There is a moment early on in "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," the 14th episode of the brilliant but canceled television series Freaks and Geeks, in which gangly, bespectacled, picked-last-in-gym-class high school freshman Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) arrives home from school, makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich, and sits down to watch an up-and-coming comic named Garry Shandling perform on The Dinah Shore Show. All the while, the wailing strains of the Who's "I'm One" play on the sound track: Every year is the same/And I feel it again/I'm a loser -- no chance to win.
"You realize that this is his friend, the television," says Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed the episode, and served as an executive producer for the duration of Freaks and Geeks' ratings-challenged 18-episode run. "He has no one to play with in the afternoon. His mom is at work. His parents are divorced."
That scene, Apatow says, was a veritable snapshot of his own teenage years, as a small-for-his-age, unathletic, comedy-obsessed child of divorce on the middle-class end of Long Island in the early 1980s. After the episode aired, Apatow's friend and fellow Freaks director Jake Kasdan told him it was the most personal thing he'd ever seen him do. For Apatow, who'd up to then spent most of his career writing material for other comedians, it was something of an epiphany. "I really enjoy people who are deeply personal," he says, slouching in a chair in his Santa Monica office and scarfing down some vegetarian takeout a few weeks before the release of his second feature film as writer-director, Knocked Up. "I just never had the balls to try, until relatively recently. It took me a very long time to think that if I wrote from a personal place, it would be interesting to anyone but myself."
Apatow's self-doubt is perfectly understandable in an industry where the idiosyncratic and the original are regularly sacrificed in the name of higher ratings and bigger grosses. But in the seven years since Freaks' untimely departure from NBC, Apatow has continued to tap into his own life for inspiration, marshaling new comic armies of neurotic, socially maladroit teens, twentysomethings, and even middle-agers into America's living rooms and onto its movie screens.
Released in the summer of 2005 to little advance hype, Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin took a premise that might have made for a one-joke raunch fest and spun it into an exuberantly vulgar and unexpectedly tender farce about one man's belated coming, so to speak, of age. It was, I wrote at the time, a movie Blake Edwards -- or perhaps a dirtier-minded John Hughes -- might have made, an altogether revivifying breath of fresh comic air in a terminally sophomoric movie-comedy landscape. All the more remarkable was the fact that Apatow, who had never directed a movie before, had managed to make Virgin at a major studio (Universal), with a relatively unknown star (Steve Carell) and a great deal of creative autonomy. It was also, arriving on the heels of another axed series (Undeclared) and several unsold pilots, Apatow's first bona fide hit.
Now, I know what you're thinking: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a personal film? Who on earth would fess up to that? "It's not specifically me," Apatow clarifies. "But, unfortunately, I really understand all of those emotions -- namely, insecurity and fear that people are going to think you're a freak."
Like Virgin, Knocked Up also takes flight from a state of emotional panic -- its title refers to the unplanned consequences of a drunken one-night stand between an upstart TV news reporter (Katherine Heigl) and the slacker-stoner layabout (Virgin co-star Seth Rogen) she meets in a Hollywood bar. But as before, the movie's real subject is that of men struggling to cast off the vestiges of their carefree bachelorhood and accept grown-up responsibility, regardless of what age they happen to be. Consider it Apatow's hilarious -- and, yes, personal -- examination of parenthood from both ends of the looking glass, as the struggles of the film's expectant young couple are paralleled with those of Heigl's married-with-children sister (played by Apatow's own wife, Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd), who find themselves navigating some serious bumps in their own relationship.
Apatow, an admitted workaholic who has been married since 1997 and is the father of two young daughters (both conceived in wedlock), describes his new film as "a love letter and an apology to my family," and says that both couples represent comic exaggerations of his own marriage at various stages.
"I remember when I first had children," he says. "I'd be sitting on the floor with my daughter, and she'd want to play with her doctor kit or something, and there'd be a part of me that was preoccupied, thinking about a fight I was having with the network. In that moment, I would know how fucked-up it was that I couldn't let go of this fight and just play doctor, that I wasn't fully present. But when things get to the point where your family will no longer tolerate them, then you make a change."
Such candor courses through Knocked Up, where it is regularly offset by the kind of uninhibited, go-for-broke comic set pieces that made Virgin into an instantly quotable classic. The constant is that, in Apatow's work, the jokes never come at the expense of the characters' emotional reality, but rather grow directly out of it. Case in point: A scene in Knocked Up where, in the chaos of a late-night earthquake, a dazed and confused Rogen thinks first about rescuing his bong and only later about his sleeping pregnant girlfriend.
