In 2015 — not long after he returned to stand-up after abandoning it two decades prior for a hugely influential career as a writer, director, and producer — Judd Apatow debuted some of his new material on The Tonight Show. In the two years since, has toured semi-regularly with his fellow comics, served as master of ceremonies for several Judd Apatow and Friends comedy shows, and performed at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival. That’s where, in 2016, Apatow tells us he first spoke with Netflix after performing a set at the famous annual industry meeting. “It really was a dream come true,” he says. The result: his first-ever stand-up special, The Return, which debuts on Netflix December 12th.
You’ve talked previously about getting back into stand-up. Was there something you did, or something someone else said to you, that initially sparked your desire to tape a special?
I wasn’t thinking in terms of a stand-up special, but I performed at the Just for Laughs Festival in 2016. The Netflix people happened to be in the crowd, and afterward, they asked me if I wanted to do a special. I said yes, but asked them to give me a year to work on it. I thought I could make it better if I took another year to do it. Then I became really focused. There are so many great specials, and so many brilliant comedians working right now, that I really wanted it to be strong enough. So that it deserved to sit side by side with those other specials. That’s fun for me because it’s great to give yourself a very difficult goal. It really was a dream come true. It’s exactly what I always wanted to do when I was a kid.
What about the difficulty of the process makes it “fun” for you?
I think it’s great to have pressure. I just try to be as honest as I can be, and as unique as possible. I’m just a normal person talking about his life on stage and don’t want to come at it from some bizarre angle. I am not like many of the comedians I admire most, like Maria Bamford. I did stand-up one night with Garry Shandling and he said to me, “The only time you’re not doing it right is when you’re trying to be a comedian.” That made total sense to me because really you’re just sharing your life and trying to be funny — all the while talking about the things that are important to you.
Speaking of Garry, you’ve been very influential in the recent work of other stand-ups, like Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide or Pete Holmes’s Faces and Sounds. Is there anyone you sought out, or who gave your support, while building your hour?
Pete Holmes and Wayne Federman are two friends who are producers on the special. I did a lot of shows with them. Pete and I did the Kennedy Center with Michael Che last year. We went and did the Ryman in Nashville. In between tapings for Crashing, we’d sometimes say, “Let’s take an hour and a half and just write jokes for our acts.” A lot of times we’d go on stage together, bring out our notebooks with us, and try out new ideas with each other. We did this on stage at Largo in Los Angeles and it was really fun. That’s a lot of what I like best about it — the camaraderie.
What did you learn — or adapt — from doing shows together with Holmes on stage before crafting this hour?
It just gives you a little courage to try out some of your more odder ideas. If they didn’t work at the time, then Pete would just make fun of me. That’s when it becomes funny for a much different reason.