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‘Funny People’ Depicts a Comedy World That No Longer Exists

The fascinating, flawed Judd Apatow film, which came out 10 years ago, exists in a landscape before #MeToo and Netflix fundamentally rewrote the rules of stand-up

About midway through Funny People, a comedy about comedians, George Simmons is giving a toast at a Thanksgiving dinner that’s being held at the apartment of his assistant Ira Wright and his roommates. George is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars — he’s the king of sophomoric family films like MerMan and Re-Do, where his workaholic adult character gets turned back into a baby — but lately he’s been reassessing his life after learning that he has a possibly fatal disease. Ira, his roommates and their pals are much younger than George — most of them aspiring actors and comics; they’d kill to have his life, although they’re unaware of his diagnosis — and as George is about to speak, certain realizations come flooding over him. 

“It’s funny: I see you guys and you’re just so much younger than me,” he says, looking around the table. “And I had no idea I was the old guy until I looked at you guys.” Not known for introspection or sentiment — he’s more comfortable making dick jokes than revealing himself — George suddenly lowers his guard. “It’s good to be young,” he says wistfully. “It kind of sucks being old, so just enjoy this. Enjoy time. Time slips away, I promise you. I had a dinner like this 20 years ago with guys that we just, like, lost touch with each other. I never talk to ‘em anymore. Some of ‘em are dead. So, yeah, you don’t… Things slip away.”

Funny People, which was released 10 years ago tomorrow, was writer-director Judd Apatow’s follow-up to his critically and commercially successful comedies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and was viewed as a more serious and personal story from the longtime-writer-turned-auteur. Although the movie doesn’t entirely work — it aspires to be as emotionally layered as James L. Brooks’ best films but gets bogged down in some dumb plotting — Funny People is an engrossing look at a comic grappling with the passage of time and the mistakes he’s made. 

Which comic do I mean? Well, there are three possible answers, and they’d all be correct: Apatow, George and the man who plays George, Adam Sandler. Even when Funny People falters, the autobiographical nature of the film fills in the gaps, keeping us engaged. Apatow and Sandler are telling us something significant and often bleak about the world they grew up in and conquered. But what’s striking about watching the movie now is to see how much of that world has been radically rewritten in the last 10 years.

The film begins with George getting that discouraging diagnosis, which understandably leaves him emotionally wobbly. Rich and successful beyond his wildest dreams, George is nonetheless deeply unhappy. He has no close friends, and although women want to sleep with him — largely due to his celebrity — he pines for the love he let get away, his old girlfriend Laura (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann), who he cheated on. Normally, being handed a medical death sentence would inspire a movie character to change his ways. It’s telling that this isn’t what happens in Funny People. As we’ll quickly ascertain, George is an unfailingly selfish prick, and whatever inherent sympathy we have for his situation is quickly mitigated by the way he treats everyone around him.

The person who bears the brunt of his disdain is Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling young stand-up he meets at a club. George asks him to be his assistant and joke writer, but not because he sees something special in Ira. Quite the opposite, he wants to prey on Ira’s pushover demeanor, belittling the young man so that he’ll do his bidding and keep coming back, constantly hoping for approval that will never come. Their working relationship isn’t as twisted as the one between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis — the has-been star and struggling screenwriter from a very different Hollywood story, Sunset Boulevard — but what they have in common is the person in power’s subtle, persistent abuse coupled with a simultaneous, bitter need to be worshiped. For people working their way up the entertainment ladder, this type of arrangement is often described as “mentoring.” Really, though, it’s just being treated like shit because you work for a star who can get away with bad behavior.

Throughout, Funny People tempts the viewer to see the real-world analogies to what plays out in the movie — specifically, in how it depicts the Sandler character. MerMan and Re-Do look exactly like the terrible kids’ movies that helped make Sandler famous — you know, fantasy-comedies such as Bedtime Stories and Click. (At one point, Ira’s buddy tells George how much he loves MerMan. George responds dismissively, “You and five-year-olds.”) And when George meets Laura’s two daughters, played by Apatow and Mann’s actual daughters, he does the same demented-child noises that were Sandler’s trademark in his stand-up and SNL years. 

At the time of the film’s release, George was regarded, in some quarters, as Sandler’s mea culpa — or at the very least, a dark riff on the Adam Sandler onscreen persona. But that reading never stood up to scrutiny. Where Sandler has been married for about 16 years and is the father of two, George is a womanizing loner who avoided getting hitched. George has alienated those around him, while the real Sandler, by all accounts, has a close-knit group of friends and associates, several of whom keep showing up in his movies.

Really, what Sandler fans like me were doing was trying to force a connection between the star and his character. We so love when Sandler does more daring work, such as Punch-Drunk Love, and want to believe that, deep down, there’s a compelling artist in there who, for whatever reason, has decided to focus largely on goofy, inane broad comedies. So the bitter, regretful George isn’t quite Sandler’s apology — rather, it’s a sly trolling of our belief that the character represents the disappointment Sandler’s presumably been carrying around all this time. But despite his occasional serious performance — The Meyerowitz Stories, the forthcoming Uncut Gems — Sandler 10 years later very much remains the guy who happily does MerMan-esque films. There’s no inner-conflict there, although the performance does suggest the self-loathing that exists in even the most successful comics.

