Are you feeling funny?

Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Leslie Mann and Jonah Hill talk about Funny People.

by Maria Realf

Sandler, Apatow, Bana, Rogen and Mann on the set

Sandler, Apatow, Bana, Rogen and Mann on the set

“Wooo-hoooo, hello everyone,” whoops Adam Sandler, poking his head round the door of the conference room where a select group of journalists are waiting eagerly. Then just like that, he disappears again. For two minutes.

This is a tad unusual, but frankly I’m relieved. When a film’s called Funny People and it stars some of the hottest comedians in Hollywood, who wants conventional? In fact, I’m secretly hoping he might break into song like in The Wedding Singer.

On this particularly sunny Monday afternoon [Aug 24], Adam’s in London to promote his new movie, along with the film’s writer, director and producer Judd Apatow, and two more members of the ensemble cast, Jonah Hill and Leslie Mann. The latter plays the long-lost love of Adam’s character – and also happens to be Judd’s real-life wife. Confused yet? Perhaps I’d better rewind a bit…

The Sandler and Apatow story goes back about two decades – and is truly the stuff Hollywood legends are made of. The pair met in the Eighties on the first night Adam moved to LA, became firm friends and got an apartment together. Both had a love of comedy which would stand them in great stead for the future. “When I lived with Adam we were 21 to 22 years old,” says Judd. “He left to do Saturday Night Live. I tried to get a job on Saturday Night Live as a writer – I kept handing in my sketches but I could never get them to read them! So then I created The Ben Stiller Show with Ben, and we just diverged.”

Apatow and Sandler's association goes back 20 years
Apatow and Sandler's association goes back 20 years

The rest, as they say, is history. Adam has proved himself to be a talented comedian and actor (not to mention writer and producer), becoming one of the most recognisable faces in the world thanks to roles in films such as Big Daddy, The Waterboy, Anger Management, Punch-Drunk Love and the recent Bedtime Stories. Judd, meanwhile, has enjoyed phenomenal success behind the scenes as a writer, producer and director. He made his feature film directorial debut with The 40 Year-Old Virgin, then followed that up by directing the smash hit Knocked Up. He’s also been a producer on some of the most memorable comedies of recent times, including Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

However, the two former flatmates still crossed career paths on various projects. “I did punch-ups on Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer, and I wrote You Don’t Mess With The Zohan with Adam and Robert Smigel, so we were still working together,” says Judd.

Now, the pair have teamed up for comedy drama Funny People. At the heart of this film is the unlikely friendship that develops between superstar comedian George Simmons (Sandler), who has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and the struggling stand-up performer (played by Seth Rogen) he reluctantly mentors. In real-life, what words of advice would Adam give to other young comedians? “It does take a while as a stand-up to figure out who you are, how you want to represent yourself and why you thought you should get into the business,” he says.

“It did take me five or six years when I did stand-up to actually develop the comfort to just talk up there. I went through many phases. Judd always talked about how I was being the loud guy, and then I was like the quiet guy… I had no idea what the hell I was doing. You’ve got to give yourself time to figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not.”

Jonah says his parents were supportive
Jonah says his parents were supportive

His natural flair for comedy is immediately apparent from the film’s opening sequence – which uses long-buried actual footage of a young Adam making prank phone calls. “When we started this project, I thought maybe I could use all these old videos to create the history of George Simmons,” says Judd. “I thought: ‘I think I videotaped Adam making phoney phone calls 20 years ago – I wonder if that exists?’ I had to go through every video tape I’d ever made in my entire life, and one day it was like finding the Holy Grail. There were three hours of phoney phone calls! A lot of it is going to be on our DVD…”

Following his spate of recent successes, Judd felt the time was right to make Funny People. “There is that moment in your career where you realise ‘Now is the moment when they would let me do something like this, and maybe they won’t next year.’ You hear a lot of people say, ‘One day, when I’m in a good position, I could make my passion project’ and I’ve seen a lot of people get in that position and not make their passion project, so I felt that it was my responsibility to take full advantage of the moment. Because I think movies without superheroes and action and thrills and new forms of 3D are really dying out.

"They’re shutting down the indie divisions at major studios and people are disappearing from movies – normal human behaviour is disappearing from movies. I’m a big superhero fan and I grew up on those movies, but I need some Welcome To The Dollhouses in my life. So I hope that the movie is helpful towards people continuing to have unique behaviour – because you’re not always fighting a creature in life!”

