While Judd Apatow’s Funny People is mostly about the relationship between barely up and not quickly coming comic Ira Wright and comedy legend and shitty movie star George Simmons, other characters play pivotal roles in both the plots and themes (and yes, Funny People is the kind of movie with themes!). One of them is Leo, played by Jonah Hill. Jonah lives with Ira and their third roommate, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who has found some success on a really terrible sitcom. The competition and backstabbing between the three roomies form a fundamental part of the story.

The world of Funny People is very specific, and sitting down with Jonah Hill for the second time in a couple of weeks (I had recently spoken to him on the set of a film), I wanted to really get into the nitty gritty of being a comedy nerd. So much of the film was obviously based on the real experiences of everyone involved that I wanted to explore what it was like being a comedian in LA trying to get ahead.

Be warned: there are some spoilers (mild, I think, but make up your own mind) for the end of Leo’s storyline.

I was talking to some people yesterday who saw the film and we were
being nerdy about it and we wondered if all the stuff that your
characters have their in their apartment – the photos and albums from
classic comedy acts – in your opinion as a guy in the comedy scene, how
tuned in do you think younger comedy nerds are to that history?

When I first met Adam Sandler he told me ‘You remind me of Judd Apatow
because you and Judd have this encyclopedic knowledge of people way
before your time.’ This is right when I met Judd and didn’t know him
very well; I met Adam first, actually. I can only speak for me and my
friends – and maybe that’s why we all connected so well when we became
friends – but Redd Foxx and Don Rickles and Pryor and Bill Hicks and
Lenny Bruce… my idea is that if you’re going to pursue something like
comedy, you should know all the people who are legendary in that field.
If you’re aspiring to be a professional baseball player, you’d know who
Jackie Robinson was and Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.

As a film nerd there’s always that film nerd thing – ‘You haven’t seen
that movie?’ – and I guess it’s the same for comedy nerds.

Exactly. When we talk about film we always reference obscure films that
inspired us, and that’s why we become friends or work with the same
people a lot, because the same things influence us. When we work with a
new director or someone joins our circle of friends, Seth and I always
talk about ‘They like the same stuff as us. They like Lebowski and King
of Comedy
, they’re obsessed with the same stuff we’re obsessed with,
like Defending Your Life.’ It’s easy to know you want to work with
someone when their references and the things they worship are the same
things that you worship.

In all of Judd’s films the characters feel like real people, but maybe
even moreso in Funny People, because these characters have real,
serious flaws, not just funny flaws. Your character is really
interesting to me because you might be the funniest of the group and
you hate Yo Teach and in the end you’re on it. Do you feel like he’s
selling out?

That’s what’s so interesting about the character – he just wants
success. Early on I totally would have done that. I could see myself
doing that in a heartbeat – hating some shitty sitcom but needing a job
and getting on it and trying to convince other people it’s the best
thing since sliced bread. I think that’s a lot of the movie; it’s about
these guys and all these people finding out what they would do for
success. What part of you would you throw away? What part of your
morals would you throw away? What part of your integrity would you
throw away? That’s the ultimate joke of Leo, my character, in that the
guy could talk more shit than anybody but then the guy gets in. It’s
like the classic thing of when you try to be on a team – they don’t
want you as a member so you’re like, ‘Fuck them.’ Then they want you
and you think it’s the best team in the universe.

Watching the dynamic of these three characters, the competitive aspect
of that, it’s such a huge part of Hollywood. The group that you’re part
of, the guys you keep working with, is there a competitive aspect to

We joked around a lot while making this movie that we’re the least
competitive people ever. I think about Seth and Schwartzman in
particular, guys I’ve known for years and who had success far before I
had any success. When I met Seth he had already shot Freaks and Geeks,
and when I had met Schwartzman he had already shot Rushmore. I never
looked at it like ‘Fuck them! I wish I was on Freaks and Geeks and
Rushmore!’ I looked at it like it was good for them and I knew that if
I worked hard enough something good would come my way. I didn’t know
what it would be, specifically, and I never imagined it would turn out
as well as it did, but I thought if I worked hard and was interesting
and funny something would come of it. There would be times when we
would all be up for the same thing, and we would all want it for
ourselves, but I couldn’t be more happy for the success of a friend of
mine. That’s the difference between the characters and us.

