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Keeping ‘Virgin’ funny, but with its pants on

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Times Staff Writer

MAKING a risque comedy turns out to be a lot harder than it looks. It’s more than merely cooking up enough off-color jokes to fill a couple of hours. The real challenge is paring down all that R-rated raunch so that an involving, practically G-rated romance can emerge.

And so it was with “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” a comedy about hooking up -- or, more accurately, not hooking up. At a June research screening of the R-rated movie to which The Times was invited, the sex threatened to eclipse the comedy. The preview at the Mann Janss Marketplace 9 in Thousand Oaks had started with laughter so explosive much of the film’s dialogue couldn’t be heard. But then, as several hundred moviegoers watched one particular scene, the laughs began to evaporate.

For a moment, “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” which lands in theaters Friday, was uncomfortably dirty, and not all that funny.

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Director and co-writer Judd Apatow assessed the lull from a back row, jotting down a few notes. By the next morning he was back in the editing room reworking the scene in which the film’s undersexed lead, played by Steve Carell, settles down to watch, and perhaps enjoy, a pornographic movie.

By the time the next round of moviegoers was recruited for a research screening two weeks later, Apatow had toned down the porno footage, which he’d culled from an adult movie. With that, the scene -- now a shade less bawdy -- was no longer stopping the movie.

Successfully calibrating the balance between love and sex, between story and shock, has made hits of movies such as “Wedding Crashers,” “American Pie” and “There’s Something About Mary.” When they work as blockbusters, these movies invariably surround ribald jokes with sweet boy-gets-girl stories, and the amalgamation of raunch and relationship leaves audiences not only laughing but also rooting for the couple to succeed.

“The very first thing we talked about was tone,” says Carell, the “Bruce Almighty” costar who also co-wrote the “40 Year-Old Virgin” screenplay. “Did we want it to feel like a romantic comedy? Or a sex comedy? Or a combination of the two? Would it be broad? Or grounded?

“We decided it needed to be more grounded. If people are not involved with the story, I don’t think any of the comedy is going to work. So it’s a love story, masquerading as a sex comedy.”

Over the course of seven research screenings, Apatow repeatedly fine-tuned his $26-million film, hopeful that the process that had caused him headaches on “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” would provide the feedback necessary to craft the most satisfying comedy possible.

The costs of research screenings -- about $10,000 per test -- are negligible given the stakes. The previews can lead a studio to take actions such as shooting a new ending (which happened as far back as 1939’s “Wuthering Heights”) or recutting a film for narrative clarity (as with this year’s “Monster-In-Law”). Some filmmakers, including Woody Allen, disdain research screenings on principle.

But comedy directors generally love them, as they offer a second-by-second road map of which gags are working and which aren’t. Apatow, who is making his feature directorial debut with “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” has everything to gain from the process. Although his movie isn’t expensive, expectations are high, particularly since “Wedding Crashers” has been an R-rated comic smash.

Apatow has used “40 Year-Old Virgin” research screenings to test things as subtle as a five-second song cue. And he also recorded research audience reaction to the film on an audio tape. When he was back in the editing room, he synchronized the audience recording with the film. He thus was able to hear not only what failed to produce laughs, but also to notice laughs where he thought no joke existed.

After so much minor tweaking (Apatow didn’t have to reshoot any scenes), “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” is now in the hands of the only audience that matters -- people who actually have to buy tickets.

Pushing the boundaries

FROM the very first shot of “40 Year-Old Virgin,” when Carell’s sleepy but aroused character Andy Stitzer shuffles into the bathroom after waking up, there is no question the movie resides at the outer limits of the R rating.

“My first thought when ‘Wedding Crashers’ ended was, ‘Oh, my God. We are so much dirtier than they are,’ ” says Apatow, whose best-known writing credits come from the television series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.”

