Judd Apatow may be comedy’s sharpest tastemaker, recognizing the full potential of Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”), Steve Carell (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and Lena Dunham (“Girls”) long before the rest of Hollywood’s gatekeepers.
For the past year, the director/writer/producer has also carved out time to champion a promising stand-up comic: himself.
Most of Apatow’s performances have been limited to the coasts and festivals — a set in Montreal was taped for a Netflix special released last December — but this fall he’s embarking on a short swing through the Midwest, including a stop Wednesday in Minneapolis.
Apatow spoke by phone recently about the comic who lured him back on stage, some valuable advice from the late Garry Shandling and how he’s coming to terms with the downfall of Bill Cosby.
Q: Why do so many people think they can do stand-up comedy?
A: I’m not sure they do. Most people are terrified of public speaking. It takes a certain kind of person to want to be in that position. It’s all I ever wanted to do. As a kid, I was obsessed with the comics that appeared on “The Tonight Show” and with Mike Douglas. But I kept getting work as a writer and didn’t have enough time to do stand-up. I missed it, but I never thought I would do it again. When I was working with Amy Schumer on “Trainwreck,” she kept going off to perform and she’d come back with these stories that sounded like so much fun. We were shooting at the Comedy Cellar in New York and I decided to do my old act just to amuse her. She was hoping I would bomb and was so upset when it went well.
Q: What does stand-up give you that you don’t get from writing and directing?
A: There’s an immediacy to stand-up that doesn’t happen when you’re making a movie. It can be five years before you know if a joke works. I also missed the camaraderie of comedians, just sitting and goofing around. When you become a director, it’s not like you hang out with other directors. I found it emotionally unsatisfying to just hang out with my editor all day.
Q: Has your stand-up set changed much in the past year?
A: It’s so different from being in a band. You have a hit and you perform it for the rest of your life. When Led Zeppelin starts playing “Stairway to Heaven,” you don’t say, “Oh, yeah, you told me that last year.” The debate all comics have is: How much do you throw away? In the old days, I’m sure Milton Berle did the same act his entire life, but then you look at people like Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt, who put together a whole new hour every couple years. It’s remarkable.
I’m always trying to refine my act; the pleasure is in the discovery of new jokes and thoughts. Each new set should be about a new stage in your life. I now have a daughter who is a semi-adult and we were in Canada where it’s legal for her to drink, so I talk about getting drunk with my daughter for the first time and discovering she’s way cooler drunk. She’s usually so uptight.
Q: Are these side projects taking away from time you could be directing more movies?
A: I try to follow my level of interest. If I don’t have a great movie idea, I’ll do something like working with the great Pete Holmes on “Crashing.” I’ve been making a lot of documentaries, like “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” or “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” Christopher Guest and I just finished a film on Loudon Wainwright that will be on Netflix soon. If I wasn’t doing all that stuff, maybe I’d have directed another movie, but it doesn’t always have to be scripted comedy.
Q: I know Shandling was a great mentor for you. When you’re doing stand-up, is his voice in your head?
A: It’s funny. Garry saw my act before he died and I asked him what he thought. He said, “The only time you’re not doing it well is when you’re trying to act like a comedian.” That’s such perfect advice. He reminded me that as an artist, you’re always trying to shed the BS and discover who you really are.
Q: What up-and-coming stand-ups excite you?
A: Jaboukie Young-White, a new correspondent for “The Daily Show,” is a hilarious young comedian. I love Pete Davidson. We’re working on a screenplay together. I feel he’s also got a really unique voice.
Q: As an astute student of comedy, I’m wondering how you’re coming to terms with Bill Cosby’s conviction. Can you still appreciate his contributions?
A: I don’t feel religious about taking down all of his honors, but I can’t watch his work anymore. One of the reasons I like a lot of performers is because I’m interested in their points of view. But when people reveal themselves to be violent criminals or troubled in other ways, it changes the lens through which I watch their work. His comedy pales in comparison to the pain he put some people through. Is it possible that 20 years from now I’ll appreciate a bit he did? It’s possible. But I don’t think it’ll happen while he’s alive.