Doing it his way

Jan 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Judd Apatow loves it when actors do his work for him. The creator and executive producer of the college-set comedy “Undeclared” is more than happy to stand back and let the camera roll as members of his young cast riff and improv.
The results, he has found, are ideas and dialogue that are often sharper and funnier than what he had in mind, and a realness that comes from the actors’ own experiences. It also gives his creative muscles a rest.
“I’m the anti-David Kelley,” says Mr. Apatow, flexing the timing-is-everything, think-on-your-feet grounding he got from years on the standup comedy circuit. “I want to write nothing.”
That won’t happen anytime soon. Mr. Apatow has been in hyperdrive lately, working on the second half of the season of “Undeclared,” which, picked up in November by Fox for a full 22-episode order, will become the only Apatow show to ever air beyond 18 episodes. While he’s been annointed by the country’s television critics as a king of the field for his work on the seminal “Freaks and Geeks,” the groundbreaking “Larry Sanders Show” and the Emmy-winning “Ben Stiller Show,” Mr. Apatow has yet to have a commercial hit.
“Undeclared” could be the one. The half-hour series was recently dubbed by snarky industry bible Entertainment Weekly as one of the “five new TV shows you need to be watching.” It also has been cited repeatedly by those in the media-buying community as a hot ticket for reaching coveted young viewers. It sits in the plum spot on Fox’s Tuesday night lineup between established comedy “That ’70s Show” and new thrillorama “24.”
Mr. Apatow, a 34-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native whose comedy addiction took root with variety and sketch shows of the Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore ilk, is the first to admit that the approach to his half-hour show is a bit against the tide. Take the improv sessions, for instance, which are far from mainstays of network television.
“I’ve tried to find a style of shooting that gives the actors enough room to go off-page for a while if they feel like it,” Mr. Apatow said.
“We’ll do the scene as scripted six times, then I’ll tell the actor, `OK, do whatever you want.’ We’ll find the episode in the editing room.” He’s been heartened by the results, such as in the pilot of “Undeclared,” when he put two cameras on cult-fave musician Loudon Wainwright, who plays the main character’s just-divorcing dad, and let him talk openly about life and lost love.
That he’s allowed to create in such a loose way, which he thinks perfectly suits a college-based show, is a minor miracle in today’s television atmosphere. Shows, after all, can get the hook after a few airings, meaning results must come quickly, even in the slightly more forgiving post-Sept. 11 environment. Networks, desperate for out-of-the-gate hits, are willing to leave little to chance.
Fox executives knew, however, what kind of ride they were in for from the early stages of “Undeclared” and have been fully supportive, the creator says. He wanted to do a single-camera, no-laugh-track show populated by actors, most of them unknown, who don’t necessarily look like models. The words from Fox execs: done and done.
Even the genesis of “Undeclared” followed a path rarely traveled. Mr. Apatow started with an idea and a story outline and then searched for actors who meshed. For auditions, he would toss them together, give them a topic and watch them mix it up. From those sessions, he custom-made their characters for them, even including scenarios, both humiliating and hilarious, from their own college days.
Justin Falvey, co-head of DreamWorks SKG’s television division, says Mr. Apatow’s approach to his shows, though atypical, taps into the strengths of his actors and has helped launch budding careers.
“He casts against type, and he finds what their personalities can bring to the characters,” Mr. Falvey said. He likes to refer to Mr. Apatow as a triple-threat, meaning he can write, produce and direct, and notes that he’s proven himself in half-hour and hour formats, putting him in a rarefied circle of TV creators.
He also thinks Mr. Apatow will continue to push with new technologies, such as digital video, which allow for lots of improvisation. There’s a common thread among all of Apatows ideas, however-his is a highly personal kind of storytelling. “Each show he does is a page ripped from his own life,” Mr. Falvey said.
Writing for others is a skill Mr. Apatow honed on Garry Shandling, Roseanne and Jim Carrey. While he loved being a standup comic himself and pursued it for five years in L.A., he didn’t feel like he measured up to the performers around him. He could, and did, however, supply their material.
“It’s always a challenge to figure out what your voice is,” he said. “But it turned out that I had an ear for expressing my ideas in their voices.”
In addition to HBO specials and TV awards shows, Mr. Apatow, who studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California, also has done script doctoring for features such as “The Wedding Singer” and “Liar, Liar.” He produced “The Cable Guy,” and wrote the films “Heavyweights” and “Celtic Pride.”
By drawing inspiration from his “Undeclared” cast, Mr. Apatow has tried to avoid the traditional sitcom stereotypes-the ditzy blonde, the sarcastic guy, the nerdy brainiac-because, he said, “People aren’t really like that.” And stylistically he’s steered clear of the dreaded setup-setup-joke-laugh track that’s become a worn-out staple of half-hour shows.
In “Freaks and Geeks,” Mr. Apatow dissected high school’s Sturm und Drang, with some cut-to-the-quick results that exposed the pain and awkwardness of being a teenager. Now, he’s graduated, so to speak, into a more forgiving milieu.
In crafting “Undeclared,” which follows the Class of 2005 at the fictional University of North Eastern California, Mr. Apatow said he wasn’t trying to be more commercial. (While “Freaks and Geeks” was a critical hit, it was canceled by NBC after the network shuffled it into several different nights and time slots. It eventually wound up on Fox Family, where it pulled in strong ratings). Mr. Apatow wasn’t trying to soften his subject matter but was looking for relatively uncharted territory in the half-hour genre. With the exception of “A Different World” back in the late ’80s, dorm-and-kegger comedies have been short-lived. Mr. Apatow felt like it was fertile ground that would allow him to explore a time in life when high school has been survived, new identities can be forged, and the world is a big fat oyster. Being a major television fan, he was excited to delve into an area that wasn’t threadbare.
“I’m embarrassed to do what’s been done before,” he said. “I’m attempting to do something that I haven’t seen a thousand times. It’s more fun.”