Judd Apatow doesn’t seem like a guy on the cutting-edge of comedy.
In fact, the director/producer/writer looks like a stereotypical version of what he is: a married, 45-year-old father of two. Yet, he has managed to redefine how and what we laugh at onscreen over the last decade – from his ill-fated but now widely admired late ‘90s/ early 2000s TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” through such films as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Bridesmaids.”
Apatow – whether he’s writing or producing – always walks a fine line between the raunchy and the romantic. And in the process, he has managed to push movie comedies away from the ’90s anarchy of “Ace Ventura,” “Happy Gilmore” and “There’s Something About Mary” to a more heartfelt and human place.
Certainly, his latest film, “This Is 40” (opening today), is no exception. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) reprise their thirtysomething Pete and Debbie roles from “Knocked Up.” This time, they’re both on the verge of turning 40 and have to deal with Pete’s failing business (a dying record label) and two increasingly headstrong daughters (Apatow’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris).
But Apatow’s not just busy with “This Is 40”: He’s also a producer on the popular but controversial HBO series about a group of twentysomething New York women, “Girls;” and edited the comedy-themed January issue of Vanity Fair.
We caught up with Apatow at the Ritz-Carlton on his recent visit to Dallas.
Q. Did you know when you made “Knocked Up” that you might want to make a sequel?
A. After “Funny People” (in 2009), I was thinking about marriage and how we’re all spinning too many plates and trying to be good parents. Everyone I know is caving in from their attempts to not screw anything up. One morning I just realized, ‘Oh, this could be about Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up.”‘ … People were really into them and people would quote their scenes to me. In one of their arguments, Leslie says to Paul, ‘Just because you don’t yell doesn’t mean you’re not mean.’ People would mention that to me and I said I’d love to explore what that is.
Q. Are there parallels to your own life?
A. The main parallels are emotional. It is about how difficult it is to get along, how a lot of times you take on baggage from your childhood and project it onto your spouse. None of the events happened to us, but the emotional life is accurate. But it’s heightened. It’s us at our worst and exaggerated to make it interesting.
Q. You use many of the same people in your films – Rudd, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen. Do you see it as something like a company?
A. To me, when you like someone and you have a similar sensibility, you want to work with them again. Sometimes you just want to be around them. If I don’t make a movie with some of these people, I’m not going to see them because everyone’s very busy.
Q. What made you think your wife and children would be a good fit in your films?
A. I just observed my family and I think, ‘We’re an odd bunch.’ We’ll be at dinner and laughing and fighting and getting on each other’s nerves and I always think, this is amusing. If someone taped this and watched this, they would think that ‘Who are these crazy people?’
Q. Do you feel like you’ve reshaped comedy in terms of American movies?
A. What I’ve done is champion a type of comedy that I like, which is really grounded, hopefully not generic. I like to make movies with filmmakers who are very passionate about what they’re saying. It’s in the same tradition of people like James Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Barry Levinson, Kevin Smith, Ivan Reitman and Woody Allen. Some of the process that we all learned from standup or Second City, we’ve all brought to how we make the films and it’s made them better. We shoot a lot of material, we shoot a lot of different jokes. The work is better because everyone has a lot to bring. It’s a deep collaboration. Not just because of me, because of a lot of people, comedies have gotten a lot better.
Q. You’ve also broken the barrier for comedies in terms of length. (“This Is 40” runs 134 minutes.)
A. A lot of the movies I love like “Terms of Endearment,” “Jerry McGuire,” or “Broadcast News,” all are a little over two hours. There are a lot of dramadies that don’t work when they’re 90 minutes. You need the extra 20 minutes to have the depth …Why do people want to watch the Titanic sink for three hours but they question whether it’s OK to laugh for two hours and 13 minutes?