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Apatow reigns in comedy realm

Filmmaker likely to avoid John Hughes' fate

MEMO TO: Judd Apatow

This is the time of year, Judd, when Hollywood shifts gears. The lusty humor of summer (that means “dick jokes”) is instantly replaced by Jodie Foster’s rampage of revenge (“The Brave One”), Jamie Foxx gunning for terrorists in Saudi Arabia (“The Kingdom”) and Denzel Washington blasting at cops closing in on his Harlem drug ring (“American Gangster”). So much for laughs.

Are you beginning to feel a little irrelevant?

That’s a facetious question, of course. You owned the summer with “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” Judd, and everywhere I look on the studio charts, you seem to be revving up other movies. You’re clearly becoming a one-man comedy factory, and why not? Audiences love your shtick and the critics, too, are applauding: It’s hard to remember another zit pic that was greeted with almost unanimously favorable reviews as was “Superbad.” Scatological references notwithstanding, the New Yorker found it “touching,” and Newsweek said it was “superclose to perfect.” (The Ebert & Roeper show gave it “two big thumbs up,” but their thumbs have become as flaccid as their you-know-whats).

I don’t want to diminish your moment, Judd, but it may be prudent to recall another figure who occupied the comedy spotlight precisely 20 years ago — someone who is completely off the radar today. Remember John Hughes? The kids loved him, too, and Hughes movies like the “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Pretty in Pink” dominated the zeitgeist two decades ago. John Hughes could do no wrong.

So the question is: Why did he vanish, and will you, Judd, be evanescent like John Hughes?

There are significant differences, to be sure. Hughes was a difficult, combustible individual, Judd, while your colleagues and collaborators testify that you are just the opposite. While Hughes was a one-man show, you are mentoring a galaxy of proteges.

Further, Hughes’ movies were a study in “almosts” that don’t hold up very well today. They were almost hilarious, almost sexy, almost wise. But Hughes’ sensibility was very “Chicago,” which is (let’s face it) almost New York and almost Los Angeles. Hughes has now mercifully disappeared into a vast spread of farmland somewhere outside of Chicago.

Viewed today, the Hughes movies fit solidly in the ’80s “high-concept” mode, and the concepts themselves seem fairly blah by today’s standards. (Ironically, one vintage Hughes story seems jinxed: It was the basis for “Drillbit Taylor,” an Apatow release scheduled for March, starring Owen Wilson, whose promotional efforts for the film may be inhibited by his mysterious visit to the emergency room last week.)

While you always like going for the big laugh, Judd, your films nonetheless resonate on an emotional level as well. Your pal Seth Rogen tells how, during the rewrite process, you talk relentlessly about feelings, not just laughs. Hence, while your cast of characters may be potty-mouthed and scrotally fixated, they’re also downright loveable. Hughes’ movies, by contrast, were peopled by kids who were cute but uniquely vacant. Who’d want to sit next to Ferris Bueller in class?

By the standards of the ’80s, Hughes movies were strong box office performers (his biggest helming hit was “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). Your track record is even livelier, Judd. “Knocked Up” has passed $147.7 million in the U.S., and “Superbad” hit $68.6 million in its first 10 days. Your first directing effort, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” grossed $109.4 million in the U.S.

Which brings us back to the basic issue: Where do you go from here, Judd? The titles and loglines of your upcoming slate would suggest that you’re staying close to your winning formula. In development are titles like “A Whole New High,” “Walk Hard” and “Attorneys at Raw.” Another film, “Step Brothers,” stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as two spoiled guys who still live with their respective single parents. You even have recruited Adam Sandler to produce “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” about an Israeli spy-turned-hairdresser (a post-Iraq “Shampoo”?).

“Judd has found a way of channeling his id,” notes Universal’s Marc Shmuger. Who else would come up with lines that are at once funny but brutal? When the girl in “Knocked Up” tells her boyfriend that she was drunk at the moment of truth (“I meant, like hurry up, I was drunk”), the clueless guy mumbles, “Was your vagina drunk?” That’s definitely not a Hughes line.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and have a very scary thought,” you once admitted. “What if I became really, really unfunny and don’t know it?”

I suspect that won’t happen, Judd.

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