The Improv was packed with prominent wisecrackers, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill among them. But as writer-director Judd Apatow was filming one "Funny People" scene at the Hollywood comedy club, the laughs were few and far between.
Apatow was more than halfway through principal photography last December, and like many scenes in his movie about a comedian's brush with mortality, Sandler's character George Simmons wasn't in a joking mood. Instead, he was having an uncomfortable encounter with his assistant, an aspiring stand-up named Ira Wright, played by Rogen.
"Really go at him," Apatow coached Sandler.
The 41-year-old filmmaker wanted Simmons to dissect Wright's comedy act, and Apatow didn't want the criticisms to be constructive -- they needed to be personal, cutting, egotistic. "George could never be more self-involved," Apatow said during a break in filming. "He never tells Ira anything that can help his act."
Apatow has become a self-titled Hollywood franchise thanks to exactly the opposite kind of behavior.
His hit comedies (Apatow directed "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and produced "Pineapple Express," "Superbad" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," among others) may be filled with raunchy dialogue, carnal quests and in-your-face nudity, but at their center are surprisingly sweet heroes and heroines.
A different formula
"Funny People," opening Friday, incorporates the trademark Apatow pageant of F-bombs and penis jokes, but its central character is scarcely as likable as his other central characters: In fact, Simmons is a misanthrope. Faced with a potentially terminal diagnosis, Simmons attempts to reevaluate his narcissistic life and the people he has wronged with very limited results.
It's a curious, pricey ($75 million) departure for Apatow, and more than a few people in town have called it his "Jim Brooks movie," a reference to the director of "Terms of Endearment."
"Funny People" represents an awkward marketing challenge for Universal Pictures, in the midst of a lackluster stretch that includes the outright bust "Land of the Lost," the fast-falling "Bruno" and the expensive but modestly successful "Public Enemies."
Early "Funny People" reviews have been sharply polarized, and not as favorable as the notices for the director's "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," both of which grossed more than $100 million in domestic theaters. Universal hopes the film could gross as much as $25 million in its opening weekend (right between "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up"), but positive word of mouth will be critical to ensure the film plays for more than a few weeks.
Universal's "Funny People" marketing campaign has not shied from the film's blood-disease plot line.
"Our establishing trailer did not attempt to hide it in any way, shape or form," said Adam Fogelson, the studio's marketing and distribution chief. "We haven't tried to avoid the fact that he's been diagnosed with a terminal illness -- or that he's been told he's actually going to be fine."
The studio's 30-second television spots tell a slightly different story. They have been focused more on comic banter with Sandler, Rogen and Hill. "We're definitely showing the breadth of the cast," Fogelson said. "But we also have spots that show what it's like to be at the top, and what it's like to be at the bottom."
Back on set at the Improv (where Sandler performed early in his career), Apatow was looking at what it's like to be in the middle.
Rogen's Wright, having served (and been beaten down) as Simmons' assistant, was trying to establish his own stand-up act. A steady stream of prurient gags wasn't wowing the crowd, and one bit about his testicles might have been stolen from another comedian. Simmons told Wright he had to stop telling the joke.
As cameras rolled, Apatow shouted out lines of new dialogue.
"Who is your audience going to be?" Simmons asked Wright, parroting Apatow's improvisation. "People with weird-colored penises?"
As Apatow's story has it, Simmons had been a talented performer who made a string of commercially successful but insipid movies, including one in which his adult head was digitally added to a baby's body. Simmons lives in a palatial compound and has casual sex with random women. But he has no real friends, and no direction.
When he is diagnosed with a potentially fatal ailment, Simmons returns to stand-up, delivering a tortured set about mortality. Wright, who's next on stage, ridicules the act. Rather than be offended, Simmons invites Wright into his life -- or what passes for it. With Wright's encouragement, Simmons tries to atone for some of his past and present behavior, but the results are not inspiring.
"It's a mentor story," Apatow said as his crew moved on for another shot. "It's a disease movie. It's a coming-of-age movie. It's a movie about trying to restart an old romance. It's 11 different movies rolled into one."