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Arts & Entertainment

Character, Part 1

Judd Apatow

Lesson time 13:06 min

Amazing characters are at the heart of any great comedy. Judd reveals a secret weapon that he uses when he's looking for character inspiration. Plus, he teaches you how to craft compelling, authentic, and funny characters through psychology, ego, and emotion.

Judd Apatow
Teaches Comedy
Judd Apatow teaches you how to write, direct, produce, and perform comedy for film and television.
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I've Always read a ton of self-help books both for myself and to understand characters. And self-help books are great because they always have examples of people's problems. So in any book, regardless what the theory is, they're like, Mary was unhappy in her life. Her husband didn't treat her great. She didn't know how to stand up. And-- and so you're hearing the advice but you're also hearing all the basic ways people have conflicts with each other. And so for years I used to read everything. And I realize, oh, there's-- there's not that many personality types. There are people that are insecure and that makes them very loud and arrogant to cover how insecure they are. And there are people who are insecure and they get super quiet and they don't talk to anybody. And you know, the way people, you know, try to control other people or try to keep their lives safe. You know, that's-- what is "The 40-year-old Virgin" but trying to stay safe? Like, I don't want to risk pain. Or in "Funny People," Adam Sandler's character doesn't want to, you know, risk caring about something other than his ego. He doesn't-- he's scared to be selfless. He doesn't know if he's going to get anything out of it. He doesn't want to get hurt. And you could say that about any of the characters that's been in any of the projects that I've-- I've worked on. There's always a very specific psychological underpinning. When we worked on "Trainwreck," the beginning of the idea was just a conversation that Amy Schumer and I had about relationships. And I just said, why do you think you're not in a great relationship right now? And we talked on the phone, you know, for an hour. And she said, this is what I think I do in a relationship. Here's-- here's how I might sabotage it if it's going well. And that conversation led to her screenplay for "Trainwreck," because the basic idea became, you know, what would she do if she met the perfect guy? And she said, I probably would screw it up on purpose in some way. And that's the structure of the movie. She screws it up. And then she has to win him back. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] - What are we doing? What do you want? Why are you with me? - I love you. Why do you keep saying that? - Because I mean it! I love you! I'm crazy about you! What do you-- what do you want me to say? We're just having a fight. You insulted me. And that's-- and I just-- we'll talk about it and we'll work through it! - What's wrong with you that you want to be with me? I-- I'm-- I'm a drinker. - I don't care. - I've been with a lot of guys. - I don't care. How many? - I don't know. How many girls have you slept with? - I've slept with three women. - Me, too. I've slept with three women, too. - How many guys? - What, like this year? - This year? - Fuck that. I'm not talking about that. - Amy, Amy, Amy, come on, don't say fuck this. - Don't follow me. [END PLAYBACK] - And that's usually how I start with peop...

Get serious about comedy

No joke: at age 15, Judd Apatow took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he’s the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In his first-ever online comedy class, the Emmy Award winner teaches you how to create hilarious storylines, write great stand-up, and direct movies that leave audiences laughing.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I only watched half of this class and it was pretty funny to start with then got into too much depth for my level of interest.

Very funny and helpful. Will probably watch them all again.

I enjoyed the class and in particular the observation that great humor is great drama with a punch line. That has opened up a lot of new approaches for me to integrate humor into my writing.

Judd was truly great. He effectively and persuasively covered seemingly every aspect of a career in comedy and made me look at the business and the art of comedy with fresh eyes. Yes, I will go write a joke right now.


Margaret M.

I like the workbook for this course! Short and focused. I also really like the different tracks available to us.

Woody J.

What I'm really loving about this master class is that most of the advice really crosses across genres. This kind of advice can be used for any movie, not just comedic.

Marsha O.

I literally started laughing when you said...It feels like a bag of sand. Those lines were soooo funny! omg Thank you for all the little gems.


It is a real task trying to give different voices to many characters. Downton Abbey creator Jullian Fellowes is great a creating characters that you love to love and love to hate. Of course, some of those elements should be credited to great casting.

Ann S.

I Love this lesson, especially the comment about getting to the core of the character. I appreciate being told and shown what Judd means when he teaches something. Excellent

George C.

This might be my favorite so far. It's interesting that Judd has "studied" psychology by reading self-help books. It's one of the things I've liked about his movies, that the characters are real to me even when (especially when) they have all these hilarious neuroses and poor problem-solving skills. And though his characters are ridiculous, there is compassion for them and the possibility for them to get better. The comedy is brutally honest but not brutal.

Mia S.

