Brooks' incredible skill of seamlessly blending laughter and heartbreak clearly made a huge influence on Judd Apatow (although from reading all the articles about him, you'd think Apatow invented the practice). Like Brooks, Apatow did a lot of television work (the classics Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks, and Undeclared), and lately he's written and directed two of the best film comedies of the decade -- The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
Larry Gelbart wrote Tootsie (with Murray Schisgal) -- one of the greatest screenplays ever penned, comedy or otherwise. That script earned him an Oscar nomination, as did Oh God! He earned Emmy nominations for writing, producing, and directing episodes of the classic sitcom M*A*S*H, and his writing career spans more than 50 years.
These three dudes on one stage, plus little cameos from the likes of Garry Shandling, Leslie Mann, and Jonah Hill. It was quite a night. Apatow kicked off the evening by sharing that he had been in that very theater as a boy, to see Steven Spielberg's notorious flop 1941. "I thought this was about comedy," quipped Gelbart.
APATOW: It is an honor to share the stage with the two men that are the primary reasons that I wanted to be involved in comedy and comedy writing, and I also feel bad that you being here with me so demeans you. Reading everyone's credits...on Wikipedia...it was embarrassing. I read them, and thought, 'Should I be here?'
BROOKS: You've done more movies than I have...this year!
Apatow spoke of his love for M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi, and then announced that each of the three men had selected a comedy clip they wanted to show to the audience. Apatow went first, and chose a wonderful scene from Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. Said Apatow of Love, "I was working on The 40 Year Old Virgin simultaneously or right after this, and this is maybe the much better way to do it." In the scene, Adam Sandler is being harassed at a family dinner. He calmly walks into the next room and shatters a row of glass doors. His brother-in-law, played by the great sketch writer Robert Smigel, pulls him aside, and Sandler confesses his inner pain.
APATOW: I really liked this movie. It's a great movie and it's a strange movie also. It has a tone that's all its own. Whenever I'm working, I get nervous when there aren't laughs, and I try to figure out what that balance is.
GELBART: Scenes can be too funny if they're over the line. If they're not character-driven. If it's just funny for funny's sake, then it's not worth keeping in.
Brooks selected the infamous "Hair Gel" scene from There's Something About Mary.
BROOKS: I think the unfortunate expression is that it's a "seminal" joke. I think it changed movies a little, and I think the film itself, at the time, had about as many "10s" in it as anything I'd ever seen. Just huge jokes. And I thought everything sort of pivoted around this joke. I saw it again the other day and it was like I was watching the film for the first time.
APATOW: And the masturbating sound effect was extraordinary. It might have been Ben Stiller, someone was telling me about how they had to do a scene where they masturbated on screen. And he said what's embarrassing about it is that in a way you're revealing to your crew how you masturbate!
BROOKS: There's a very forlorn masturbation scene in Punch Drunk Love.
APATOW: That's right. The phone sex sequence. Larry, you guys did something like that on Caesar's Hour (a 1954 television series), didn't you?
GELBART: We could do that, but we couldn't take it out of our pants.
APATOW: That doesn't sound as dirty, but it's actually twice as dirty. James, has Mary influenced your work in some way?
BROOKS: I didn't know that was the question! But I was knocked out when I saw it.
APATOW: Mary was obviously a big influence on me. It really opened the door to comedies with a sweet story but also with these broad set pieces.
GELBART: You have that ability to mix the crude and the sweet, which is amazing. People talk about laughing one minute and crying the next, but to be repulsed one minute and enchanted the next, that's a gift.
APATOW: When I was working on 40 Year Old Virgin, there was a masturbation question, which was "Does the 40 Year Old Virgin masturbate?" And of course, it was a very important issue, because we wanted to figure out how sexualized he is. So I brought in a team of the great comedy writers of our industry to help me with this question, and Garry Shandling -- who is here tonight -- cracked the code on that. Garry's note was "I don't think you see him masturbating, I think you see him prepare to masturbate. So you see him put on his pajamas, brush his hair...Garry, anything you want to say about that?
SHANDLING: (yelled from the audience) Um. How many masters of comedy are there?
APATOW: You don't have to rub it in that you should be here and I shouldn't! Don't think I don't get that fact! You walked in and I was like "This makes me look like a f***ing dick." Ålright, I get it!
That exhange got the biggest laugh of the night.
APATOW: Larry, your pick is Harold and Kumar? No, no, To Be Or Not to Be.
GELBART: Yes, the original version. It's in black and white, so don't touch yourself! In the pre-spermatozoa days, I used to say that everyone who writes comedy should see this movie at least once a year. They took the least-funny subject, Nazis, and made it funny. Nazis were hot then.
They showed Gelbart's pick, the "They call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" sequence from the 1942 film To Be or Not to Be.
GELBART: We went from masturbation to the master race, like that!
At this point, we watched clips of their own films. Gelbart was happy because he's "tired of watching them at home." We watched the fight scene between Steve Carell and Catherine Keener in Virgin, when he turns down sex after 20 dates. Apatow talked about how that scene inspired him to go messier and more conflict-heavy in Knocked Up, from which we saw the hilarious bouncer scene. Then they showed one of my favorite exchanges of all time, the scene where Albert Brooks confesses his love to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.
BROOKS: I think of anything I've ever done, I like what I got a chance to say in this scene. The character that Albert Brooks plays and what he has to say, was and is enormously important to me.
Apatow called it a perfect scene from a perfect movie. Last, they introduced a scene from Gelbart's Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman explains the insanity of his situation to his agent, played by Sydney Pollack.
GELBART: I'm the odd man out here, because you guys get to direct what you write. I get to defend what I write. I envy you guys completely. I've had every kind of experience from terrible to rotten. We're about to see a clip from what was a very difficult process.
The night closed with the finale of the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup. And naturally, with a room full of writers, talk turned to the strike. Gelbart's comment on the subject is a great way to go out:
GELBART: It's new technology and all the old tactics. We writers have a case, but I think it's going to be a long strike, unfortunately -- just to kill the entire evening. I think it suits management to have us go out. I think they wanted us to go out. They get to cut a lot of their losses. They can make a deal with the DGA, make us look rather greedy and grasping...They don't know. Organization is the death of fun, and television comedy is plagued because now they have a co-ownership of the show. So you have suits sitting around telling you what's funny, or pitching lines, or approving stories... We're striking just in time.