on eating your heart out

Judd Apatow already knew several SNL cast members from the stand-up scene in Los Angeles. When his own roommate, Adam Sandler, made it onto the show, Apatow figured it was only a matter of time before he joined the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

"If only I could get my foot in the door." That's what we tell ourselves. Well, Apatow had his foot firmly in the door at Saturday Night Live. Now what? Wiggle it in further, of course! During those brutal Tuesday sketch-writing all-nighters, Apatow would call in from Los Angeles and punch up sketches for Sandler and other cast-member friends like Rob Schneider. At one point, Apatow convinced Sandler to slip an original sketch onto the read-through pile. That rogue Apatow sketch ended up on the show, unbeknownst to anyone. That success convinced Apatow he could cut it. It was only a matter of time.

Then, Sandler called, but not for the reason Apatow expected: "I had your packet," Sandler told him, "and [SNL writer Jim Downey], after months, was holding your packet and talking to me and [Rob] Schneider, and he was asking about [you], and I was telling him he should hire you, and Schneider said, 'I don't think he's ready.'"

Et tu, Schneider?

When we don't get the writing gig, or our book proposal gets rejected, it's hard not to dwell on nightmare scenarios: some random person at the table capriciously knocks us out of contention. Sheer, arbitrary malice. The cut of our jib. What did I do? What did I say? Usually, we're letting our paranoia run wild when we do this. Usually, we don't understand how the sausage gets made. The rejection would make perfect sense...if only we had more context. In this case, however, the nightmare played out as imagined. Apatow had what it took, and Schneider capriciously blocked his shot, whether due to jealousy, resentment, or fear.

"At the time, it was very annoying," Apatow said in a recent interview. Lucky for us, he got over his frustration. Had he let bitterness over missing a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity like writing for SNL derail his career, Apatow would certainly be less sanguine about Schneider's betrayal. Instead, he stayed the course, seeking out alternate paths.

"I don't think he's ready." Today, Apatow says, "almost every good thing that's happened in my life is the result of those words." If he'd gone to SNL, Apatow would never have connected with Ben Stiller. Without Stiller, he would never have helped develop The Ben Stiller Show. Without The Ben Stiller Show, he would never have won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series...beating the writers of Saturday Night Live. From there, no Freaks and Geeks, no 40-Year-Old Virgin, no Knocked Up... Apatow would never have met his wife or built his family, either.

"None of it would exist if I went in at that time," Apatow said.

Aspiring writers are distinguished by their extreme sensitivity to rejection. They see it as an indictment of their abilities and a sign that (a) the world has no taste or (b) they have no talent. Yet, successful writers encounter tons more rejection and failure than newbies ever do. So they must be framing it differently in their minds. On a long car ride with a college professor, I expressed frustration and jealousy over the success of an "undeserving" young writer—even though I'd yet to even begin trying to publish my own stuff. Rather than correct this childish attitude, my professor, a noted playwright, encouraged it: "Revenge is a great reason to write," she said with a smile. "That's what keeps me going."

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