"The main piece of criticism and advice he had when we were working on the script was, 'You need to show that his relationship is about love, so it's different than all of his friends' relationships - they're all chasing sex, for the most part. Because he's in love, when he finally has sex the sex will be better than the sex that all of his friends from the store has. You need to show that the sex is amazing - because he's in love.' And I kept saying, 'I don't know how to do that, I can't show Steve having sex, how would I do that? How would I show that sex is good?' 'You've gotta do it, you've got to figure that out.' Gary kept calling me and pushing me on this, he would leave me messages on my answering machine: 'Have you figured it out yet?' I was getting frustrated because I knew he was right but I didn't know if we would ever crack it, and then one day Steve was in my office and I said, 'I don't know what to do about Gary's note.' And Steve goes, 'Maybe I just sing a song after.' I went, 'Oh yeah, like 'Let the Sun Shine In' from 'Hair,'' and that was it - then we created this sequence and we didn't know if it would work, we just thought, 'If this isn't funny, we'll just snip it off and we'll end with their wedding or their sex.' And the place would just explode, and that was all because of Gary. So when Gary talked about getting to the truth of a character, the core of a character and revealing that, that changed everything for me."

Mia S.

"The movie was pitched to me by Steve Carrell, he said, 'I've always wanted to play a 40 year old virgin; I used to do a sketch at Second City that I never quite figured out where.. it's a guy at a poker game, and everyone's telling sex stories, and there's clearly one guy who hasn't had sex and his stories don't make any sense. 'Yeah, like when you touch a woman's breast and it feels like a bag of sand.' Instantly I knew exactly what he was talking about - I related to the idea of being ashamed that you didn't know what you were doing. Quickly Steve and I realized that if we wrote this very realistically, and very honestly, from an emotional place, then you would really care about this person. So instead of making him an object of ridicule, we tried to really come up with a real person. There was a guy in a comedy club I would see all the time; one day I was watching a show like 'Maury Povich,' the chryon came up and it said, '45-Year-Old Virgin' or whatever age he was. I remember that that guy was kind of pissy - like, he wasn't a shy guy, he was kind of an angry guy, had a chip on his shoulder. So we thought, 'Oh it's funny that he's both someone who hides and is sweet, but gets mad sometimes and has an angry side.' That instantly made him more of a real person that people will say, 'Oh I've met people like that.' A lot of the construction of 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' was about coming up with a three-dimensional character. Gary always talked about being authentic, about getting to the core of characters, to go as deep as you can go, as complex as you can be... so when we were working on 'The 40 Year Old Virgin,' Gary read it and gave notes, he came up with some funny bits for it. One of the big issues was, 'Does he masturbate?'So we sat around and we thought, 'How sexual is he? Do we have to deal with that?' We couldn't think of how to do it without it being gross, and then Gary said, 'What if you just do a sequence where he prepares to masturbate? He puts out his lotions and brushes his hair, puts on his favorite bathrobe. We used that, and it was really funny."

Mia S.

"At 'The Larry Sanders Show,' there were a lot of complicated characters. Gary never talked about whether or not they were good people or bad people, he talked about it in terms of their egos and their needs. A character like Hank Kingsley on one level was a sweetheart, but also a wounded person who was seeking respect and wanted to be as big a star as Larry. We loved his humanness, but there was no determination about whether he was a good guy or a bad guy - he was everything. There's an amazing episode, about the night where Larry gets sick and there's no one to guest host the show, so they let Hank guest host the show. For whatever reason, he does an amazing job. He's fantastic at it, and afterwards he gets so cocky that very quickly he becomes an egomaniac and he's really mean to everybody around him. He starts hoping that Larry won't get better, so he can do it again. Then he does it again and he's terrible the second night, he has the full circle experience and he gets to see how awful he becomes when faced with success - how quickly he becomes awful when his secret dream comes true. It's really an incredible episode, might be the best episode of the series. But you didn't watch it and think, you know, 'I love Hank.' You watch it being fascinated by the human condition and how someone can be both wonderful and funny and sweet and also have another side which can't get enough, can't be successful enough, has a weird instinct to not be gracious in success, and to be terrible to the staff. And at the end of it, you still love Hank but not because he behaves well - just because, he is human and we all have those good traits and those bad traits in us somewhere. We're all trying to manage that. We all hope that if we get a shot and we succeed that we don't become a terrible jerk."

Mia S.

"That's usually how I start with people - we try to talk about the psychology of why people make certain choices. So if Kumail Nanjiani is writing about how he handled the situation where his parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage, I would say, 'Well, how did you feel about that? What did you do and why did you do it?' He said, 'I wasn't that committed in relationships because I didn't want to offend my family, so I was always a little one foot in, one foot out with all the women that I was with because I was very afraid of the final confrontation with my parents where I would say, 'I don't want to have an arranged marriage.' And that's what a lot of 'The Big Sick' became about - in the screenplay, they break up over it. In real life they didn't break up, but we wanted to heighten the stakes, we wanted to make it worse when he had to hang out with her parents in the hospital - 'What would make it even more uncomfortable?' 'Oh, he was the person that broke her heart, and now he's hanging out with the parents who are kind of mad at him about it. But it's always from a psychological place that we're creating these stories."