The Politics of Judd Apatow

Is the director of thoughtful comedies pushing subtle social conservatism?

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Political pundits are exploring director Judd Apatow's latest film, Funny People, for an underlying message of social conservatism. Is Apatow a stealth conservative messenger or just a dude who makes jokes?

Beacon of Social Conservatism  The New York Times' Ross Douthat led the debate with a column declaring that "no contemporary figure has done more than Apatow ... to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation." Douthat wrote that Apatow's films carry "an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy." Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher agreed. Reviewing Apatow's past films, Dreher marveled at "how unbelievably conservative its moral message was."

Apatow's latest film, Douthat wrote, is "more grown-up" and "a more realistic morality play," making it both "the most conservative" and less successful. Douthat said the film's meager box office performance is a "reminder that Americans of all ages tend to like their social conservatism much more in theory than in practice." He concluded, "In other words, we're conservative right up until the moment that it costs us."

Beacon of Thoughtful Fart Jokes
  The New Yorker's Richard Brody called Douthat's take a "narrow reading" that missed the point by focusing on vindication from immoral behavior. "Apatow's subject isn't cheating; it's comedy, the temperamental peculiarities it arises from, and the odd way of life it imposes on its artists," Brody wrote. "The issue is not with God and his laws but with people and their feelings."

Jesse Taylor of Pandagon accused Douthat of "saying something trite (it's hard to get people to do hard things) in a way that sounds deep, taking credit for the good while bemoaning the heavy burden that comes with being so damn right about everything." Taylor wrote that conservative "willfully misread" Apatow's films to take "a poorly marketed and targeted film and convert it into another example of conservative martyrdom."

Difficulty of Social Conservatism  Matthew Yglesias, no conservative himself, agreed with Douthat but took it a step further. "I think this explains a lot about the appeal of anti-gay crusades to social conservative leaders," Yglesias wrote of Douthat's evaluation of the difficulty of social conservatism. "Most of what 'traditional values' asks of people is pretty hard."

Acting in a charitable and forgiving manner all the time is hard. Loving your enemies is hard. Turning the other cheek is hard. Homosexuality is totally different. For a small minority of the population, of course, the injunction "don't have sex with other men!" (or, as the case may be, other women) is painfully difficult to live up to. But for the vast majority of people this is really, really easy to do. Campaigns against gay rights, gay people, and gay sex thus have a lot of the structural elements of other forms of crusading against sexual excess or immorality, but they're not really asking most people to do anything other than become self-righteous about their pre-existing preferences.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.