On a recent morning, Judd Apatow sat in his office on the west side of Los Angeles, surrounded by a jumble of boxes stuffed with mementos from his life in comedy. “I’m a hoarder,” he said, glancing around at the clutter. “I just save all this weird stuff for no reason.”
He opened a box and began sifting through its contents with a wry smile. His high school prom photo. A notebook he kept while producing the 1996 comedy “The Cable Guy.” A pirate-themed invitation to the 1994 wedding of Paul Feig, with whom he collaborated on the beloved but short-lived ’90s TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” “Every box is like a little treasure box,” he said.
In his work as well, Apatow has lately been returning to his roots. Having firmly established himself as a powerhouse comedy producer, writer and director with films like “Anchorman,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Trainwreck” and TV series like “Girls” and “Love,” he has circled back in the past couple of years to the world of stand-up, where his career began three decades ago. Now, at age 50, he is set to release his first one-hour stand-up special, “The Return,” which premieres on Netflix on Dec. 12.
He is aware of how unusual it is for someone in his position to willingly subject himself to the perils of stand-up after so many years away. “Stand-up is usually the thing you abandon as fast as you can,” he said with a laugh. In “The Return,” he nods to the inherent risks, joking, “People have asked me why I’ve been doing stand-up: It’s because I wanted to lower my salary and my self-esteem at the same time.”
On a deeper level, though, for someone who was a comedy nerd before there was a name for that kind of thing, Apatow’s special represents the fulfillment of his original show business dream. More than that, it’s a chance to re-write the ending of a chapter that didn’t turn out the way he planned the first time around.
Growing up on Long Island – an awkward, TV-obsessed kid whose parents divorced when he was 13 – Apatow fantasized from an early age about becoming a stand-up comedian.
“My grandmother was best friends with [comic] Totie Fields, and I’d go see her when I was really little, like 10,” he said. “She had had her leg amputated because she had diabetes and came out on a golf cart and talked about not having a leg — and she was so funny about it. On some level, as an insecure kid, I made the connection that you can be very different and get people’s approval and affection through stand-up.”
As a teenager, Apatow washed dishes in a comedy club and hosted a high school radio show as a way to interview comedic heroes like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Steven Wright. Moving to L.A. to attend USC film school and pursue stand-up, he eventually landed a coveted spot on an HBO “Young Comedians” special in 1992 alongside rising comics like Ray Romano and Janeane Garofalo.
But, for all his passion and ambition, Apatow found himself struggling to achieve the kind of career liftoff that some of his comedy peers were attaining. “When I look back, I’m surprised that I ever got on television with how bad I was,” he said. “I had no life experience, so most of my material was about girls rejecting me and things I saw on the news. I’d watch Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey or David Spade and I always thought, ‘I’m not as good as these people. They are on another level.’”
Comic Wayne Federman, who first met Apatow on the stand-up circuit in 1985, says he is being too hard on himself. “Judd was not that bad at all,” said Federman, who was a co-producer on “The Return.” Anyway, Federman added, whatever Apatow may have lacked in natural stand-up talent, he more than made up in drive and career savvy. “He was always able to navigate the business side of it, whereas the rest of us were just like, ‘Well, I’m trying to work on a new bit about Twizzlers.’”
Pivoting into television as a writer and producer on the Fox sketch series “The Ben Stiller Show” and HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” Apatow fell away from stand-up. “I think I had burned out my interest in it,” he said. “At some point I just gave up on it and said, ‘The universe has told me what to do.’”
While directing the 2009 dramedy “Funny People,” which starred Sandler as a comedian diagnosed with a terminal disease, Apatow performed stand-up a handful of times, mostly just to see how it felt. Then, in 2014, while working with comic Amy Schumer on the romantic comedy “Trainwreck,” which she wrote and starred in and he directed, Apatow found himself feeling the old tug with renewed strength. Inspired by Schumer, he started to get up on stage at New York’s Comedy Cellar in the evenings after shooting had wrapped.
“I realized it put me in a great mood,” he said. “It fired up some neurons that had been asleep. A few weeks in, I thought, ‘I miss hanging out with comedians and being part of the tribe.’ ”
At first, Apatow’s act consisted mainly of re-purposed anecdotes he had told on various talk shows. But he quickly began writing new material, much of it focused on his parental anxieties as the father of two teenage daughters with his wife, actress Leslie Mann.
“A lot of comedians have very strong opinions but most of what I do in my act is admitting I have no idea if I’m doing a great job or ruining my children,” he said. “And we won’t know for a while.” He laughed. “I mean, I like them. But how do you know?”
Even as he was finding his own voice as a stand-up again, Apatow — horrified by the cascade of accusations of sexual misconduct against Bill Cosby — began publicly slamming Cosby on stage and off, establishing himself early on as a forceful presence in the conversation about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
“At the time, there were certainly some people who were annoyed or thought I was being obsessive [in taking on Cosby],” he said. “But it just felt so wrong. On some level, I’ve always seen comedy as my safe place, and it hurt to know that there was someone hurting people in this world that meant so much to me. And now we realize that those dangerous people are not just in comedy – they’re in every business.
“I think we’re all getting educated about something that we didn’t have a handle on,” he continued, referring to the storm of sexual harassment scandals that has swept through Hollywood and beyond over the past two months. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a new reality. It may take a few years but it feels like an important shift is happening.”
While Apatow says he plans to keep performing stand-up, he also continues to hold down a day job that keeps him rather busy. He has co-directed a new documentary on the Americana band the Avett Brothers that will premiere on HBO on Jan. 29 and is directing a four-hour documentary about Shandling, who was a mentor and friend, that is set to air on HBO in March. Meanwhile, he is writing the script for his next comedy, which he hopes to start shooting next year.
Still, after all these years, there is something intangible that Apatow gets from stand-up that he can’t find anywhere else.
“Making movies is high-stakes and stressful and you spend a lot of time alone in editing rooms,” he said. “Stand-up feels very different. As a person who lives in his head way too much, it forces you to live in the moment. I used to think, ‘How broken do you need to be to need this kind of approval?’ But slowly I’ve realized that it’s a way of connecting with people. And when it’s working, it’s a beautiful thing.”
‘Judd Apatow: The Return’
When: Anytime, starting Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)