‘Judd Apatow: The Return’ Proves That If at First You Don’t Succeed, Make a Bunch of Funny Movies and Try Again

It might be a cliche for romantic comedies, but very rarely does someone actually end up with their first love. Even less rarely do they end up living happily ever after. That scenario is even more of a stretch when your first love is standup comedy, a cruel ball-buster of a mistress indeed.

Considering the big screen home runs Judd Apatow hit with flicks like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” or his small screen successes like “Girls,” “Love” and even the unceremoniously kiboshed but nonetheless acclaimed “Freaks and Geeks,” it’s tough to imagine such a successful behind-the-scenes funny man opting to get back in front of the camera. Yet, that’s exactly what Apatow decided to do after two decades of a dormant standup career. It turns out years of not doing standup made him way better at it.

With shows like “Love” already giving the comedy mastermind an in with Netflix, it didn’t seem all that far-fetched when the network announced a forthcoming standup special for the producer, but many wrote it off before it even happened. Not Apatow, though. After committing to stand-up purely as an exercise to make Amy Schumer laugh while working on “Trainwreck,” he started to feel very at ease, and that comfortable flair for the funny comes through in spades in “Judd Apatow: The Return,” his first comedy special for Netflix that bursts with as many engaging stories as it does with punchlines.

There’s a world of difference between Apatow’s first foray into comedy in the mid-80s and his big return: He’s a lot older, a lot wiser, and he’ll be the first to tell you he’s a lot more famous. Not famous enough to incite any kind of reaction when he throws out the first pitch at a Mets game, but still pretty famous. Thankfully, Apatow doesn’t shy away from his celebrity, instead using it as a vehicle to weave some uproarious yarns about rubbing shoulders with bigger stars than we could possibly imagine. Take, for instance, his dedication to making Barack Obama laugh, a gambit that twice fails epically. He’s quick to give away some big secrets, like if you ever want to meet the president of the United States, you just have to give them money. He thanks the audience for paying to watch “Bridesmaids” because that’s the money he used to meet Obama.

But as much as he’s a celebrity, getting invited to the kinds of parties most of us can only dream of, Apatow’s first and foremost a father and husband, and it’s those moments in his routine that feel most relatable. His over-the-top impressions of his kids are hysterical, even though he admits they don’t actually sound like that. It’s a weird kind of revenge to give them funny voices for his special, he quips before running down his daughter’s Instagram habits, which include watching photos of fainting goats and Asian babies. “It’s not racist if you love it!” He yells in a mocking 19-year-old millennial voice that everyone knows so well.

The funny certainly outweighs the boring in Apatow’s return to his roots, but some parts sag noticeably. Take his attempts at political satire. It might not even be Apatow’s fault this time, but Donald Trump jokes don’t feel as fresh as they used to, and it’s clear the audience would much rather hear another story about Apatow trying to invite Paul McCartney on a lunch date instead.

Ultimately, Apatow’s hysterical Netflix special proves that if first you don’t succeed, make a bunch of funny movies and then try again. A reunion between Apatow and stand-up isn’t one folks were exactly clamoring for, but most will be thankful it happened.

Judd Apatow: The Return” premieres Dec. 12 on Netflix.