Yesterday, I published my review of Netflix's Love, one of my favorite new shows of the year so far. (Its first season debuts Friday.) A romantic comedy about a walking disaster of a woman (Gillian Jacobs) and the nice guy (Paul Rust) who falls for her, it was co-created by Rust, Lesley Arfin, and Judd Apatow, who between Freaks and Geeks, Girls, and his many movies (including Trainwreck, whose title he says he lifted from this project), has plenty of experience finding the most mortifying aspects of interpersonal relationships.
At press tour last month, Apatow and I spoke about the Netflix experience and the many ways TV has changed since his days on Freaks and Geeks and The Larry Sanders Show, why he thinks comedy episodes shouldn't be limited to 30 minutes, how Jacobs (who had a recurring role on Girls last season) wound up in Love, and a lot more.
You've worked for HBO under two different administrations. You've done network. How does doing a show for Netflix compare to either of those?
Judd Apatow: Well, it's similar to HBO in that they trust you and give you a lot of creative freedom while being good partners and being honest with you about what they think is working and not working. But that's very different than how network handles it, which is they really think they're creatively collaborating with you. And my experience has been that they want to be a part of most of the major decisions and it tends to water things down. I had a very specific type of terrible network experience where I was told that people like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel weren't leads, so it truly drove me mad. So to be trusted is all I value.
You hear different things from different people about how collaborative Netflix is. Do they give notes?
Judd Apatow: Yeah. They read all the drafts. They watch all the cuts. You can feel the difference when people believe in you and when people think, “I think it would be better if I picked the cast than if the creator did it.”
You like to let things run long if a bit is working. Netflix has no time slots. I think your first episode is about 40 minutes; you've got some others that are well over 30.
Judd Apatow: Yeah. It's a dream. We're like Making a Murderer: you never know how long our episodes are going to be.
Your movies sometimes run over two hours. Do you think that there is a length past which an episode of comedic television should not to go, or if you feel the individual bits are working, they're working?
Judd Apatow: It's just a story, and some stories feel like they need more time or less time to tell. To not obsessively have to trim or add that final two or three minutes is very helpful, because you can just organically follow how the story feels. And other shows have done it in the past. There's a lot of Curb your Enthusiasm episodes where Larry David felt they were over and I think it benefits from that. I also don't think because a story has humor in it means it's brief. For some reason, people think anything that's 30 minutes is a comedy, comedies can be longer or shorter, so can dramas.
Yeah. Paul (Feig) has said he still looks at Freaks and Geeks as an hour-long comedy.
Judd Apatow: Well, watching shows on Netflix is a different experience because most people are sitting there for three to five hours. Very few people even watch one episode. So it's not like a movie theater where you want to the movies to be shorter so you can go urinate. You can pause and urinate at home, and if something is longer, you're allowed to stop and eat breakfast and then watch eight more episodes.
So let's talk about that. How, if at all, did you guys find yourself structuring the storytelling differently under the assumption that at least a few episodes would be watched in a row?
Judd Apatow: Someone said to us early on that people tend to watch three to five episodes of these half hours. So we just tried to imagine what that experience would be like and why you would stop watching. And you never really know what people are going to do, but it allows you to have this be one continuous story, and then you can take a break wherever you want. I think other shows are not suited to this. When we work on Girls, I feel like it's helpful for people to have a week to digest what happened. When I used to watch The Sopranos, I enjoyed the week of debates and discussion about it. But with this story, it tends to benefit from the fact that people are watching a lot of it at a time.
Okay, but other than the story taking place chronologically, how do you decide, “This is an episode, and then we're moving on,” especially since you do have the flexibility to make of the episodes as long as you would like?
Judd Apatow: Well, it's a story of a relationship, so each episode is a little bit how the relationship clicks forward a step. So, this is the first time they saw each other. This is the first time they talked. This is the first time they called each other. So there was a logical break in the story.
So even if people are going to watch a bunch at once, you want each individual episode to feel like a self-contained unit?
Judd Apatow: Yeah. Each episode is a little movie. It's not like we broke it up in a way where we just stopped halfway through a story and with a cliffhanger because there's usually a strong conclusion to every episode.
Jill Soloway says that a lot of the time, she just likes to be able to slide things from episode 3 to episode 7.
Judd Apatow: We didn't do any of that.
Was this in development and then you put Gillian in Girls, or Gillian was in Girls and you said, “I want to do a show with her”?
Judd Apatow: She was on Girls first, and early on we thought this would be great for Gillian. But she was doing Community and there was some question about what her commitment to Community would be. And literally the day I had the sense that she might be available, I said to Paul, “I know it's really early, but it's rare that somebody that strong and perfect for a show becomes available, so let's pursue her with all we have in this 15 seconds between jobs for her.”
So what did you see in her that made you say she's the one?
Judd Apatow: She just seemed very appropriate for the part. It just intrinsically felt like a perfect match to what we were all talking about, because she's a fantastic dramatic actress but really understands comedy ,and I felt like that she could do both simultaneously very well, and there's not that many people who can do that.
As I watched this, my notes frequently included the phrase, “This is not healthy.” Not just what she was doing, but what he was doing, and what they were doing together. So it's a love story between two people who maybe, at least at this point in their lives, are not meant to be together.
Judd Apatow: That's what the tagline could be: “An unhealthy romantic comedy.”
Where did the idea come from?
