PASADENA – “I was hurt and wounded and sad from my television experience,” Judd Apatow said of that strange period a decade ago when he was a fixture at press tour with a pair of shows – “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” – that were beloved by critics and mistreated by their networks.
Things turned out okay for Apatow – and Paul Feig, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel and almost everyone else he worked with on those two adored but low-rated series – and he was far more serene and confident when he came back to TCA to discuss “Girls,” the new HBO comedy series he’s producing with writer/director/star Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) and former “Undeclared” writer Jenni Konner.
In “Girls,” Dunham plays a young woman having a series of professional and sexual misadventures in Brooklyn. The show premieres on HBO on April 15, and I liked the three episodes I’ve seen a lot, in addition to being a longtime fan of Apatow’s work. (“Freaks and Geeks” was the first series I revisited episode-by-episode.) So after that panel ended, I joined in a small scrum to talk to Apatow about coming back to TV 10 years later, about the satisfaction of finding so much success in the movies with very similar material to what failed on television, and also about the reports of difficulty in getting a “Bridesmaids” sequel going as well as that movie’s Oscar chances.
Let’s start with “Bridesmaids,” actually, since Apatow insisted recent reports that a sequel was endangered were premature and/or inaccurate, since “we’re still in the fog of war” of promoting the original film.
He said he, Feig, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the gang would all be happy to do another film, but only if they have a good idea for it first.
“It truly is one of those situations where if there is an idea that makes everyone incredibly excited to do it, it could happen,” he said. “If we feel that it’s just a business proposition, it won’t happen. And that’s how it should be. I like sequels. I just made ‘This Is 40,’ which is a kind of spin-off of ‘Knocked Up’ with Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd, and ‘Get Him to the Greek’ was a kind of sideways spin-off of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall.’ I wish we could have done another ‘Superbad,’ so I always wish there could be another one, but it really shouldn’t be done unless the idea is fantastic.”
He called the idea of McCarthy, or anyone associated with the film, getting an Oscar nomination “hilarious and wonderful… I have to admit I voted for us,” and said in terms of Wiig, “I think it’s easy to underestimate how brilliant and complicated that performance is. People tend to reward negative emotions: a lot of crying and pain. But people who can find the truth of a character, but be hilarious and delightful and you also feel for them, it’s a rare talent. It would be amazing for Kristen, for Melissa, for the writing. Anything.
Does he expect major nominations, though?
“I always feel like we’re the 14th-best movie of the year,” he said.
As for his return to TV, Apatow said he would have only done it at HBO, since the only wholly satisfying professional experience of that phase of his career was writing for “The Larry Sanders Show.” Though he hasn’t been back on television long, and is back in the HBO cocoon, I asked if he felt the business had changed in the 10 years since FOX canceled “Undeclared.”
“I don’t,” he said, “but only because I’m sure network television is still a nightmare and I know that HBO is still a fantastic place to work. It doesn’t feel any different than when we did ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ and they were very smart and supportive. They seemed to balance their level of involvement in a way that really made you feel supported. It hasn’t changed at all, other than cable television seems even more the place where you can stretch your wings. Every now and then a network television show, someone does something amazing. It happens, but it’s really a miracle when it happens, whereas it feels like much less of a miracle at HBO because they encourage that.”
I asked if he takes any satisfaction in the success he and his collaborators from those canceled shows have had with material that is in many ways very similar.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It was heartbreaking when ‘Undeclared’ and ‘Freaks and Geeks’ weren’t given a chance to find an audience, they weren’t scheduled and marketed properly. I always believed in that group of actors and writers – Jenni Konner was one of the writers of ‘Undeclared,’ Nick Stoller was on ‘Undeclared,’ Seth Rogen wrote for it, Paul Feig created ‘Freaks and Geeks’ – so this was the group that we believed in. Just because they weren’t going to let us do these stories doesn’t mean we weren’t going to try to find a way to continue collaborating. It’s been a very joyous experience to find some mainstream success without selling out on what we thought was funny.”
Does he ever cross paths with the network executives who pulled the plug back in the day?
“Yeah, I bump into everybody every once in a while. I know you have to make a lot of decisions: what to cancel and what to keep on the air. I know it’s very complicated, and I’m not privy to how much pressure they’re getting from GE or Rupert Murdoch’s nephew at any given moment. I was certainly very hostile at the time. I’m more understanding now, now that I’m older. But what I really take from it that I was right to believe in James Franco and Seth Rogen and Linda Cardellini(*) and all those people. I wasn’t insane.”
(*) People often ask me when or if Apatow might work with Cardellini again, since she was the heart of “Freaks and Geeks” and is one of the only significant actors from those shows to not appear in any of his later work. He said he would love to, and that, “I never worked with a better actress.” He said eventually, he’d like to find parts for her, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, etc.
Apatow tried to downplay his role in producing “Girls” – when I interviewed Dunham and Konner later in the day (look for that story to run much closer to the premiere date), both of them said Apatow was being far too modest about his contributions – but said he was dazzled by “Tiny Furniture,” the movie Dunham wrote, directed and starred in that played the festival circuit a few years back.
“I was truly blown away,” he said of the film, which co-starred Dunham’s mother and sister was largely shot in her mother’s apartment. “As someone who just made a movie with his entire family, I respect people who do personal work. And it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s everything that I like. I couldn’t believe that when I called her and said, ‘If you ever need any help with anything, just call me,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m working on this HBO show with Jenni Konner, your close friend.’ I thought this seemed to be written in the stars.”
One aspect of the show Apatow will take credit for is the title.
“I have to say it was my idea,” he said. “I’ve had many different types of titles, but I’ve found that clarity seems to be important. And at the time, we didn’t realize every show on television was going to have the world ‘Girl’ in it. But it seems to capture the spirit of the show, in that it’s both immature and sexy at the same time.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com