Apatow tends to downplay what he did for Carrey, calling much of it transcription. During his early days, he also wrote for others, including Roseanne Barr. "I would be sitting in my living room in the Valley writing jokes as if I was a middle-aged, overweight housewife. I remember writing a whole bit about stretch marks and the only way to get rid of them was to put on an extra 10 pounds just to kind of bang them out."
In his new incarnation as producer-writer-impresario, Apatow has rectified everything he didn't like about being a writer for hire. He never fires writers, and he allows them to stay on projects through all the stages of production. He keeps no development staff and instead personally supervises the dozen projects in development. He works only with friends, though that is a constantly expanding circle. He doesn't have a studio overhead deal, so he can place his wares where he wants, mostly at Universal and Sony.
Plenty of material
MANY of the films now in production come from scripts that sat on Apatow's shelves for years but recently were revived with his newfound producing mojo. Once a film's in production, he shares the producing burden with Shauna Robertson, a tiny, energetic Canadian; Apatow likes to show up on a set for the beginning and the end and for days when emotional scenes are being shot, to make sure that the character beats don't get lost amid the guffaws.
He also writes specifically for certain actors. He co-wrote "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" with and for Carell, taking a character Carell had conceived for an old comedy skit and expanding his universe. "Knocked Up" was born out of a conversation he was having with Rogen, who was in the midst of pitching him big sci-fi ideas. "I was preaching to him that I thought he didn't need all the bells and whistles to be funny. [I said,] 'You're funny just sitting in the stock room in "40 Year-Old Virgin" -- you barely move and you're funny. You could be funny in any normal situation -- like you could get a girl pregnant.' " Apatow quickly realized this might be something he wanted to personally write -- a place where he could download some of his own experiences about relationships.
While Apatow credits Shandling as his mentor for pressing him to write more character-driven comedy, he also credits Rogen, now 25, with being an influence to become more outrageously dirty. Apatow discovered the burly Rogen as a 16-year-old aspiring stand-up in Vancouver, Canada, and cast him in "Freaks and Geeks" and later in "Undeclared." Around 2001, Rogen gave him the script for "Superbad," which he had begun writing with his friend Evan Goldberg not long after they met in bar mitzvah class.
"Superbad," which premieres in August, is probably the dirtiest high school movie of the last 30 years. It's about three hapless, sexually panicked teenagers hunting for liquor to impress girls. "Seth has always promoted the really edgy movie," says Apatow. "I think that is a lot of the reason why we've gone farther than I might have gone."
"I definitely was a loud voice in making ['The 40 Year-Old Virgin'] filthy," says Rogen. "Carell is the sweetest, nicest guy in the world. What's funnier than surrounding him with the dirtiest guys you can possibly imagine?"
Apatow not only wrote "Knocked Up" for Rogen, but also cast Rogen's real life best friends, actors Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Jason Segel, as his toking, porn-obsessed roommates. For the other story line, about a bickering married couple featuring a controlling, stressed-out wife and an affable but emotionally immature husband, Apatow cast his friend Paul Rudd as his alter-ego and his own wife of a decade, Leslie Mann, and his two daughters, Iris and Maude.
Apatow wrote the initial draft in his trailer in North Carolina on the set of "Talladega Nights," sending pages to Rogen as he wrote, but he then subjected it to his own idiosyncratic quality control -- the now famous "table read," a staple of the TV process but rarely done for films. He asks actors to read the script out loud and invites a host of friends to critique. In the case of "Knocked Up," he repeated this process five times.
"Some of those readings -- they're like reunions," says Rudd, who also appeared in "Virgin." "But it's also intimidating. You want to be funny because Garry Shandling is sitting across from you."
Although Apatow does write a finished script, the improvisation continues during shooting. Afterward, he again solicits the input of his comedy SWAT team. "He literally takes a cut, three hours long, puts it into a small theater, invites 50, 60 people, friends and friends of friends, and then shows the long, long version of the movie, and then sits there and takes notes from everybody as long as you want to go on," says Miller. He then obsessively screens the film for test audiences.
Privacy, schmivacy, says Apatow, who freely flouts Hollywood's penchant for self-important secrecy. "I try to have a very open process. A lot of people in Hollywood are obsessed with keeping their scripts a secret and put secret watermarks on them. I just go the opposite way....
"I think it's all helpful as long as it doesn't result in someone who doesn't understand what I do forcing me to change it. It's not the next 'Star Wars,' where if you know how the guy dies, it's going to bomb. People know she's going to have a baby. There's not a huge twist. The baby is not abducted by aliens. It's more important how we get there."
Spoken like the mayor of comedy -- with certain words bleeped out.
Seven of his work buddies
Forget Kevin Bacon. In the comedy world, the man with the most connections is Apatow. It's hard to find a major comic who isn't one degree from the longtime writer-director.