In a pivotal scene in Judd Apatow’s new film, “Funny People,” a comedy star battling leukemia orders his assistant, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), to sit beside his bed and talk him to sleep. The ill star, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) teases, “Wright? That’s not your real name. You’re hiding some Judaism.”
“I don’t think I can hide that. My face is circumcised,” Ira replies, before revealing that his real surname was, in fact, Weiner, which caused him to suffer merciless playground teasing as a child.
As the conversation deepens, each man tells of the childhood traumas that led him to become a comedian. Ira remembers his parents’ bitter divorce, and George recounts physical abuse that forced him to “bring out ‘the funny,’ ” bonding these two disparate funny people — the damaged, possibly dying, older comedian and the bright-eyed, struggling younger comic who looks up to him.
Like much of Apatow’s work, “Funny People” is a raunchfest with sweet undertones that explores a male right of passage, reflecting the filmmaker’s own life and career. In 1999-2000, TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” introduced the then-16-year-old Rogen to Hollywood while dissecting some of Apatow’s own high school angst; “Undeclared” (2000-2003) examined the awkward transition to college; the feature film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) mused upon the desire for love and sex; and “Knocked Up” (2007) explored the stage of settling down and having children.
“Funny People” is about mortality, a risky departure for a 41-year-old filmmaker now considered one of Hollywood’s top comedy moguls.
“I never really set out to have my movies reflect my life, it just seems to work out that way,” Apatow said at a recent Q&A session after “Funny People” screened at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. “It’s more like I’ll notice, after the fact, that every movie seems to be about some personal problem I have.”
Now that he is married to actress Leslie Mann, who appears in the film with their two young daughters, Apatow, 41, is pondering weightier issues: “You get to be older, and you worry about getting sick,” he said. He has seen a number of friends become ill, and he became fascinated by how each patient responded to his disease.
“I assumed that the people who survived would look at their lives completely differently, but some would just kind of plow forward and live exactly the same way, while others seemed to experience a major change in how they felt about their priorities,” he said. “But then they would get better, and it would be hard for them to hold onto that feeling, and slowly they would slip back into whatever their previous neuroses had been.”
Apatow said the film also examines the unusual makeup of comedians.
“Funny People” is an ode to standup comedy and an exploration of the comic creative process, which has obsessed Apatow since growing up in a Jewish home on Long Island.
As a teenager, he was able to interview his idols, including Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern, for his high school radio station. After dropping out of USC in 1987, he wrote jokes for comics such as Jim Carrey and Garry Shandling. “I couldn’t believe they would hang out with me, much less do any of my jokes,” Apatow said.
“I wanted to write about that fondness I had for them, but it took me a long time to create a scenario in which I could talk about comedians, why people feel the need to be funny — and is there a way to be funny without being really f—ed up?”
“Funny People” opens with a home movie Apatow shot of the real Sandler making crank calls in the apartment they shared in North Hollywood in the late 1980s. “That’s actually my voice directing him to do the phony phone call,” Apatow said.
In the clip, Sandler sounds like an elderly Jewish woman as he calls Jerry’s Famous Deli and complains of gastric distress from eating too many of the restaurant’s roast beef sandwiches. “I myself feared the confrontation of the phony phone call, so I didn’t like doing them myself,” Apatow explained. “But Adam was really into it, mainly because he was unemployed and had no other outlet to be funny other than his 20 minutes at the improv every night.”
The scene in which Ira sits at George’s bedside was also inspired by Apatow’s time living with Sandler. “Adam would always have me talk him to sleep — although he would never call it that,” Apatow recalled. “He would say, ‘Hey, man, I’m goin’ to bed, you wanna talk to me?’ And he had this chair that he had found on the side of the road that he brought into our little apartment, and I would sit in this chair and he would go, like, ‘Yeah, it was a great night [onstage], and I would inevitably ask him how it went with some girl — I was always fascinated by how he’d get girls, because it was not working for me at that time — so I was like, ‘What happened, and then what happened, and did she do it?’ and then slowly he would fall asleep.
“[Over the years], I thought that was something that was kind of lonely, because clearly Adam didn’t want to have any quiet time in his head before going to sleep,” Apatow added. “Adam has gotten over that, but the other day, as I was falling asleep with my iPod on, listening to some Deepak Chopra book on tape, I was like, ‘Holy s—, I’m doing the same thing with my iPod.’ So I thought the bedside chat would be a sweet way to have my characters connect for the first time.”
The film also includes real video of the precocious, 13-year-old Rogen performing stand-up at a professional nightclub, where his entire bit revolves around his Jewish grandparents — the clip is supposed to represent Ira’s early standup efforts.
After the Q&A session at the Writers Guild, Apatow was asked whether he’ll continue to cast Rogen, Jonah Hill and the other Jewish Apatowniks (or members of the “Jew-Tang Clan,” as they are also known) because their shared heritage helps the onscreen chemistry.
“Maybe,” Apatow mused. “It’s just a sensibility that’s almost an unspoken, unconscious thing. You can’t quite put your finger on why. I’m not a religious person, but I couldn’t be more Jewish,” he added, without a trace of irony.
“Funny People” is now playing in theaters around the Bay Area.