The genesis for “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” was an improvisational comedy skit Carell used to perform, in which he played an adult virgin who tries to bluff his way through the telling of sexual tales. In the movie, Carell’s Andy works in the backroom of a San Fernando Valley electronics store. An agreeable, content and preternaturally average adult, Andy on many levels remains stuck in adolescence.

He hoards shelves of collectible action figures as vague as “The Six Million Dollar Man’s” Oscar Goldman -- all still in their original, pristine packaging. He owns a bicycle but no car, has wall posters of ‘80s rockers Asia and magician Doug Henning, and entertains himself by watching “Survivor” with his elderly neighbors. And for reasons both personal and situational, he has never had sex.

During a poker game with three of Andy’s co-workers, that secret is revealed, and the colleagues (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen) scheme to take care of Andy’s chaste status.

What follows includes a disastrous ride home with a drunk woman Andy meets in a bar, a not-fast-enough hotel rendezvous with a transvestite prostitute, a series of unsuccessful chats with unsuitable women at a speed dating event, a colorful (but totally unwelcome) advance from Andy’s electronics store boss, and an unsettling bathtub encounter with a randy bookseller.

To prepare Andy for a potential conquest, his three cohorts at one point take him to a salon, where an aesthetician rips rug-sized patches of hair from Andy’s chest (the waxing was real, and the blood on Andy’s shirt is Carell’s). But the more his friends try to set him up, the more exasperated Andy grows, until he falls for Trish (Catherine Keener), a single mom who considers Andy genuine and attractive.

When Apatow and Carell finished an early draft of the script early this year, Apatow showed it to longtime collaborators Garry Shandling (Apatow wrote and produced Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show”) and Adam McKay (Apatow produced “Anchorman,” which McKay co-wrote and directed). Apatow subsequently showed a very rough cut to about 50 industry friends earlier this summer.

“What became clear very early is that people wanted the story,” Apatow says. “They didn’t want a joke fest. All the notes were: You can cut the jokes.”

Apatow shot a number of sequences that never made the finished film -- many of them self-contained comic bits -- such as Andy’s being arrested, that didn’t advance the story (they’ll of course turn up on the DVD). But audiences would still expect a lot of line-crossing hysterics, so the more delicate issue became delivering on that R-rated promise without going so far that people stopped caring about Andy and Trish.

“If you’re going to be rated R, you want to deliver jokes that are worthy of an R,” says Mary Parent, a Universal Pictures producer who as the studio’s co-head of worldwide production supervised “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.”

Even with a beard, Carell was immediately recognized in the lobby by scores of fans leaving one late-June test screening at the Pacific Galleria 16 Theaters in Sherman Oaks. People congratulated Carell not only on the movie they had just seen but also on his performances in “Bruce Almighty,” “Anchorman” and television’s “The Office” and “The Daily Show.”

The kudos were nice, but Carell had another reason to be pleased: Thanks to the small tweaks, the movie was playing better than ever, even in a stadium-seating multiplex, which Apatow is convinced hurts comedies because he believes laughter doesn’t easily reverberate and spread in a steeply pitched auditorium.

The offending, hip-thrusting porn footage had been excised for some milder action from the same film, and where the audience had been silent it was now laughing. Oddly enough, in a comedy predicated on someone having sex, moviegoers didn’t want to see porn clips of the same thing, even when they were played in the film on fast forward.

“It was tough to find the right tone,” Carell says of the porn movie scene. “The first time, it was way too graphic. It pulled people out of the movie.”

Audiences also were uncomfortable with a quick scene in which Andy overhears his elderly neighbors having sex, with the husband yelling, “Don’t be lazy, girl!”

Another dilemma: At one stage in the film’s evolution, Andy himself proved a distraction. Universal executives had told Apatow that they were afraid Andy might come across at best as a creepy loner and at worst a serial killer.

