Today is the 45th birthday of Judd Apatow, one of the most popular comedy filmmakers working today.
10 years ago, Judd Apatow had already been in show business for more than a decade, producing and writing shows — The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks — that earned devoted but small audiences. As a result, his name was known almost exclusively to a cult fanbase. But after the enormous success of Apatow-produced comedies like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow, the original comedy nerd, became one of the most sought-after writers/directors in Hollywood. Here’s a look at the highlights of his career…
1) The Ben Stiller Show (1992)
Apatow spent a few years as a joke writer for other stand-ups before his first major writing gig on MTV’s The Ben Stiller Show. He met Stiller at an Elvis Costello unplugged concert, and deciding to work together, the two immediately created the show and sold it within a matter of weeks. Although it was quickly canceled, it earned Apatow an Emmy, and it spawned much of the great comedy of the last 20 years, breaking Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick; bringing together Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who would go on to create the enormously influential Mr. Show; and, of course, kick-starting Apatow’s career. Apatow and Stiller would continue to work together frequently over the years. Said Apatow of Stiller, “Ben in a lot of ways is the beginning of much of what’s happened in modern comedy.”
2) The Larry Sanders Show (1993-1998)
Garry Shandling was a comedy idol to teenage Judd Apatow, and early in his career, Apatow scored a gig writing for the Emmy Awards when Shandling was the host. Following The Ben Stiller Show, Apatow worked for his mentor again when he was hired to write for HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, which starred Shandling. After years of writing stand-up jokes and comedy sketches, Apatow credited Larry Sanders for teaching him to write stories, or as he put it, to write “for humans.” Apatow was nominated for an Emmy six times during his run on Larry Sanders. Shandling also allowed Apatow to direct an episode of the show. It was his first directing job.
3) Heavyweights (1995)
Heavyweights is a mostly forgotten ‘90s kids movie that’s notable for a few reasons. For one, it was written by Steve Brill as the follow-up to his much more successful Mighty Ducks films. But in hindsight, it’s much more interesting that Heavyweights was co-written by Judd Apatow, and was the first feature he had a hand in writing. Additionally, the movie starred Ben Stiller at his scenery-chewingest in the role of Tony Perkis, the out-of-control owner of a fat camp for kids. This marked the first time after the death of their show that Apatow and Stiller would work together, but not the last. Future Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig also shows up in the flick.
4) The Cable Guy (1996)
Opening to a lot of hype as an unusually dark comedy for star Jim Carrey, The Cable Guy met with a reception that was mixed at best, and marked a hiccup in its star’s rocket to superstardom. Following Heavyweights and the Damon Wayans/Daniel Stern/Dan Aykroyd bomb Celtic Pride, The Cable Guy was also the last film Apatow produced until 2004’s Anchorman. (Maybe you’ve heard of that one.) But the movie is an important part of Apatow’s oeuvre because of its female lead, Leslie Mann, who Apatow met during production of The Cable Guy, and later married. The gifted actress and comedian is Apatow’s muse, earning increasingly prominent roles in his films, and clearly fueling his creativity as he continues to pen scripts about relationships and family life.
5) Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Freaks and Geeks was primarily Paul Feig’s brainchild, but Judd Apatow co-produced the series and wrote several of its episodes, including “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” from which this scene is taken. In it, latchkey kid Bill Haverchuck comes home from school depressed, but cheers up by watching Garry Shandling perform on The Dinah Shore Show. The scene is pure Apatow, who wrote it to reflect his own obsession with comedy as a kid. Apatow said about this scene, “Jake Kasdan told me, ‘That’s the most personal thing you’ve ever done in your career, and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’ And that was probably the turning point for my whole career, realizing that the little moments that I thought were boring or just not interesting to other people are actually the things that people would be most interested in.” The scene alone, without a single line of dialogue, is a key to understanding much of Apatow’s work.
6) Undeclared (2001-2002)
Though it’s a half-hour sitcom, Undeclared was something of a sister show to Freaks and Geeks. Both shows debuted batches of young actors who became some of the leading movie stars of the decade. Creator Judd Apatow got most of the actors from Freaks to at least cameo in Undeclared at one point or another, and he became a mentor to Seth Rogen, who was a main character on both shows and started his writing career by working on several Undeclared scripts. Meanwhile, the combined casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared later would become Apatow’s de facto acting company for his feature films. Even the casting of Loudon Wainwright III as the lead character’s dad marked the beginning of Apatow’s habit of giving roles to his favorite singer-songwriters. Sadly, like Freaks and Geeks before it, Undeclared also was unceremoniously canceled after one abbreviated season. Network executives can be pretty stupid.
7) The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
In the summer of 2005, Steve Carell was known chiefly as a correspondent on The Daily Show, and for a modest role as mentally deficient weatherman Brick Tamland in the Apatow-produced Anchorman. But he’s such a huge star now that it’s hard to remember what a unusual choice he was at the time to star in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Most of us know what a hit the movie turned out to be, making an “overnight” sensation out of not only its star, but also its writer/director/producer, Judd Apatow. Both Apatow and Carell had been working in comedy for 15-20 years at the time, but were mostly known only to comedy nerds before Virgin became one of the biggest comedy hits ever. After it, the formula for success in Hollywood was the “Apatow style,” combining raunchy comedy with genuine heart. This is where Judd Apatow became a household name.
8) Knocked Up (2007)
Apatow’s big follow-up to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up was the first of his projects to really pack in the alumni from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, including Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr, Loudon Wainwright, James Franco and even a Paul Feig cameo. Apatow’s protege Seth Rogen won his first leading-man part in the movie. Leslie Mann, too, played a much more prominent role in Knocked Up than she did in Virgin, with major subplots involving her relationship with her movie husband, Paul Rudd. Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters Maude and Iris play Mann’s movie daughters for the first time here too. All of Apatow’s previous success allowed him to make in Knocked Up his first really personal film.
9) Funny People (2009)
With his continued box-office success, Apatow got even more personal with his next film, the passion project Funny People. In some ways a sprawling mess, in other ways Apatow’s best work, Funny People is a few different movies in one package. Apatow’s old roommate Adam Sandler plays an analogue of himself, a hugely popular comedian who learns he’s dying of a rare form of leukemia. Other parts of the movie concern Seth Rogen’s character and his roommates as young stand-ups in Hollywood, struggling to find their voices on stage and make it as comedians. It’s Apatow’s most direct love letter to comedy, a better take on what the movie Punchline wanted to be. The film also explores, as in this scene, how comedians are somehow hard-wired to always deal with even the darkest of subjects — especially the darkest of subjects — by cracking jokes and doing bits. And there’s a romantic comedy in there somewhere too.
10) This Is 40 (2012)
In his newest film, Apatow returns to the groundwork he laid in Knocked Up with the married characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. Apatow hinted in Knocked Up at his interest in exploring what it means to be middle-aged and married, and Funny People also dealt with relationship issues, but both movies were primarily concerned with other concepts. This Is 40 finally brings Apatow’s focus to the ideas that served only as subplots in past films. He’s explicitly stated that he wants to get more personal with each project he writes, closer to the heart and less afraid to express the feelings he’s not sure he should express publicly. That desire seems to be playing out, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.