It was less than 24 hours after peaceful protestors faced tear gas outside the White House so Donald Trump could have a photo op across the street, and Judd Apatow was stuck in promotional mode. “It’s certainly a strange time,” the director said by phone, one week before “The King of Staten Island,” hit VOD. The comedy giant knows his latest movie, which stars Pete Davidson as a semi-fictionalized version of himself in arrested development, doesn’t exactly fit the zeitgeist. He did his part to find some connections, anyway. “In my work, I’m trying to talk about how people evolve and grow to get to a better place,” he said. “We all approach that in different ways.”
When it comes to Trump, however, Apatow may have exhausted his punchlines. Back 2011, he helped Barack Obama’s team write jokes for the former president’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which included a now-infamous jab at Trump about “The Apprentice.” (In an interview with former Obama strategist David Axelrod, Apatow recalled the bit and said, “I’ve got enough guilt as a Jew.”) In the years since Trump’s election, Apatow has lambasted the country’s leadership with grim pronouncements — “It’s going to get worse and worse,” he said at a 2017 event — while evading pressure to incorporate the situation into his work.
Apatow doesn’t rule out making that sort of transition. “I think it’s important to mock somebody who doesn’t deserve our respect,” Apatow said. “That’s the purpose of political comedy and satire.” However, he has yet to take a sharp turn akin to Adam McKay, who went from the lowbrow antics of “Step Brother” to Oscar winner “The Big Short” and “Vice.”
“Obviously, I admire what Adam has done,” Apatow said. “It’s very challenging work, and I’m sure I’m going to try to make some projects that have smarter aspirations. It’s definitely a complicated world right now. Art — drama and comedy — will need to reflect it.” He paused, then doubled back. “But not all the time. Sometimes you want to talk about what’s happening, and sometimes you want to provide people with an entertaining break from all the stressful things they’re experiencing, and I assume we’ll do both.”
And sometimes, he said, funny isn’t the point. “There are times when I think conditions are so serious that comedy does not accomplish what we want it to,” he said. “If we really want to get something done, it’s getting everyone to register to vote. There’s a lot happening in the world, but there’s nothing more important than fighting voter suppression, gerrymandering, and getting the percentage of people who turn out to vote to be much higher.
“Voter registration isn’t entertaining or sexy to talk about,” he said, “but it is the way you change everything.”
The world has changed many times over since Apatow’s filmmaking career took off with “Knocked Up” and “The Forty Year Old Virgin” — movies about troubled white men and their libidos. Scott, Davidson’s character in “Staten Island,” is another messy man-child who still grapples with his firefighter father’s death and wastes his days getting stoned. The movie is grittier and more intimate than prior Apatow ventures, but Scott still runs his mouth (including one passing exchange where he jokes that he’s been “MeToo-ed”).
“There’s certainly material that we think about differently today than we did 15 years ago,” he said. “We’ve always debated the appropriateness of jokes. Sometimes that line shifts and it changes our conversation about it.” At the same time, he stressed the desire to remain true to characters like Scott, which draws on co-writer Davidson’s own bumpy road to adulthood. “I’m not trying to think about political correctness as much as I’m trying to think about how a character would actually communicate,” Apatow said. “There are people in the world who are not politically correct, who say immature things, or may be hurtful. That’s part of the definition of who they are.”
Alison Cohen Rosa / Universal Pictures
The industry continues to grapple with the need for more diverse storytellers, and Apatow is proud of his company’s support for “The Big Sick” in 2017. He alluded to other projects in various stages of development. “It seems that the most productive way for our company to handle it is give opportunities to people who usually don’t get them,” he said. “I want to support visionary people. Sometimes you try to do it and the project doesn’t work, but we keep attempting to break down walls.”
By working with Davidson, Apatow faced recurring questions about the comic actor’s public health. One month before production started on “Staten Island,” Davidson endured a public suicide scare, but Apatow shrugged off perceptions of the actor as a head case. “What you’d hear about Pete was always a very small piece of it through a specific media prism,” Apatow said. “In real life, Pete’s a very driven, ambitious artist who’s been doing standup since he was 15 years old. He’s not some lost pothead. He was born to make movies. He was great at being very aware of dynamics between certain people.”
Apatow spoke about the movie as a drama in which humor emerged through an organic, improvisatory process. “With certain types of personalities, no matter how serious the circumstances, they tend to behave in a way that has some humor to it,” he said. “They might be funny because they’re so angry and mean funny things. There’s humor in all of these moments. In life, that’s what we do.”
Yet it was the subject of “Staten Island” that Apatow said convinced him to embrace the moment and agree with Universal’s decision to release the movie as a Premium VOD rental, rather than delaying the release so it could come out in theaters whenever they reopen nationwide.
“It became clear that there were only two choices — to hold onto it for a year or more, or to put it out on VOD very quickly,” Apatow said. “My instinct was because the movie is about trauma, how people handle grief, first responders, and healing, it felt appropriate for it to come out now. I hope it makes people happy but also helps them process what they’re dealing with every day. It felt wrong to hoard it for a year because it would be nice to experience it in theaters.”
While “Staten Island” has found a way forward, Apatow expressed concern for many of his peers in the comedy, particularly those who do standup. “There are lot of comedians who work really hard the whole year traveling the country, and they don’t make a fortune,” he said. “A pause like this can be very damaging. I’m most concerned about everybody who needs to make a living.” If there was a silver lining, however, Apatow said the profession wasn’t losing its currency anytime soon. “No matter what’s going on, something funny tends to boil up,” he said. “It’s how we survive.”
Asked about the potential for other filmmakers to write comedies against the backdrop of recent events, Apatow was unequivocal in his response. “I think you can talk about anything if your heart is in the right place and it is done intelligently,” he said. “In fact, it would be wrong to not create art about issues which are so important.”
“The King of Staten Island” is available June 12 on VOD from Universal Pictures.