What Judd Apatow Can Teach Us About Passion and Drive

This month, I’ve been really busy at Improv Nerd. So to prevent me from becoming even more overwhelmed and crabby than usual, I am turning over this week’s blog to my wife, Lauren.

Last week, Lauren was lucky enough to hear Judd Apatow speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival while I was busy teaching a corporate improv training across town. Lauren’s a great writer, a great audience, and I think she really needs to start performing herself, for the sake of our marriage. Enjoy.

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Recently, I had the chance to see Judd Apatow speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. He was in town to promote his new book, Sick in the Head, and also plug his new movie, Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader and Colin Quinn. He was being interviewed by movie critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times in a huge auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Whenever I go to a talk like this, or listen to an episode of Improv Nerd, I always try to deconstruct how the famous person became famous. What are the lessons that I can glean from them and use in my own life? Sometimes I come away feeling like the person is a genius who is so far above where I am that I’ll never be able to reach where they are. And other times I get the sense that they’re just people like me, who’ve basically had a stroke of good luck.

What I got from Judd Apatow, however, was that it’s not just talent, and it’s not just luck that gets people to where they are. It’s also passion.

Apatow talked about how he grew up in Long Island in the late ’70s and early ’80s and loved watching TV and following comedians. But unlike most kids, Apatow became obsessed. “I was interested in tracking comedians like other kids tracked Darryl Strawberry’s career,” he said.

He did a show on his high school radio station about comedians and used his “press” status to call up comedians’ press agents and get interviews with them. He interviewed 45 up-and-coming comedians at the time, including Gary Shandling, Jay Leno and a young Jerry Seinfeld.

Apatow made those high school interviews sound like no big deal, but that kind of persistence takes hutzpah and confidence. It’s interesting that a guy who has made so many movies and TV shows that glorify smoking pot and getting high is secretly someone who has more drive in his little finger than most people do in a lifetime.

After that, he studied screenwriting at USC, and became a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, where he became friends with people like Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Paul Feig. Those friendships and connections led to writing jokes for other comedians, which lead to writing for the Larry Sanders Show, which led to him doing his own pilots, executive producing for Freaks & Geeks, producing Anchorman, directing the 40-Year-Old Virgin and more.

You may think, well, duh, he was in Hollywood, he met the right people, so it all just fell in his lap. But I think it’s more than that. I think other people recognized he was passionate about what he did. Passion and enthusiasm make other people think you are going places. It’s magnetic. And clearly, people wanted to work with Apatow.

Apatow also seems like someone who has gone out and sought his own opportunities rather than waiting for people to come to him.

He talked about being in his car listening to the Howard Stern Show when he heard Amy Schumer, who was a relatively unknown stand-up at the time, and reached out to her about making a movie. He reached out to Lena Dunham, too, after seeing her independent feature, Tiny Furniture, to make a pilot, which became Girls. That may sound trivial, but it takes guts to call someone up whom you’ve never met and ask for what you want.

Apatow, like many successful people, knows that if you want things to happen you have to be willing to put yourself out there and take risks.

At the very end of the interview, someone asked the question that Jimmy always asks at the end of each Improv Nerd episode: “What advice do you have for someone who is starting out in the comedy scene today?”

“I think the most important suggestion would be to make things,” Apatow said. “It’s so much easier for you than it was for me. If I wanted to make a video, I had to do it on 8mm film. You can shoot a video on your iPhone. It’s much more inexpensive to do anything these days. And if you do something great, it can go world-wide in a matter of days.”

I’ve heard people say this before, and it always strikes me as a little bit of a pipe dream. I mean, of course you can make something and put it on the Internet and you have a one-in-a-million chance of it striking gold.

That’s why I’m glad he said this, too: “One thing isn’t going to make you famous. Just learn by doing it and make tons of stuff.”

And, if you follow Apatow’s example, be passionate, be fearless, and don’t give up.


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