VIDEO: Judd Apatow & Co. -- A 'reverse roast'
By Daniel Carlson
Events like Paley Fest, a TV festival put on by the Paley Center for Media, are always rife with contradictions: The stars on hand are inherently private people talking about their public lives, etc. But it's also a task in its own right to even go to one of these things, to drop the veneer of distance and cool on which Angelenos pride themselves and to go somewhere and cheer for the men and women who worked on a TV show that moved you. There's no greater way to sum up the weird dichotomy of the whole thing than in Judd Apatow, a writer, producer and director who's riding a wave of pop success after toiling for two decades making shows you probably didn't watch, or at least weren't aware included Apatow in their ranks.
His CV is basically the greatest hits of TV series that were praised by critics and beloved by a small, devoted audience but rejected by the kind of simple viewers who prefer "Dancing With the Stars." (Then again, in a sad programming move meant to make sure everybody feels welcome, Paley Fest is devoting an entire night to "Dancing With the Stars," which is too terrifying to think about.) Overall, though, watching Apatow and his cohorts share the stage, tell stories about their careers and generally screw around has the same relaxed, easygoing and consistently hilarious air as Apatow's movies. It wasn't so much a panel as it was a group of friends hanging out, friends who share the same goal of making honest, sharp comedy.
Of course, getting to the actual comedy took a while. After filing in and making my way to the center of the seventh row -- about as close as possible without springing for premium ticket package, which wasn't happening -- I endured an hour of TV theme songs while staring at the giant screen upon which the Paley Fest logo was being projected. No one should ever have to hear the theme to "Gilligan's Island" through the Cinerama Dome's sound system. But after everyone had made their way in and sat around for a while, and after the woman next to me had haughtily told her friend that the song playing at the moment was from "Dexter," even though it was, in fact, from "Six Feet Under," which annoyed me more than I should probably admit -- after just more waiting than you'd expect, the show finally got under way.
Paley Fest first screened a few commercials about the Paley Center for Media, and then one of their execs got up to talk some more, promising that the evening ahead would "set new records for fun," which is usually a sign of anything but. But Apatow finally took the stage and opened by saying, "I feel like this night's already going in the shitter." He was ripping the clip from "The Ben Stiller Show" that someone at Paley Fest had decided was most indicative of Apatow's earlier work, or maybe they just needed the scene because Apatow was doing a Jay Leno impression in one of his rare onscreen appearances. Whatever the case, Apatow let loose on the clip's poor quality with his hallmark mix of self-deprecation and a willingness to skewer authority, which set the tone for the entire evening.
The first guest out of the gate to join Apatow onstage was Garry
Shandling. Apatow credited Shandling with influencing his writing
chops, and said that working on Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show"
was a formative comedy experience. Shandling is a fantastic reactive
comedian, and the way he underplays his delivery worked as a perfect
complement to Apatow's laid-back storytelling. And since this
particular Paley Fest panel wasn't about a shows currently airing but
the mind of their writer, Apatow and Shandling just traded stories
about working together and their respective opinions of each other. It
was all pretty warm and fuzzy, actually, and Apatow called it when he
later referred to the evening as a "reverse roast." Shandling lavished
his praise on Apatow, citing the writer's attention to detail, fierce
work ethic and sense of fun when running a movie set. Apatow
deadpanned, "No one is going to jerk me off better than you just did." (Garry Shandling, left, and Judd Apatow on stage. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media)
The night took a turn for the surreal when Tom Arnold took his place onstage next to Apatow and Shandling. I can certainly understand the professional and personal respect Apatow has for Arnold -- Apatow wrote for Arnold, which put him in touch with Roseanne, which boosted his fledgling career -- but every word out of Arnold's mouth was the rambling quasi-joke of a madman. It's not that Arnold's a bad person, or even completely unfunny, since he did land a few punch lines; it's just that he's so not remotely close to the plane of comedic existence on which Shandling and Apatow reside, and onstage he came across as a keyed-up bundle of possibly self-medicated nerves. At the end of the night, the last guest to join the panel was Andy Dick, who acted as a willing foil for Arnold by half-seriously complaining about not getting to sit with the "movie stars" and just generally creeping everyone out. Audience members, panelists, everyone. Apatow included Dick because of their time together on "The Ben Stiller Show," but still, almost anyone else from that show -- Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, a P.A. -- would have been a better fit.
But the core of the evening was what Apatow called the "revenge" of the "Freaks and Geeks" set, referring to the wonderful and heartbreaking series he produced that ran for all of one season on NBC from 1999-2000. Apatow called up series stars Busy Philipps, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, as well as creator Paul Feig, and the basic love-in continued. They played a clip from the episode "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," which was originally banned from airing for what was deemed at the time to be an overly blunt portrayal of domestic violence. The swollen panel kept up the same basic theme by highlighting the privilege they felt to work with Apatow on series that put a premium on honest and intelligent comedy and character arcs. Philipps talked about the difficulties of doing outstanding shows like "Freaks" and a stint on Apatow's equally short-lived "Undeclared," only to have to return to "Dawson's Creek," which Philipps said was just "doing drivel to pay the bills."
Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill rounded out the group, but Hill refrained from speaking more than a few words because he blew his voice out hosting a great episode of "Saturday Night Live" a few days ago. Despite the sore throat and scratchy whisper, Hill did talk about the origins of the digital short he shot for the episode, in which he confesses to regular cast member Andy Samberg that Hill has been dating Samberg's father. Hill said he wanted the short to be another version of "Annie Hall," where he's recounting a relationship to a friend, only the relationship would be with a much older man.
From there, Apatow and Co. kept piling on the clips, including an
extended and recut version of the abortion debate from "Knocked Up,"
which in addition to unseen jokes offered the only actual use of the
word "abortion," which never appeared in the film. There were also
previews of "Pineapple Express," a stoner action-comedy (seriously)
Apatow produced that stars Rogen and fellow "Freaks" alum James Franco
and which hits theaters in August, as well as a breakup scene from
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall," another Apatow production, this one
written by Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller, a writer from
"Undeclared" who also had a small hand in "Blades of Glory," which in
turn featured story work by Philipps. Apatow's clique is nothing if not
prolific. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media)
Throughout the evening, the panelists kept coming back to the thing Apatow does best: He creates an environment that fosters truth in humor and storytelling. Apatow talked of his desire to connect with "failures and the pain that people feel," and Segel echoed that when he said he's always found humor and emotional resonance in stories of "men being very desperate and lonely." Even the breakup scene from "Sarah Marshall," where Segel's character is dumped while standing naked in his living room, is drawn from Segel's personal experience. And though it may have hurt him back then, it's only helping him now. It's the kind of contradiction that makes sense in Apatow's world, and that's fine by me.
Click here for THR's review of Apatow's latest feature, "Drillbit Taylor."