The new king of comedy
Published 17/02/2013 | 06:00
Ten years ago, Judd Apatow was a little-known and not very successful TV comedy writer who couldn't get arrested. Now he's one of the most powerful directors and producers in Hollywood, and has even been called "the total overlord of American comedy".
Although he's directed only four films, he's produced at least a dozen of the most successful comedies of the past decade, has launched the careers of stars such as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco and Jason Segel, and revived and totally transformed the romantic comedy.
His influence and clout in Hollywood are remarkable, as his latest film proves. This Is 40, which was released here yesterday, is a sort of sequel to Apatow's 2007 hit Knocked Up, and stars not only the director's wife, Leslie Mann, but their two daughters. Which might sound a bit self-indulgent and cosy, but Apatow's films are always more salty than sweet.
His eldest girl, Maude, plays a teenage daughter who's crazed by the onset of menstruation. And at one point her father, played by Paul Rudd, asks his wife to examine his piles.
Not very Cary Grant, but from the start of his career Judd Apatow has mixed romance and vulgarity to memorable effect. Apatow films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have made a lot of money, but they've also been accused of sexism and misogyny, and critics have found his obsession with so-called dick jokes tiresome.
But while some may sneer, Apatow seems to have perfectly judged the public mood in the way that John Hughes did in the mid-1980s. His movies attract teenagers and 30- and 40-somethings in equal numbers, and Apatow's is the comic template that everyone is trying to imitate.
His style isn't to everyone's taste, but you've got to admire his tenacity in sticking at a career that took a long time to take off.
Born in New York on December 6, 1967, he was fascinated with comedy from an early age. "When I was a kid I had no one to talk to. All my friends would be playing sports after school and I'd go home alone and watch Monty Python," he has said.
After his parents divorced in 1981, his mother got a job as a waitress in a New York comedy club and he used to sneak in and watch the comedians.
He dreamed of emulating Steve Martin and Robin Williams by becoming a stand-up star, but after moving to Los Angeles to pursue his dream at the age of 17, he found it very difficult to get a break.
Apatow became a regular at Hollywood club The Improv, where his act revolved around his "failure to convince any woman to sleep with me". But he struggled to make a name for himself, and it was while he was sharing an apartment with his friend, Adam Sandler, that he made a very important decision.
"I was 21 and living with Adam and drinking a lot, and I remember thinking, this is a drag that he's so much funnier than I am," he said.
Once he switched to writing, his luck slowly began to change. Garry Shandling, who was hosting the Grammy Awards, asked him to write jokes for him. That led to a longer stint on Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show, where his writing earned six Emmy nominations.
In the mid-1990s, Apatow gained a reputation as a movie rewrite specialist after salvaging the script for Jim Carrey's 1996 comedy, The Cable Guy. He also rewrote Carrey films Liar, Liar and Bruce Almighty and Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer.
But Apatow's own projects had a habit of crashing and burning. In 1999, he created a clever TV sitcom pilot called Sick In The Head about a psychiatrist and his patients, but no one picked it up. Two further pilots, North Hollywood and Life On Parade, were also rejected. He had some success with Freaks And Geeks, a 1990 sitcom about Californian teens that launched the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and James Franco. The critics loved it, but it was cancelled after only one season.
But Apatow kept plugging away, and in the mid-2000s things finally began to click for him. He scored a big success in 2004 as producer of the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, a hilarious spoof on TV news shows.
But it was his innovative directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that really established Apatow as a Hollywood player. In his first lead role, Steve Carell played Andy Stitzer, a shy and geeky 40-year-old who lives alone and has never had a girlfriend.
When he's playing cards with his friends and they start talking about sex, Andy tries to join in. But when he compares the feel of a woman's breast to "a bag of sand", it becomes obvious he's still a virgin, and his buddies set out to hook him up with a woman.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin was acclaimed by critics and did reasonably well at the box office. And it was on this film that the Apatow romcom formula began to emerge. Geeky, neurotic men would pursue shrewish and seemingly unattainable females against a backdrop of penis jokes and humour based on bodily functions. It was part Woody Allen, part Adam Sandler, but it felt new and original – and it worked.
His next film as director, Knocked Up, was harder hitting. Katherine Heigl played Alison Scott, a workaholic TV producer who becomes pregnant after a one-night-stand with a pot-smoking slacker.
The film made more than $200m (€150m) at the box office – a huge return for a comedy. And while some critics loved it, others complained about the crudity. Apatow was unrepentant. "America fears the penis," he has said, "and that's something I'm going to help them get over."
After Knocked Up, his name began popping up all over the place. Between 2007 and 2010 he produced a string of hit comedies, from Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Bridesmaids, Get Him To The Greek and Step Brothers. And though he neither wrote nor directed any of those, the Apatow tone was very evident.
His rise has been remarkable, and his comic formula so successful that other writers and filmmakers have done their best to copy it. His protégés Seth Rogen and Jason Segel have become big stars, and Apatow's crude but undeniably funny comedies have caught the pulse of a generation.
His love of crass, sexual references has been constantly criticised, but seems to strike a chord with young Americans. "It's so difficult to shock these days," he says, but as This Is 40 proves, he's clearly going to keep on trying.