The Angsty Existence of Judd Apatow

 Austin Hargrave

It is easy to assume the young Apatow resembled the nerds who figure so prominently in his early work. And yet he was vastly more focused.

In his teens and early 20s, he began to write jokes for comedians including Garry Shandling, whom he helped craft a monologue for the 1990 Grammy Awards. (Years later, James Franco would enlist him for his own Academy Awards monologue, though the material went unused.)

"I had zero wild years," Apatow recalls. "I had a wild week, maybe. I threw up once in college and thought, 'I don't want to do that again.' But you know, I was writing for Roseanne Barr. She was in the middle of all of the insanity of that time, and I would go to her house and write jokes at her breakfast table. She couldn't have been nicer."

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A habitue of L.A.'s thriving comedy scene, he soon became friends with the likes of Jim Carrey and Rob Schneider and for two years shared a North Hollywood apartment with Adam Sandler (who would star in Apatow's Funny People). He harbored aspirations of doing stand-up and one day being in front of the camera but was disheartened to discover that his friends' talents onstage dwarfed his.

"I thought, 'They're way better than me, and I don't see myself getting as good as them anytime soon.' At one point, it was painful. It was hard to be around Adam when you really felt the room drawn to him, and you're the guy on the other side, drinking a beer by yourself."

His spirits were dashed when he auditioned to host a comedy-reality show produced by Jim Henson: "Afterward, my manager told me, he said I lacked warmth. The guy that taught me how to read? Kermit the Frog says I'm not warm?!"

His lowest moment -- not including the time he narrowly missed being killed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when a chimney collapsed at his house -- came when Freaks was canceled in 2000. The combined stress, frustration and hurt led to a herniated disc.

"He had horrible back surgery -- that's physically how it manifested itself; he literally blew out his back," remembers Rogen. "After his surgery, he was f---ed up on painkillers, 24 hours a day for six months."

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That was when Apatow's anger would bubble over -- including once when he expressed fury at the teenage Rogen for smoking marijuana. "We were at that silly f---ing Japanese restaurant, Yamashiro," continues Rogen. "He sent me an e-mail the next day that was the most shattering I had ever received. And to this day I can't smoke weed -- around Judd."

Despite some of these setbacks, Apatow's career was skyrocketing. He co-created the short-lived Ben Stiller Show (1992-93), then joined Shandling as a staffer on the groundbreaking 1993 to 1998 HBO series The Larry Sanders Show. And after that came a sustained surge in which Apatow became integral to the comedy universe, with Anchorman, which he produced; The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he co-wrote and directed; and productions including Superbad, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Pineapple Express and Bridesmaids.

Apatow finally was at the hub of a comedy klatch featuring such talents as Rogen, Steve Carell, Rudd, Wiig, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Michael Cera. The one-time courtier was now king.

Maintaining his throne will depend on This Is 40. But even before it opens, Apatow is moving on to other projects -- some centered on women as well as men -- including Anchorman 2, which he is producing and which he expects will start shooting in March; and the Keira Knightley starrer Can a Song Save Your Life?, currently in postproduction.

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He says there are no plans for a follow-up to Bridesmaids: "I don't think that's a priority for Wiig. We worked on that movie for half a decade, and it took an enormous amount of effort and energy. So I totally understand why somebody would say, 'I have other creative ideas I want to explore.'"

As for This Is 40, the fourth film Apatow has directed (after Virgin, the less successful Funny People and Knocked Up), insiders at Universal reportedly were alarmed by its length -- 2 hours and 13 minutes. "There is always a moment where we debate how long should the movie be," Apatow shrugs. "And in a perfect world, everything would be an hour and 41 minutes. But the truth is, I always have 20 more minutes of story I want to tell. I'm sympathetic to their point of view, but they're not violent about it."

He pauses. "I've learned the hard way, you have to make sure you're in sync with your partners," he says. "They're very honest and tough on me, and it's not always easy for either of us."

He would love to just block such problems out -- to eliminate the pain and the personal angst they all cause. But he can't.

"I work from a place of deep insecurity," he confesses. "I'm very appreciative of my life; I couldn't be happier. But I hate the setup of existence. I wish I could just be a good person and [know] I'll go to heaven and be happy for all eternity. I so want to believe that. But I haven't gotten there."

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