That juggling act between high comedy and high drama is one Apatow chalks up to the influence of two of his favorite American filmmakers, James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) and Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). But the relaxed rhythms of Apatow's style and the untidy, lifelike paths taken by his narratives may more readily call to mind the vanguard American cinema of the 1970s -- especially the hybrid comedy-dramas of directors like Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and Elaine May -- and their staunch resistance to obvious heroes or villains, contrived conflicts, and tidy endings.
"I'm trying to tell a story about four nice people who have problems and are trying to figure out how to work them out and how to be good to each other," Apatow says. "The obstacles are their own issues and circumstances. What's interesting, which I hadn't thought about until someone pointed it out to me in an interview, is that there's no antagonist in the movie. Everyone has his or her own eccentricities and struggles, and you should be rooting for all of them. So the structure is very loose, and it does meander. That was the scary thing about making this movie."
In Apatow's office, photos of Warren Zevon, Lenny Bruce, and a few other of his creative heroes adorn the wall behind his desk. On the opposite wall, a bulletin board lined with index cards contains the story outline for Walk Hard, a mock music biopic co-written by Apatow and Kasdan that's scheduled for release at the end of the year. Next to that, a dry-erase marker board contains notes for another project still in the script stage. All told, there are four films on which Apatow is credited as writer, producer, or both currently shooting somewhere in the world, two more about to go before the cameras, and myriad others in various phases of development.
Scan the cast and crew lists of those projects, and you will find many recurring names, including Kasdan, Undeclared and Knocked Up co-star Jason Segel (whose first screenplay, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is being produced by Apatow), and the team of director Adam McKay and actor Will Ferrell, whose three collaborations (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and the forthcoming Step Brothers) are all Apatow productions.
Not least, there is Knocked Up's Rogen, who was discovered by Apatow during the Freaks and Geeks casting process and who is (together with writing partner Evan Goldberg) the author of two forthcoming Apatow-produced films: the semiautobiographical last-night-of-high-school comedy Superbad (which opens August 17) and The Pineapple Express, which Apatow describes as "a big pothead action movie." Knocked Up marks the first starring role for the cherubic, curly-haired, 25-year-old Vancouver native, whose personality, Apatow says, strongly influenced the development of the script.
"It is based on how Seth lives," Apatow notes of the frat-house-like residence inhabited by Rogen's Knocked Up character, Ben Stone, and his coterie of porn-obsessed, film-geek roommates. "Some people who see the film say, 'People don't live like that. People don't talk like that.' And I always say, 'Go to Seth's house. It's happening right now.'"
That extends to the film's laissez-faire depiction of drug use and alcohol consumption -- a subject about which Apatow has mixed feelings. He himself is strongly anti-drug, he says, "but at the same time, as a filmmaker, I just need to show things exactly as they are. I hope, on some level, I'm indicating to the audience, "You probably shouldn't do this," that you can't be the high guy when the earthquake happens and you have to figure out how to shut off the gas.
Apatow's yen for reality even led him to cast some of Rogen's real-life friends -- up-and-coming comics all -- as Ben's onscreen cohorts. He then allowed them to riff off one another, as in the film's soon-to-be-immortal discussion of the coolness value of Steven Spielberg's Munich.
Collectively, they are anything but conventional movie stars: short and fat or tall and skinny, with bad hair, skin, and fashion sense, and a terminal awkwardness around women. They are the kind of actors who usually appear in movies as the goofy sideshow rather than the main attraction, and who rarely ever get the girl. But in Apatow land, it's the suave, perfectly coifed matinee idol who would seem out of his element.
"When we were making Knocked Up," Apatow says, "there were all sorts of debates about whether or not it's believable that Seth could get this woman, which I always thought were funny debates, because I believe that if you're funny and reasonably intelligent, there's no one really out of your range. But certain people are like, 'This could not happen!' They project their own issues onto it."
Still, despite his growing empire and his bloodhound's nose for fresh comic talent, Apatow is quick to downplay his status as the paterfamilias of contemporary screen comedy. "I'm a fan of comedy, and I try to work with people who I admire," he says. "As a result, I have connections and working relationships with a lot of people who hopefully are good at what they do, because I would hope that I don't have crappy taste. No one's really relying on me so much as I'm relying on them. I'm lucky to have Seth as the star of a movie, because I know he can do it. Even if the town doesn't know it, in my head I'm working with Steve Martin."
Talk to Apatow for a while, and you begin to see how this self-described "typical Long Island nerdy kid" -- who still very much looks the part in scruffy beard, baggy pants, and dirty sneakers -- has moved through life with the outsider's confidence that what goes around, comes around.
"When I was a kid," he tells me, "I thought that so much of school was unfair. I thought, 'How come every day they line us up against the fence and everyone tells me that I suck? And no matter how hard I try, I can't prove to them that I'm good at sports, because I'm playing deep right field and the ball never comes to me. And because the ball never comes to me, I'm not getting better.'"
