As the actor said on his deathbed, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” tackles laughter and loss simultaneously, with Adam Sandler playing a comedy superstar who learns he has an untreatable illness.
Apatow’s earlier films as writer/director, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” were convulsively funny stories about three-dimensional characters, but even for him this seems an adventurous stretch. Although the tone is cheeky comedy, the title has a serious angle.
“It’s ‘Funny People’ as in odd, or troubled,” Apatow explained by phone from Los Angeles. Seth Rogen plays an aspiring standup who gets a job working for Sandler’s character, George Simmons, and learns that the isolated funnyman is much more complicated than he ever expected.
“There are comedians who are successful because they’re smart and a little different but not necessarily damaged or strange,” Apatow said. “And then there are a lot of people who clearly didn’t get enough attention in some way as a kid, or had a messed-up childhood. They’re looking for approval. It’s pretty easy for them not to deal with their issues when they’re given a lot of approval.
“Successful people are the last people to deal with their mental problems because their success supports them not changing, and that’s a little bit what the movie’s about. When everybody’s telling you you’re funny and you’re making a lot of money, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason to get your head together.”
In the early ‘80s, Apatow worked as a dishwasher in a Long Island comedy club where Eddie Murphy and Rosie O’Donnell performed. He created a radio show for his high school station, interviewing 50 comics at length, “just as an excuse to be allowed to ask them questions for an hour. I just wanted to sit down with Jay Leno and ask him how he did it. My evil plan worked.”
Apatow came to Hollywood at 17 and wrote for Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Roseanne and many more.
“It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t as good a performer as the people I was friends with, but I was good at writing in their voices,” he said. Apatow and Sandler shared a dingy apartment as they struggled for attention on the Los Angeles comedy scene. “Funny People” opens with Apatow’s home video of the 20-year-old Sandler making prank phone calls.
The idea of a young comedian hanging out with his mentor was one script idea Apatow had been kicking around for years. Another concerned a guy trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, and another was about someone who gets sick, gets better, and doesn’t know how to handle his recovery. “Then one day I realized maybe this can be the same movie,” he said.
The premise offered a substantial idea, even if “it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs when you hear it. But if you had this story about people having trouble connecting and trying to decide what’s important in their lives and did it in the world of comedy, it could be really fun.”
As a producer or writer, Apatow has had a hand in many of the past decade’s best-received comedies, including “Talladega Nights,” “Pineapple Express,” “Superbad” and “The Wedding Singer.” He’s also had his share of misfires, from “Year One” to “Step Brothers” and “Drillbit Taylor.” In “Funny People,” Apatow caricatures his ups and downs — and Sandler’s — with scenes and posters from George Simmons’ lowbrow hits “Merman,” “My Best Friend Is a Robot” and “Astro-Not.”
“It’s not just a goof on him — it’s a goof on all of us,” Apatow said. “We’ve made some movies that are more pleasant than hilarious, but sometimes you need that, as well.”
The 41-year-old filmmaker said he has nothing against so-so comedies, which he likens to the comfort one gets from warm soup. Apatow simply thinks the laughs are bigger when the stakes are higher.
“Comedy works best when it’s grounded in something that’s important to people,” he said. “So I generally head toward the more life-changing topics. Love and virginity, marriage and kids, and now mortality. The more people care, the more potential that they’ll laugh.”
Sandler, who is very choosy about projects outside his own production company, has ventured into heavy territory before. He affectingly played a 9-11 survivor in “Reign Over Me,” dug into the dark side of neurosis in “Punch-Drunk Love,” and played it straight in the cross-cultural romance “Spanglish.”
A longtime supporter of Apatow’s work, Sandler promised to “totally put myself in your hands and do whatever you want to do,” Apatow said. “And he was very true to his word. He never said a joke went too far or something cut too deep for him. He was very brave as a performer. He went off and wrote a whole new stand-up act” for scenes shot with a live audience in a comedy club. “He went above and beyond in every respect.”
Apatow said his goal is to make viewers feel something as well as making them laugh.
“It’s about second chances. What do you do if you’re sick and you get better? Can you live in the wisdom you were given when you were sick or do you just turn right back into the neurotic mess you were before? It’s important to me that the endings are hopeful in some way. That’s how I look at the world. I’m always looking for people trying to discover the best parts of themselves in a story. I would never end a movie with the message, ‘People are awful. The End.’”