But you must know people like that.

My character’s based on real people we knew coming up. Not like it was
way back in the old days or anything! But when we were starting. The
main thing I brought to my character, which Seth and I talked about a
lot and which Judd and I talked about a lot, is that I wanted Leo to be
completely joyless when creating comedy. There are a couple of moments
in the movie which are my favorites of my character, and one is where
Leo is writing jokes and it looks more like he’s solving a math problem
then having any fun at all. Another is when he walks off stage, and
this was one of the first things we shot and Seth and I laugh about it
because it’s really based on people we knew, he walks off stage and
joylessly says, ‘I killed.’ It was all about advancement and figuring
out the problem as opposed to joy. We have so much joy in a writing
session, laughing and moving around, and then there are people you work
with who just look like they’re doing their taxes.

How does that work? It seems to me that if you’re not laughing, how can you be creating something funny?

It’s fascinating to me, but I’d say in our line of work most of the people are joyless about it.

You’ve hit a level of success, but do you find that with that level it
becomes harder not to pull a Leo and sell out because the amounts of
money being thrown at you are so ridiculous?

Fortunately I love the Duplass Brothers movie I did, which I did for no
money and just did it for the passion and love of the movie, but the
other sort of movies I love are commercial movies. So it’s not really
like I’m trying to do some arthouse heroin movie every time.

But there are good commercial movies are there are bad commercial movies.

You just have to work harder. The two guys who have helped me the most
in my career as far as learning are Judd and Sacha Baron Cohen. They’re
two guys who have a large amount of success monetarily from making good
movies that are appreciated by people. It’s because they work hard. The
bottom line is that if you work really hard on our kind of movie – the
harder you work the better it is. There’s a lazy way to do it, which is
you take Jonah and another comedy person and then you just have them in
a really big premise and see what happens and hopefully they’ll riff
and something will happen. But what I learned is that story and
characters are everything, and the more time and energy you put into
that and really sit down and do the work [the better it will be]. Judd
and Sacha taught me it’s all about sitting down and doing the work. If
you sit down every day and focus on the work… there’s a ton of
semi-successful talented people. Everyone who has success doing what I
do has some comedic talent, or else they wouldn’t be there at all, but
it’s about how hard you choose to work once you’re there. I just hope
to keep getting opportunities to work really hard. I could have been in
a dozen movies that wouldn’t fit what I wanted to do, and they would be
huge, but I’m really proud of the movies I have coming out and the
movies I’ve done since I’ve been in a position to choose.

How was it doing the stand up?

I did not enjoy it at all. That was the hardest I worked to prepare for
a movie, and I really saw what the people I worship went through to get
where they are. We did it for six months prepping, a couple of times a
week, and you just learn that is a separate skillset. It’s remarkable
when you watch a guy like Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock or Louis CK go
up there and destroy, the years of work that went into that. I don’t
think people understand.

Why was it tough for you? As an outsider it seems like someone who is a
good performer and a good writer should be a good standup.

We always talk about movies together, right? What I’ve always been
interested in are scenes and movies. I come up with concepts that…
I’ll give you an example of a joke that I had that always bombed, every
time, horrifically. The idea of the joke works, and maybe would work in
a scene where it was two people talking about it. The idea of the joke
is you know there’s a stereotype amongst ignorant white people that
Asian people are terrible drivers? Do you think there’s a stereotype
amongst ignorant Asian people that white people are like incredible
drivers. Which is an idea that in itself is pretty funny, it’s not a
terrible idea, but this joke would for whatever reason have tumbleweeds
go across the stage. Nothing. But maybe if I sat down with another
writer and wrote that out and had it discussed in a scene in a movie it
might have worked. It’s just about my confidence as a standup comic;
the timing is different and you’re talking into a microphone. Even a
talk show is great because you’re basically doing standup but you have
one of the funniest people ever if you’re on Conan who you’re riffing
with. So I just have a tremendous amount of respect for the comics I
worship. Seth and I once went on before Louis CK and thought we did
pretty well, and then we watched Louis CK go on and the man just tore
the house down. He’s been doing standup every night for 20 years.
You’re dealing with a professional. You’re dealing with Barry Bonds or
Michael Jordan. And you realize you’re in the farm team. But not every
standup comedian has the skills to start a film career, and it’s the
same vice versa.