Life is messy: Judd Apatow on Freaks and Geeks, Lena Dunham and his return to standup

The writer-director-producers influence on comedy has been huge. So, why is he still drawn to themes of disappointment and embarrassment?

Judd Apatows office looks a lot like a workspace that might be inhabited by a slovenly, immature character from one of his movies or TV shows. Its cluttered with boxes, toys, records, scripts, magazines, sports memorabilia and various items of pop-culture detritus.

Im in the middle of moving stuff, mutters the 49-year-old, somewhat defensively. However, the rest of the four-storey West Los Angeles building that houses Apatows production company is testament to a decade of sustained success that changed the face of American movie comedy. At the start of this century, US moviegoing audiences were offered the choices of romantic comedies, raucous, gross-out comedies, intimate, improvisational indie comedies and heartwarming family comedies. In 2005, Judd Apatow co-wrote and directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a film that managed to encompass all these variant forms of comedy under one roof and make a star out of long-time supporting player Steve Carrell.

Posters of the films and shows Judd Apatow subsequently wrote, produced or directed, hang around the walls of his company. From Knocked Up to Superbad, Bridesmaids to Trainwreck, Pineapple Express to This Is 40, Girls to Love, Apatow has made sometimes surreal, sometimes emotional, sometimes meandering, always profane comedies his particular brand, and he has constantly taken a chance on the actors and comedians who star in them. Take The Big Sick, the rapturously reviewed film of the period in Kumail Nanjianis life when the woman to whom he was too scared to commit to (Emily V Gordon) fell ill and was placed in a medically induced coma. There are producers who may have agreed to allow Nanjiani to write his story. Few would have had the foresight to allow Nanjiani to star.

Watch the trailer for The Big Sick.

I contacted Amy Schumer because I heard her on the radio and I thought all of her stories sounded like movies. I had that thought again when I heard Kumail telling the tale of how he met his wife, Apatow explains. Plus, what it was like moving to the US from Pakistan and dealing with the fact that his parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage. It seemed like a great tale that hadnt been told before.

The fact that Nanjianis highest profile role was as the disgruntled Dinesh on Silicon Valley didnt discourage Apatow.

A lot of these people can carry their own movies. They dont need to be mega-famous, they just need to be amazing, he says, citing Will Ferrell and Steve Carell breaking through after some bit parts.

Working with Kumail is very similar to working with Kristen Wiig or Amy Schumer these are really intimate, passionate stories that just happen to be funny, he says. You dont have to have made another movie to deserve to be the lead. To be the lead, you need to be talented, charismatic and ready for your moment.

Still, the growing trepidation that he wasnt talented, charismatic and ready for his moment put Apatow on the circuitous route to the position of ubiquity he now occupies. The teenage Apatow, a native of Syosset, New Jersey, was a comedy nerd of heroic proportions, hauling around a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview the patient likes of Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld for his high school radio show, Comedy Club, which was enjoyed by exactly none of his fellow students.

When I was a kid, I was interested in comedy and entertainment, he says. I would sit and watch TV from 3.30 in the afternoon to about 1.30 at night. I also used to go to the library and look up articles on microfiche about Lenny Bruce dying. No one cared about comedy in my high school, but I felt like I had found some special nook and I felt like there was space for me to succeed.

As soon as he turned 17, Apatow relocated to Los Angeles to launch his own standup career. I did it for seven years, until I was 24, he recalls. I worked really hard but I didnt have a strong point of view about anything. When I started, I was working with Jim Carrey a lot and living with Adam Sandler. In a weird way, its a terrible piece of luck. Its like being in a band and your friends are the Beatles. You think, Why am I even doing this? and dont give yourself a chance to find out if youre the Yardbirds. You just stop. And then I started getting writing work, I thought, Oh maybe the universe wants me to write. Which I guess it did.

Judds good friends the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Photograph: NBC/Getty

Aficionados of American TV comedy of the 1990s may well remember seeing Apatows name as executive producer on The Larry Sanders Show, as writer-producer on Ben Stillers fondly recalled, short-lived sketch show and Simpsons producers Al Jean and Mike Reisss fondly recalled, short-lived The Critic. But it was another fondly recalled, short-lived series that paved the way for the style of comedy with which Apatow would become most closely associated. More people have watched Freaks And Geeks on Netflix than ever watched it on NBC, he says of the beautifully observed 1999 high school series that unflinchingly depicted the (few) highs and lows of being an uncool fringe dweller, and which was treated by its parent network like a sheet of soiled toilet paper stuck to its corporate shoe. I dont meet anyone who hasnt watched Freaks and Geeks, he says. Youd think it was Star Wars. Its sad because I dont think we said all we had to say, but theres an odd perfection to having one perfect season.

