Judd Apatow And Barry Mendel Discuss Producing ‘The Big Sick’ And The Changing Face Of Comedy

Getty Image / Lionsgate

Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel have been teaming together to produce hit comedies for a decade now, beginning with Funny People, and continuing with Bridesmaids, This is 40, Trainwreck, and now The Big Sick, written by married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. The film stars Nanjiani and is based on the actual story of how he and Gordon got together, which features the unusual element of a medically induced coma.

The film is also centered on Chicago’s stand-up comedy scene, of which Nanjiani’s character is a fixture. Nanjiani, of course, has long been a fixture of the national stand-up comedy scene in real life, and it’s interesting to see Apatow and Mendel return to the world of stand-up comedy in film nearly 10 years after Funny People. I had a chance to sit down with the producers to discuss The Big Sick, the rapidly changing world of stand-up comedy, and Apatow’s propensity to move character actors to the forefront.

You’ve got so many wonderfully talented people in the movie: Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham, and Kumail, of course. I want to know, how much of the comedy club scenes was in the script and how much was that just people bringing their own stuff to the table?

Judd Apatow: Well I mean, we knew what we wanted to happen at the comedy clubs. But if you say, this is a sequence where a bunch of comedians give you a hard time because your ex-girlfriend’s in a coma … You know we know that we’ll write some jokes and then we’ll also let everybody improvise. It’s hard to create the spirit of comedians giving each other a hard time, or just the way they talk, without letting people adjust their language and pitch jokes. So we’re always going for naturalism.

Barry Mendel: We also would say like, “Bo is gonna play the kind of like, overconfident comic.” And just say we had the idea of what they would do, but they had a huge contribution to what their acts were and what they were saying.

Apatow: I’ve been a fan of Bo’s since he was a young teenager. [Laughs.] I met him maybe the first night he performed live. He was at Just for Laughs in Montreal in 2008, maybe, and just became famous from the YouTube videos. And so we put him in Funny People in the Thanksgiving scene. And I always thought he was going to be a giant star.It’s exciting just to get him involved and to callaborate with him.

Mendel: If he wanted to be a big star, he could be a big star. Because he’s incredibly handsome, funny, and a good actor, and just kind of brilliant.

Apatow: And he’s directing a movie now.

Since Funny People came out, there’s now another generation of comedy. What is it about the world of comedy, and stand-up comedy in particular that makes things move so quickly?

Apatow: In what sense? Moves quickly, just people’s careers or … ?

Mendel: Like it’s cycling through faster?

Exactly, yes.

Apatow: Well, I think that’s the case with every type of culture right now. I was reading something about how they say most kids don’t care who the singer is on the radio. That they don’t know who anybody is, and they have no interest. So they might have a few people they love, like Drake or Katy Perry, but if a song comes on the radio and they’ve never heard of the artist, it doesn’t bother them. That’s why there’s so many one-hit stars these days, because people are cycling through a lot of entertainment quickly. They don’t need stars, they don’t even need continuity. I don’t know if they are tracking, “Oh I can’t wait ’til that person’s new record comes out.” For a few people, but for the most part they are just happy to get something good, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

I think that people want something funny and then they go “What else you got?” I don’t think they’re waiting the way that I waited for the next Steve Martin movie. I think they’re waiting for the next funny thing, obsessively waiting on the next Harold Ramis movie the way we did as kids. But I could be wrong, because I’m not a child.

Do you think that that sort of mentality is what leads to, especially in your work, so much ensemble work, as opposed to one person trying to carry the whole film?

Apatow: I never care if anyone is famous or not famous, that’s why we worked with a lot of people on their first movies. I’m interested in people having a great story to tell and if they’re interesting. But I’m just attracted to the movie more than “Oh I can’t wait to do that person’s next movie.”

Mendel: I also think, kind of as a fan of comedy, you’ve been good at finding… Let’s find all these little parts with … Like if you look at the supporting parts, like tiny little parts in Five-Year Engagement, you will see Kevin Hart, Kumail, you’ll just …

Apatow: Mindy Kaling.

Mendel: Mindy Kaling. Nick Kroll. These are in tiny parts and it’s really, I think, starts with Judd just being somewhat of a fan, connoisseur of people who are funny but make him laugh. That’s a world he enjoys, and so you kinda put great people in little parts and they just kind of pop. And so I think when you say things are ensemble, partly, an edit is a Darwinian struggle for what is great. And so when you put all these great people in the movie, and they’re all bubbling up, it kind of tends to maybe take a little focus off the star in a good way. And just the world feel a little richer.

And back to Freaks and Geeks and 40-Year-Old Virgin, you havecharacter actors in each subsequent film that get pushed to the front. Seth Rogen was the funny sidekick, and now he’s Seth Rogen. Do you think we’re moving towards a future where there’s less of a Tom Cruise leading-man type hegemony, and now character actors are going to be the people that we really pay attention to? Or is the story just the story, and that’s the compelling part?

