It took decades for Judd Apatow's Simpsons script to turn into an episode. Back when the comedy titan was a television newcomer, and the long-running TV show was still in its infancy, Apatow wrote a spec script. Now, it's in the process of becoming part of the Simpsons canon.
This isn’t news. Others have already reported on this development in both Simpsons and Apatow history. On Wednesday afternoon, though, in front of a group of students, the story takes on new significance. Those who are here can take away two lessons. The first is that the script you wrote early in your career may make it to the small screen years later. The other lesson arises when Apatow explains the episode, where a hypnotism leaves Homer thinking he’s still a child, one who doesn’t want to grow up. Apatow says that he’s written this story repeatedly in the years that followed the spec script. From The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Girls, he writes for characters having trouble transitioning into adulthood. He has variations of a running theme that he handles really well.
Apatow is inside Mayer Theatre on the campus of Loyola Marymount University answering questions as part of the school’s “Hollywood Masters” series. Most of the questions come from Stephen Galloway, executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter. At the end of the session, a few more come from students. Sessions like this are only to those in the School of Film and Television program. Even so, seating is limited inside a theater that’s smaller than the commercial variety. Before the start of the event, there was a line outside the venue as organizers tried to squeeze attendees into seats. It was a hot ticket event.
“Hollywood Masters,” which is recorded in front of the audience, brings entertainment heavy-hitters into a student-centric setting, providing insight into the field that many here aspire to enter. The format isn’t terribly different from what you might see at a convention, but the tone certainly is. It is school, after all. Heavy cheers and boisterous laughter are replaced with enthusiastic, but polite, applause and low-key chuckles during the funniest bits. The audience questions are pre-selected, so there’s not a big element of surprise here, like you might see at San Diego Comic-Con when a person asks something unexpected or makes an unusual request.
Overall, this is about education more than entertainment. Even when Apatow retells anecdotes from his youth or talks about meeting Girls creator Lena Dunham, there’s a thread to follow here. This is how people make work for themselves in entertainment. Apatow started out working at comedy clubs, where he caught the attention of comedians who bought jokes from him. Dunham made a low-budget movie on her own that Apatow saw and enjoyed. There’s more than one way to build a career.
Apatow talks about how he would interview comedians for his high school radio show and how that led to getting some pretty good tips from pros. He went to USC, but says that financial issues kept him from finishing school. He left the classroom and went to work at comedy clubs, doing various tasks. He advises students, “find that thing that you can do that pays the bills, but keeps you in the universe.”
It worked for Apatow. Those jokes he sold went to higher profile artists and, ultimately, he landed TV gigs.
After a question from a screenwriting grad student, Apatow suggests that some can go the Lena Dunham route. Find a way to get the necessary equipment and make the movie. “It’s all about sound,” Apatow adds. “You just need a friend who knows how to work the mic.”
Some of the best advice from Apatow is regarding failure. He mentions that failure was one of the themes of the short-lived, but beloved, TV show Freaks and Geeks. It’s also something that hits close to home for those intending to work in entertainment. The students here don’t seem naive to the fact that they might not sell a script or get the movie made. That’s happened to Apatow. He mentions a movie that never happened called Making Amends, that would have starred Owen Wilson and Rip Torn. He talks about a TV pilot for a show called North Hollywood, about struggling actors. It wasn’t picked up.
Apatow recalls advice that he heard years ago, essentially that you have to anticipate that the first script you write, won’t be the first one you sell. He instructs the crowd, “The second you finish something, start the next one.”
After the session, Apatow met students personally at a small reception. At the reception, I met a junior screening writing major named David Koutsouridis. Earlier he had asked Apatow how he managed to remain patient during the up-and-comer years. For Koutsouridis, the chance to ask a successful writer this kind of question is an advantage of the “Hollywood Masters” series.
“It’s good just to hear where people started,” he says. “You see them and you put them on a pedestal. Once you hear them talking, you realize that everyone started at the same level as us.”
Just knowing that Apatow was once like the students here is comforting. “It’s motivating,” says Koutsouridis. “It gives you hope.”
Photo: Juan Tallo