The Secret of Judd Apatow's Brand Success
Not everybody likes or can relate to Judd Apatow’s TV shows and movies. But I find them honest, compelling and true. And so I think I can speak about that central brand quality that makes them so successful.
Apatow is able to take a very personal and painful experience and turn it into something we can share and celebrate together. He celebrates what I call “joyful awkwardness” – that is, living in the moment when you not only don’t know where you’re going, but also realize you’re making a total ass of yourself not getting there.
The emotional experience Apatow depicts on screen is not exclusive to men, although most of his primary characters are male for obvious reasons. Lena Dunham is a version of Apatow, a writer who can’t get her act together but who lets us see completely behind the curtain.
In Girls, the storyline and the writing is so engaging, it is almost as if we are there. We are Hannah, alone and afraid as an OCD episode leaves a Q-tip stuck in our ears and we have nobody to take us to the emergency room. We are Hannah as an ex-boyfriend insanely breaks into our apartment and we have to call 911, then apologize as the police take him away. We are Hannah as our best friend invites us for a weekend in the country, then disappears, leaving us on the train tracks alone, because she can’t handle seeing the father who abandoned her.
You can’t be an Apatow fan and not connect with these gifted, awkward, lost and damaged characters in a very fundamental way. And so the reason you will pay $22 for a season of Girls from HBO, or spend $32 to see Anchorman 2 right away rather than waiting, is that you know what kind of experience you are paying for, every time – one in which you can forget (or more accurately, merge) your own awkwardness with that of the main character, sympathize and empathize, and feel reassured that you’re not the only one, that in fact there is a whole community of people just like you.
Apatow’s audience is very specific. These are White people in their late ‘30s or early ‘40s, with a sophisticated late ‘20s. They have money sufficient to have neurotic problems rather than the problems of finding the basics to get by. They are somehow connected with secular New York City Jews. They have three or four lifelong friends, a crew that supersedes their natural families.
They are beleaguered. In every show I’ve seen, whether it’s Anchorman 2, Girls, This is 40 , or Knocked Up, their natural joy in life is challenged severely, and they need to get back to the simple joy of living, but somehow cannot because circumstances keep preventing it.
They’ve lost their real, natural selves, but will not stop until they get it back. And usually this means acting childish as an act of rebellion. That is why Apatow’s trademark stars – Dunham, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen – work so well.
There is all this talk about brand success ad how to engineer it. But I tend to think that you cannot predict such things in advance. Your brand is ironically that thing inside you that escapes all branding. It’s spontaneous and real. It’s the thing people see when they encounter you. And the more you own and harness it, the more valuable your encounter with the world will be, both personally and professionally.
* All opinions my own.