3 Things I Learned from Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow joined Brian Koppelman on The Moment podcast to talk about his book Sick in the Head. If you’ve ever enjoyed the work of people like Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, or Harold Ramis — go buy this book. The book is a collection of interviews Apatow did with other comedians — his interview with Roseanne Barre was truly touching.

Here are 3 things I learned from Apatow’s interview with Koppelman. Unattributed quotes are from Apatow.

1- Career capital is very valuable.

About working with great people, “you have to produce to have that aspect of your career.” “They (Adam McKay, Will Ferrell) are great writers, they don’t need me to write, so what can I do to work with them.” “When you’re young and poor, anyone who writes you a check you’ll write something for…and you’ll sell it because you need to eat.”

Apatow hits again and again on the idea of career capital (introduced by Cal Newport). Rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills. Apatow recognizes this and brings something different so he can work with people like Lena Dunham, McKay and Ferrell.

He also notes that early on career capital is hard to have early on. You have to do the work and let your artistic ambitions suffer because you don’t have enough capital.

Koppelman’s new show Billions is an example of this. He explained to James Altucher that he and (co-creator) David Levien only had a certain amount of career capital. They had enough to get the studio to make the show, but not enough to guarantee a season with certain actors.

  • @B.J.Novak built up career capital, and traded some in to work on The Office.
  • Sarah Tavel built up career capital, and traded some in to become a venture capitalist.
  • Casey Neistat build up career capital, and traded some in to make this Nike commercial.
The story behind this commercial is the story of career capital.

Apatow succeeded in building capital and now he picks projects and people he wants to work on. He can do that because of what he’s done.

2- How to manage people

“Be very clear with your staff, ‘we’re all going to kick this around, you’re going to go off and write an outline then we’re all going to kick around that outline…” “You’re going to get a lot of runs at this.”

Koppelman asks how Apatow balances doing the work and delegating the work. Apatow says it’s all about giving very clear instructions.

In my research on survivor bias this was one of the major reasons startups failed — the team clear instructions.

  • Homebly failed because lacked instructions to focus on a niche.
  • Delight failed because the team was “constantly distracted.”
  • Wattage failed because they lacked internal instructions, and instead reacted to a competitor.

Besides being clear, Apatow says that he follows the advice Phil Rosenthal gave for running Everybody Loves Raymond — do as much work ahead of time as possible.

Television sets are notoriously difficult to manage. Mike Schur — showrunner for Parks and Rec — said “there are 5 essential planks to being a show runner, and you can only do three of them well.” Not only that, but he said the skills that get you a chance for running a show (writing) aren’t skills you use as the showrunner (managing). Schur said that Parks did well because the people he delegated to (like Morgan Sackett) were awesome.

3- Women in showbusiness, women everywhere.

“I’ve always been influenced by my wife Leslie Mann who has very strong ideas about a lot of things and how the business works and how women are treated.” “My first job ever was writing for Roseanne, and Freaks and Geeks was basically about Lindsay Weir.” “There’s clearly a dearth of women.”

Apatow’s work with Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and Kristen Wiig has come — in part — because he’s open to the female experience in showbusiness. He’s succeeded in that work because it’s a growing market.

Sarah Tavel said that she was successful investing in Pinterest because “when there are a lot of the same people looking at companies, they come to the same conclusion.”

Josh Kopelman said, “there’s a real benefit to not being in the valley echo chamber…to see how the rest of the world views technology is really compelling.”

Tavel and Kopelman are excavating the same vein that Apatow is, new groups of people.

It’s not only women, it’s all minorities. To put it another way, in a 3 hour movie there could be a bit more dialogue than this:

13 seconds worth…

Apatow’s success is in part, listening to women. Other people will find success listening to other underserved groups.


Those are 3 things I learned from Judd Apatow.