Judd Apatow is the writer/director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the upcoming summer comedy “Knocked Up,” and the producer/writer of the acclaimed television series “Freaks and Geeks.” The following is the latest in a series of guest columns by Apatow for MTV News.
This has been an odd week because “Knocked Up” premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and has been getting fantastic reviews. Reviews that make me think that a painful backlash is inevitable. I feel like starting the backlash, just to get it over with. It makes me want to examine my entire relationship with criticism.
Throughout my career I’ve gotten good reviews and bad reviews. I have gotten reviews that are so bad a weaker man would never get up off the canvas after reading them. I recently saw Maya Angelou on the TV show “Iconoclast” on the Sundance Channel telling Dave Chappelle that when it comes to what people in the press say, her theory is “don’t pick it up, don’t put it down.” I think her point is that you shouldn’t believe them when they’re good and you shouldn’t believe them when they’re bad.
I have a different theory: I like to pick it up and never put it down. I like to put my name in the Google news and blog alerts and receive every single thing written about me and my work on the Internet. Then I can go home and stew on all of it, feeling both good and ashamed in quick succession. There is really no limit to the amount of time I can spend looking for any madman’s rambling about something I have been a part of. Time never moves faster than those
hours I spend after midnight sitting at the computer searching for criticism and insults, which inevitably leave me feeling soiled to my core. I feel just as bad when I get a negative review in The Village Voice as I do when some kid blogging in Thailand says I suck.
I never think about critics when I’m making a movie, so it doesn’t affect the process. But when the filmmaking is complete, the ongoing conversation about the movie’s value never bores me. One would think that after the beating I have taken on movies like “The Cable Guy,” I would have decided that critics don’t know what they’re talking about. But if I did that, then I couldn’t enjoy the moments when they are so clearly on the money. So I always think of them as being brilliant. Because if I didn’t I couldn’t enjoy today. If I ignore the jackass slamming “The Cable Guy” then I am not allowed to enjoy his incredibly insightful review of “Knocked Up.” On this day, when the reviews are good, I say to all who have written anything about a project of mine: You have always been right about everything. And you continue to be right today.
The first review I ever received was from The Hollywood Reporter for an HBO special I wrote for Tom Arnold called “The Naked Truth.” The only line I remember in the review was something about it being the worst cable special ever made. At the time a lot of people were down on Tom Arnold, and I’m not really sure why. I always found him really funny and unpredictable, but I was instantly able to rationalize this bad review as an attack on him and not on my work, which I am sure was very strong. I knew then, as I know now, that if that special had starred someone other than Tom Arnold, they would have said it was perhaps the best cable special ever written.
The reviews for “The Ben Stiller Show” [which Apatow produced, and in which he appeared] were mixed. People seemed to love it or hate it in equal parts. I remember one reviewer said it was like watching scraps from MTV’s editing-room floor, but I knew that the review was only bad because castmember/writer Bob Odenkirk made a joke at a press conference after that same reporter repeatedly asked Ben Stiller about his parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Bob rudely shouted out, “Why aren’t you asking about me? My dad’s Bob Hope.” A month later we were trashed in the paper, and the reporter surely won that battle of wits. By the way, Bob’s dad is not Bob Hope.
The first film I co-wrote, “Heavyweights,” was panned across-the-board. It has become a little bit of a cult classic since then, if you define cult classic by this standard: More than 1,000 people in a country of 300 million really dig it. I consider myself one of them. “The Cable Guy” is remembered as a movie that got terrible reviews, but I always remind people that Gene Siskel loved it, as did Michael Wilmington in Chicago. If you e-mail me, I will send you a list of every good review that movie got. Almost 20 percent of the reviews were good, not that I’m counting. I really loved that movie, so the bad reviews were especially painful. We were all very proud that we did something different, and we were quite happy with the result. Not that I didn’t realize that a Jim Carrey movie that ends with his suicide attempt was a bit of a risk.
I remember thinking at the time that reviewers would appreciate the fact that Jim Carrey had taken a chance and tried to blaze some new territory. I must say I actually thought the reviews were going to be great.
As clear as day I remember standing at the premiere when a publicist walked up and handed me two faxes containing two brutal reviews from major magazines. One of them said that there was not one funny moment in the movie, and that was enough for me to disregard that particular review. One could argue how good or bad the movie was, but it certainly got a lot of laughs. I used that rationalization as my way of not crawling into a ball and moving back to Long Island, New York, to recapture my previous job as a busboy at El Torito.
“The Cable Guy” is still one of my favorite films that I’ve worked on, and it never ceases to make me laugh. I must say, however, that the rough critical reaction made me doubt my instincts and sense of humor. I didn’t make another movie for eight years. I spent those years making critically well-regarded television shows that were canceled instantly. In television, the network executives don’t like good reviews because it makes it more embarrassing for them to give you the ax.
I was thrilled when “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” my directing debut, was warmly received. In fact, I was somewhat shocked because at no point during the making of a movie called “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” do you expect anyone to go out of their way to praise you. It may be the first time that a movie in which a man pees in his own face got a good review from The New Yorker.
So now, as I sit here having felt the pain and pleasure of critical response, I must again state that the critics are always right. They are certainly right about “Knocked Up,” which Variety says is “uproarious” and “more explosively funny, more frequently than nearly any major studio release in recent memory.” They were right about that Tom Arnold special and they are right about this.
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