Judd Apatow (you may know him from Knocked Up, Super Bad, The 40 Year Old Virigin) rolled through town last week for a City Arts and Lectures discussion with Dave Eggers and to promote his new humor compilation, I Found This Funny. The book (“an unprecedented mega collection of supremely entertaining writing”) includes works from greats like Conan O’Brien, David Sedaris, Jonathan Frazen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver and benefits 826 National, the nonprofit writing and tutoring organization helmed by Eggers. I sat down with Apatow at the Ritz in Nob Hill to talk the book, Freaks and Geeks 10 years later and the best TV shows on today.
Had you read all of the pieces in this book before?
Some of them, but I also asked a lot of people for recommendations. That’s the one good use of James Franco. He’s busy at Yale and Columbia and he’s read about nine billion short stories and he asked his professors which ones I should read.
So which ones of James Francos’ recommendations made it in?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I have many emails from James with all sorts of recommendations. I should go back and see what his success rate was. What’s interesting about James is that what he did on Freaks and Geeks was really funny, but we didn’t find him funny when filming. He would improvise a lot and would score one out of 10 and the one that he did score was always amazing, but the nine misses were ridiculously off. And now he’s an eight or nine out of 10 kind of guy and he’s just evolved into such a wonderful, hilarious, sweet guy.
How did you decide what to ultimately include in the book?
There were a few authors that I wanted to include in the book no matter what. I love Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver. I also wanted to get in stuff written by Adam McKay and Simon Rich. It’s a fun combination of some of the greatest writers of all time and my friends who are also really funny and talented. They’re maybe not on Hemingways’ level, but damn close. And funnier than Hemingway.
Have any of the stories in the book made their way in any form into any of your movies?
Not really. What I read inspires me to have the courage to reveal more about myself. Certain authors point out aspects of yourself that you usually don’t have the courage to talk about. That’s why I loved Dave Eggers’ work, it’s so funny and emotional and makes you think, “Oh, I really haven’t had the balls to truly go there.” I read him in back in 2000 [Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius] and it inspired me to acknowledge that I wasn’t as boring as I thought. My protection from writing from a personal place was thinking that “I’m just boring.” And slowly I thought, “Well maybe people will connect to the weird little things in my head also.”
Why did you do this book?
I like when people tell me what to read. I loved when David Sedaris did his book for 826, a selection of short stories that he liked.
So this book is what you think we should read. What things do you think we should watch?
I’m a documentary freak. Definitely Living Doll, which is about the New York Dolls. I’m so excited for the Bruce Springsteen documentary Darkness on the Edge of Town.
What about TV?
Mad Men. Mad Men has been insanely fantastic this year. The last four or five episodes are about as good as television gets. That could change after I see all six East Bound & Downs though. I’ve only seen the first episode, but I laughed so hard. Sunday has turned into the greatest night on television with Bored to Death, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and East Bound & Down. I need to spread it over a couple of nights. I also live with three ladies [wife Leslie Mann and daughters Maude and Iris, who frequently appear in his films] so we’re very into Glee.
You tweeted that you saw The Social Network. What did you think of it?
Loved The Social Network. Love angry, cocky nerds fighting with each other. I mean, if I don’t like The Social Network, who is gonna like The Social Network?
What’s it like to watch Freaks and Geeks 10 years later?
I just watched one the other day and I was very proud of it. Things happen sometimes and they are a bit of a miracle. We got picked up when there was no head of programming at NBC and then when the new head of programming was chosen he instantly didn’t like us. So the entire time we were making the show, we knew that we were going to get cancelled. We didn’t save any ideas for Season 2. We just took every thought we had and tried to compress it into these episodes. That’s what makes it good, I think. We weren’t trying to appease anybody. We already knew they hated us so we did whatever we wanted. Yes, we are going to do an episode about Seth Rogen dating a girl with ambiguous genitalia and it’ll be grounded and compassionate and funny and sweet and they couldn’t say “you can’t do that,” because they were busy having another meeting that day, which was “what day should we cancel this show.”
Why did they hate you?
They thought that the characters needed to have victories. But the whole point of the show is that it’s about kids who have nothing but failures and how they deal with that. And they deal with that through friendships. The head of the network said “can’t these guys ever win”? The only bone we threw them was the episode where Bill the geek was playing softball and he catches the ball. And it’s this triumphant moment. And then we realize that it’s only the second out and all the players are tagging up and scoring and he actually did screw up the whole game, but he doesn’t care because he caught the ball. And that’s as far as we went in the victories.
You called Freaks and Geeks a ‘miracle.’ Can you say more about that?
When it was over I thought to myself, I will never do anything better than this. So that should mentally free me up to take chances and have fun because I peaked. And that did allow me to do a lot of the things I’ve done since then because I thought, everything else is just icing. This is our miracle moment. All of the actors and writers from the show have gone on to great success. In some ways I feel like I was part of a popular rock band that broke up.
Do you consider Freaks and Geeks your opus?
In a way Paul [Feig] and I do. At some point you think, well that was your moment when you were in the Beatles and from then on out you’re in the Plastic Ono Band. And it’s ok to be in the Plastic Ono Band but it’s not the Beatles.
Does it bother you when people call movies Apatovian?
I don’t care as long as no one says anything so much that people turn on me in some giant way. There’s nobody who is in mainstream culture who doesn’t have their critics. If you look up Tom Hanks on IMDb message boards, someone is going, “That guy’s a douche bag.” The coolest guy in the world! If you look up the Dalai Lama, “F--- him!” There’s just a flip side when you do well that someone’s going to be critical. You have to put your blinders on. If I wasn’t Judd Apatow, when people start calling things Apatovian, I’d say, “Screw that guy. That guy’s an asshole.” But I try to take it to mean comedies that are about friendships and relationships and people trying to be better. So hopefully that’s at the core of what it means. Or it means movies about dick jokes. I’m not sure.
Buy a copy of "I Found This Funny" here to benefit 826 National.