It's pretty &%*@!# great to be Judd Apatow right now. (Sorry, but it's impossible to talk about the writer/director/producer of so much potty-mouthed comedy without at least pretending to cuss.) At 45, he's in the centre of his life, and in the bull's eye of the action: married to his frequent collaborator, the actress Leslie Mann; father to two talented daughters; prodigiously talented; and so prolific that if you drew one of those intersecting-circle graphs of the major players in comedy over the past two decades, he would be the spot where they most overlapped, connecting Garry Shandling to Will Ferrell to Lena Dunham and everyone in between. His backyard barbecues must be epic.
The Apatow style, where "Ha ha" and "Gross" and "Oh my God!" collide, is so recognizable that it deserves its own adjective – I nominate "Apatovian." He's the guy, remember, who encouraged Kristen Wiig to put the poop scene in Bridesmaids. Yet, during a recent joint interview with Mann in a Toronto hotel, Apatow also seemed impressively normal – an affable talker who doesn't indulge in false modesty (he knows he's riding high), but who isn't an egomaniac, either.
"I'm a fan of comedy," he says, when asked how he's been able to stamp his imprimatur on so much of what you've laughed at lately. "I'm trying to get work out there that I want to see – like, 'I like Lena Dunham's work, it would be fun to help her get her show going.'" (He's a producer on her HBO series Girls.) "A lot of it is just helping to protect people so their stuff isn't watered down."
He survived his own gauntlet of naysayers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when his TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were cancelled prematurely, and when Universal shut down his feature-film directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, after the first two days of shooting. (They thought its star, Steve Carell, looked like a serial killer.) To get his film back up, "for the first time in my life, I shut my mouth and didn't fight," Apatow remembers. "I just 'yessed' them. People doubt you until something's a hit. And it's hard to be funny when everybody keeps telling you, 'I don't think that's going to be funny.' How do you debate that?" The movie's grossing over $100-million seemed to do the trick.
Lately, Apatow's work has taken a more serious and personal turn. In Funny People, a successful but obnoxious comedian (Adam Sandler) copes with cancer. And in the new film This Is 40, which opens on Friday, a couple with a strong resemblance to Mann and Apatow (played by Mann and Paul Rudd), with two daughters (played by Mann and Apatow's girls, Maude and Iris), make hay from the minutia of married life.
Granted, the film depicts an awfully privileged existence: Their "problems" include her not having enough time to work out, and his eating too many cupcakes. But the gist – in the midst of busy lives, we chafe against those we love – is universal enough that "a lot of people are saying that we must have a hidden camera in their house," says Mann, in her trademark squeak.
"We're constantly amazed at how stressed out we get by the everyday things," Apatow agrees. "Just talking to the teachers at school, feeling the pressure to do right by your kids' education, is enough to consume you. Or, if I don't floss every day, I'll live a year less." Sitting side by side on a sofa, the couple frequently – I think, unconsciously – mirror one another's positions: Arms rest on laps, then on the sofa's back; legs cross and uncross. She lets him handle most questions; he eggs her on with punchlines.
To make This Is 40 feel as real as possible, nothing from their lives was off limits. "It's personal, but only in that it's emotionally true," Mann says. "And that wasn't hard, because I think it's emotionally true to most people. I like that we're speaking more truthfully on these subjects. When I see people who are supposed to have been married 20 years, who hold hands and kiss, and every kiss is hot, and they're having magical sex every day, I'm like, 'Screw you! Don't make me feel bad about myself!' Maybe I'm wrong, maybe people do have that. But I don't believe it."
"Only the Clintons," Apatow quips.
Their daughters, who'd also appeared in Funny People, had a few limits. Maude, for example, does "a really specific, good impression of each Kardashian," Apatow says, but she forbade him from including it. But these apples were clearly grown on the comedy tree. They would pitch their parents lines and jokes, and at one point, Iris, who was 8, stopped mid-scene, held her hands up and said, "Wait, wait, wait – I got something." "It's my proudest moment," Apatow says.
Writing the argument scenes, Apatow and Mann found themselves defending their own character's positions, while at the same time pushing them, to make each spouse as awful as possible. "I think people fighting are funny when, even if they're wrong, they defend themselves to the death," Apatow says. " I first noticed it when we did The 40-Year-Old Virgin: There's a scene where Catherine Keener screams at Carell. It's dramatic and brutal, and it gets such big laughs. I thought, 'Oh, I like that, I would like to do more of that.' Because that's the way people talk. People get mean, they're hurt, and they say terrible things they regret. For some reason, that makes me laugh."
In one of the couple's most memorable real-life arguments, Apatow actually fell asleep, in the middle of the day, in the middle of Mann's sentence. "I got so stressed out I just went unconscious," he says. "Leslie was like, 'I cannot believe you did that.' But even in that moment I was thinking, 'That would be hilarious in a movie.'" But if you think making this film has made the couple more self-aware in their arguments, you'd be wrong. "Not at all," Apatow says. "That's what's wrong with us. We learn no life lessons."
"That's a lot of what being 40 is about," Mann says. "You have to admit to yourself that some things you wanted probably aren't going to happen, like, you probably won't learn to play the piano or speak French." She laughs. "It's kind of depressing. Like, I always thought I would marry the Prince of Monaco." Beat. "And then I married Judd."
"And we met the Prince of Monaco," Apatow says. "Last year, at the Academy Awards."
"And he wasn't that cute!" she says.
"He's losing his hair faster than me," he says.
"So it worked out," she says.
Like I said, pretty &%*@!# great.