Award-winning writer, director, and film and TV producer Judd Apatow fell in love with comedy as a boy and started performing stand-up when he was still a teenager. As a young adult he decided to write comedy for others, rather than perform himself, and he ended up producing The Ben Stiller Show and writing for The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks, and Undeclared, all of which won critical acclaim. His films have included The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Stepbrothers, Pineapple Express, Wanderlust, and The Five-Year Engagement. He sat down with WebMD Magazine to talk about his newest film, This is 40, plus what it's like to work with his wife and daughters (they have appeared in his films), who is mentors are, and his work with 826LA, a nonprofit that helps students develop writing skills.
Your new movie, This Is 40, captures the daily lives of a couple close in age to both you and your wife. They also have two young daughters, just like you. How much of your own life did you draw on for inspiration when conceiving and writing the movie?
The movie was inspired by conversations I have with my wife about how we are doing, about what we can improve. I thought about conversations that I had with my friends about things that are going on in our lives, then I take it and try to make it funny.
Did writing and directing the new movie give you new insights into being a husband, a dad, a middle-aged man?
With every movie I make, I’m trying to figure something out about whatever stage of life I am in. It forces me to do some real soul searching. We all want to feel as happy as we can and feel that we are in control, but the more control you try to have, the worse you seem to make things.
Do you and your wife have a “do better list” like the couple in the movie?
We don’t write it down, but it is always in our brains, and there may be no end to it. For me, I need to learn how to be more present, to use tech less in the house, to spend more time with the girls, to be more involved in their school. Obvious things, but hard to do sometimes.
Both of your daughters, Maude and Iris, co-star in the new movie. How does directing them on set compare to directing them at home?
On set, they have to listen to me. At home they can just ignore me. With all the people on the set, it is much harder for them to shut me out.
You’ve been married for 15 years now. How do you keep your relationship fresh, especially with the demands your career puts on you?
I’m such a neurotic person that it always feels like the first date, and I’m always uncomfortable, as if she’s just about to jump out of the car, so it is always fresh to me.
You, your wife, and your girls are all in the movie business. Is it hard to separate work life from family life?
It isn’t hard because we don’t try. We like working together. It allows us to spend time together, to work out problems creatively together. I do shut it off when I can, but if I am in the middle of something, that is very hard. The girls lose all interest in the movies once they have stopped shooting it. They won’t even watch it. My older daughter, Maude, might watch one of my movies for 15 minutes, but then she turns it off.
Do you have a personal health philosophy?
Not a philosophy, but I think more and more about my health. I force myself to do what I need to do rather than what I want to do, like put myself in a McDonald's coma. I’d rather lie in bed watching reality shows than exercise, but you reach an age where what you do actually affects your life expectancy. I have never worked out to look good. But I do work out to not die.
What is your best health habit?
Most of it is pretty simple. If you exercise some every day and cut back on meat and dairy, you’re probably doing fine. For me, if I want a hamburger, I make myself reach for a seaweed cracker or something instead, even though I don’t like it as much. Then, maybe once every three weeks, I allow myself that hamburger.
What is your worst health habit?
I like pizza too much.
What do you know now about your health that you wish you’d learned earlier in life?
I ate fettuccine Alfredo every night for five years when I was at the Improv. I wish I’d known then how bad that was for me.
Is your health a priority? Did that change at all after you turned 40?
It’s always been a priority, but I have often failed to live up to what I know I should be doing, though I’ve done better in the last few years. When I turned 30, my doctor told me if I took better care of myself, I’d be a really young 40. Now that I’m doing better, I’m thinking I’ll be a really young 50.
Do you make a point to eat healthy foods?
I eat a lot better and stay away from fried foods. I eat a lot of vegetables and very little meat.
Do you have any guilty pleasure foods?
Chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Those times when I give in to temptation, I can really do some damage.
Do you have a fitness routine that you stick to?
I do Pilates a few times a week and use an elliptical machine four times a week, and sometimes I play some tennis.
Where did you go for your last vacation?
You work with and help support 826LA to foster writing skills and creativity among young kids and teens. Why is that work so important to you?
826LA is a free a tutoring center for help with kids’ English homework. It’s also a place that helps them discover creative writing and figure out who they are. Creative writing did that for me. It saved my life. I want to support that for other kids, and what makes this place so great is that kids are getting these lessons from people who really care about them.
What’s one lesson that every young writer should learn?
The down/up theory, meaning write it down first, then clean it up. I sometimes do what I call a vomit pass, where I don’t edit myself at all as I write. You have to give yourself permission to fail. Learn to turn off your inner editor and just write.
Who were your mentors when you started out as a comedian and writer?
I had an English teacher in 10th grade who said my writing was good enough to make a living from, said it was funny like Woody Allen. Most of my other teachers didn’t get my jokes and thought I was really annoying.
Do you ever find it hard to turn off the comedian in you?
I have trouble turning it on. I’d much rather be watching Breaking Amish than working. Sometimes I think of jokes, but then I’m too lazy to say them out loud.
Is there anything that you will not joke about?
You can joke about anything if your heart is in the right place. If it’s positive, it can be about anything. One thing I don’t like, though, is mean humor. Of course, it’s a personal, subjective vision of what defines mean.
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