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The king of Geeks

Times Staff Writer

AS an 11-year-old growing up on Long Island, Judd Apatow began each week by studying the newspaper’s TV section and highlighting all talk show guests of Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore and company. He spent afternoons holed up in his room watching TV, hanging out in his head with Charles Nelson Reilly. “I couldn’t have had more fun in the saddest, lonely way,” he says. “There was a period when I would get home at 3 and watch TV until 11, and I couldn’t be happier.” Eventually his parents became concerned. “In eighth grade I made some friends who drove dirt bikes. My parents were deathly afraid of dirt bikes, but they were so thrilled that I had a hobby outside of my room that they bought me a dirt bike and got me out of Merv Griffin.”

Along the way, he learned to do impressions of Henry Kissinger, kept notebooks of jokes like “How come all the people on ‘Gilligan’s Island’ had so many clothes if they were just on a three-hour cruise?” and transcribed tapes of “Saturday Night Live.” He was consumed by show business -- never more so than when his grandfather, who owned a jazz record label, took him to see his pal, the zaftig comedian Totie Fields, when Judd was 9. “Here was this woman -- she had only one leg. She playing to a standing ovation because she’s hilarious. I only wanted to be a comedian. Everything I’ve done happened because I couldn’t be a great comedian.”

Apatow is only partly joking. Sitting in his Santa Monica office, the 39-year-old writer-director-producer appears to be just another vaguely neurotic, schlubby, bearded comedy guy -- the kind that seems to grow like brush sage in certain precincts of town. He appears utterly ordinary. But perhaps that’s part of the shtick. In actuality, Apatow is known in town as the Mayor of Comedy -- the guy with some rare combination of talent, self-assurance and the deft ability to handle big egos that has allowed him to befriend and collaborate with every major comic of his generation, from his former roommate Adam Sandler to Jim Carrey, Garry Shandling, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell, to a new generation of comedians whose careers he’s fostered, including Steve Carell and Seth Rogen.

With the success of 2005’s sleeper hit “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” his directorial debut, he’s also become the town’s leading comedy entrepreneur. Apatow is producing and/or writing no fewer than seven films in various stages of production, including the rock biopic parody “Walk Hard,” the Ferrell movie “Step Brothers,” the ultra-profane teen comedy “Superbad” and the Sandler flick “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” about a former Mossad agent who fakes his own death so he can pursue his real love, hairdressing. That’s not including his directorial follow-up to “40 Year-Old Virgin”: “Knocked Up,” which opens June 1, about an insensitive slacker who impregnates a girl way, way, way out of his league. The film, backed by Universal, has already set Hollywood buzzing.

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Apatow has spearheaded a return to R-rated, profane comedy -- stocked with more than its fair share of pot-smoking, sex-obsessed slackers who live to amuse each other in ribald camaraderie. Into this world of arrested adolescence wander women who are way more self-possessed, self-aware, confident and good-looking. Yet, despite this apparent inequality of social cachet, the frog princes always win the day. Geeks rule -- particularly after they learn to release their inner mensches. At the end of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” the movie’s formerly virgin hero, played by Steve Carell, dances deliriously with Catherine Keener in a loopy Age of Aquarius sequence.

To those who might carp that his material is socially retrograde, Apatow says, “I’m not misogynistic. When I have characters who are misogynistic, I’m doing that on purpose. I’m trying to show people who need to grow up. Some of it is hilarious, and some of it is hilarious because it’s so wrong.” He adds, “You should be able to make fun of everybody if your heart is in the right place.”

While much of comedy for the last decade has been hijacked by star comedians such as Adam Sandler doing their shticks on the big screen, Apatow’s recent work represents a return to the writer-driven comedy of James L. Brooks or John Hughes, where the whole remains bigger than the headliner at the center.

Although Apatow still collaborates with his movie-star friends, many of his new branded projects are starless and Hollywood cheap, between $20 million and $35 million, and hence relatively stress free for his gang and for the studios. As he notes, “There’s not much to go to war over. I’m not asking for $200 million to make these movies. You could make 11 of these for the cost of one summer movie.”

