If you had to define the comedy of the last 15 years with one name, that name would be Judd Apatow. A sure sign of his dominance is in Indiewire’s recent list of the 25 Best Comedies of the 21st Century So Far: six of them involve Apatow. From his writing and directing work on his ten-year-old debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin and 2007’s Knocked Up, to his role as a producer on Anchorman, Superbad, Bridesmaids and Step Brothers, his influence is unignorable.
He’d humbly downplay that genius, modestly stating in a recent Rolling Stone interview that “It’s about which collaborators you luck into working with. And I’ve been blessed to meet some of the most talented people around.” It only makes him a more endearing personality. Regardless of whether he “lucked into” working with them, he also had the talent to get the most out of his collaborators and that’s because he truly understands comedy.
Whilst his work is often flippantly categorised as frivolous or immature, he knows better than anyone else the ironic truth that comedy is a serious business. Beyond all the adolescent banter and squeamish sex jokes, one common thread through much of his work is the idea that comedy works as both a shield and a form of therapy. It’s a mask that helps you hide your real self while you’re still trying to work out what your real self even is. But most of all, what makes Apatow great is that he can dissect all that and still recognise that sometimes a dick joke is just a dick joke.
His first major big-screen successes were with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) as a producer and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) as writer, director and producer. Both of them share similar DNA as improv-led ensemble comedies, and they also share a key cast member in Steve Carrell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s co-writer. Both films are built around identities of hyper-masculinity and an accompanying male preoccupation with sex, the key difference being that Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) lives this identity and Andy (Steve Carrell) is portrayed as incomplete for lacking it.
With comedy, context is everything. Glance at throwaway lines from either film, decontextualised in a trailer, for example, and things suddenly look fairly misogynistic. But in the context of the films themselves, these prehistoric attitudes are mocked at every turn. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy’s co-workers are the misogynistic idiots who show him how not to do things, whereas Andy is the normal, sensible character who has so much respect for women it’s gone all the way round into a fear of intimacy. When Jay (Romany Malco) encourages Andy to pop his cherry posthaste by sleeping with a drunk girl, Andy replies: “You know, I don’t feel comfortable hitting on ‘drunk bitches’. It doesn’t feel right.” He’s stating the obvious perhaps, but considering how often Apatow gets pigeonholed for sexual immaturity it’s worth pointing out where the heart and the moral centre of his films lies.
Superbad (2007) is another of Apatow’s films with a very similar attitude to sexual politics. He produced the script, written by his longtime collaborator Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – another example of his loyalty and eye for talent. The film is a classic teen comedy in its focus on the twin nirvanas of getting drunk and getting laid, but it brings a very mature, retrospective attitude to the topic. It feels like two people in their twenties looking back at how hilariously desperate they were to be cool as teenagers and ruefully shaking their heads.
It’s probably got the most embarrassingly crude dialogue and setpieces of any film mentioned in this article, but that’s the point. This is how most teenage boys behave. The lead partnership of Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) also highlights one of the most fascinating things about comedy as a genre: what you laugh at reveals your attitudes far more than the attitudes of the people making the film.
Seth is panicked, desperate and full of braggadocio, offering up lines like “No one’s got a handjob in cargo shorts since ‘nam” and freaking out about getting period blood on his jeans. Evan is quiet, respectful and anxious, at one point offering the very sincere toast of “To people respecting women!” and later trying to avoid taking advantage of a drunk girl he likes. Both have plenty of great lines and equal story time so the difference is purely in the mind of the audience. Whether you laugh at or with either of the boys defines your morals.
2007 was also the year Apatow directed Knocked Up, the film that has arguably most defined his output. It features a schlubby Seth Rogen™, a cluster of slacker male friends providing comic relief, put-upon women and themes of male arrested development. This combination leads to some of Apatow’s finest comedic moments but it also makes Knocked Up one of his most problematic films.
In particular the shrewish women – Alison (Katherine Heigl) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) – represent a lazy stereotype that had mostly been avoided in Apatow’s previous work. They both have ample screentime and funny lines, but their main function in the plot is to hold back the men of the story by holding them accountable and forcing them to behave like adults. Ben (Seth Rogen) is desperate to continue his carefree slacker lifestyle and only assumes the responsibility of fatherhood reluctantly after much stress and conflict. Likewise with Pete (Paul Rudd), who finds his wife controlling and sneaks off to fantasy baseball nights.
Despite these faults, Knocked Up redeems itself with two very self-aware scenes that pinpoint the crises both Pete and Debbie are going through. The first features Pete and Ben arguing about the fact Pete can’t accept Debbie’s love whilst they’re both high on mushrooms – because of course men can’t talk about their emotions while sober. We see that Pete is pushing her away because of a fear of intimacy and emotional connection, and ultimately a lack of belief that anyone could love him.
In contrast, Debbie’s crisis involves her and Alison trying to get into a club and being rejected because “You old; she pregnant. Can’t have a bunch of old pregnant bitches running around”. They have been examples of maturity and embracing the responsibilities of adulthood through the film, and here Apatow shows how society punishes them for doing what comes naturally: ageing and getting pregnant. This idea isn’t explored too fully elsewhere, but this short scene is brutal enough in its awareness of how society treats women that it balances out some of Apatow’s earlier stereotyping.
