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.
You left stand-up for writing, producing and directing television and films. What was it like to dive back in?
You forget how to write jokes for stand-up. There’s a real craft to writing in that style. Whenever I come up with an idea, I’m usually thinking about how it would be a part of a story or a scene. To think about how this observation would be a joke in a monologue is very different. So I sat down and listened to a bunch of comedy albums, just to remind myself of the rhythm of it. I had really forgotten what it sounded like, but you pick it up pretty quick. I did it for seven years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, so it slowly came back to me. Then I got way better at it than I was when I first did it all those years earlier. That felt good because when I was a kid, I had no stories. I didn’t have a strong point of view. What was I going to joke about, high school? Nothing had ever happened to me, which didn’t make for the most exciting act. Now that I’m approaching 50, however, I have more to say about everything that has gone right and wrong.
What comedy albums were you listening to?
I remember listening to some of Patton Oswalt‘s albums. He’s just one of the best joke writers of all time and such an incredible talent. It almost felt like it woke up a part of my brain that had been asleep for a long time. I just paying attention to what he was doing, and he was doing it so well. When I was a kid, I used to interview comedians. When I was 16, I got the chance to ask Jerry Seinfeld, “How do you write a joke?” It was this long interview in which he told me, “Here’s how I approach it. Here’s how I think about ideas.” I always go back to that, too.
You were an executive producer on Seinfeld’s recent Netflix special. That must have been a fun, nostalgic experience.
It was very special because he was one of the main reasons why I became a comedian. I was a gigantic fan. When I was in high school, I used to go to Caroline’s in New York to watch him. When I was 16, he was nice enough to let me interview him twice. Back when I was in high school in ’83 and ’84. To get to be a part of his special, where he’s doing the acts that I used to watch back then, really felt like the closing of a circle. He’s a brilliant guy and a really great person, so I felt really lucky to get to be around it all. As for working on his special, I was mainly helping with the documentary aspect of it.
Oh, you mean like the segues at his house?
Was that your idea specifically, or something Seinfeld pitched from the start?
That was Jerry’s idea, but I recommended that he use my friend Michael Bonfiglio, who I co-directed the Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry 30 for 30 with. Michael and Jerry made those pieces for the comedy special.
You poke fun at yourself and your career throughout The Return. That said, I imagine there was probably some pressure to knock this out of the park, considering your status in the comedy world.
I had some awareness of that, but for the most part, the pressure came from my own love of comedy. I wanted to do something that I felt was strong, that I would be proud of. I’m very aware that when you do bad work, the humiliation follows quickly, so I’m always trying to avoid that. But I didn’t get into my head too much about expectations. Because I think people watch so much stuff and move on so quickly, they don’t really care about anything all that much. I didn’t fool myself into thinking there was going to be so much discussion of my work. Instead, I just tried to do it as well as I thought I could.
That’s a good head space to be in.
Yeah. It’s never helpful to get too anxious. All it does is take up space in your brain that you’d otherwise need to be creative.
Unless the anxiety is part of your creative process, of course. Marc Maron, for instance, seems to thrive on it.
He’s just expressing what he’s feeling. That’s why what he does is so great. Because it’s raw and honest.
Speaking of Maron, with The Return, you’re joining him and a veritable “who’s who” list of comics with specials at Netflix. That must be a unique feeling.
It’s almost like walking into a bookstore. You walk into Barnes and Noble and there are 100,000 books and you think, “In my life, I’ll probably read 11 of these.” That’s what TV is turning into these days. You’re just going to have to pick what you watch the way you pick a book in a bookstore — knowing there are whole sections of the store you’re never going to get to.
You want your work to reach people. Certainly, it makes it difficult when there are so many more choices than there used to be. It used to be the only people who did hours were Robert Klein and George Carlin. That was all there was for decades, but people keep saying the same thing about superhero movies. “People are going to get sick of these.” Yet they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Hopefully, if people are very creative and they do good work, then this will just be another art form that is always around. There will be eras during which it’s more successful, or more popular, than other art forms. But if people keep doing such good work, I don’t think audiences will be getting tired of it anytime soon.
Meanwhile, comedy — as well as politics, the media, and entertainment in general — is also facing a public reckoning right now. Prominent men in the business, many of them long celebrated, are being outed as sexual harassers, assaulters, or worse. I mean, you’ve got material in The Return about Bill Cosby and Donald Trump…
Yeah, I do.
…but you’ve also got some big chunks about your family life, especially your two daughters. In a weird way, the bit about appropriate clothing in public and selfies seems relevant to all of this.
I think that that’s what we’re trying to figure out now, “How do we train our kids to be smart and safe. How should they feel about themselves? What should they be wary of, especially the dangers of technology?” I think what I’m trying to express is the panic of parents who are dealing with all these issues for the first time. We don’t know what these devices are doing to our kids. They seem happy as can be and we’re all freaking out, thinking that it’s destroying them. The truth is, we don’t know the answer. We probably won’t know for another 10 years or so, if being on all of these things — Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter — was a positive thing, or if it turned their brains into mush. We don’t know.
That’s really what I’m talking about. I don’t have any answers. I’m just having fun with ideas about our level of concern and how difficult it is to have conversations with your kids about it. They look at you like you’re nuts when you try to talk to them about it. That’s why I say in the special that they look at you like it’s the ’50s and you’re upset that Elvis is shaking his hips.
Who knows what the parental concerns will be when they’re turning 50.
You cover the gamut in The Return, but was there anything to didn’t mention? Or had to cut?
Because we shot it in the summer, there was a lot of debate about whether or not we should put anything political in the special since the world is changing so quickly. Even now, the special airs December 12th. Will Trump be President of the United States by December 12th? Who knows what’s going to happen? So I decided to leave a little bit in. For the Cosby piece, I thought, “Who knows if people are going to be talking about these issues by the time the special airs?” Now it has become a much bigger discussion than it was before. But yeah, that was the big debate we had about what to (and what not to) put in the special. Anything can happen. Anything does happen. You don’t want to have a special come out and it’s all political stuff from five months ago. I’m glad all those George Carlin specials didn’t have 15-minute routines about Jimmy Carter. But it just felt wrong not to discuss it at all.
Oswalt even joked about that in his latest special, that by the time you come up with a joke — let alone tape something — something else has happened.
Absolutely. I tried to be aware of that.
Judd Apatow: The Return premieres Tuesday, December 12th on Netflix.