Vanity Fair: Judd Apatow: 28th October 2013.
Judd Apatow’s big career break happened while he was waiting in line for an Elvis Costello concert. That’s kind of a long story (read on to hear him tell it), but it’s just one of the many reasons Vanity Fair was so excited to match up these two creative powerhouses for a conversation pegged to Costello’s recent album, Wise Up Ghost, and upcoming East Coast tour. The pair talked about Ghost, the surprising similarities between the rocker and fellow musical scion Questlove, and Costello’s upcoming stage musical adaptation of Painted from Memory, his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Judd Apatow: So this is for VanityFair.com. I don’t know how, but lately I’ve been doing some interviews. I did Pearl Jam a month ago. So I’m doing a reverse Cameron Crowe career.
Elvis Costello: Well, that’s pretty good. As you know, I had something of that experience a few years ago when I had a TV show [the two-season interview series Spectacle]. The only reason some of those people let me in the door is because I did the same gig as they did. They were not so guarded as they may have been with an official interrogator. Plus, my evidently shambolic, amateurish technique as a broadcaster—it sort of worked in a peculiar way.
I loved that show. What were the highlights for you?
Smokey Robinson at the Apollo—you can’t really beat that. Getting 90 minutes into taping with Bruce Springsteen and realizing that we hadn’t left the Jersey bars yet, in terms of telling his story. We had to reload or take a break for technical reasons, and we said, ‘Will you stick around?’ When they say that on The Dick Cavett Show, they mean another 15-minute segment. I meant another 90 minutes. We ended up doing four hours or something.
When there is someone in the comedy world I admire, like Albert Brooks, I always try to find some way to collaborate with them and see what comes of it.
You sound like Questlove. He had plotted this “ambush,” as he used to call it, on the basis that I would come onto the Fallon show. That first performance with the Roots really set everything in train for this collaboration.
How is it working with Questlove?
People make a big noise about the collaborative aspect of it, because the surface appearances are the differences that they see at a glance. Despite all the obvious differences in our background—different generation, different location—we have these key similarities about our upbringing. We have a perception of the transference of music from the mundane to the magical in a split second, because it was our dads’ job. My friend’s parents came home at six, when my dad was leaving for the dance hall. And [Questlove] was traveling with his father when he was just a little kid . . . then doing technical things and, eventually, playing drums with him.
What are some moments from the new album you’re most proud of, personally?
Wise Up Ghost is a lot of static coming in from the ways of the world, mixed up with something very personal, which was my father’s passing. Those images inside the song that describe his room in the nursing home in his last months. And then, in the very, very end of the record, they sent me another piece of music, which I sat at home and recorded sitting at my kitchen counter. This song, called “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings,” is a literal description of my father’s last days. I realized that [the Roots and I] traveled quite a long way in our work together. I had gone from assuming that we should speak with an outward-looking perspective to the world. And then, [at] the very end of the deluxe version of the record, there is this one song that is probably [one of] the most personal things that I’ve ever written.
I think it’s to Quest’s credit that, when I sent it to them from my computer and went to the studio the next day to record the vocal again, he wouldn’t let me do it. That’s the record. Just by sheer luck the little filtered recording of me singing all alone to my computer microphone happened to work on that one occasion. It wouldn’t work nine times out of ten, but it did for that song.
Your work is littered with little confessional elements, Judd, or terribly embarrassing things that happen to us in pursuit of our desires—both the little indignities and the big, massive, very funny ones as well. Do people constantly question you as to whether this really happened to you?
Leslie [Mann, Apatow’s wife] and I always debate if I’m describing the films as personal too much. How much should we say they’re fictional and how much should we say they’re based on real moments? It’s a soup.
It doesn’t make them funnier to say that they’re personal. That’s what I say about songs: it doesn’t make the songs better. There was a period of time with singer-songwriters, in the early 70s, where it felt that we were listening to the confessions of the people. Their lives were annotated in the magazines of the time, so you knew that this song was about such and such a person, or it was rumored that it was. And there was a lot of currency in that. But as time goes on and we get further away from it, if the songs speak to you it’s because it’s beautiful or it’s because it’s true.
I thought This Is 40 was very funny and very true about a certain type of mind-set—that thwarted desire and ambition. And that was great that you managed to get Graham [Parker], and that they were such good sports about being in it and being portrayed as not filling the club. In every other movie of that kind, they put on the show and it’s a big success and the fans sound like they’re at Madison Square Garden, even though they’re just in a club. This was truthful. It was truthful right down to the sound of it. I loved that.