While its common knowledge that Apatow would continue his association with Freaks and Geeks cast members Seth Rogen (whom he would cast in his next fondly recalled, short-lived comedy, 2001s Undeclared), James Franco and Jason Segel, less has been made of the fact that a hefty percentage of that ensemble went on to successful writing, producing and directing careers. Was that as a result of his influence? I just told them what everyone told me, he recalls, which is, if you want to act, its going to be much easier if you can write some projects for yourself. You cant just wait around for people to offer you a job.

Seth [Rogen] and [writing and producing partner] Evan [Goldberg] were in that mindset: they had started writing Superbad when they were 13. Jason Segel probably hadnt considered writing, but Im sure he was inspired by seeing Seth write for Undeclared at 18. Then, one by one, they all started writing, even without any encouragement from me. Its funny how many of them have gone on to have that kind of career John Francis Daley [Sam Weir] wrote the new Spider-Man and directed Vacation. Busy Phillips [Kim Kelly] wrote the story for Blades of Glory.

He turns somewhat emotional at the thought of that ill-fated shows long legacy.

Its fascinating, he reflects. Thats why I was so depressed when it was cancelled. I knew something magical was happening. It was an amazing bunch of people, so it was brutal to be told you have to stop. Its good that everyones doing so well. He offers a sad, bemused smile. Its hard to even know what to make of it at this point.

Apatows bittersweet relationship with the small screen ended in 2012 when he began producing and co-writing episodes of Girls with its creator, Lena Dunham, who would go on to become his most polarising collaborator. Nevertheless, Apatow is unstinting in his praise for her.

When you have a strong woman whos comfortable with her creativity and her body, there are people who cannot handle it, he reasons. It says much more about them and their insecurities and prejudices than it does about the show or Lena. I think she completely changed television. If you look at TV before and after Girls, its completely different as a result of her being that honest and that raw. Thats why you have shows like Fleabag, Catastrophe, Casual, Love and Crashing.

Like Girls, Freaks and Geeks devoted a vast percentage of its brief life to concentrating on the vulnerabilities, awkwardness, delusions and failures of its characters. In his later directing career, Apatow continued to laser-focus on disappointment and embarrassment but at much greater length. I bring up his more divisive recent work, particularly Funny People and This Is 40, and ask if hes transitioning from comedies filled with messy emotions to emotional films that have some funny passages.

Superbad? Judd Apatow directing Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler in Funny People. Photograph: Universal/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

I feel like there are different approaches to making movies and telling stories, he says. Im probably this weird hybrid of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes. Im always attracted to the fact that life is messy, it doesnt fully line up. The slop of it is where I feel truthful.

I ask about the criticism that some of his films are overlong.

Its weird to make a movie under two hours long, because things in life are revealed slowly, he says. When you go to a superhero movie you have a sense a person is going to be killed. If you miss a fight youre not going to be confused about whats happening, so you can go to the bathroom. Because my movies are more emotional, if you go to the bathroom you feel like you might miss something youll want to see. So you feel really mad by the end because you have to pee really badly.

Decades after deciding his light shone considerably dimmer than Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow recently returned to the stage. Hes now a frequent and confident live performer. We were shooting Trainwreck and Amy [Schumer] kept coming back from the road, telling stories, he remembers, and it always sounded like so much fun. I thought, I miss performing and I miss being part of the tribe of comedians. I didnt even go to clubs for 15 years. I didnt know who anybody was. There were whole eras of comedy I didnt pay attention to. I never saw Mitch Hedberg in a club, and I regret that. So I started going up at the Comedy Cellar, and one night Dave Chappelle would show up, the next night Louis [CK] would show up, or Amy [Schumer] would show up. I had to follow Ray Romano and Andrew Dice Clay one night and I thought this is what I like more than anything.

Apatow, as previously stated, has changed the face of American comedy. His movies have generated more than a billion dollars in revenue. He can get anything made and he can make anyone famous. Given all that, how does he bring a relatable persona to the standup stage? Garry Shandling said to me, Youre only making a mistake when you try to act like a comedian. Im trying to be as close to myself as I can be with an audience, he says. Its like an extension of This Is 40. A lot of it is not knowing if Im doing a good job at anything at parenting, at work, at being a husband, at being alive at this time. I dont know, I could be screwing everything up.

Maybe his office could be tidier, but Judd Apatow is not screwing everything up.

The Big Sick is in cinemas on 28 July

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