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The king of Geeks

Judd Apatow knows how to set up a jester. That's the foundation for his raunchy empire.

May 13, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

AS an 11-year-old growing up on Long Island, Judd Apatow began each week by studying the newspaper's TV section and highlighting all talk show guests of Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore and company. He spent afternoons holed up in his room watching TV, hanging out in his head with Charles Nelson Reilly. "I couldn't have had more fun in the saddest, lonely way," he says. "There was a period when I would get home at 3 and watch TV until 11, and I couldn't be happier." Eventually his parents became concerned. "In eighth grade I made some friends who drove dirt bikes. My parents were deathly afraid of dirt bikes, but they were so thrilled that I had a hobby outside of my room that they bought me a dirt bike and got me out of Merv Griffin."

Along the way, he learned to do impressions of Henry Kissinger, kept notebooks of jokes like "How come all the people on 'Gilligan's Island' had so many clothes if they were just on a three-hour cruise?" and transcribed tapes of "Saturday Night Live." He was consumed by show business -- never more so than when his grandfather, who owned a jazz record label, took him to see his pal, the zaftig comedian Totie Fields, when Judd was 9. "Here was this woman -- she had only one leg. She playing to a standing ovation because she's hilarious. I only wanted to be a comedian. Everything I've done happened because I couldn't be a great comedian."

Apatow is only partly joking. Sitting in his Santa Monica office, the 39-year-old writer-director-producer appears to be just another vaguely neurotic, schlubby, bearded comedy guy -- the kind that seems to grow like brush sage in certain precincts of town. He appears utterly ordinary. But perhaps that's part of the shtick. In actuality, Apatow is known in town as the Mayor of Comedy -- the guy with some rare combination of talent, self-assurance and the deft ability to handle big egos that has allowed him to befriend and collaborate with every major comic of his generation, from his former roommate Adam Sandler to Jim Carrey, Garry Shandling, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell, to a new generation of comedians whose careers he's fostered, including Steve Carell and Seth Rogen.

With the success of 2005's sleeper hit "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," his directorial debut, he's also become the town's leading comedy entrepreneur. Apatow is producing and/or writing no fewer than seven films in various stages of production, including the rock biopic parody "Walk Hard," the Ferrell movie "Step Brothers," the ultra-profane teen comedy "Superbad" and the Sandler flick "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," about a former Mossad agent who fakes his own death so he can pursue his real love, hairdressing. That's not including his directorial follow-up to "40 Year-Old Virgin": "Knocked Up," which opens June 1, about an insensitive slacker who impregnates a girl way, way, way out of his league. The film, backed by Universal, has already set Hollywood buzzing.

Apatow has spearheaded a return to R-rated, profane comedy -- stocked with more than its fair share of pot-smoking, sex-obsessed slackers who live to amuse each other in ribald camaraderie. Into this world of arrested adolescence wander women who are way more self-possessed, self-aware, confident and good-looking. Yet, despite this apparent inequality of social cachet, the frog princes always win the day. Geeks rule -- particularly after they learn to release their inner mensches. At the end of "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," the movie's formerly virgin hero, played by Steve Carell, dances deliriously with Catherine Keener in a loopy Age of Aquarius sequence.

To those who might carp that his material is socially retrograde, Apatow says, "I'm not misogynistic. When I have characters who are misogynistic, I'm doing that on purpose. I'm trying to show people who need to grow up. Some of it is hilarious, and some of it is hilarious because it's so wrong." He adds, "You should be able to make fun of everybody if your heart is in the right place."

While much of comedy for the last decade has been hijacked by star comedians such as Adam Sandler doing their shticks on the big screen, Apatow's recent work represents a return to the writer-driven comedy of James L. Brooks or John Hughes, where the whole remains bigger than the headliner at the center.

Although Apatow still collaborates with his movie-star friends, many of his new branded projects are starless and Hollywood cheap, between $20 million and $35 million, and hence relatively stress free for his gang and for the studios. As he notes, "There's not much to go to war over. I'm not asking for $200 million to make these movies. You could make 11 of these for the cost of one summer movie."

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