I’ve become fascinated with all of the comedy people I’ve worked with for a long time and seeing the choices they make over decades. Some people do a lot of great work and then they just have to take a break for a while. What keeps you so engaged? It seems like you’re as excited as ever. You never had a down period.
For 16 years I didn’t take a holiday. The work has actually increased, if anything. I have no idea how to answer your question. It’s all been a terrific surprise to me, including this thing. I’m actually working right now. As soon as we finish, I’m going to work with Burt Bacharach.
Oh, my goodness.
There’s a scheme that Chuck Lorre has come up with to turn Painted from Memory into a musical. He’s a great fan of the record, and he and Steven Sater, who wrote Spring Awakening, have conceived a story which winds through a number of the songs from Painted from Memory. We’re trying to avoid the jukebox musical, which has a crushing predictability. There’s got to be some elements of surprise. So Burt and I were charged with writing a few songs to turn the dramatic corners of the story. There’s a lot of comedy and there’s a lot of singing and dancing. It’s essentially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with songs. It’s pretty dark stuff, but we’re hopefully injecting into it a little bit of pace here and there. We’ve written 12 songs in the last six days.
So Burt is just on fire. How old is he? Eighty-something?
Thirty-five? I don’t know.
You are always doing what you want to do. I’ve thought about that since the very beginning of my career. You were going where your passions led you. Sometimes it would be commercial and sometimes it wouldn’t, but there was this feeling that Elvis doesn’t care; he’s going to do what is exciting him right now, and it isn’t about selling 10 million records. For me, as a screenwriter, I thought about that all the time—the purity of vision. When we did things like Freaks & Geeks and would get bad notes from a network, in my head I would think, Elvis Costello wouldn’t change any of this for some nudnik who didn’t know what he was talking about.
I can’t even imagine the pitch meetings for Freaks & Geeks. But I’m so glad that you did get it done. It’s like me walking into the room and seeing Clover again and saying, We didn’t get to do any of the work but that one record, but none of the other things in my career could have existed if I hadn’t made that.
The thing you have to stick to is not so much your idea is better than theirs; it’s just, they’re not going to be there by the time you’ve completed your idea. They’re actually quite flimsy. Their idea is to not get fired. Our idea is: I’m going to do this whether you get in my way or not. It just is a bloody mindedness. I’m incredibly stubborn. And I’m also incredibly patient. You know, I will wait a long fucking time to do something. My father was a musician, and his father was a musician. But my other grandfather was a gas-main layer. He was a working guy. He was Protestant and very stubborn. I’m lucky that I come from two different sides of a family. One which thinks everything is possible, which I suppose is the artistic side. And the other side that just relentlessly goes to work every day until they fall down.
I think that kind of spirit of standing up for what you believe in and the humor in your music are some of the reasons why so many comedians are so fanatical about your work.
I’m delighted if my bloody mindedness or awkwardness in acquiescing to another’s agenda were in any way helpful to you or anybody else you know.
I’ll tell you a funny story. One of the most important moments in my career happened around 1990: I went with a friend, Dana Gould, to see the taping of you doing Unplugged.
Oh my god—you were at that? Wow. My last stand at MTV.
That’s right. I was waiting on line to get in, and in front of me was Ben Stiller, who had just moved to L.A. from New York. He had a show on MTV that didn’t succeed, and we started chatting, and we’d both heard HBO wanted a sketch show, and we said, “Hey, maybe we should kick one around.” And then we sold this show to HBO, which they sold to Fox. And that was the big break in my career: meeting Ben Stiller on line to your concert.
That’s so crazy. All while you’re watching somebody literally putting a gun to the head of their career on MTV. I had this giant beard, and I wouldn’t play any of the songs as arranged on the record. I was playing “The Other Side of Summer” in 6/8 or something. I was just in the most willful mood. I remember they came up to me and said, “You’ve got to play ‘Alison.’” And I was like, I don’t want to play it.
Well, thank you so much for your time. And I do mean it. You have just been a gigantic inspiration to me. I remember seeing you at the Wiltern and waiting at the backstage door in, like, ’89 or something, and you were super nice. I still have your autograph from that night.
Well, I’m glad I was.