There’s a new comedy kingpin in town.
Not that Judd Apatow is new, exactly. Closing in on 40, he has been writing movies and television ever since he abandoned his quest to be a stand-up comedian to write jokes for Fox’s sketch-comedy series, “The Ben Stiller Show.”
Like James L. Brooks, Apatow is a thinking man’s comedy writer-director who cut his teeth as a TV writer-creator and showrunner. Apatow’s gift, like Woody Allen’s, is being able to wring laughter out of the pain and shame of being a dork. (Steve Martin’s “The Jerk” is “one of the funniest movies of all time,” he says.) But unlike his gross-out comedy peers, Apatow also writes dreamy parts for women.
That’s what helped the writer-director hit his first movie, 2005’s “40 Year Old Virgin,” out of the four-quadrant park. The pic emerged as a sleeper hit before tallying $177 million worldwide. The director’s second film, “Knocked Up,” has already built a tsunami of praise in advance of Universal’s June 1 opening.
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Apatow learned from such comic talents as Stiller, Garry Shandling and college roommate Adam Sandler. On 1994’s “Heavyweights,” Apatow’s first screenplay to make it to the screen, Stiller taught Apatow one of the tenets of comedy: Shoot a ton of footage first and sort out the right blend in the editing room. On “The Larry Sanders Show,” Shandling advised Apatow to keep things loose and to improvise — “to leave room for something magical to happen,” Apatow says.
When he wrote 1996’s “The Cable Guy,” Apatow thought his movie career would take off. The two-hander with Stiller and Jim Carrey was “Golden Globe time for me and all of my cohorts,” he says. “We did not expect the ass-whooping we took. It made me pause and doubt my instincts, because I really liked what we did.”
Apatow struggled to sell his next script. With Cameron Crowe as his role model, he dug in to write his own “Jerry Maguire.” “Making Amends,” about a guy in AA who apologizes to everyone he ever hurt, even had a rising comedy talent attached. “I believed Owen Wilson was going to be a gigantic star,” says Apatow.
He was right, but that movie never got made.
Apatow toiled at DreamWorks on five comedy pilots. After landing his first directing gig on an episode of “The Larry Sanders show,” Apatow created and then helmed three episodes of the short-lived 1999 high school series “Freaks and Geeks.” For each episode, he shot for seven to eight days to get 43 minutes of on-air footage. Later on, taking 40 to 50 days to shoot a two-hour feature would seem a luxury.
Though “Freaks” was killed after just 12 episodes, Apatow grew into one of the best comedy polish men in town. He helped pals like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, also clients of manager Jimmy Miller, to move their movies forward. (Ferrell memorably guest-starred on Apatow’s next series, “Undeclared,” as a speed-freak who writes college term papers for $50.)
Apatow’s 2005 directorial debut “40 Year Old Virgin” not only marked the arrival of an original comedy voice but augured a new approach to the relationship comedy. Both “Virgin” and “Knocked Up” combine the raunch of “Something About Mary” or “American Pie” with the romance of “Wedding Singer,” on which Apatow did a polish.
He credits his wife, actress Leslie Mann, for raising his consciousness about the lowly parts available to women in comedies. On “Wedding Singer,” he set out to write the best possible women’s part for Drew Barrymore — “three-dimensional and funny,” he says. “When that went well, I realized it could be done.”
On “40 Year Old Virgin,” Apatow wrote roles for Catherine Keener and Elizabeth Banks that were as funny as the guys’. He does the same in “Knocked Up,” a balanced account of relationships from both sides of the sexual divide.
Avoiding a movie that “looks scripted and sitcommy, hacky and stiff” is Apatow’s mission. He shoots with multiple cameras to find a “rhythm that’s closer to life, so you forget it’s a movie, not like a comedy writer has written every syllable.”
Logically, the directors Apatow admires are actor-friendly greats like Brooks, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and John Cassavetes. “I like filmmakers who let something unexpected happen on camera. Their work is alive.”
Reality intrudes in a big way in “Knocked Up,” which as it nears its 132-minute conclusion places us close to the action with a shot of a baby’s head crowning during birth. (It’s a prosthetic.)
It wasn’t about shock value, insists Apatow: “I just try to be as truthful as I can. The truth of a birth is a baby comes out of there! For a man, a lot of the experience is having to see that. It’s difficult to make people feel it. This is not an episode of a TV show.”
The studio didn’t try to cut the birth scene because it knew that if the scene didn’t test well with audiences, Apatow would snip it. But play it did. “They moan and cheer at the same time,” he says.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Apatow likes to match actors to roles that don’t seem obvious. Underdog Rogen is about as far from a romantic leading man as you can get. Apatow has believed in him since he discovered him at age 16 on “Freaks and Geeks.” “He can be caustic and awful at the same time. He’s a lovable guy. You root for him. When we see Seth, we don’t feel things are going to work out perfectly.”
Back in 2000, Apatow convinced Rogen to write himself a script to star in, “Superbad,” a ribald high school movie. “We couldn’t get anyone to make it,” Apatow says.
After the Apatow-produced “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” hit it big for DreamWorks, Apatow thought, “‘Now I can get ‘Superbad” made!'”
Nobody wanted it.
So Apatow told Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg, ” ‘Let’s do a reefer action movie that’s more commercial.’ ” So they wrote “Pineapple Express,” about two joint-toking slackers on the run from gangsters.
When “40 Year Old Virgin” hit, Apatow thought he could sell “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.”
Nobody wanted them.
Finally, after the Apatow-produced “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” also hit it big, Sony Pictures jumped all over “Superbad.” But Rogen was too old to play a high school student by then, so Jonah Hill took over, with Rogen playing a cop. Indie darling-turned-TV helmer Greg Mottola directs.
Now Apatow is drowning in pictures. “I have not been trying to ramp up this many projects,” he says, “it’s a horrible miscalculation. But I can’t say, ‘Let’s not do it because I’m busy right now.’ It’s a dream come true.”
It’s producer Shauna Robertson, whom he met on “Elf,” that helps Apatow juggle so many pictures at once. Productions on tap range from Steven Brill’s “Drillbit Taylor,” about two kids who hire a thug (Wilson) to protect them from a playground bully, to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” about an estranged couple who show up in Hawaii with their new partners.
(“I also try to keep the writers on the movie,” Apatow says; Rogen is there every day on the filming of “Pineapple Express” — directed by another indie favorite, David Gordon Green — even when he isn’t in a scene.)
Writer-director Jake Kasdan, whose digital feature “The TV Set” Apatow produced, is directing “Walk Hard,” a goof on the great man biopics. Every night, the two men talked on the phone from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., laughing their heads off. Soon they had a draft, and John C. Reilly wanted to star. Now it’s in the can for 2008 release.
In pre-production is Ferrell and McKay’s “Step Brothers,” about two spoiled guys, Ferrell and Reilly, who become step-siblings after their single parents get married.
Then there’s Dennis Dugan’s “Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” which Apatow wrote with Sandler, who stars as a Mossad agent who goes undercover as a Manhattan hairstylist. Filming starts this summer.
If Apatow is still alive and kicking, that is.
Contact Anne Thompson at thompsononhollywood.com