Funny how hard it is to be nice

Filmmaker Judd Apatow pokes at, gouges—and then assuages—our defense mechanisms

Funny guy Adam Sandler (the new Jack Nicholson?!) with director Judd Apatow (right).

Funny guy Adam Sandler (the new Jack Nicholson?!) with director Judd Apatow (right).

The funniness of people has been a subject of interest to entertainers for many years. We know this from TV shows such as Animals Are the Funniest People, America’s Funniest People and several called People Are Funny, from several different decades. We know it from movies such as Funny Stories, Funny People, a French-language film from Cameroon, and of course Funny People (1977) and Funny People II (1983), two Candid Camera-style adventures in South Africa from the director of The Gods Must Be Crazy.

And we know it from writer-director-producer-comedy-godfather Judd Apatow, who has been involved with many shows and movies about the funniness of people, including most recently Funny People. This is only the third film Apatow has written and directed (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were the other two), but it is distinctly his most ambitious. Which means it isn’t always funny. In a good way. Sometimes it’s very tender and sad. Sometimes it’s angry, and so ashamed of its tenderness and sadness that it reflexively rebuffs them with hostility and absurdity. And dick jokes.

“At the moment things get really personal, you have to make a joke about your cock,” Apatow avows. Funny People, in other words, is a film about the human condition.

Imagine “The Tears of a Clown” as a feature film, and with Adam Sandler instead of Smokey Robinson. Sandler plays George Simmons, a successful but evidently miserable middle-aged comedy star (of such highly lucrative movie mediocrities as MerMan, Astro-Nut and My Best Friend Is a Robot, among many others) whose jaded, monstrously self-absorbed soul gets an existential jolt when he’s diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a comedy up-and-comer still finding his voice, who lands a dubious gig as George’s personal assistant, joke writer and reluctant emotional caretaker.

A scene from <i>Funny People</i>

“I had a therapist once who said when you’re successful, it’s much harder to get sane, because your success supports your insanity,” Apatow says. “The reason to make the movie isn’t to show a guy who’s sick getting better. The reason to make the movie is to show how difficult it is to live with the wisdom you get when you’re sick. And can you continue to have that perspective when you get better?”

As George grapples with his illness, tries to reconnect with his now-married ex, Laura (played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann), and inevitably tangles with her husband (played by Eric Bana); Ira takes whatever mentoring he can get. But it strains Ira’s already competitive relations with his roommates: Mark (Jason Schwartzman), the self-satisfied star of a dumb new sitcom; and Leo (Jonah Hill), another aspiring comedian—“the fatter version of you,” as George puts it.

Apatow and Sandler were roommates themselves years ago, and their bond of mutual trust bears fruit in a fine performance that may even stymie Sandler’s most fervent detractors.

“I wrote it for Adam,” Apatow says. “He’s making this great transition from this young immature guy to kind of a little more, like, Walter Matthau, [Jack] Nicholson type of comedic character. I mean, it’s really impressive to be around him and see how funny and thoughtful he is about what he does. And a truly brave performer and actor. He was willing to do anything. He never said no. He never said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ He just went for it.”

Funny People opens with vintage amateur video footage, shot by Apatow, of a young Sandler making silly and sometimes hilarious phony phone calls. “That’s how unemployed we were,” Apatow recalls. It also makes use—for context on George’s career—of scenes from all those phony Adam Sandler movies.

<i>The 40-Year-Old Virgin </i>goes speed dating.

“We’ve all made all of those movies, in one way or the other,” Apatow says. “Actually, Tom Hanks has made every one of those movies … but he made the good version of all of them. We tried to make them real; we didn’t want them to be like big parodies of movies, like they did so well in Tropic Thunder. We wanted them to be bad in the way mediocre comedies are, you know? I mean, we could have made them much worse to try and kind of make them hysterical, but we just thought, ‘What if they were just kinda lukewarm every time out?’ And in a way we were kinda making fun of our work and our friends’ work, when we’re not all on our game.”

Even Apatow’s harshest show-business critique shows signs of his characteristic creative generosity. In Funny People, as in his other films, he treats the characters humanely, articulating and allowing their flaws with grace and good humor. “I think everybody’s a nice person, and then there’s the slop on top,” he says.

“It’s almost a Buddhist idea. Like everybody underneath is kinda the same and good, and then you’ve got all those levels of shit on top of it that kinda make you lose your path. … I mean, somebody could just be, like, the villain or the jerk. But to me it’s so much more interesting to explore why people’s defense mechanisms make them so hard to be around. I don’t like having bad guys in movies. I never have an antagonist, who’s, like, creating the story by trying to, like, screw you over. I feel like there’s enough obstacles in life without that.”

We have no shortage now of movies whose subject is vulnerable male self-centeredness, but Apatow is approaching mastery of the form. Still, he figures Funny People is something of a risk.

“It’s terrifying to put it out because it’s very, very personal,” he says. “It’s challenging because it’s not short and it’s billed to be a hopeful movie, but it doesn’t end with everyone singing and dancing. And it would hurt way more if people didn’t like it, because it’s so personal. But I do need to make another one regardless of how people respond. And the fact that people are responding to it positively is just fuel to take another risk next time.”

And why shouldn’t we respond positively? We like it because we get it: They’re not just funny; they’re people.