When the man who would grow up to be a Hollywood comedy mogul was a teenager, he presented his own show on his high school’s radio station in Syosset, New York, so that he could meet his comic heroes. John Candy, Harold Ramis, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Howard Stern… the list of greats the young Judd Apatow interviewed through sheer force of fandom goes on and on. These days, it is he who makes comedians famous.
The list of stars who’ve achieved mainstream recognition thanks to Apatow’s instinctive patronage and a shot in one of the 25 or so comedies he’s either written, directed or produced (or all three) also goes on and on. I wonder if we might just unfurl it? Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill (two-time Oscar nominee), Will Ferrell, Jason Segel, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife, below), Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Katherine Heigl, Lena Dunham (whose hit HBO series Girls he co-developed), Chris O’Dowd, Russell Brand, Steve Carell, James Franco, Rebel Wilson… shall we stop there?
Apatow with his wife Leslie Mann
Apatow is comedy’s kingmaker – and queenmaker. McCarthy was already well known in the States for the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, but it was a plum supporting role in the Apatow-produced, female-skewed Bridesmaids, in which she was typically encouraged to free-form, that turned her into a leading woman in The Heat, Tammy and Spy. Kristen Wiig, already a regular on Saturday Night Live, was empowered to co-write and star in Bridesmaids, and it too put her on the A-list – she and McCarthy are currently filming the planned remake of Ghostbusters.
As we speak, Apatow’s latest as director (and producer), Trainwreck, is transforming squarepeg stand-up Amy Schumer, who already has her own post-watershed sketch show on Comedy Central, into a movie star with name-above-the-title status, playing a hard-drinking journalist who – shriek! – sleeps guiltlessly around.
All of which happily pushes against Apatow’s reputation for promoting an all-male, borderline-chauvinistic slacker-core universe of slobby guys smoking weed and talking pop-culture drivel. Knocked Up certainly tapped into this world, when Seth Rogen’s layabout inadvertently gets Katherine Heigl’s executive pregnant and has to man up. It made $220 million and established Apatow as a player after the earlier success of The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Since he turned 40 in 2007, some say Apatow has become more sentimental, even conservative. Harmony, fidelity and family values certainly tend to land in even his most socially backward protagonists’ laps, and unhappy couples always get back together. In the bluntly titled This Is 40 (by which time he was 45), midlife crisis is seen as a necessary catharsis toward domestic stability.