Judd Apatow is largely credited with giving new life to the R-rated comedy genre in the 21st century thanks to critical and commercial hits “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” But even though Apatow has found mainstream success with his films, he’s still very aware of just how far the comedy genre has fallen in Hollywood. There’s a reason one of the summer’s big comedy hits is the indie “The Big Sick,” while studio efforts like “Snatched,” “Baywatch,” “Rough Night,” and “The House” have all bombed.
Apatow recently sat down with Vulture for a wide-ranging discussion about his career, and the conversation touched on the director’s thoughts about the current state of the studio comedy. He believes the major studios are no longer “smart enough and funny enough” to make the kind of comedies that were once guaranteed blockbusters, such as Paramount Pictures’ “Airplane!” For Apatow, the difference between studios then and now are the way comedy scripts take shape during the production process. Apatow explains:
After the last writers’ strike, it felt like the studios decided not to develop movies. They used to buy a lot of scripts, and they had big teams of people giving notes, and they worked for years with people in collaboration on those scripts. I feel like the studios don’t buy as many scripts now. It used to be you’d open up Variety, and you’d see a movie studio had just bought a big high-concept comedy. Now it seems like they’d rather things come in packaged: a script, a cast, a director. As a result, a lot of great comedy writers are going to television instead of sitting at home and trying to write a script for a film, write the way I was.
Apatow certainly has a point here. Nearly all of the studio comedies that bombed this summer all came together as packaged deals, meaning the studios aren’t necessarily focused on quality as much as how marketable and profitable each package can be. “Baywatch,” for instance, was packaged as a Dwayne Johnson comedy vehicle, and that was enough to get Paramount on board given his massive popularity. Studios are no longer searching for and incubating comedy scripts the way they used to.
But Apatow also faults the critics for making the comedy genre an easy target for bad press.
“When you do a big, broad comedy and it fails, it’s an easy target for criticism,” he said. “I also don’t think critics have a great respect for the effort it takes to make people piss their pants laughing. They think it’s more honorable to show someone in torment, but being able to do that doesn’t make you more of an artist than being able to make ‘The Naked Gun.’ It’s not hard to make people cry. Kill a dog.”
Whether you agree with Apatow or not, it’s clear the studio environment in which he made “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005 no longer exists. Young writers can’t really pitch to studios anymore, and it’s clearly resulting in far less inspired comedies than what we were seeing a decade ago. Only “Girls Trip” has been the rare studio comedy to succeed this summer.
Apatow’s last feature was the Amy Schumer-starring “Trainwreck.” He has yet to announce his next project.