‘The King of Staten Island’ Director Judd Apatow Reveals the Secret Behind True Comedy

Knowing if a joke will land takes timing, experience … and maybe a tad bit of anger, according to The King of Staten Island director Judd Apatow.

Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow on set for Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson project known as "Staten Island"
Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow on set for Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson project known as “Staten Island” | Bobby Bank/GC Images

Apatow’s latest release, starring comedians Pete Davidson and Bill Burr ranked number 7 on Vulture‘s “best and worst” list of Apatow films. The film is loosely based on Davidson’s life as the son of a firefighter who died during 9/11. Davidson’s character meanders through life, colliding with his mother’s new boyfriend played by Burr.

Apatow discussed the film, but also his experience with what works in comedy. He shared how life’s trajectory has made him funnier and also how he ended up allowing his actors to go off script, which often produces a funnier moment.

Furious, old, anxious and really funny

Apatow offered his views on when he thought he was at his funniest. He shared on the Life is Short with Justin Long podcast what makes for good comedy. He recalls sending Davidson old interview videos from 2009 and compared it to another video he did nine years later.

“And I am a completely different person,” Apatow exclaims. He recalls how he discussed struggling with standup in 2009 because he was too gentle and wasn’t that angry. “And cut then nine years later and the piece of me returning to standup. And I’m furious! I look terrible and old. And I’m really funny.”

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“But I’m enraged and weird,” Apatow laughs. “And me and Pete were laughing at how the whole thing fell apart.” Host Justin Long observes that the evolution led to good comedy. “The rage that I couldn’t find at 23 when I wanted to be a comedian,” Apatow says.

He adds that a certain amount of passion is necessary to good comedy too. “For most people, there’s anger over a sense of injustice,” he says. “Like the world is f**ked. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong with it. Here’s the sh*t I have to deal with.”

Apatow also says improv is another key element of comedy

Apatow shares that Burr was the comedian who Davidson truly admired. “[Pete Davidson and Bill Burr] were friendly, they were friends but clearly Bill talked about how he lives in LA and Pete in New York, but to Pete, that’s the guy. Bill was always very kind to Pete, and I knew that relationship, that affection, would be visible on screen.”

Having talented comics like Davidson, Burr, and Steve Buscemi helps to tell the story. And while the film is scripted, Apatow allowed the actors to inject their own jokes into scenes to create more authenticity. “I don’t even think I can write the perfect joke and then have Steve Buscemi fake laugh and that it’s so well-acted,” Apatow says. “I actually need Bill Burr to surprise him.”

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The best way to achieve the right balance between improv and script is to “rehearse a lot” and write the script based on the rehearsal. “But on the day you say to everybody, ‘You can drift’,” he says. Reminding the actors of the key points, but then allow the actors to dive into their zone. He adds that setting enough time aside so the actors aren’t rushed helps them relax. That’s when the comedy gold begins to flow.