For Judd Apatow, bawdy is bankable

With 'Engagement' and 'Girls,' the ubiquitous hyphenate expands the brand

Judd Apatow has a habit of making us laugh and we like him for that. But now that he’s achieved a certain ubiquity, he has raised an intriguing question: Can you be both ubiquitous and funny?

If you doubt that the Apatow brand has become pervasive, consider the following:

Next weekend, Apatow’s new production, “The Five-Year Engagement,” opens the Tribeca Festival, where he will also appear on a panel with no less than Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. Apatow will even deliver grooming tips in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, “Mansome,” also opening at Tribeca.

Another Apatow production, the weekly series “Girls” starring (and created by) Lena Durham, starts its run on HBO next weekend (some are comparing it to “Bridesmaids,” also from Apatow’s comedy mill). Trailers will soon be in theaters for “This Is Forty,” which Apatow produced and directed — the movie opens in December. The Apatow-produced “Wanderlust” is still wending its way through the circuits.

It was only 15 years ago that Apatow’s career got off to an unpromising start when his “Freaks and Geeks” series was canceled early and his first screenwriting gig, “The Cable Guy,” took a quick dive. But the young comic quickly displayed his resilience by creating his series of naughty narratives: “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and “The Pineapple Express.” The young audience had found a new king of comedy. Or at least a new master of the dick joke.

There were still some stumbles. The 2009 “Funny People,” which Apatow wrote and directed, proved not funny enough and desperately overlong. I liked the biopic parody he co-wrote, “Walk Hard,” but few others did.

Still, Apatow’s style and sensibility has left its mark on a remarkable body of work — one that seems to be expanding.

Its characteristics are clearly evident in “Five-Year Engagement” and even in “Girls.” In an effusive review of the show in New York Magazine, Emily Nussbaum admitted the sex scenes made her both “cringe” and laugh. “It’s a show about life lived as a rough draft,” she wrote.

Much of “Five-Year Engagement”, too, reportedly plays like a rough draft, alternately languid and lewd. In all Apatow projects a curious sentimentality lurks behind the singularly unromantic sex scenes. The dick jokes and sexist insults are always followed by hugs (Apatow characters are big on hugging).

Even by the standards of cable television, “Girls”, too, is rough stuff — a sex comedy from a female POV. If Dunham is the poetess of the Millennial Generation, she’s also the chronicler of the Millennial Meltdown.

At age 25, she has already made two movies and is writing, producing and starring in her weekly series. Yet the character she plays, Hannah, simply doesn’t cope well with challenges of any sort. She freely displays her own pear-shaped body in sex scenes, none of which end well. In striking contrast to the denizens of “Sex and the City,” Hannah and her friends are broke and look to their parents or grandparents for support.

What is the Apatow influence on “Girls?” No one talks about this. Just as the early “Knocked Up” movies reflected a “guys” perspective, “Girls,” like “Bridesmaids,” reflects both a different point of view and yet a similar sensibility.

What interests Apatow most of all, however, is that the laughs keep coming. And that the brand keeps building.