The 'King' of comedy: Judd Apatow on Pete Davidson, 'Jackass' and finding laughter in a pandemic

Apatow didn't want to hold the release of his new film, saying audiences can find solace in it now

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Judd Apatow isn't sure when we'll be returning to movie theaters, but he didn't want to wait around to find out. 

The director's "The King of Staten Island" hits home-viewing platforms Friday, becoming the first major, non-family studio title to skip theaters and go the on-demand route since the coronavirus pandemic shut down Hollywood, along with the rest of the world, in mid-March. 

Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of "The King of Staten Island."

Beginning with the James Bond film "No Time to Die" and continuing through "Fast & Furious 9," "Black Widow," and nearly every other big film on the calendar, studios have chosen to wait out the storm, holding off releases for up to a full year in some cases. That's not the route the "Knocked Up" and "Funny People" director wanted to go.

"I decided not to think about it at all," says Apatow, chatting on a Zoom call from his home in Santa Monica earlier this week. "And at some point when conversations began, it became clear that this movie somehow applies to a lot of the stress and trauma that we are all experiencing. It is about sudden loss and healing, and I hope this movie is funny for people and gives them a break, but I also hope it might help them process some of what they're experiencing.

"I made this to make people happy, and people need to be happy right now," says the . 52-year-old. "So it would be weird for me to horde it for a year just because I want a movie theater experience." 

Apatow has had plenty of movie theater experiences to date, and has become one of the most successful filmmakers and producers in modern Hollywood. From "Freaks and Geeks" to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" to "Bridesmaids" and HBO's "Girls," nearly all avenues of comedy for the past two decades have run through him. 

Still, like all of us, 2020 has thrown him for a loop. As he heads into his fourth month of quarantine, he's unsure what move he wants to make next, whether he wants to attempt to make the great, definitive social distancing comedy or something altogether different that has nothing to do with our current situation.  

"Come August, I think I'll probably hit the computer and try to write something, so we'll see where it lands," says Apatow, who is married to actress Leslie Mann. "There's part of me that just wants to make the dumbest, funniest movie I can make, and another side that wants to be more serious." 

On the dumb, funny side of things, he classifies movies like "Borat" and "Jackass." "If you want to make me deliriously happy, just put on 'Jackass' and have any of my family with me, and we just scream laughing the entire time," says the father of two. 

"The King of Staten Island," then, comes from the more serious side of his brain. The film tells the semi-autobiographical tale of "SNL's" Pete Davidson, whose father was a firefighter killed in 9/11.

In the film, which Apatow wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus, Davidson's character — a listless wannabe tattoo artist in New York's least glamorous borough — wrestles with the death of his father and struggles to overcome his depression and anxiety, which have rendered him in a state of suspended adolescence. He doesn't go on to fame and fortune like the real Davidson; "The King of Staten Island" is an alternate reality tale where Davidson didn't have comedy to turn to.

Apatow first worked with Davidson on 2015's "Trainwreck." Amy Schumer recommended the young comic to Apatow, who brought him in for a cameo on the film; things went so well that after filming, Bill Hader suggested Davidson to Lorne Michaels for "SNL," and the rest is history. 

"He's so darkly funny. The first time you see him, you're shocked at how cutting his act is," Apatow says of Davidson, who, at 26, is half his age. "You also think, 'there's a lot going on with this guy,' and you're fascinated to know what it is. He keeps joking he's the Dennis Rodman of 'SNL,' and even though he's joking, I think he does feel that connection of someone who's really wounded, who is struggling, who has become a very unique character as a result of their life experience. It's easier to equate someone like him to (Rodman) or a rock star who is baring their soul. On some level you care for them, and on another level they might trigger you in some way, because their emotions are so raw."

Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on the set of "The King of Staten Island."

Davidson has come of age in an era where people are much more open about their anxieties and mental health issues than they were in previous generations. Apatow, who was raised on Long Island, New York, remembers being alienated because his interests — chiefly stand-up comedy and sketch comedy — were so singular in his world. 

"A lot of what my childhood was like was based on the fact that no one had any interest in what I was interested in," he says. "So when I was in high school, no one cared about comedy, no one wanted to listen to my interviews with comedians, no one wanted to talk about a Monty Python sketch with me. I felt really alone with my obsession in the early '80s." 

When he moved to Los Angeles and attended USC, he found a tribe of a few hundred people who shared his interests, and didn't feel so alone anymore. A career in stand-up led to early writing gigs for the Grammys and for other comedians, and eventually to "The Ben Stiller Show" (which he co-created) and "The Larry Sanders Show," where he began to solidify his place in Hollywood.

Today, after 30 years in the business, Apatow knows what he does best. And he knows that's what people need, in the parlance of our times, now more than ever. 

"If I can make people laugh and smile — that is my main contribution as a human being — I think now is the best time to do it," he says.


'The King of Staten Island'

Rated R: for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images

Running time: 137 minutes

Streaming via On Demand services beginning Friday