For Judd, the new film is definitely a family affair – starring not only his wife but also the couple’s two young daughters Maude and Iris (incidentally, all three also appeared in his last directorial project, Knocked Up). Yet despite landing roles in his movies, his girls are not currently old enough to watch them in their entirety. “My daughter [Maude] once snuck downstairs and watched 20 minutes of The 40 Year-Old Virgin in Spanish on the HBO Latino channel,” he admits. “I keep joking that I’m going to cut every inappropriate moment out of Funny People and let her see an edited version – but then I realised it would be about eight minutes long.”

Sandler, Bana and Rogen
Sandler, Bana and Rogen

At one point, Judd contemplated joining his family in front of the camera by casting himself as Leslie’s on-screen husband, a role which eventually went to Eric Bana. “For a while I thought I could play that part, because I thought I’m just unlikeable enough that you would never root for Leslie to stay with me,” he says. “I thought: ‘That’ll take two weeks and if it’s terrible maybe I could just re-shoot it with my own money to apologise to the studio. Then I realised that the character needed to be physically imposing so you always thought that he could kill Adam, which I can’t. [Fellow Funny People producer] Barry Mendel produced Munich, and one day we were talking about it and he said, ‘Maybe Eric Bana would do this’ and I said ‘Really? Is that possible? You could get Eric Bana to do this? That would be the most incredible thing ever.’ Eric’s really a hilarious guy. He hasn’t done comedy in a long time, but he’s actually as funny as anybody around.”

In Funny People, it emerges that the central character George went into comedy in a bid to win his father’s approval. So what prompted Adam’s own choice of career? “I’m sure everyone’s got their back story,” he says, smiling. “I don’t come from a place where I was tortured and needed to let something out. I came from a very happy home – a little out of control at times, but my family all liked to be funny. I liked it the most when my father laughed at my stuff in real life – it wasn’t like I wanted his approval, but I was just happy that he was happy. My mother was very encouraging – ‘Yes, yes, you’re wonderful Adam’ – but my father was always like, ‘I think you’re gonna maybe be a funny salesman…’”

What did his fellow cast members’ parents think about their decision to go into showbiz? “Sure, it’s nice to have my mother’s approval, even though she still doesn’t really give it to me,” laughs Leslie. “I hope to have it one day.”

“My parents were pretty supportive,” muses Jonah, who’s perhaps best known for his memorable turn in Superbad. “My dad made it very clear that I would not receive a dollar from him ever, and he was like: ‘I just want you to be happy, but know that you have to support yourself.’ So it was a risk, but now they’re really psyched, because there were a few years where it looked like I wasn’t going to amount to very much – I think they were relieved that I came out of that with a really hard work ethic and succeeded at what I was trying to do and what made me happy.”

Though it looks as though the whole cast must have had a blast on set, Adam insists they remained very focused. “There was improv, but it wasn’t like we were goofy and saying, ‘Let me try this and that’. Judd was very focused with where he wanted the scenes to go and how he wanted to get there,” he reveals. “We all came up with our own stuff on occasion, and if it fit we were happy and if it didn’t fit he would guide us in a different direction. So it wasn’t a free for all. We weren’t just saying, ‘I feel like doing this today, this’ll be a laugh, let me grab this banana and throw it…’”

That’s not to say that some sequences – such as Adam and Leslie’s on-screen love scene – didn’t cause much hilarity. “That was funny,” giggles Leslie.

Sandler and Rogen
Sandler and Rogen

“Yeah, there was nervous laughter when Judd said ‘Please eat out my wife,’” grins Adam, as the assembled journalists crack up. “Everybody laughed and laughed.”

Though Funny People is as amusing as any of Judd’s previous comedies (and packed full of the laddish banter we’ve come to expect), some of the more dramatic scenes are surprisingly emotional, allowing Adam to show off his versatility as an actor. Was the movie a deliberate attempt to broaden his appeal? “I like the movies I’ve done in the past – I worked really hard at those – and it was not a conscious effort to say I need to broaden my audience,” says Adam. “It’s just that this is the movie Judd wrote, I was excited to do a movie with Judd, and whoever clicks with it I’m happy to click with.”

And does he hope to win an Oscar for this one? “Let me answer – I do,” Jonah butts in jokily. “If it happens for me, yeah. That would be nice.” And Adam? “I don’t really think about that. That would be hilarious if it ever happened.”

Funny People is at cinemas across the UK now

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