What was Judd Apatow doing at the Beverly Wilshire hotel Saturday night?
“I am very honored, but I’m not sure why I’m here,” the director of this year’s Golden Globe-nominated Trainwreck, along with comedies like Knocked Up and This Is 40, said from the stage as he accepted a Spirit of Liberty Award from People for the American Way. “I’ve watched the show so far and felt the inappropriateness of my participation.” When he asked those who work for and donate to the organization to give themselves a round of applause, he was underwhelmed by the response. “You don’t even want to applaud yourselves, that’s how great you are!”
Apatow was forced to follow a parade of young, diverse, community leaders who have been shepherded through the organization’s Young People for Leadership program — most notably 36-year-old progressive Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, whom the organization’s founder Norman Lear called a “fucking rockstar” in his speech. So he decided to leave the inspiring speechifying to his co-honoree, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and instead treat the crowd to stand-up material about his family, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby.
When compared to Lear, who counts himself as a major fan of the comedy mogul, Apatow self-deprecatingly said he is “falling apart.” Of the 93-year-old television legend, he joked, “I’m 45 years younger than Norman and I look like I’m two years older.”
The Daily Beast spoke to the freshly-clean shaven Apatow before the program began. He praised Lear not only for the work he and People for the American Way have done on progressive causes over the last 35 years, but also for the television that helped push him into comedy writing as a young man growing up in the 1970s.
“It means a lot to me to be honored by any organization that Norman Lear is associated with,” Apatow told me. “He is one of the main reasons why I got into comedy in the first place. All in the Family came on the air in 1971 when I was three years old. And I feel like he programmed my brain.”
Naturally, our conversation turned to Donald Trump, whose name was invoked repeatedly throughout the event as the embodiment of all things PFAW is trying to prevent. When Hillary Clinton was on Late Night with Seth Meyers this past week, she said she no longer finds Trump funny. Is Apatow still laughing?
“I never found him funny. I think it’s all very scary,” Apatow insisted. “I think that people have been trained to think that being amused is what’s most important in our country,” he added, without noting the irony that he may be as responsible for this phenomenon as anyone. “And a lot of the problems that need to be solved are not that interesting to talk about if you did it thoughtfully.”
But Apatow certainly found plenty of comedy in Trump during his speech a couple of hours later.
“Doesn’t Trump seem like the psycho girl on The Bachelor, who you don’t want to get kicked off too early because you want to see what she might do?” he asked the dinner’s attendees. “And then later in the season, you’re like, ‘Enough of her, let’s get to the real contestants.’ I feel like we’re at that moment right now.”
Pointing out the often-overlooked fact that Trump is a casino owner, Apatow launched into his impression of the candidate: “China, we don’t got a good trade deal with them, so I’m going to get them Shania Twain tickets. Comped. Free buffet.”
Apatow then pulled out a paperback copy of Trump’s 2008 book, Think Big, and began to read aloud. Among the more amusing passages came from a chapter called “Revenge”: “When you are wronged, go after the people because it is a good feeling.” He urged the activists in the audience to pick up their own copy in order to “get the energy you need to fight this.”
“Should we talk about Cosby before I leave?” Apatow asked from the podium, drawing loud cheers when he stated, “We have to stand up for women. Because it’s not about Bill Cosby, it’s about nothing except when women stand up and say they have been attacked, you have to listen to them and believe them.”
Late last year, Apatow became one of the most prominent comedians to speak out against Bill Cosby amidst mounting rape allegations. In the year since, he has has channeled his outrage into stand-up material, including an impression of the disgraced comic.
“Did you ever get into the doghouse with the wife over something that you did?” Apatow-as-Cosby asked, repeating a bit he performed on The Tonight Show earlier this year about trying to hide the newspaper. “My wife, she said to me, what is this in the paper about the raping and the women and the drugging? I did not realize the paper was on the television!”
“We’re putting Senator Warren through so much right now,” Apatow said of the Democratic senator, who was waiting her turn to come on stage and accept her award.
When she finally did appear, Warren delivered a fiery and ultimately uplifting stump-style speech that is sure to be a hit on the campaign trail, and later at the Democratic National Convention, once she officially endorses either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. But first, she acknowledged her unlikely opening act.
The senator explained that she almost had to stay in Washington to help prevent yet another government shutdown, but ultimately got the OK to fly out to California for the event. “It was my choice,” she said. “I could pick Mitch McConnell or Judd Apatow. I pick you, Judd!”
Like in the rest of the night’s speeches, Trump did not go unmentioned in Warren’s remarks.
“The racist, sexist hatred that Donald Trump spews is ugly,” Warren said, “but make no mistake, this is quickly becoming the Republican Party brand."
“When he called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and when he called women pigs, their presidential candidates didn’t call him out,” she continued. “Sure, now that Trump has proposed a plan to blatantly discriminate against peaceful people based on their religion, the GOP establishment is getting a bit antsy. But I still don’t hear a lot of Republican presidential candidates saying, if he’s our nominee, count me out.”
She’s right. Over the past few weeks, Trump’s competitors have criticized his language, but said they will still vote for him if he becomes the GOP nominee. That includes the so-called moderate candidates like Jeb Bush, who said “anybody’s better than Hillary” and John Kasich, who, despite comparing Trump to the Nazis, recently said he would still support him in a general election.
In Warren’s words, Trump is taking Republicans “from the party of the rich and powerful to the party of fear and hatred.”
“We can whine about it, we can whimper about it or we can fight back,” she said. “Me, I’m fighting back on this!”
It may not have been as funny as Apatow, but it was certainly on point, and exactly what this room full of progressive champions wanted to hear.