The most obvious question to ask about Judd Apatow: The Return, the comedian’s debut Netflix special released Tuesday, is if the man can bring as much humor on-stage as he can behind a movie camera. For the record, he can, even if it’s closer in laugh levels to This Is 40 than 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Yet, making that obvious comparison between Apatow’s movies and his new stand-up is totally unimportant in light of what The Return is all about. The career move happening here embodies Apatow’s place as one of the most influential people in modern comedy. He has a seasoned comfort behind the mic, and that neutralizes the conventional material. This is a 50-year-old master at work in an entirely new space, and he’s pulling it off. The Return prompts you to ask what’s next, and for a guy who’s already done so much, that’s astounding.
The Return has an origin story: Apatow made his stand-up debut in 1995 on HBO’s 15th Annual Young Comedians Special, but he’d never take the stage and tell jokes again. Instead, Apatow turned to various behind-the-scenes roles, working on projects like The Ben Stiller Show before carving a path to immortality with things like Freaks and Geeks, Superbad and Bridesmaids. The guy’s had his hand in many of the new millennium’s most important comedies, but now, he’s leveraging his personal prestige (and financial freedom, no doubt) to chase stand-up again.
The Return touches on everything from Apatow’s wife (actress Leslie Mann, he reminds the audience often), to his parenting struggles, to throwing out the first pitch at a Mets game and meeting then-President Obama. Apatow doesn’t shy away from his status (or wealth), and that’s the best part of the special.
One of the biggest laughs of the hour comes when an audience member makes a sympathetic sound toward a story about his childhood, and Apatow replies, “Don’t be sad. I’m rich.” The guy knows how famous and successful he is, and he plays that persona for laughs. It’s so self-assured you have to respect it.
Over the course of Apatow’s set, it’s that cultural positioning that reminds you of his insane impact on modern comedy. This guy’s the forefather of almost every heavy-hitting millennial comic, and he’s rubbed elbows with plenty of superstars outside that generation, too: He interviewed Jerry Seinfeld when he was in high school, was roommates with Adam Sandler after dropping out of college, went on to write jokes for Garry Shandling, Larry Sanders and Jim Carrey, and took Seth Rogen under his wing on Freaks and Geeks. It’s an eye-popping list.
The point is, Apatow’s impact and legacy isn’t news, but that makes his dive back into old-school joke-telling all the more significant. Again, Apatow’s 50 years old, and 50-year-olds don’t try new things, especially after establishing themselves as all-timers in their field.
Chasing this dream (Apatow admits he’s wanted a special since he was 10) was an inherent risk, but having dodged the bomb, Apatow’s both protected his sterling legacy and positioned himself to make a further impact on the comedy world. The implication of The Return, intended or not, is that this journey back to stand-up is possible for other comedians of Apatow’s ilk. Would you watch a Jim Carrey special in 2018? What about an Adam Sandler hour with a slate of new music? Would you queue up fresh material from Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno? It sounds tempting. Maybe The Return will tempt them.
We’re in a moment where old-guard comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are coming out of long hibernations to retake the stage and spit more wisdom. Maybe our fraught climate is demanding it. Apatow’s movies have long made him an implicit commenter on society and relationships, but stand-up is a more explicit form. There’s little to interpret and nothing’s lost in translation; people can hear the words come right out of your mouth.
There are Trump jokes in The Return. There are tiny comments about woke teenagers and mental health. Even if we knew Apatow was engaging with these things on a subconscious level through projects like The Big Sick or Crashing, his appearance on stage generates a greater sense of urgency. What’s more, people are paying attention, and Apatow’s influence could mean more Returns are coming. There are few better avenues for funny people to speak out then wide-released, streamable specials. The platform is open. Apatow may have been chasing a dream, but before long, he could be leading an army.