Apatow, of course, knows all about self-loathing. His (male) characters are often riddled with it, providing them with the source of their comedy. Ira very much feels like an Apatow stand-in — an avatar for the passionate but unpolished young comic he once was. (The filmmaker has described his teen years as a stand-up as “like if Bill Maher was really, really boring and had no life experience, no edge and no wit.”) But as a kid, Apatow would reach out to veteran comics to get advice, eventually being lucky enough to have Garry Shandling take him under his wing. Shandling helped give Apatow a career — they worked together on The Larry Sanders Show — but perhaps more importantly, he instilled in the younger man the importance of true mentorship. “It wasn’t just something he was stumbling into as a nice guy,” Apatow said of Shandling around the release of the documentary he made about his late friend, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. “He knew he had something to give to people, and he did it as an act of love.” 

The good fortune that happened for Apatow doesn’t play out the same way for Ira, who comes to learn that George is a terrible, ungenerous person. The more Ira treats him like a human being — worrying about the fact that he might die — the more George berates him, usually targeting his manhood. There’s often a homoerotic edge to the smack talk in Apatow’s films, but in Funny People it’s especially barbed, with the two men discussing dicks and homosexuality as some sort of strange bonding ritual and macho face-off. This is a movie that has little space for women — it’s a sausage fest where guys discuss comedy and sex like they’re competitive sports.

If that description feels cringe-y in a 2019 context, that’s part of what’s so revealing about seeing Funny People now. Early on, George agrees to perform at a prestigious event … for MySpace, which is just one indication of how different 2009 was from now. The film’s entire comedy landscape might as well be Paleolithic it’s so far removed from current reality — both in terms of the economics and the mentality. For one thing, in our superhero/reboot/remake culture, Hollywood studios don’t make many broad comedies like MerMan anymore. (Sandler was practically a visionary for hitching his wagon to Netflix long before it became fashionable.)

But just as significantly, the tenor of comedy has shifted significantly since the start of the #MeToo era. When Netflix airs new stand-up from older icons, like Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock, those specials are often criticized for being out-of-touch — their crude, outdated jokes about women and transgender people gall. (The hottest specials on the streaming service, not surprisingly, are from female comics, including Hannah Gadsby and Ali Wong.) Funny People, unwittingly, is a platform for that old, now highly problematic style of comedy. 

Almost every comic we see on stage talks about masturbation or sex — it’s a self- (and shame-) centered form of male comedy that arguably reached its apex with Louis C.K.’s oft-brilliant exploration of his hang-ups. But when C.K.’s real-world abuse came to light, that exploration no longer seemed so brave or insightful. That’s why it’s a genuine shock when George berates Ira after a set, saying, “All you fucking talk about is jacking off and farting. You think a girl’s gonna come up to you after the show: ‘Could you just jack off for me and then fart in my face?’” Without intending it, Funny People anticipates C.K.’s (and that style of frank, coarse comedy’s) fall from grace. (Watching Aziz Ansari, then an up-and-comer, joyfully perform one of his actual stand-up bits during the movie only amplifies the film’s unconscious innocence.)

Not that the movie is about the characters learning that dick jokes are a pretty base form of humor. If anything, Funny People argues that, for insecure men like George and Ira, crass comedy is what binds them — they’re all connected by their shared hatred of themselves and their sexual inadequacy. There are only two significant women in Funny People, and one of them is an aspiring comic played by Aubrey Plaza who’s largely a sex-object plot device. (Ira is into her, but his douche-y roommate, the star of a bad but popular sitcom, played by Jason Schwartzman, sleeps with her first, causing contrived narrative complications.) 

The other is Laura, who briefly flirts with the idea of leaving her husband (Eric Bana) and reuniting with George. The character never makes much sense — she’s too erratic in her choices and ill-defined in her desires — because she’s really just a symbol of the redemption George is seeking but doesn’t ultimately deserve. Apatow crafted some delightful love stories in Virgin and Knocked Up, but here he doesn’t quite have his heart into it. The real romance, as pained as it is, is between George and Ira. It’s among the men within the fraternity of comics.

In 2018, Apatow, who has been a strong advocate for #MeToo and #TimesUp, was asked about the impact of those movements. “The most important part is that there is an awakening where people realize how badly women are treated,” he said. “We want there to be new attitudes.” It would be interesting to see how Apatow would have approached making Funny People today. No doubt at its core it would still focus on George and Ira’s self-loathing — the grim realization that they’re stuck with one another because, honestly, who else would want to hang around such reprobates as stand-up comics? But as generous as Apatow has been as a mentor himself, helping to boost the careers of everyone from Lena Dunham to Melissa McCarthy to Amy Schumer, his 10-year-old film is mired in an old way of thinking about comedy’s boys’ club.

Happily, he doesn’t need to apologize for Funny People’s gender shortcomings — he’s made up for them by the example he’s set since, advocating for female comics and bolstering their platform. “I had no idea I was the old guy until I looked at you guys,” George tells everybody wistfully during that Thanksgiving scene. It’s an opportunity for him to take stock and grow up. George’s tragedy is that he can’t. But Apatow, to his eternal credit, has proved that some men can actually change and evolve.