That Time Judd Apatow and Mark Brazill Got Into an Email Flame War Over ‘That ‘70s Show’
Thursday sees the unveiling of That ‘90s Show, a continuation of the hit series that premiered on Fox back in 1998. No one should be surprised that a popular thing from the past is coming back — that’s just the way things are nowadays — but when Netflix first made the announcement of this spinoff, some observers went beyond noting the endless recycling of bygone TV shows and movies. “Hey,” a few folks asked, “didn’t Judd Apatow predict this day would come?”
Everybody loves Hollywood gossip. Few can resist stories about which famous people can’t stand each other. (If the Dwayne Johnson/Vin Diesel feud runs forever, millions would be thrilled.) But rarely has a private disagreement generated as much chatter as the one that occurred between Apatow and That ‘70s Show co-creator Mark Brazill. The world was different back then, and so was the internet. Everything would have been handled differently today. But in late 2001, it was a huge deal that two successful TV writers’ back-and-forth email spat went public. And it all had to do with Topher Grace.
First, some quick background. In the early 2000s, That ‘70s Show was in the midst of its successful run, helping to make its young cast — Topher Grace, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon, Wilmer Valderrama — household names. In fact, Fox commissioned a standalone series called That ‘80s Show that was similarly nostalgic and irreverent. Brazill, who’d been a stand-up, was a writer on 3rd Rock From the Sun, working for show creators Bonnie and Terry Turner. The three of them had been approached to do a 1970s-set sitcom, which was an idea they sparked to. “We wanted to do a coming-of-age story that was infused with our own personal history of friends and family,” Brazill later said.
Broad and appealing, That ‘70s Show was full of groovy references and pot humor. It wasn’t as huge for Fox as something like Married... With Children, but it did well ratings-wise. You knew someone who watched That ‘70s Show.
Then there was Apatow. A stand-up and writer who’d gotten his big break working on The Larry Sanders Show for his hero and mentor Garry Shandling, Apatow had won an Emmy along with the rest of the writing staff for the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show, which he co-created. But he hadn’t had many successes since then. He worked on the script for The Cable Guy but wasn’t awarded on-screen credit. You probably don’t remember Heavyweights or Celtic Pride — he was one of the writers on those forgettable 1990s comedies. Freaks and Geeks, which he executive produced, was beloved but not popular. Same for Undeclared, which he created. A highly respected comic mind, Apatow seemed perhaps destined to be one of those bright guys who just never quite connected with the mainstream — unlike buddies such as his old roommate and pal Adam Sandler.
With that context in mind, at some point in late 2001, Apatow sent Brazill this email:
I am writing you because I left a message but did not hear back. I understand that you were upset about me not calling you to ask if Topher could do our show. Since Fox executives were talking to Topher about it, I thought it was cool with you. Also, since I hadn’t written it yet, I wasn’t at the point of asking if it was possible to have him do it. I would have called your show then. I didn’t realize it would create a problem. I never wished to offend you. If there is some protocol for people on Fox doing guest shots on other Fox shows, I didn’t know what it was. Regardless, I’m sorry that this resulted in such a mess. If you are mad at me about this or something else from our past, please tell me. I only remember us having fun in the early nineties and it troubles me that it seems like you have a beef with me.
Apparently, Undeclared had wanted to cast That ‘70s Show’s appealing leading man on its sitcom for a guest spot. Finding out about this news by reading the trades, Brazill had gotten annoyed. Responding to Apatow’s email, Brazill opened fire, although it wasn’t just the Grace casting that was on his mind.
Yeah, we were friends in the early nineties. And if you don’t recall what happened, I’ll remind you. I had a pilot at MTV called “Yard Dogs” about a rock band living in Hollywood. I told you about it and you proceeded to completely rip it off, storyline and all, for the Ben Stiller show. You called it “Grungies.” MTV and UTA (United Talent Agency) were working on an overall deal (MTV’s idea) with me, based on that pilot. When it turned up on your show everything went away overnight. I had just had my son Jack and I had no job, no money, nothing. There’s a saying, “I forgive but I don’t forget. And I don’t forgive.” So, now you know. Although I kind of think that you already did.
I’m not going to recount every chapter of this very amusing fight — including the moment that writer Jeff Kahn, who wrote the “Grungies” sketch on The Ben Stiller Show, emails Brazill to play good cop and insist he didn’t steal Brazill’s idea — but let’s just say that, at one point, Brazill signs off by telling Apatow to “Get cancer.” And that, later, Apatow responds, “I’ll wait till you get it and then steal it from you.” The calmer Apatow tries to be about the whole thing — sanely explaining that there’s no way he could have stolen Brazill’s concept for a comedy about a rock band because the timeline doesn’t fit — the more petulant Brazill becomes, and the worse he comes across.
Two decades later, there are many lines from these missives I still remember, including Brazill going ballistic, writing, “We’ll never be ‘friends,’ regardless of the pussy whining from your last email. I respect you zero. See ya at the upfronts, bitch! Well ... unless you get canceled before that. Until then, die in a fiery accident and taste your own blood.” To which Apatow responds, “If you think cancellation hurts me at this point, you haven’t been following my career as closely as I thought.”
Overinflated egos and immature temper-tantrums are nothing new in Hollywood. (The Sony leak from 2015 proved that.) But the Apatow/Brazill feud was the most entertaining thing in the world — especially at a moment when most of us were still reeling from 9/11. (The attacks inspired another great Apatow line: “It’s good to see the tragedies of the past few months haven’t watered down your passion. I guess if Mark Brazill doesn’t go insane over stuff that makes no sense, the terrorists win.”) This was long before The 40-Year-Old Virgin helped cement Apatow’s filmmaker career — if anything, back then, Apatow was just a schmo in comparison to the powerful Brazill. But when these leaked emails got out, any objective reader would agree Apatow bested his opponent. Brazill fumed and bullied. Levelheaded Apatow had a funny, withering retort every single time.
Who leaked the emails? That’s what all of us who followed Hollywood wondered at the time. Maybe Apatow? Maybe someone in his circle that he had forwarded the exchange to — presumably with the subject line “Can you believe this guy?” However it happened, the leak was pure gold, an opportunity for the rest of us to see what happens behind closed doors. It felt so intimate, so not something we were supposed to be seeing. Of course, all of that made the whole thing that much more hilarious.
Before there was such a thing as “going viral,” this leak went everywhere — so much so that Variety wrote about it in early December, getting both men on the record about the fracas. (Brazill referred to the emails as “a private exchange between two writers. I sent it, I regret it and I’ve apologized to Judd.” Meanwhile, Apatow told Variety, “I can think of nothing less important in the world than this.”)
It’s wild to imagine what would have happened today if the same thing had occurred. Social media would have gone wild for days. Talk shows and Saturday Night Live would have had a field day with it. We’d never hear the end of it. That’s another thing that makes this feud so special: It existed during the web’s early days. Not everybody remembers it. It’s a fun little gem those of us who lived through it can share with others, like a delightful gift.
Eventually, everybody moved on, but occasionally we’d all be reminded of what had taken place. Harper’s Magazine published the exchange in its March 2002 issue. Vulture made a brief mention about the whole brouhaha in 2011. And as Apatow became more successful, establishing himself as one of cinema’s comedy auteurs, Brazill focused on other matters. He was a writer on the Disney XD series Lab Rats, and apparently he’s involved with That ‘90s Show as well. Funny enough, Apatow had foreseen this back in 2001. As his final kiss-off, Apatow wrote sarcastically, “Good luck with That ‘80s Show. And I look forward to That ‘90s Show.”
Twenty-two years later, the prophecy has been fulfilled.