The godfather of comedy... Judd Apatow
From helping produce Girls to mentoring Steve Carell and Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow has given some of today's big stars their comedy breaks. Our film critic talks to the director about his new film and returning to his first love, stand-up
It is impossible to discuss American comedy over the last two decades without mentioning Judd Apatow. The writer, producer, director and performer has been responsible for many of the biggest Hollywood comic hits of recent times, from Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Superbad, Trainwreck and Bridesmaids, and has helped launch the careers of Steve Carell, Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. In his latest project, another star is born.
The Big Sick, which Apatow produced and had a large hand in facilitating, is based on the real experiences of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V Gordon, and stars Nanjiani as a Pakistani-born Chicago stand-up who finds himself drawn into a very strange situation when his ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) is rushed to hospital.
Misidentified as her husband, he gives the go-ahead for an induced coma, which lands him in hot water when her parents turn up. Kumail's own parents want him to marry a Muslim girl in time-honoured fashion, and the stage is set for an ugly inter-racial confrontation. But it never really comes, because The Big Sick navigates the minefields of ethnic and cultural diversity with skill, wit and charm.
None of it would ever have happened without Apatow, who has a knack for spotting comedy talent and has done it again here. "I met Kumail about six years ago," he tells me, "at a podcast we were doing called You Made it Weird at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. We were showing the first episode of Girls [Lena Dunham's groundbreaking sitcom, which Apatow helped produce], and afterwards Kumail said he had some movie ideas. "He came in and he pitched me a couple of high-concept comedies, there was one about aliens I think, and at the end he said, I have this one idea that's the true story of my life. And he told me this story that became The Big Sick."
Nanjiani, who moved to America from Pakistan as a teenager, had met his future wife and writing partner, Emily V Gordon, when he was making his name as a stand-up comic in Chicago. They'd just started dating when she was taken to hospital with a serious lung infection, and placed in a coma. Nanjiani had waited dutifully at the bedside with her understandably bemused parents. "I was just riveted," Apatow remembers, "and I thought, wow, that would make such an amazing movie - I mean who has a story that incredible that's true?"
Getting The Big Sick made, though, would be a long, hard slog. "We kicked through an outline for a long time, then Emily and Nanjiani started writing, and for about three years I gave them notes on like a billion drafts. It was really hard and it took a long time, but they never gave up, they just kept writing draft after draft after draft, and when they had a good one, we said right, let's go and get some money from somebody and make it."
Comedian and film-maker Michael Showalter was brought on as director. "I loved Michael's movie Hello, My Name is Doris, and I felt like it was the exact type of tone we would need, because it was a serious story but we wanted it to be funny, and we didn't want the comedy to make you not believe that the woman wasn't in a coma. And he was friends with them already, which I thought was a good idea because it was such an intimate story."
Once Judd Apatow backs you, it seems, his commitment is total. Emily V Gordon recently commented that "we never had to worry about studio notes being like 'What if Kumail was Brendan Fraser?' - we never had to have those conversations."
The casting of a relatively unknown comedian in the lead role of a romcom was perhaps the biggest challenge in getting the film made, but Apatow insists "it was never something that was up for debate. Our production company, Film Nation, seemed to understand what we were going for and were very supportive. I think we got lucky, there wasn't any interference, we were able to execute the movie as well as we could."
There's a warmth to The Big Sick, but it also packs a hefty ethnic punch. When Kumail performs, he's greeted with such enlightened heckles as "go back to ISIS". Years of this nonsense have left him understandably thin-skinned, and when Emily's dad asks him how he feels about 9/11, Kumail's response is memorable.
"It was a tragedy," he says "we lost 19 of our best guys". It's a brilliant joke, a showstopper, but Apatow says "it also shines a light on something" serious.
"9/11 was such a horrifying event, but a result of it has been a billion people who had nothing to do with it and who don't support it in any way have to deal with people not trusting them, and that must be a nightmare, and such a pain in the ass. It's tragic, and through this joke we're able to see how that event changed people's entire lives. People are looking at them funny and they didn't do anything wrong."
This isn't the first time Apatow has guided comedians towards the big time. Back in the late 1990s, he and Paul Feig created a boldly original TV comic-drama called Freaks and Geeks. Set among the social outcasts at a Michigan high school in the early 1980s, it was cancelled after just one season but had a large and lasting influence: among its cast were Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and James Franco, who would later emerge in Apatow's informal ensemble of players and prove themselves as comics, actors and writers.
It was Apatow who teased the idea for The 40-Year-Old Virgin out of Steve Carell, who became a star on the back of it. After playing a supporting role in Apatow's 2007 comedy Knocked Up, Kristen Wiig told him about her idea for Bridesmaids, which would become one of the most successful comedies of all time. And it was through conversations with Apatow that Amy Schumer's Trainwreck saw the light of day.
"Well I like giving people breaks," he says, "but I also like working with people when you're just getting started in their careers because their identities aren't fully formed yet, and it's fun to try to figure out how their personality would work as a movie star or a TV star. People are most passionate when they're trying to break in, especially if you're telling a story that is taken directly from your life. That's why it's fun to work on The Big Sick or Trainwreck or Bridesmaids, because people will kill for these projects when they're trying to make a name for themselves."
Apatow's obsession with comedy dates back to his childhood, when all his heroes were stand-ups. In his early teens he got a job at a Long Island comedy club, and started a dedicated comedy show at his high school radio station as an excuse to embark on an ambitious series of interviews.
"I just wanted to get near comedians," he says, "and back then there weren't podcasts, there weren't long interviews with comics, very few books, you didn't ever hear comedians speak at length about their lives and their approach to their work. So in a way, on some level, I was trying to invent the podcast, because that's all it was! Every one of those interviews, you could call it a podcast - they were hour-long interviews with comedians and now that's such a common thing. I'm so happy, I listen to them all the time.
"I talked to about 50 people, you know Seinfeld, Leon, most of the original Saturday Night Live writers, John Candy, Steve Allen, Harold Ramis, Garry Shandling. And I did learn a lot about comedy and about how to approach my career by asking those questions."
Apatow started doing stand-up in the mid-80s after moving to Los Angeles to study screenwriting, but found the going tough. He worked regularly with Jim Carrey, and lived with Adam Sandler, which he has said was "a bit like being in a band and your friends are the Beatles". Writing and directing eventually took over, but Apatow has recently returned to the stand-up circuit after a 24-year hiatus.
"It's all I ever wanted to do," he says. "I grew up wanting to be a stand-up, but I didn't have a lot of stories to tell as a young comedian, I find it's much easier to do now that I'm about to turn 50, I have opinions, and all this experience, so it's been a blast. I missed hanging out with comedians and being part of the tribe, and some people said to me, don't you want to be known as a director and you're like bringing yourself down. And I said no, I don't want to be known as a director - I'd rather be known as a comic."
The Big Sick is in cinemas now