dorky and she’s, well, very attractive. While it’s not quite the same extreme as a schlubby pothead played by Seth Rogen ending up with a put-together reporter portrayed by Katherine Heigl, the idea of an imperfect male still snagging the bombshell woman is one perhaps a bit too familiar to TV.
I think it’s always different because everyone likes something different. For me, I don’t think it’s a beauty issue. I think people are attracted to people that rile them up; with what’s wrong with them. I think you find your mom. I think you find your dad. I think you find the person in your life who fucked you up and might try to heal it through your relationships. More than you think, “I must be with a pretty blonde.” I think people unconsciously sniff out people that force them to heal. And that’s weirdly healthy if you can handle it. But every relationship I think people have sought that out, but it really isn’t the looks.
When speaking with Apatow about topical issues like diversity, it becomes clear he’s as focused on the future of comedy as he’s aware of its past. As dismissive as he is of the idea that comedies have to adhere to certain standards, he holds himself up to the loftiest of goals. Considering his devotion to studying the art of what makes people laugh, it’s fascinating to see him experiment with the many different ways in which comedy can be integrated into other projects.
Think about his career arc: Apatow moved from network TV comedy to studio-produced feature comedies to experimental studio dramedies to similarly challenging material on premium cable to a streaming series all his own; one that’s as indefinable as its title is generic. He could have kept pumping out big ticket laughers as a producer or recreating past successes as sequels to his first features, but instead Apatow always seems aimed toward what’s next.
And considering the unpredictable nature of not only “Love,” which (as Apatow mentioned earlier) doesn’t have to end happily, but of Apatow’s consistent practice of toying with expectations, it’s no wonder he ended up at Netflix — even if he’s far from the end of anything.
Well, you usually can tell. You usually sit in a room one day and say, “I think we’re done.”
Remembering that 30-page paper on the Marx Brothers a young Apatow wrote for fun, two things seem certain: When this devoted comedian thinks something should end, he’s probably right — even if he himself will be making us laugh in new and exciting ways for much, much longer.