With “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s one-man laugh factory, made his mark with tales that mostly wallowed in all-out comedic bliss. Now, for his next act, he moves to the dark side and flirts with death. Talk about a potential buzzkill.
“Funny People,” opening in theaters today, tells the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a self-centered comedic superstar diagnosed with a terminal illness. While coming to grips with his grave condition, he hires a struggling young stand-up comedian (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him and serve as his personal assistant.
The film co-stars Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana and Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann.
Apatow sees “Funny People” as a natural progression in his growth as a writer and director.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to put your heart out there and hope that people don’t crush it,” he says. “I’m slowly trying to take more chances that way and be more vulnerable in what I’m writing about.”
But will it pay off? Make no mistake, “Funny People” goes for big laughs and contains the kind of raunchy humor that has become an Apatow trademark.
But by incorporating the somber storyline, he’s taking a risky departure from the formula that made him a major success – a formula replicated even in non-Apatow films such as this summer’s wildly popular “The Hangover.”
Some Hollywood insiders believe that “Funny People” won’t resonate with the young men who flocked to previous Apatow efforts. Moreover, the two-and-a-half-hour film’s $70 million price tag doesn’t exactly make it a safe bet.
Apatow, 41, acknowledges that the blend of humor and heartache in “Funny People” is tricky to pull off, but he stands by the creative path he’s taken.
“I’m a big fan of movies like ‘Being There’ and ‘Terms of Endearment,”’ he says. “I think the more weighty the subject matter is, the more potential there is for something to be funny.
“Oddly, the scenes that get the biggest laughs in the movie are the scenes that sound like the darkest, saddest scenes.”
At least Apatow appears to have an ace in the hole in Sandler, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. During their early 20s, the two men briefly shared an apartment in North Hollywood and have been good pals since. (The film opens with an actual home video of a prank call they made back then.)
Their relationship surely made it easier for Apatow to direct a scene in which Sandler has sex with Mann.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” he jokes. “I’ve seen my wife have to kiss people onscreen and sometimes it makes me sick. Sometimes it makes me angry.
“With Adam, I just laughed the whole time. It was like a fetish. I was happy to see my wife with a smile on her face.”
In addition to its serious themes, the film focuses on the culture of stand-up comedy, an obsession of Apatow’s since his high school days in Syosset, N.Y., when, as a host of a student radio show, he interviewed several famous comedians.
Apatow himself spent eight years on the grueling stand-up circuit before giving it up to become a television comedy writer.
“I slowly got better at it, but I was just a young kid with no life experience,” he recalls. “So there wasn’t much for me to say.
“Plus, I wasn’t that angry. To be a good comedian, you have to be (ticked) off at something.”
In a push for authenticity, Apatow had his actors, including Sandler, spend several months honing and rehearsing their own stand-up acts. Not surprisingly, the routines were laced with plenty of genital-fixated humor.
“We debated a lot in the editing room over how many penis-driven jokes to have in the movie and, at one point, I think we said there are just too many,” he says.
“But the truth is that, in the world of comedians, that’s all they talk about. In fact, they talk about other things that are even worse that we don’t deal with.”
Uttering many profane lines in the film is Rogen, who continues a long association with Apatow that began with “Freaks & Geeks” (1999-2000), the highly praised but lightly viewed TV series executive produced by Apatow.
The writer-director has been remarkably loyal to members of that cast, including James Franco and Jason Segel, who have appeared in several Apatow projects.
“I’m just trying to keep them out of penitentiaries,” he cracks. “When you hire people as children, you feel like you’re responsible for them for the rest of your life. I feel like I have this responsibility to keep them from hurting the citizenry.”