Mendel: Well in the olden days, Humphrey Bogart was in a matinee idol, you know what I mean? And Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t like the world’s great beauty and you had Barbra Streisand and… so I don’t know if it’s like some revolutionary idea. [To Apatow] But you should have gotten Chris Pratt [as a lead], you should have done him, Chris Pratt. He was also another supporting actor in Five-Year Engagement and was so good at it.

Apatow: Oh yeah, he was great. I mean I’m more interested in the side person. I always loved John Candy more than anybody else in any movie, and so, I think that’s why I relate to, so I want to see stories about the people who are usually the supporting people.

What’s the best John Candy role?

Apatow: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

I loved the casting of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter together. That was sort of a revelation and they do so much of the heavy lifting in the film. Take us though the casting process and what it was like to really discover what Holly and Ray had that chemistry.

Apatow: I think it happened very organically. We sat at a dry-erase board and we listened at all the men we like in this age group, and all the women we like, and we started drawing lines between them, like something from from Homeland.

I had gone on a college tour with my daughter to Carnegie Mellon and there was an acting class there, and at it Holly Hunter was watching kids do scenes and then giving them notes, so my daughter and I got to watch that for three hours. And it was incredible. So when we were going through the names, sometimes I’d think, “Oh, I think I saw that for a reason.” I sometimes I feel like, “Oh, that’s why we stumbled upon that class.”

And then [with Romano], I was on the 1992 HBO comedy special with him, and have been a giant fan [of his] for a long time. And as we thought of different combinations, suddenly it just occurred to all of us that that would be a magical combo. And then it just turned out to be better than our wildest dreams, cause you are thinking about energy, who’s calm, who’s intense, who’s funny, who’s dramatic, and will that chemistry work? And you don’t know until you get into rehearsals, if you made the right choice, and then I think we immediately thought, “Okay, this is a grand slam home run, go”

Mendel: It started with Holly though, because the main thing that you want to feel in the beginning [of the film] is that [Kumail is] terrified of these parents, and so to try to find someone who is funny, think of Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou, Broadcast News, and also just like so fierce that you’re just like, “whoa!” It was a really … We’re so lucky that she said yes.

I just asked Holly this question upstairs and she said, in her words, “You’ll have to ask those other jerks.” What makes Holly Hunter so likable?

Apatow: I just think she’s just an honest, direct person who’s also both tough and very warm and funny. She’s… There’s no bullshit there, and that’s what was fun about this, and she got very deeply involved in her character, and asking hard questions, and developing the material, and that’s one of the things that we were excited about. And that’s happened to me a bunch of times, where you’ll get an actress who’s so strong that it makes you want to make the movie as good as that person. So when Catherine Keener agreed to be in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it just put us all on our heels, and we thought, “Well, this script better be or she’s gonna kill us.” And we need this movie to be as good as Catherine Keener is. And that’s just happened time and again with different actors and actresses that we look up to.

Mendel: And it’s cool that she wanted to roll up her sleeves and help us with the script and really dive in. And when she’s talking about the plates that her father broke, and all that stuff when he messed up, that she’s bringing from her life. She’d literally — the blanket that she puts on Zoe in the hospital is a blanket she brought from home. There’s a level of commitment that she has to her character and what she’s doing that is inspiring.

I was just speaking with Michael Showalter, and he’s someone whose career I’ve been following for basically 25 years at this point.

Mendel: Do you have Sandwiches and Cats, do you have that record? It’s a good record.

It’s an amazing record. You look at his three comedies: he started with The Baxter, then Hello, My Name is Doris and now The Big Sick. And just from Hello, My Name is Doris to The Big Sick, you’ve sort of, in my estimation as a viewer, seen him become a fully-formed director and have a vision, have a voice.

Apatow: When I saw Hello, My Name is Doris, I was taken by how well he balanced drama and comedy. I like how credible all of it was, it’s very delicate work. It also pulls at your heartstrings and is also very funny. He has a lot of respect for those characters and there’s a real James Brooks approach to it that I always seek out, and he reminded me of other people we’ve collaborated with that did an amazing job because of that skill, people like Greg Mottola, and David Gordon Green and I found out they were friends, I didn’t know Michael was friends with Kumail and Emily, and I thought, “Well maybe they’ll have a real intimate connection about this.”

And he couldn’t have done a better job. And there was an enormous amount of script development and as we got serious, “Is this really gonna happen?” And he’s also a great, tough writer, and he had very little time to shoot the movie. It was a short shoot. And he really got perfect performances from everybody, it’s quite stunning, you wouldn’t know how quickly they shot it.