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“He’s providing a really efficient business model for himself and for the studio,” says Donna Langley, president of production at Universal, which is not only releasing “Knocked Up” but has given Apatow essentially a no-strings-attached kitty to buy scripts from his protegees. “They’re high concept ideas, well-executed, and he also has the ability to break talent. Having him put Seth Rogen in two movies -- he’s created another viable comedy star. It was the same with Steve Carell. I trust him. I trust his instincts.”

A friend of the outsider

FOR all his success, failure is a leitmotif in his career. Apatow is not only obsessed with the slacker class, he’s perfectly aware that victory is all that much sweeter when snatched from the jaws of defeat. Up until about two years ago, he himself was the poster child for the log line “brilliant but canceled.” His first effort, “The Ben Stiller Show,” which he co-wrote and executive-produced, won an Emmy but lasted only 12 episodes. The critically praised “Freaks and Geeks,” about those kinds of kids in high school, stayed on the air 15 episodes. Its follow-up, “Undeclared,” lasted 17 episodes.

Those latest wounds still hurt. Like many highly successful people, Apatow appears more emotionally attached to his flops than his hits; he’s the only one around to love these neglected children. Of the failure of 1999’s “Freaks and Geeks,” he says, “It was devastating. I don’t know if I was emotionally equipped to deal with it.”

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In fact, many who now work in the Apatow shop, such as directors Jake Kasdan and Greg Mottola and actors Rogen and James Franco, worked on his TV shows; Apatow hired the whole writing staff of “Undeclared” to write movies for Apatow Productions. In a way, “everything that we’re doing now is almost like we’re continuing to do ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ ” he says repeatedly. “You can say that ‘Knocked Up’ is Seth Rogen’s character in ‘Freaks and Geeks’ -- a little bit older and he gets a woman pregnant. It’s not that different except we’re not handcuffed by broadcast standards.”

Comedy manager Jimmy Miller remembers seeing Apatow, then about 20, backstage at the first “Comic Relief” show for HBO. At the time, Apatow was working for the charity setting up college comedy shows and booking friends like Sandler. “He was dealing with [HBO honchos] Michael Fuchs and Chris Albrecht,” Miller says. “He was so impressive dealing with administrators and executives, but he was clearly a comic at heart. He was always awfully good at talking to the talent.”

During high school in Syosset, New York, he ran the student radio show and used the opportunity to interview Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld and other famous comedians. By the end of high school, he was going to open mike nights at local clubs. Apatow doesn’t think much of his own Bill Maher-inspired routine: “I had a decently well-written act but not much of a personality.”

“Freaks and Geeks” creator Paul Feig spent a lot of time with Apatow in his early Hollywood years, mostly hanging out all night and playing poker with other comics at a friend’s pad they called the Ranch. “I break the world into guys who [sleep with women] in front of each other and guys who don’t. There are the guys prowling around who look like they could beat us up, and then there are us. I remember one of us was getting married, and somebody threw a bachelor party. We were having a poker game, and a stripper arrived. Everybody escaped into the other room -- they were so uncomfortable. That’s what I love about the comedy guys, the geeky guys, the outsiders.”

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Apatow, notes Feig, is a “superfan.” “If he likes somebody, he’s just a huge fan. He listens to them, and he learns from them. He just knows how to get the best out of people.” He also wasn’t that invested in being a performer himself, so he wasn’t competitive.

Miller, who is Apatow’s manager, hooked him up with some of the comics who made his career. Before Carrey starred in “In Living Color,” “he was looking for somebody to collaborate with out on the road. I said I got the exact guy: Judd Apatow. Take him out on the road, have him be the middle act, and save money on the MC” -- Apatow would do that too -- recalls Miller, who also introduced Apatow to Shandling, who hired him for five years as a writer on “The Larry Sanders Show.”

“If I were going to stress anything about Judd, it’s that he loves comedy,” adds Miller. “He’ll do it for free even though he’s a highly paid guy. All those great Jim Carrey ‘Tonight Show,’ ‘Letterman,’ ‘Conan O’Brien’ appearances -- most of those are things that he and Judd crafted together.”

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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....

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“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.

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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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.


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