Last night, 47-year-old Judd Apatow finally achieved 25-year-old Judd Apatow’s dream: a stand-up set on The Tonight Show. The prolific writer/director/producer started out as a stand-up (even landing a spot on one of HBO’s influential Young Comedians specials) before deciding he didn’t have what it took to make it as a performer — but he’s tiptoed back into that world occasionally, working a few clubs with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler while prepping their movie Funny People and, this summer, emceeing a comedy tour featuring the stars of his new movie Trainwreck. But he’s still Judd Apatow, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the closing portion of his performance, over a third of the four-minute set, was devoted to skewering Bill Cosby — a middle finger to the sitcom star/accused rapist on the very network that ran The Cosby Show.
Musing on Cosby’s stand-up tour in the midst of last fall’s parade of accusers, Apatow asked what his act must be like now: “You think he says, like, ‘You ever been in trouble with the wife?’” It’s a spot-on impersonation, which Apatow continues through an imagined Cosby bit about keeping her from finding out, ultimately without success. “And my wife, she said to me, ‘What is this in the paper about the raping and the drugging and the women?’” Apatow says. “And I said, ‘Do you like your life? Do you like the house and the jet? Well then, have a cappuccino and shut the floink up!’”
The bit, from the specificity of the impression — complete with the kind of hard-sibilant refrains (“I didn’t want my wife to read the paper… and I hid the paper”) typical of Cosby’s act — to the punchline that repurposes the “have a Coke and a smile” tagline of pitchman Cosby’s onetime employer, recalls Eddie Murphy’s devastating Cosby riff in Eddie Murphy: Raw. But Apatow’s televised Cosby skewering is merely the latest (though most visible) attack in a crusade he’s been waging since the accusations resurfaced last fall.
So why has Apatow taken such a personal interest in the Cosby story? His new book, Sick in the Head, offers some explanation. Sick collects decades of interviews Apatow, an avowed comedy nerd, conducted with his favorite comedians, both as a showbiz-crazy Long Island teen and as the dean of a modern comedy movement. And in the first paragraph of the book’s introduction, Apatow writes:
I have been completely obsessed with comedy for about as long as I can remember. I blame my dad. My dad was not a comedian, but he may have secretly longed to be one. When I was a kid, he would play us Bill Cosby records and even took me to see him perform at Hofstra University for my birthday when I was in fifth grade. (Note: In this introduction, I was going to talk at length about Bill Cosby, but I can’t, in good conscience, because he has more sexual accusers than I have had partners.)
The lead times and editing periods for books being what they are (extensive), it seems safe to assume that Apatow’s parenthetical was an edit to an original version of that introduction that did, in fact, go into his personal connection to Cosby. And it is personal — the comedy of Bill Cosby was a bond shared by this boy and his dad, and those bonds are stronger than oak. They last your lifetime, which is why so many men spend their lives rooting for the sports team their dad loved, a fandom less about the franchise or the game than about the memory of a common experience. And last fall, Apatow discovered that he and his dad’s Yankees were probably rapists. He took it personally.
On top of that childhood connection, there’s the love of comedy that prompted Apatow to conduct those interviews and write that book; he’s one of the most visible and vocal of all comedy nerds, a guy who inserted vintage Shandling clips and Groucho references into Freaks and Geeks, who made an entire movie about the form in 2009’s Funny People (a film about the kind of guys who’d decorate their apartment with framed Redd Foxx album covers). And from that standpoint, the paternal connection is both literal and metaphorical.
“I’m a comedian. I see him a little bit as our comedy dad. It’s like finding out your comedy dad is a really evil guy,” Apatow told Marc Maron in January. “And when the community is pretty silent, I feel like, if no one’s gonna talk, I’m gonna talk.”
So Apatow’s unrelenting attention to the matter isn’t just about being a good keeper of the comedy flame — it’s also about being a good human being, about using the attention granted him as a public figure to talk about something important to him, as an ally and (lest we forget) a father of two girls. And he knows that the “Bill Cosby thing” is about more than just Bill Cosby.
“I went on a tweet rampage yesterday,” Lena Dunham said at in a recent conversation with Apatow at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, “because I had people tweeting at me, ‘When’s Judd gonna let it go with the Cosby thing?’ And it’s like, ‘When are we as a country gonna let it go with the defending rapists thing?’ It’s not like he was really upset with the finale of Breaking Bad and he can’t stop talking about it.”
“He’s symbolic of something that is important,” Apatow explained, pinpointing the campus rape epidemic described in The Hunting Ground. “All of these universities, they just don’t wanna have a high rape statistic. So when women come forward, or men come forward, who’ve been raped, they don’t kick people out of school! And it’s true in the military too. So I think women not being listened to is what’s scary; Bill Cosby is just a symbol of a situation that’s so obvious, and yet people don’t stand up and say ,‘This is crazy. We should so something about it’ — in the most obvious situation of all. Then what’s it like for a woman when it’s just her and some awful dude and no one listens to her, because no one listened to 40 women with the same exact story?”