Although their marriage is only a subplot in Knocked Up, those two scenes showed that Debbie and Pete’s story had a lot of potential. So much, in fact, that they became the leads of Apatow’s 2012 directorial effort, This is 40 – we haven’t forgotten about Funny People, don’t worry. This is 40 is about the pair of them trying to figure out how and why they’re broken and what either of them can do to fix it.
This is 40 is Apatow’s most underrated film by a mile and much of that perception is down to his early reputation as the master of out-and-out comedies. You get the feeling that when This is 40 didn’t turn out to be particularly hilarious, critics and audiences assumed this was a failure of execution rather than a change of focus. The plot and pace are sluggish, even by Apatow’s leisurely standards, and the issues at play have been criticised for being too white collar. You can’t really argue with that considering Pete’s main plot concerns his struggling independent record label, but equally the human issues at play – of love, and marriage, and commitment, and keeping a relationship alive after years together – are universal problems that affect everybody.
Mann and Rudd are both superb, with performances equally adept at comedy and drama, aided by a nuanced understanding of when each works best. Their onscreen marriage also delivers a frisson of excitement for the viewer who knows that Apatow and Mann – married in real life – developed this film loosely from their own relationship. Mann’s most significant roles by far are in Apatow’s films and you have to suspect one of his subconscious aims is to make the world love her as much as he does. Mostly, he succeeds. Nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder how autobiographical the film is, particularly in the more traumatic moments like when Debbie asks Pete, “Would we even still be together if I hadn’t got pregnant 14 years ago?” and he can’t bring himself to answer.
Interviews with the pair have downplayed the film’s resemblance to real life, but other answers about work/life balance seem to suggest that the general dynamic if not the specifics are accurate. Apatow is clearly a disciple of the ‘write what you know’ school of thought and the themes his films explore clearly represent a way for him to make sense of his own life.
In his recent Rolling Stone interview he talks about how “the worst parts of my life [like his parents’ divorce] have been the reasons why I’ve been able to accomplish anything I’ve accomplished”. His reaction to these bad times in his life was to delve deeper into comedy, finding motivation in his pain. This mindset is revealed even more transparently in a poem he digs out during the interview. It’s called ‘Divorce’, he wrote it when he was 15 and it goes like this:
“For me there was a separation with lots of tears / Going out with my friends, marijuana and beers
I cover my pain with silly jokes / No more drugs or beer, just Cokes
Maybe one day I’ll be a big star, driving around in a big car, and I won’t mind that my parents split / Because it helped me write my comedy shit”
There’s Apatow’s career in a nutshell. The themes that preoccupy him to this day, all wrapped up in the catch-all tactic of hiding pain with silly jokes. It’s his defense mechanism and it’s one shared by so many of his characters.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in Funny People is the ultimate realisation of this trait. He’s a man going through the trauma of dealing with a terminal illness and his response is not to tell his family or friends, but to hire Ira (Seth Rogen), an unknown comic he’s just met, to write jokes for him to make a return to standup. Comedy is all he knows and it’s his way of processing his pain.
The pitfalls of this approach are clear. Simmons has avoided or run from intimacy all his life – like so many other Apatow protagonists – and as a consequence when we first meet him he’s alone and unhappy. He has an incredible mansion, more supercars than he knows what to do with and sex on tap thanks to his fame; but he’s also an angry, arrogant, self-hating depressive. He is the dark side that so many comedians have. He is the site for Apatow’s most rigorous interrogation of comedy as a self-defence mechanism, and it isn’t pretty.
He’s also the person that Apatow could have been. He harboured standup ambitions when he was younger but he gave them up after experiences sharing a bill with the likes of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, which he likened to “opening up for U2”. He called it “a weird feeling when you’re hanging around with somebody that talented, that charismatic, and you really feel down on yourself. You feel your own lack of charisma”. But standup’s loss was scripted comedy’s gain, and Apatow has since more than proved he has just as much comedic ability, if not as much charisma, as any of his peers. In fact, a line in Funny People picks apart that curious difference between being funny in person and being funny on screen. Talking about Simmons – and, in an obvious metatextual nod, Sandler himself – one character notes that, “he’s really funny! I don’t know why his movies aren’t funny though. That’s weird isn’t it?”
Apatow’s recent career seems to have taken a turn away from these more personal projects in exchange for high-profile collaborations with the best female comedians in the game. He has been the executive producer for all of Lena Dunham’s Girls, as well as producing Bridesmaids (2011) and directing Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. Although Apatow’s voice is less audible in these projects, Schumer and Dunham’s work in particular shares a preoccupation with identity and the pressure to change it. Nevertheless, as much as the results of these collaborations have been impressive, it would be a shame if it marked the end of Apatow’s more personal work.
No one understands comedy quite like him, and no one makes a better case that it deserves to be appreciated much more than it is. People look at comedy as something cheap, something easy, something base. It can be all those things, but it can also be one of the most difficult and most beautiful achievements in film. As Apatow himself says, “when comedy is done well it seems effortless. And even in comedies that it’s easy to not take seriously, there might be something that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. I appreciate people’s efforts to spend a lifetime trying to make other people happy”.
P.S. If I wrote for Rolling Stone this is the interview I would dream of doing. If you enjoyed the above you have to read this.