Behind every successful comedian, there's . . . a personal assistant. Who, given how egomaniacal and utterly misanthropic the funnyman in question is, is probably his best friend, too. At least that's the portrait painted by Judd Apatow in Funny People, a new film that examines what happens to wealthy-beyond-his-dreams comic George Simmons (Adam Sandler, Apatow's real-life roommate of two decades ago) when he learns he has a terminal illness, and how his aide Ira (Seth Rogen), a fledgling comedian, provides him with more than just a few dick jokes. Over the phone, Apatow — himself a former stand-up who has become one of the most wildly successful filmmakers of the decade (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) — talks about his fart-filled Citizen Kane.
When the film starts off, we see video of George as a kid making sophomoric prank phone calls. When we next see him, he's in this Xanadu-like mansion. Is this a commentary on the stupidity the public rewards, and how he is living in a House Made of Farts?
What I wanted to do was show how happy he was surrounded by friends when he was young and before he was making any money in comedy and what a pure experience it was — and then you cut to 20 years later and all his dreams came true, but now he's just alone in a giant house like Citizen Kane. And he doesn't know what the hell happened. The light has just gone out in his eyes. His spark has been doused.
What was his "Rosebud" moment?
His "Rosebud moment"? I don't know that he had a "Rosebud" moment, but he certainly had the big fireplace.
How much of you is in there when it comes to being a lonely, friendless kajillionaire?
Adam and I always say, "This is the guy we could've become if we didn't meet our wives and attempt to become normal family men." At some point, all of us had that epiphany that it's time to grow up and we can't sleep till noon and be completely self-indulgent egomaniacs — as fun as that was. This is about somebody that's having a hard time learning that lesson. When he gets sick, he realizes, "Oh, was it worth the trade to be this guy? I'm famous, but I actually don't have any people that I'm close to in the world." And when he gets sick, he literally has no one to call that he wants to share the news with and get support from.
Were you ever an Ira to somebody else?
I was an Ira to everybody — I just loved comedians — I couldn't believe they would talk to me. So I wrote for dozens of comics when I first started out — it was a great way to pay my rent. I wasn't making money doing stand-up — I made much better money writing jokes for other people. I wrote Roseanne's act for a year with Roseanne. I used to sell jokes to people: I wrote the Grammys for Gary Shandling one year, I wrote jokes for Jeff Dunham's puppet Walter, the old-man puppet, when I first started out. I wrote for a TV special for Colin Quinn and jokes for George Wallace, and it was always really fun. Those times were great. No one was miserable like George, so it took me a long time to think of a character that would make this relationship interesting. But what is very truthful is how excited I was to be with my heroes.
None of the comedians was George-like?
People were all a little George-like. But everyone who does comedy is really needy and has some relationship issues. Anyone who needs the world to love them and goes out in the middle of the night to get up on stage and hear laughs from 30 to 200 people, multiple times a week, is working through something.
Why is that? Why are comedians such dicks?
You have to be very angry to be a comedian — you have to see the world as unfair, and you want to rant and rail against it. But there are quirky, funny guys — smart guys — who aren't damaged, and they're just really funny, like Seinfeld, and Steve Carell, and Will Ferrell. And there's another group of guys who just think the system isn't fair and they want to tell you why. George Carlin would be the best example. A lot of great comedy is rage-driven.
How weird is it to direct your two pre-teen girls in a comedy with so many penis references? Does it seem strange to you?
It's fine for me as long as those things don't happen in the scenes they're in . . . and as long as they never see the movie. But I told my daughter Maude, who's 11, that I was going to edit a version of the movie that was appropriate just for her. I did that — and the movie's eight minutes long.