It was Apatow's early love of comedy and stand-up comedians, he says, that "empowered me, and it made me feel better about my situation. I thought, 'Someday, people will appreciate the fact that I'm different.' We put a lot of that into Freaks and Geeks -- the idea that even though these kids were under the thumb of these bullies, they knew they were actually the people who would do well. It's almost like, subconsciously, they knew they would create Microsoft."
For the record, Apatow did not create Microsoft, but by the age of 16, he had already landed a job washing dishes and busing tables in a Long Island comedy club. The salary was barely enough to cover the cost of Apatow's cab fare. "I wasn't there to make money," he recalls, "I was there for the moments in between when I could watch." Around the same time, he started his own talk show on his high school's radio station. The signal may have barely made it out of the parking lot, but that hardly dulled the young Apatow's ambition.
"I just started calling up comedians' publicists, trying to get interviews, and they didn't know it wasn't a real radio station," he says. "I would show up with this enormous tape recorder from the AV squad, and they would have to tolerate me for an hour." Those were the boom days of stand-up, and over the next two years, Apatow's "guests" included up-and-coming comics with names like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, John Candy, and Garry Shandling, for whom Apatow would work years later as a writer and executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show.
"I could ask them, 'How do you write a joke?' And they would actually lay it out."
He also learned the value of patience and determination. "The thing I took away from all the interviews was that it takes a very long time [to make it]. Someone had told me that to be a stand-up comedian -- which was my only goal at the time -- it takes seven years to figure out what your persona is. And if you have that kind of discipline when you're first starting out, it changes your whole way of looking at things. I was 15 or 16 at the time, so I figured it would take me about 10 years -- that by the time I was 25 or 26, I'd be doing okay."
As it happens, by the time he was 26, Apatow had already landed his Larry Sanders gig, having spent most of his early 20s pounding the pavement of the stand-up circuit. He'd had his own act and written material for other comics. Then, "Just when I started to be decent at stand-up, my writing career took off. I realized that I didn't have the energy to do both, and it was becoming clear that I wasn't as funny as the people I was writing for. I used to open up on the road for Jim Carrey, and it was pretty clear I was not going to be as funny as him."
Through a mutual friend, Apatow met Ben Stiller, and together they developed an idea for an irreverent sketch-comedy series that they pitched to HBO. HBO bought the show, only to turn around and sell it to Fox, making Apatow, at the tender age of 24, one of the executive producers of a prime-time network comedy series, The Ben Stiller Show.
"I couldn't get on staff at Saturday Night Live or In Living Color," he recalls. "And then suddenly I have a show on the air, and I'm running it and I don't know how to do anything. Ben knew what to do, so I would follow his lead, and I tried to learn as fast as I could. I had no idea how to deal with the network, so I wasn't handling that well at all. If they didn't like an idea, I'd just say, 'Well, that's too bad.' I was just frank and awful, and they instantly hated me."
Of his subsequent adventures in the small-screen trade, Apatow is scarcely more charitable, and it is one of the ironies of his career that this former wunderkind of that supposed "writer's medium" has found far greater creative freedom in the movies. "You don't really have any freedom on television, because you make television with a gun to your head," he says. "You write a script, and then they say, 'If you don't make these changes, we won't make your pilot.' Then, after you make your pilot, they say, 'We will not pick it up as a series unless you get rid of this actor or make these other changes.' And then, when you're on the air, they say, 'We can cancel you at any moment if you disagree with us about anything.' It's just a terrible process that makes garbage, unless you luck out and find an executive who really understands what you do and has some respect for the way that you work."
Apatow has been fortunate in that respect at Universal, which produced Knocked Up, and at Sony, which will release Superbad and where he has an overall production deal. He remains committed to a feverish pace of work, provided it keeps him close to home. (About Knocked Up, which was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles, he says, "I thought, 'How close can I get to my house every day? Can I make the set literally down the street?'") He's also ever on the lookout for new faces, like Knocked Up scene-stealer Kristen Wiig, who also plays a leading role in Walk Hard and is currently writing a script that Apatow plans to produce. He hopes, above all, to continue being personal, because, he says, "I'm just getting old enough, as I head into my 40th year, to have something to say."
As I'm about to leave, Apatow asks me if I'd like to hear something. It's the title song from the Walk Hard soundtrack, as it will appear during one of the film's climactic scenes: a star-studded tribute show to the movie's faux music legend, Dewey Cox (played by John C. Reilly). Tomorrow, back on the Walk Hard set, they'll actually shoot the scene, complete with appearances by Jackson Browne, Ghostface Killah, and Jewel (who memorably yodels during the bridge). Though the song is intended as parody, its lyrics -- about struggling against hardship and being true to yourself -- are, like so much else about Apatow's work, at once comic and heartfelt. Along with "I'm One," it could well be the anthem of his career.