Judd Apatow is a national treasure. Why, you might ask, am I patronizing this talented writer-director and king of all things comedy on this day instead of any other? I had the pleasure of watching him moderate a panel last week called “Beyond Words” that featured five of the most recognized writers this year: Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) Dustin lance Black (“Milk”) Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) Jonathan Nolan “”The Dark Knight”) and Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).
Let me begin by saying this was some deal. For 20 bucks, my date for the night, Adam Herschman — a hilarious actor (“Accepted”) and a writer himself who had a nice turn as the music intern in “Soul Men” for me — and I got to hear some of the best scribes of the moment wax on their craft. But the evening was sort of like one of those great salty/sweet snacks my 13-year-old son Andrew loves to chow down on at the movies. These guys are all pretty serious about what they do. Then, along comes Apatow, injecting lightning-fast off the cuff humor into the proceedings.
For example, Eric Roth went to UCLA with Jim Morrison. Who knew? Well, Apatow did, and one of his first “questions” was to Roth, whom he asked to tell his favorite anecdote about attending UCLA with the charismatic lead singer of the Doors. Roth seemed completely taken aback and stumbled through an attempt to share some memories before offering up truly honest and sometimes surprising comments on the myriad challenges of the movie writing process. Later, when Apatow went back to Roth, he started by saying “Of course you’re the guy who took acid with Jim Morrison…” Did he invent the call-back or just perfect it?
The point is Apatow is good enough at this to have his own talk show. He had obviously prepared for this evening (although he said he was going to throw most of the questions to the audience because he had consumed some orange-flavored sissy martini at Mastro’s earlier). What I thought he did especially well, was to balance the serious with the comedic in a way that made the evening substantive, but also allowed the audience to relax and actually have some fun along the way. Another thing – and moderators and dinner raconteurs take note — Apatow never, ever laughed at his own jokes. He would deadpan some line, the joke would get a huge response and he would have this sort of stolid look on his face as though he wasn’t even trying to land a joke. (Which, of course, he was and had probably worked out the day before. Like Steve Martin, this guy prepares. )
One of the more fascinating moments in the evening came when Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) talked about the extensive research he did to create his profile of Harvey Milk. Black described holing up in what were essentially motels for male prostitutes up and down the coast while interviewing Milk’s closest confidante, the still alive Cleve Jones, for background info on the slain city supervisor. Toward the end of the evening Black admitted that you can have boxes and boxes of transcripts, you can talk to all kinds of people who knew your subject intimately, but in the end all writers are forced to “fictionalize” to some extent when you are placing dialogue with the characters or when you are making choices about what to leave out and what to leave in. It was candid, and he was so articulate and transparent. Everyone I have spoken to about the movie feels it is a completely authentic portrayal, but it was fascinating to hear Black articulate this writer’s dilemma. Roth – who faced similar challenges with “Ali” and “The Insider” agreed. Jonathan Nolan, getting his own big laugh, said that all of the Joker’s dialogue was real.
But let’s get back to Judd shall we? The Writer’s Guild Foundation and the WGA who put on this compelling event each year, would be wise to sign Apatow up as the permanent host. He seems to genuinely enjoy doing it (although he professed to being “frustrated” that he himself had not been nominated this year and so this was the only way he could participate). What Apatow achieved in that room is what he accomplishes so effortlessly in his movies: he takes you right to the line where you (the writers in this case) are about to be offended, but then charms you off the roof and into his world. Apatow even asked “The Visitor” screenwriter-director Tom McCarthy which performance was better, Richard Jenkins work in McCarthy’s “The Visitor” or his comedic turn in “Stepbrothers.” Maybe that’s why McCarthy at times, seemed like one of those NFL coaches forced by contract to do the post-game press conference but none too happy about being there.
Apatow would have made a great journalist. Hell, maybe HE should host the Oscars next year. Larry Sanders (his show) had nothing on him.