Andrew Collins: what’s so funny about Judd Apatow’s pot-smoking losers?

RT's film editor examines the Knocked Up director's oeuvre

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I met Judd Apatow in 2007 and asked if his name was pronounced “Apat-ow ” or “Apa-toe”. Unhelpfully, he said either was fine. 

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Now still only 44, he’s been writing, producing and directing hit comedies since his 20s. It’s not always easy to boil down a film-maker’s entire output, but in his case, let’s be kind and use the word “juvenile”. 

His are knockabout comedies of manners – or lack of – that revolve around tight-knit groups of developmentally arrested young men struggling to forge meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.

Though he also makes parodies like Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy (Saturday BBC3) and Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story, Apatow is better summed up by his tales of the generation that doesn’t want to grow up, from the unwanted pregnancy of Knocked Up (Wednesday ITV2) to the nuptials of Bridesmaids. 

Of course, the other word that describes the collected works of Judd Apatow is “successful”. To have foreseen his rise to mogulhood, you’d have to have been one of the small band of people who enjoyed high-school comedy Freaks and Geeks before it was cancelled in 2000. 

Executive produced by Apatow and created by Paul Feig (director of Bridesmaids), Freaks and Geeks starred many of Apatow’s future repertory of actors and collaborators: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco and Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann. It has since become a cult favourite. 

It was frank sex comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin, a $177 million box-office smash which Apatow wrote, produced and directed, that put him on the movie map. 

With a cast led by Steve Carell, it also showcased the Apatow gang: Rogen, Mann, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd. Only Jason Segel was missing, an oversight rectified with Knocked Up, in which he rooms with Rogen and Hill, forming a kind of geek chorus, while Mann and Rudd play the “straight” married couple, and Apatow and Mann’s two daughters make their screen debuts. 

The career of Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl, who plays Knocked Up’s unexpectedly pregnant career woman, also took off as a result. Kristen Wiig, writer and star of Bridesmaids, managed to steal every scene she was in as Heigl’s boss.

Anyone not interested in comedies about pot-smoking losers might find themselves locked out of the Apatow love-in at this point. The success of Virgin and Knocked Up meant that anything with the Apatow stamp was given the go-ahead, from the indulgent coming-ofage buddy movie Superbad (co-written by Rogen when he was 15) to the indulgent drug-dealing buddy movie Pineapple Express (also written by Rogen). 

But Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Saturday ITV1), written by and starring Jason Segel, added a rather more overtly romantic string to producer Apatow’s bow. It also added our own Russell Brand to his acting pool – his English rock star reappeared alongside Hill in Get Him to the Greek (Sunday Sky Showcase). 

Funny People, starring Apatow’s college roommate Adam Sandler, dealt with a mainstream comic’s crisis after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and so hinted at a more serious side. And, yes, it co-starred Rogen, Hill and Mann. 

Last year, the Apatow graduates started to fly the nest. Hill lost a few of his trademark pounds to co-star with Brad Pitt in Moneyball, and was Oscar-nominated. He’s in cinemas now with 21 Jump Street. 

Rogen, who’d already shed his slacker’s stomach to star as superhero The Green Hornet (Wednesday Sky Showcase), again made the switch to a rather more serious subject with well-received cancer comedy 50/50. And Segel wrote and starred in The Muppets, bringing his talents to a much wider family audience. 

Meanwhile, Apatow’s next film is an age-aware Knocked Up spin-off, This Is 40, due in December. It stars… Rudd, Mann and Segel. His regulars may have gone off to find proper jobs, but they haven’t forgotten their roots.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 27 March 2012.

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Forgetting Sarah Marshall is on ITV1 today at 10:35pm.