Jump To Section
Judd Apatow’s 8 Essential Tips for Aspiring Comedy Filmmakers
Apatow’s Hollywood success comes as a culmination of a life spent in comedy, first as a rabid fan and then as a practitioner. Years before his films and TV shows reached millions of viewers, he was in the trenches of the comedy world, carving out his own unique voice as a writer and director.
- Immerse yourself in the world of comedy. When Apatow’s mother got a job at a comedy club, Apatow was able to get in for free and watch stand-up. Then, he created a radio show on his high school’s station called Club Comedy, for which he interviewed comedians, gleaning advice from the likes of Sandra Bernhard and Steve Allen. Early in his career, Apatow learned how to pay rent while pursuing his comedic aspirations—by getting a day job that put him in the business, but allowed him to be creative in the evenings. He advises you to do the same.
- Comedy is all about discipline. While top stand-up comics may appear to be having a blast on stage, the performance is typically preceded by a long, disciplined process that may take weeks, months, or years. Your job as a stand-up comedian is as much writing as it is performing. You need to be disciplined in your writing, dedicating a few hours each day to sitting at a desk and writing jokes. To kickstart your joke-writing process, come up with a topic and write down as many jokes about it as you can think of. You’ll likely use only one or two of them, but you need to write a lot in order to find the true comedic gold.
- Prepare to be honest. Apatow believes that stand-up gets better as it becomes more personal—that comics who lay themselves bare to the audience are often the strongest performers. The same is true of comedic writers. He sees Knocked Up (2007) as the first time he became comfortable with drawing upon his own life for material. Apatow contends that when you are being personal as a comedian, you are actually expressing your opinion about something or highlighting an absurdity in your own life. He gives the following example: one of his two children has gone to college. His remaining daughter is unhappy that she is the only one left in the house with Apatow and his wife, because four people is a family, but three people is a child observing a weird couple. Apatow calls this a short observational joke. Apatow has learned that the audience will cue a comedian as to which part of a joke is relatable, understandable, and meaningful. You get the most laughs when the audience recognizes themselves in your story or joke.
- Tackle stage fright by treating stand-up as a conversation. Apatow suggests dealing with stage nerves by talking to the audience as if you’re just having a conversation with them, instead of focusing on getting laughs—this will likely be more enjoyable for everyone, including you. Make it your goal to simply be worth hearing.
- Your stand-up persona is different from your real persona. Performing on stage is about more than telling jokes—it’s about creating a persona. You want the audience to connect to your character, not just to what you’re saying. If your act is not going as planned, embrace it. Learn to look at your nerves from a different perspective and lean into the bomb. Keep in mind that as a comedian, you don’t have to be funny at every moment. You can work your relationship with the audience in many ways. Apatow says that you might want to make the audience unhappy or deeply uncomfortable, then pivot back to comedy. It’s a viable technique, and you’d be in the company of Andy Kaufman and Norm Macdonald in trying it. When Apatow was young, he was told by veteran comedians that it would take seven years to shape his comedic persona, so get comfortable with the fact that for a long time, you’re probably going to suck. Be patient and keep working.
- Comedy is more like drama than most people realize. When you’re writing a comedy, Apatow recommends approaching it as a drama. Your story should be strong enough to stand alone, sans jokes. Apatow feels that love and the obstacles those in love encounter are at the root of every story, comedic or not. Keeping this in mind as you write will help you develop your plot and characters. Everyone is stumbling blindly through life, trying to figure out how to live, find love, and work through their problems while being forced to learn along the way. This happens to the characters in Knocked Up, and it should happen to your characters, too.
- Embrace specificity. As a comedic writer, specificity is your best friend. The details are what make a story funny and unique. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, much of the comedy is in the distinctive setting and character quirks. Everyone has a boss, but the 40-year-old virgin’s boss is inappropriately sex obsessed. Most stereo stores have something displayed on the televisions at all times, but only in Apatow’s film does an incessantly played Michael McDonald DVD drive Paul Rudd’s character crazy. The best way for a film or show to be original is to be specific.
- Study other people’s writing. Don’t just approach your favorite comedy piece’s from an audience perspective. Consider them as a fellow writer and practitioner. When Apatow got serious about his writing, he got into the practice of outlining other movies in order to understand their structure—not with the aim of mimicking their structure, but to learn all the ways other filmmakers have told stories. Similarly, after meeting an old-school television producer who encouraged him to write a pilot, young Apatow and a comedian friend took a stab at writing their first episode of TV. Having never written for television before, Apatow hunted down and read 50 scripts from the show Taxi, along with scripts from the first season of The Simpsons. As he read, he deconstructed them, outlining the action and resolution in each. Through this work, Apatow realized that each episode had a similar overall structure. Although nothing happened with their pilot, Apatow had gained an education in what writing for television looked like.
Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?
Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your stand-up, navigating the world of film and television can be daunting. No one knows this better than Judd Apatow, who, at age 15, took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he is the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In Judd Apatow’s MasterClass on comedy, the Emmy Award winner relates all he knows about crafting comedic storylines, channeling real-life into stand-up, and editing and testing your film to ensure the jokes will land with your audience.
Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Judd Apatow, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin, and more.