PaleyFest: Judd Apatow Talks Canceled Shows, Working With Lena Dunham

"Everything I've done in a way is revenge for the people who canceled 'Freaks and Geeks,' " said the honoree as he reflected on his career.
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Judd Apatow

PaleyFest kicked off Monday night when the Paley Center for Media presented writer-director-producer Judd Apatow with the second annual PaleyFest Icon Award.

In presenting the award -- which recognizes individual creative achievements in television -- Paley Center CEO Pat Mitchell highlighted Apatow's TV works, including The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show, Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks and, most recently, Girls.

Roseanne Barr introduced the honoree, reminiscing about the time she hired Apatow to write jokes for her on an HBO comedy special. "I discovered him, and I'm proud of it," she told The Hollywood Reporter before the event. "He's a great filmmaker, director, writer, everything. He's got it all going on."

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Onstage, Barr led into the Q&A portion of the evening, praising Apatow for his "humanistic" ability to weave a story so well, with an eye for sensitivity. "Plus, it's pee-your-pants funny," she told the crowded room, which was filled with Apatow's past and present collaborators, friends and family, with wife Leslie Mann and daughter Iris Apatow seated in the front.

The panel, moderated by Entertainment Weekly's Dan Snierson, centered on questions about Apatow's television journey over the years, from his earliest writing gig with Barr to his present-day collaboration with Girl's creator Lena Dunham.

Apatow pointed to Paul Reiser of Barry Levinson's film Diner as one of his early influences, especially after he found out that Reiser made up a lot of his lines in the movie. "That connected with me, and I thought, 'Oh my god, you can get a job on a movie when you have funny things to say?' "

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He also was impacted by Dave Eggers' book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. "It was so honest and painful and vulnerable that it made me realize that you could go that far, and the work is better," he explained.

Additionally, Apatow called out his good friend Gary Shandling in the audience for his guidance before playing a clip of The Larry Sanders Show that featured Ellen DeGeneres and Bob Odenkirk. "I learned almost everything I know from Gary," Apatow told THR before the event.

During the time Apatow was writing for Shandling, he wrote a spec script for The Simpsons -- after only six episodes of the show -- where Homer is tricked into thinking he is 10 years old after attending a hypnotist's show. When he's told to snap out of it, Homer runs away because he doesn't want to be an adult again with responsibilities.

"I mentioned that at a panel once because I think that's the script to everything I've ever done in my life," joked Apatow. It wasn't until a year ago, when Apatow shared the idea onstage, that he received a call back about it. "They rewrote all of it, but the idea is still there," he said of the upcoming episode.

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After touching on The Ben Stiller Show, the evening paid a special tribute to Freaks and Geeks, showing two different clips, one of which starred the present John Francis Daley. The show, created by Paul Feig, was distinct from the many sitcoms that filled the networks at the time. The "anti-Dawson's Creek" series, as Apatow put it, was canceled after only one season, which was particularly disappointing for him. His next television venture, Undeclared, lasted even fewer episodes on the air.

"Everything I've done in a way is revenge for the people who canceled Freaks and Geeks. It's like, 'You were wrong about that person and that writer and that director,' " said Apatow. "I guess I should get over that."

Apatow took a break from television for a successful run on the big screen with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids and This Is 40. He revealed to the audience that he's found that television is much harder work than movies -- "a thousand times harder."

However, after watching Dunham's independent film Tiny Furniture, he knew he wanted to get back into television to work with her. "I just felt like she was a very special person," he said before showing a clip from the season-two finale of Girls.

He spoke highly of Dunham's creativity and work ethic. "I've never met anyone who's excited when they are told what needs to be better and runs off with glee to do it," he said of her writing style, joking, "Usually you give a writer notes and they're in pain and doubting who they are as a person." Renewed for a fourth season, Girls is one of Apatow's longest-lasting television series.

The 46-year-old hopes to create more shows in the near future. "It's a great time in television," he told THR. "The audience is very excited for innovative television, so hopefully something will occur to me."