Judd Apatow: Well, Paul and Lesley were interested in doing something about relationships, their observations of their relationships and the relationships of their friends. And I had an idea in a notebook years ago about a TV series that would cover every single beat of a relationship. And the initial idea was that it would be called Trainwreck. I stole the title from it before we started working. And my initial idea was that at the beginning of the show, you would say to the audience, “These two people are going to break up.” This is even I think before The Break-Up. That's why I didn't do it, but I liked the idea of telling the audience, “This is going to be a disaster; let's see how it plays out.” With this show, we don't have an intention to break them up or not break them up – I guess we'll decide as we go – but I liked the idea of a TV series that showed every beat. So if people pause between calling each other for a few days, that might be several episodes, and that has been the fun of it is to show all the things that you usually skip over.
Now, in terms of the title, one of the many avenues with which people have chosen to attack Girls is the title itself: “This isn't about all girls, so why call it that?” And Love is, again, a very broad title. How did you come to it?
Judd Apatow: Well, you can say that about any movie: “This isn't about all bridges with spies.” I don't know, I've come to believe that the simpler the title, the better. Whenever I try to get cute with it, it seems to be a problem but if it's just The 40-Year-Old Virgin, people seem to know what they're in for. And early on, I don't know why, we just said, “What if we just call it Love?” And then we found out there's a very, very provocative foreign film that came out of this year with graphic sex called Love, which quite frankly I want to see, but I thought that felt appropriate. It's hard for me because I'm inside of it to know what it feels like to the outside. But hopefully when you see the trailers and the commercials, what it means is this is one experience of love. This is their unique experience.
Speaking of graphic sex, is there anything you can do on a Netflix show that you can't do on an HBO show?
Judd Apatow: We haven't tested any of that. We've certainly found out where the line was at HBO and we'll find out on Netflix.
Where is the line at HBO?
Judd Apatow: I don't even want to say it. I don't even think you can print it but we know where it is.
Some creators come to Netflix and then say, “I never want to work anywhere else.” You have a lot of different irons in the fire, but Girls is going to end next year. Have you given any thought to the idea that (Netflix) is the first place you're going to take other TV projects?
Judd Apatow: I've been working for HBO since I was 18 years old and have just the perfect experience with them. My first job was working for Comic Relief in 1986 as an intern. And then I worked there for years. My first writing jobs were writing Tom Arnold specials for HBO, so I love working there. And I like the difference between the two services. I think it's fun to have people see everything at once, and then I think certain shows are very well-suited to being on every week and being spread out over months. I have a bunch of other projects at HBO as well, so I'll definitely be doing a lot of stuff with them also.
The time machine question: if you could somehow liberate the young Seth, Jason, James (Franco), everybody else and try to make that show today, where would you make it?
Judd Apatow: Well, at the time we wished somebody from a cable service would pick it up. The only people who were willing to pick up Freaks and Geeks was MTV, but they wanted us to cut the budget in a way that we didn't think we could do the show correctly. In some ways, it was good to have the restrictions of network television, but there could have been a fascinating version of Freaks and Geeks, which was much more explicit, but it would have been very, very different. It would have become much harder-edged and I can't say if that ultimately would have been better or worse. There's no way for us to know.
I know you've said that one of your ideas for the season 2 that didn't happen was Lindsay would have a drug problem, and certainly the cable version of the drug problem would be very different from the NBC version.
Judd Apatow: Yeah. That was one of Paul's ideas, to really show how it affects the family when a kid is having a major drug problem. But again, the network would have been very bold to explore that. At the time, the (current) critic for LA Times was at the LA Weekly, Robert Lloyd, and he talked about how it felt like we were doing a television version of independent film. That was why we were having so much trouble succeeding on network television, and that there was no place for that. And what's interesting is now there is. Now there's a zillion places for that. But back then, you seemed like a crazy person when you were trying to push the boundaries of network TV. People looked at you, and they were offended by the fact that you didn't follow the generic rules of what was expected on network TV. Now it's weird, the only way you survive on all these services is if you're groundbreaking. There's pressure to be groundbreaking, which is the greatest thing that's ever happened. It's a bizarre aspect of what's happened with all of these subscription services is everyone is trying to outdo each other by doing great things. How insane is that?
Do you see any downside to that?
Judd Apatow: There's no downside. The only downside is there's lot of shows and will anyone remember any of them three days later? Sometimes, you think, “What is the difference in impact on the country between All in the Family and modern-day South Park?” South Park couldn't be more brilliant, but when the entire country was watching one show there was a major discussion happening; is it possible for that to happen in a 1 million channel universe?
But in terms of what you alluded to before, with the release schedule of Girls, every week there are a thousand Girls think pieces, while this thing is probably going to be consumed in a weekend by a lot of people.
Judd Apatow: Yeah. It's weird as a creator, because you don't really know the timing of what people watch. Because say a lot of people watch initially, but over the course of the next three years, other people catch up. You're not in rhythm with your audience to talk about it, but is that important? I really don't know if it's important. I know that I jump on Netflix and go, “Hey, I'm going to catch up with Sense8,” I don't know if I care what the creators think, or the fact that I don't know many people who are catching up with it the same week as me. So I'm not sure. I know that when The Sopranos was on, after every episode I would call Jake Kasdan, and we would just scream with joy and laugh about every amazing detail of it. So I don't know if that's happening in the same way.
Between Girls and Trainwreck and this, you've done a bunch of things recently involving complicated women who make self-destructive decisions. What have you figured out about doing that? Because female characters in comedies are judged very differently from male characters, and you know this.
Judd Apatow: I'm just trying to be truthful and collaborate with people who have interesting things to say. And I think it's been really fun and a learning experience for me to get to collaborate with all of these brilliant women. So ultimately, I'm glad that there's a lot more of that happening than 10 or 15 years ago. I think people like Lena Dunham really opened up the door to what was possible, and they've inspired young women to go into filmmaking and writing and directing and acting in a way that maybe they didn't before, because now there is a path and there are jobs. TV needs a lot of product, so I think now people can think I can make a living doing this and they're correct.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org