As a Judd Apatow fan, I am extremely let down by Vanity Fair’s much-vaunted “comedy issue”, for which Apatow served as guest editor. Do not take this as any kind of examination of the state of comedy today or its role in popular culture. The feature is only representative of Judd Apatow and HIS taste, HIS reach, HIS influence. Very little outside the Apatow bubble is represented here, and what there is feels more like a forced acknowledgment than actual respect for anything happening outside Apatow’s sphere of influence. Louis CK’s Proust Questionnaire is great, but he is the biggest thing in comedy right now—he should be on the cover.
So let’s start there, with the covers. Apatow got three, one of which is a blatant advert for his upcoming film This is 40, and bizarrely includes Megan Fox, who is not and never has been a comedienne. It also shows Melissa McCarthy styled incredibly poorly as Lily Tomlin’s “Edith Ann” character; McCarthy would have been better served by a Lucille Ball homage, especially as she’s kind of the modern Lucy (everywoman appeal, sitcom star turned producer). And it’s a little suspect that Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, is the one front and center looking amazing while McCarthy, who has made more and varied contributions to comedy recently, gets shoved in the back in an unflattering clown costume.
The other two covers feature a mix of Apatow’s heroes (Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey) and people who are indebted to him (Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph). There’s something gross about it, right? Something self-involved, self-important and self-impressed. Apatow has enormous influence and reach in the comedy world, no one argues that. So why does this feel like him going, “See? See how important I am? Look at all these people who owe me.”
Still, a lot of comedy nerds are digging these covers (Megan Fox aside). Of course, Apatow’s taste dominates a lot of comedy, so it validates anyone who subscribes to that aesthetic.
The Apatow theme continues inside, with profiles on his cult hit TV show Freaks and Geeks, but no mention of another cult hit—one with considerably more impact on pop culture—Arrested Development. But Freaks and Geeks stayed canceled so it’s, like, totally a more culty and exclusive show, you guys. (Jonah Hill, Apatow's star pupil, wasn't invited to participate in the issue at all. As he is now capable of producing movies without Apatow’s help, I guess he doesn’t merit any of daddy’s love these days.) You can see the outline of the comedy issue here. It’s a depressingly one-sided look at the comedy industry.
So what would my comedy issue look like?
I want three covers, too. One for “heroes and legends”: Keep Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, add Steve Martin, Dave Letterman and Lily Tomlin. The second cover goes to the “tastemakers”: Keep Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, add Tina Fey, Louis CK and Conan O’Brien. The final cover goes to the “trendsetters”: John Mulaney (rumor has it he’s recently departed SNL), Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Mindy Kaling, Simon Amstell and Zach Galifianakis.
For a feature inside, invite the cover stars to write a blurb about their number one influence and their favorite up-and-coming comic.
Of all Apatow’s features, the only one I’d keep is the Elaine May/Mike Nichols interview because that’s awesome. I’d replace the Albert Brooks piece with one about Monty Python as they reunite to make Terry Jones’ Absolutely Anything. I would combine the Martin Short feature with the profile on Tig Notaro—a “comic’s comic” who threw down one of the most legendary live sets ever, and I am seriously not under-selling that, earlier this year (it’s available on Louis CK’s website and is worth every cent). Short and Notaro both used comedy to filter tragedy, and taken together make a more interesting, diverse representation of the dark heart of comedy.
I’d also run a series of spotlights on people who are crossing out of comedy and making significant cultural contributions in other ways, such as Arrested Development coming back through emerging digital distribution models and Mystery Science Theater 3000 accidentally becoming champions of film preservation. Add a profile on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who owned Broadway with The Book of Mormon, one with Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie on his Oscar-winning career as a songwriter, and one with Bo Burnham, a Youtube sensation who is now a very successful comic, which would address the Internet as an alternative outlet to the stage for comedians.
Finally I would do a portrait portfolio on the best of comedy in film and television, which has never been more diverse or funny. Make the obligatory nod to The Office ending, sure, but how about Archer, the sharpest social satire on TV? And Wilfred, the oddball, cult favorites Happy Endings and Community, Parks & Rec, the best ensemble on television, Louie for its utterly brilliant “Late Show” arc, Modern Family for reshaping the family sitcom, Key & Peele for delivering the most absurd and consistent sketch work, The League and Children’s Hospital for fusing improv and sitcom, and yes, Seth McFarlane for Ted and Family Guy, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for turning British geeks into the hippest thing in indie comedy, and yes, Apatow himself for his contributions to comedy over the last decade.
Judd Apatow is an important voice in comedy, but he’s hardly the only one. Must be hard to hear anyone else, though, from inside the echo chamber of his own ass.