The adult comedy This Is 40 is released in the UAE today but, unusually for a comedy film, it’s not the movie’s stars that will be drawing fans to the box office, but the writer and director Judd Apatow. A writing, directing and producing triple threat, his name has become almost synonymous with American comedy in the past decade. But how did an unknown writer from a few TV comedy shows work his way up to become a one-man Hollywood hit machine?
With a little help from my friends
Like anyone at the top of their game, Apatow’s success is at least partly due to his surrounding himself with some of the biggest talent of the past 20 years. Starting off as a writer on various award shows and sitcoms, it was his friendship with Ben Stiller, who hired him to be part of the writing team for the short-lived Ben Stiller Show, that led Apatow to do an uncredited rewrite of Stiller’s directorial debut, The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey. Adam Sandler, a former roommate of Apatow’s, got him to do another uncredited rewrite on his film The Wedding Singer. Before long, Apatow was gaining a reputation as one of the most reliable comedy writers around.
Various television projects followed, including the short-lived but much-loved series Freaks and Geeks, but it would be eight years until Apatow would gain his big break in film, this time as a producer for the worldwide smash Anchorman. This kicked off a string of producing hits including Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Step Brothers and Bridesmaids, and he added “writer-director” to his CV, helming the hits Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the comedy-drama Funny People.
Just as Apatow’s collaborators kept him close in his early years, so he has worked regularly with the same circle of actors including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and his wife, Leslie Mann. As his name gained more currency with the studios, he came forth as the producer to several scripts written by his collaborators, which resulted in huge hits such as Superbad (written by Rogen) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, based on Segel’s real-life experiences.
Writing outside the box
Much of Apatow’s appeal as a writer and director has been his tendency to tackle subjects that ring true to a lot of people, even if they have not been explored often in film. This is particularly true of Knocked Up, his second film as a writer-director, which tackles the potentially tricky subject of unplanned pregnancy and the unconventional ways in which many modern families come to be. With nearly half of American pregnancies believed to be unplanned, according to some studies, this subject is as relevant to some audiences as any other romantic comedy.
Equally, Apatow has drawn on his own experiences for comedy. His second directorial effort, Funny People, is closely based on his early days as a performer and the comedians who mentored him. “The truthful aspect of [the story] was how much I loved comedy and I couldn’t believe the comedians I worshipped would let me hang out with them, let me write for them,” he said in a press conference for the film.
Which brings us full circle to his latest film, This Is 40. Starring Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, reprising their popular supporting roles from Knocked Up, it explores the experience of someone reaching their 40s and the struggles of managing jobs, family and their own relationship. Having just turned 45 and casting his own wife in the lead role, it’s easy to see where the inspiration came for the story. However, to his fans, that’s the very appeal of Apatow’s work: films that make you laugh but also speak to audiences in unexpected ways.