Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Comedy Part II: Enter Apatow!


Last week I wrote about the inception of the “Frat Pack” and outlined the careers of its members, that is, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, & Luke Wilson (some include Jack Black in this grouping, but I prefer to look at him as a distinct comedic entity). I explained how a basic understanding of their careers is necessary for understanding the rise to power of the next/current giant in comedy: writer/producer/director Judd Apatow. Further, I cited 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy as the jumping off point from which Apatow was able to ride the success of the Pack to commercial and artistic autonomy.

But 2004 is a long way down the road, considering that Apatow began building his portfolio of personal and professional relationships over 20 years earlier. While still in high school on Long Island, NY, using his mother’s contacts from the comedy club in which she worked (further proving the axiom that it’s not your level of talent, but who you happen to know, which determines success), Apatow was able to interview such industry well-knowns as Harold Ramis and Garry Shandling. After moving to Los Angeles, chance meetings with Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler (with whom Apatow shared an apartment) set his career on the fast track.

We’ve already talked about Apatow’s early collaborations with Ben Stiller: he won an Emmy Award writing for and producing Stiller’s eponymous Show, and co-wrote and produced Jim Carrey vehicle The Cable Guy. But it was Shandling who really put Apatow on the map, television-wise: the work he did on The Larry Sanders Show from 1993-97 garnered him not one, not two, but six Emmy nominations. But the show that had the most impact on Apatow’s future was 1999’s critically acclaimed one season wonder Freaks and Geeks. Freaks and Geeks did not showcase Apatow’s creative talent through the whole show; he served as executive producer on all 18 episodes, but wrote just five of them, and directed three. The historical importance of the show lies in that it marks the first time Apatow worked with his oft-collaborators Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco.

Of these three, Franco has had the most independent career in film and television. In 2001 he won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of James Dean in the TV biographical movie named after the title character. The next year he netted a leading role in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (and would appear in the following two films of the trilogy, or former trilogy, as the case may be). Since then his non-Apatow related work included starring in the mostly forgotten Tristan & Isolde, trying his hand at directing a couple of small things, and playing gay with Sean Penn in Milk. Outside the Apatow circles, Jason Segel is best known as a lead on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, alongside Josh Radnor, Neil Patrick Harris, and Alyson Hannigan. Seth Rogen has spent most of his career suckling at the proverbial Apatow teat, moving from Freaks and Geeks to Judd’s next series Undeclared without missing a beat. He also had a gig writing on Da Ali G Show, for which he earned his lone Emmy nomination.

Which finally brings us to 2004 and Anchorman. Although, when you look at Anchorman, aside from a Seth Rogen cameo, you may not think that Apatow’s past all that relevant to the film. Well, you would be right; we’ve been going over this history to elucidate the influence Apatow had after Anchorman. The importance of Anchorman is that it was the first hugely successful project with Apatow’s name on it, allowing him to branch off on his own and slingshot his own homegrown talent into the spotlight. But to look at Apatow’s immediate future, we have to first examine the previously unaffiliated talent new to Anchorman.

Steve Carell continued his career trend of playing newsmen, and worked as weatherman opposite Will Ferrell, the guy who purportedly beat him out for a job on Saturday Night Live. Carell made his bones working as a Daily Show correspondent before getting his big break in films as the anchorman replacing Jim Carrey’s character in Bruce Almighty. (The pair would later work together again in the animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who.) Paul Rudd portrayed Carell and Ferrell’s fellow reporter, following several projects in which he played boyfriend to the female lead (Alicia Silverstone’s in Clueless and Lisa Kudrow’s in Friends). His other relevant pre-Anchorman role was Wet Hot American Summer, directed by David Wain, and featuring a slew of other veterans from comedy group The State.

After Anchorman, Apatow cast both actors in his directorial debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with Carell in the lead role and Rudd featured as one of his co-workers at Best Buy (along with Seth Rogen in his largest film role to date). The film was embarrassingly well received, despite its ludicrous premise and juvenile humor, due to the charming character relationships and some very effective improvising. The jury was out on Apatow’s first solo effort, and he was not punished for striking out on his own. However, Apatow didn’t completely neglect Anchorman star Will Ferrell, going on to produce three of his next projects, Kicking and Screaming, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. Upon closer inspection, it seems that Apatow was just as interested in John C. Reilly’s sojourn into comedy from his usual fare of dramas and musicals, as Apatow also produced the Reilly vehicle Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

The same year as Walk Hard, Apatow directed his second film, Knocked Up, which starred Seth Rogen, and featured Paul Rudd, his wife Leslie Mann, and Harold Ramis in supporting roles. The cast also included a huge group of Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared veterans as Seth Rogen’s group of friends: Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr, and Jonah Hill (née Feldstein). Ex Freaks and Geeks star James Franco also made an uncredited cameo as himself. No sophomore slump for Apatow, as Knocked Up received very good reviews and popularity at the box office.

The ball was now rolling for Apatow and his crew. Superbad, originally penned by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg many years ago, finally made it to the screen in 2007 with Jonah Hill and Michael Cera starring as the movie versions of the two writers. The following year, Jason Segel wrote and starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (featuring Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd in small roles). Rogen and Goldberg teamed up to write Pineapple Express, which allowed Rogen and James Franco to act together for the first time since Freaks and Geeks. I Love You Man, although not directly connected to the Apatow crew, features Apatow veterans almost exclusively: Paul Rudd stars alongside Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, who performed in an episode of Freaks and Geeks.

Paul Rudd, incidentally, has made quite a name for himself while staying loyal to his friends from The State. He starred in The Ten and Role Models, both directed by David Wain, The Baxter, directed by Wain’s fellow member of Stella Michael Showalter, and made an appearance in Reno 911, both the TV show and the movie.

Well, that’s pretty much the story, from beginning to present. I must plead ignorance on Apatow’s third directorial effort, Funny People, but by all indications, the public has grown slightly weary of the contents in Apatow’s bag of tricks, including crude jokes and painfully long runtimes for movies of their type. But before we jump into judging the quality of these films, we should leave some time for the cold hard facts to sink in. So, until next time, keep watching those headlines and marquees!