“There is a fine line,” Parent says. “Men and women alike could look at him and if he’s too much of a sad sack, they will think, ‘Dude, get a life.’ ”

The top Universal executives, who attended the early-June Thousand Oaks screening in force, were pleased that Andy had turned out far more winsome (Apatow added several lines that addressed the serial killer issue head-on). But the executives still had a number of other concerns after that test.

Andy’s encounter with the transvestite prostitute was too long, they felt, as was the speed-dating scene. Apatow pared both sequences, and Universal was happy enough with the fixes that it didn’t even send a senior executive to the Sherman Oaks preview.

That later preview also proved two other earlier stumbling blocks had been resolved.

Early in the film, Andy meets Beth (Elizabeth Banks), who works at a local bookstore. Later in the story, she returns in a lustful mood. But before Andy and Beth can do anything, Beth decides to warm up by herself in a bathtub.

“We wanted to show how over his head he is,” Apatow says. “We were always terrified of that scene. The audience is so uncomfortable.”

Too uncomfortable, in fact.

So just as the filmmakers dialed down the porn film scene, they had to rework the bathtub sequence. The fix came not so much by trimming Beth’s antics, although a few frames were cut, but by inserting a new line of dialogue for Andy. Nonplused by what he’s witnessing in the tub, Andy now remarks, “Wow. This is graphic.”

Explains Carell: “It was having a character say what the audience might be thinking. For me to actually express it undercuts how graphic it really is.” By adding the quick line of dialogue, which was not part of the Thousand Oaks test but was included in the Sherman Oaks preview, complaints about the scene disappeared.

The matter of Einstein’s wife

ANOTHER scene causing worry was a fight between Andy and Trish, who couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to sleep with her (his virginity was unknown to her). The wounded Trish finally makes fun of Andy’s riding a bike. Einstein rode a bike, Andy says defensively. Einstein had a wife too, Trish responds angrily, and to paraphrase the rest of her dialogue, Einstein also had sex with her.

Some young men thought Trish was too shrewish, Carell says, and he and Apatow worried the Einstein line would turn women against her too. So the line about Einstein’s wife was taken out. And then it was put back in.

“We thought it would make her less endearing, but it did exactly the opposite,” Carell says of the test screening reaction. “The women in the audience loved [the line], and I would have thought the reverse.”

For Apatow and Carell, the research screenings have been an eye-opening process, giving them tools they had never fully used.

Having worked mostly in television, Apatow had neither the time nor the inclination to test much of his earlier work, and even if he did, he wasn’t always interested in the results. The characters in “Freaks and Geeks,” research screenings suggested, would be more likable if they weren’t such losers -- which would have negated the whole point of the show.

Research screenings for Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” were divisive and not always clarifying. “The audiences were split, because of Will’s particular brand of humor,” Apatow says.

“For the people who liked it, it was their favorite movie. And the people who didn’t like it were annoyed. I always start testing terrified it will be in total disagreement with my gut instincts. I started out being scared that the audience would say, ‘I hate this nerd.’ And then I wouldn’t know what to do.”

But audiences seemed to like Andy from the beginning. “I’m so happy we didn’t have to sell out” and reshoot the movie, Apatow says. “They didn’t tell me anything I disagreed with.”

There even were tests for a song cue that leads into Andy’s porn film scene, with Lionel Richie’s “Hello” proving funnier to moviegoers than Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”

When some elements of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” didn’t test perfectly, or the numbers were ambiguous, Apatow and Carell deferred to their own comic tastes.

Apatow kept in one joke spoken by his wife, Leslie Mann, that never got great laughs (after drunkenly vomiting all over Andy, she takes solace that she at least won’t have to exercise the next morning). “It’s not that I was a slave to research,” the director says. “There were jokes in there I thought were funny that I left in for myself.”

Carell says that at a certain point he just had to choose what felt right.

“If you changed just one line,” Carell says, “one [test] number would go up and another number might go down. You can’t ever satisfy every want or need. It’s all so new to me, and I don’t know how much stock to put in it.”

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Contact John Horn at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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