[Updated with additional comment by “Girls” creator Lena Dunham.]
What’s it like when Judd Apatow asks to put your soul on screen? It’s a question that gets a laugh from his series stars and creators.
“I’d already given mine away,” Gillian Jacobs said.
Paul Rust agreed: “Soon as you step in L.A., man.”
Like a lot of jokes in a typical Apatow project, it’s funny because while it might not be true, it still feels real.
Audiences have gotten more than a taste of that recently — in fact, for a couple of years now, Apatow has been keeping busy to the point of being ubiquitous. Beyond the HBO comedy “Girls,” which Apatow first helped shepherd to the screen after seeing Lena Dunham’s feature “Tiny Furniture,” projects like the Amy Schumer-starring “Trainwreck,” the Netflix series “Love,” and Pete Holmes’s “Crashing” have helped create a new style of comedy that’s definably Apatow-ian: loose, grounded, and deeply, deeply personal.
As an executive producer, Apatow knows he has a type, though he credits the phenomenon to some of his earliest collaborators. “It’s probably from working with Paul Feig and Garry Shandling and realizing that when people write from that intimate place, it’s like writing a song,” he told IndieWire. “You realize, ‘oh, this isn’t just something that they were going to sell, this is their soul.’ I like when people are pushing themselves as deep as they can go.”
Apatow said this in front of Rust and Jacobs during a discussion of “Love,” which he co-created with Rust and Lesley Arfin. The series is based on Rust and Arfin’s real-life (and thus often awkward) romance, with Jacobs standing in for Arfin on screen. Partnering with Apatow to tell this particular story forced Rust out of his comfort zone.
But Rust acknowledged that the seeds for “Love” were planted years earlier, thanks to the beloved and tragically canceled Apatow-Feig drama “Freaks and Geeks” (which, in true Apatow fashion, mined Feig’s adolescence for inspiration).
“I was in college when Fox Family started showing ‘Freaks and Geeks’ [reruns] and I was dating somebody and she was like, ‘You have to watch this show, you’d love it.’ So we started taping it on VHS tapes. And for the next four years in college I wrote some of the worst stuff, just based on trying to rip off ‘Freaks and Geeks,'” Rust laughed. “And then I was so embarrassed by the stuff that I wrote in college, because it was so confessional, that it kicked off a decade of writing absurd sketch-comedy and that weird stuff that was completely divorced from my feelings because I was like, ‘I can’t go back there!'”
After Rust and Apatow collaborated on the writing for “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” Apatow “dragged me back,” Rust said. “So, now I’m doing stuff that in a few years I’m sure I’ll be embarrassed by.”
Apatow chuckled about the idea of “dragging” Rust back to the world of confessional storytelling. “I didn’t know that he was resisting… [With ‘Pee-Wee’], we started in this silly space, and then we started kicking around this idea,” he said.
“Yeah, and I was happy to,” Rust added. “With Judd’s track record of working with people and getting stuff out of them — you know you’re not just exposing yourself for something that’s going to be garbage.”
Knowing that, it’s clear working with Apatow in this manner seems to require a huge amount of trust and emotional honesty. Rust noted that it also means “knowing that it’s only going to be good if you’re writing from that place. It’s very clear when you’re in denial.”
It’s a pattern that Dunham confirms as well. Via email, she reflected on the early days of developing “Girls,” noting that “I remember Judd always pushing to make it more emotional, organic. It surprises people to know he’s about so much more than the laughs. He’s an emotional compass.”
Added Dunham, “I can’t even conceive of a world without Judd — he’s a hero, a mentor, a friend, a collaborator. He’s the best there is.”
Benefitting from Apatow’s experience this spring is Pete Holmes, whose origins in stand-up comedy are currently being explored by the HBO series “Crashing.” Aptly paired with “Girls” on Sunday nights, “Crashing” focuses on what happened when Holmes’ marriage ended abruptly and the struggling comic found himself couch-surfing in New York.
Fun fact: As recently as this January, Holmes’ ex-wife had no idea that her former husband was making this show. “I don’t know anything about her, because we haven’t talked since we split up,” he told IndieWire at the Television Critics Association press tour.
But he is hopeful that if she does watch it, “She’ll see, firstly, the story’s been changed completely, but I also hope that she can tell that we wrote a three-dimensional, believable, relatable character. It’s not like a Disney cartoon where she’s some sort of villain.
“There’s a lot of my therapy, working out what it’s really like to get divorced, in the conclusion of the show,” Holmes added, a distinctly Apatow-ish sentiment. But it was the details of Holmes’ personal story — growing up religious, with a completely different outlook on life — that drew Apatow to it.
“I liked that there was an undercurrent of discussing faith and religion, which is something I haven’t written about,” Apatow said while discussing “Crashing” with Holmes. “I think that it’s interesting to have a character who is interested in both comedy and his faith. The world of comedy can be very dark, there’s a lot of temptations, so I like to see someone trying to keep their soul while getting involved in the profession they love.”
When Holmes originally came up with the idea to write about his marriage, he almost immediately realized “that seems like a Judd Apatow show… This feels like something I think he would like.”
Fortunately, the pair had already met thanks to Holmes’ podcast “You Made It Weird,” and so Holmes — in between gigs at that time, due to the cancellation of his TBS talk show “The Pete Holmes Show” — was able to get Apatow’s encouragement to start writing the show on spec.
“I wrote a whole bunch of scripts, and I was always emailing them to him. He’d be good about getting back with notes, sometimes it’d be right away. And then he’d just be like, ‘Great, write another one. Great, write another one. Great, write another one.'”
Apatow said he saw something very specific in Holmes at that time. “I could tell that Pete was having his moment, that he really understood who he is and what he does,” he said. “And Pete had the time to write four scripts, and that’s how people get these opportunities. Amy Schumer bangs out a draft of ‘Trainwreck.’ Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] write ‘Superbad’ when they’re 14 years old. You have to put in that extra effort to show people what your vision is.”
Fortunately, the writing process wasn’t a painful one for Holmes. “It’s such a personal and fun story for me to tell, even though some parts are obviously emotional,” Holmes added. “And then we went to HBO and we pitched it. It was crazy.”
HBO has of course been a home to Apatow for decades — he references the 1986 “Comic Relief” special as his first job, and wrote for the groundbreaking “Larry Sanders Show” in the 1990s. But even when it comes to pitching shows, he prefers to go in with some concrete example of what he’s offering.
“I think it’s always terrible to pitch an idea for a show and then try to develop it with a bunch of people, because you’re only going to water it down,” he said. “It’s much easier to just take the time to write your pilot, and then show it to different networks or streaming services, and see who gets it, see who the right partner is for your work. Because sometimes you meet someone, they seem great, you sell your idea, and when you get into the nitty gritty of it, you don’t agree at all. It’s very easy to create a partnership that’s not healthy.”
It’s an attitude which speaks to the organic nature of the style which Apatow has been cultivating all this time, going beyond one man’s personal voice to create a whole subgenre of comedy, one that’s spiraled out to inspire countless other shows.
How might we define this subgenre? Call it oversharing. Call it a confessional. But there’s really only one term that might define it best: Apatow-esque.
“Crashing” was recently renewed for a second season. “Love” Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix, with a third season planned for 2018. And the final season of “Girls” is currently airing on HBO.
Additional reporting by Graham Winfrey.