In defence of Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow’s name has been lazily slung around in some quarters as the problem with modern Hollywood comedy. Can we have a reality check, please?

Mr Judd Apatow

Believe some of the early press, and this summer’s Judd Apatow-directed Funny People could be one of the surprises of the season. A surprise in the sense that it’s ages since Adam Sandler made a really good film. A surprise because some of the early word on the film is very, very strong. And a surprise because apparently, Judd Apatow is, according to some, everything that’s wrong with modern day American comedy.

Cobblers is he. Because like him or not, Judd Apatow is the breath of fresh air that American comedy was waiting for.

It’s understandable why there’s a backlash underway, of course. He’s directed or being involved in a series of comedies that are generally considered to be aimed at men, and that generally involve a series of losers who aspire to much better looking women. Now granted, in the hands of some, that could be a recipe for disaster, and there’s at the very least an argument to be had that some of Apatow’s films simply wouldn’t work with the male and female characters reversed. Yet Apatow is no two-dimensional hack, and his films are surely worth a dozen tawdry straight-to-DVD American Pie sequels.

So can we not stop and give credit to a guy who has overseen some welcome changes in the land of American comedies?

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Firstly, with a couple of exceptions, the films that he’s been involved with are at the very least well written, and have characters who you give two hoots about. Secondly, they’re funny. These are two areas that American comedies have been struggling with for some years, as director after director put the American Pie formula on the photocopier, and did their worst with it.

But Apatow didn’t. Apatow, instead, cast Steve Carell in his first major motion picture lead as The 40-Year Old Virgin. It’s not actually a film that I personally care a great deal for, but the ensemble team that he put together helped power the film to a healthy box office gross, and it ended up on an assortment of top ten lists. Crucially, it also showed how he wasn’t distracted by casting stars or pin-ups in his films. Apatow cast people in a comedy who had the capability of making us laugh. It’s the little details like that which matter, even if they don’t come across as well on the poster.

Off the back of the success of that film, he put into motion a series of projects that he would produce in some form, and also worked on his own next stint behind the camera.

The films that he produced, for me, were hit and miss, but they were committed in their approach: these were comedies that again were no place for movie stars. These were films where – on the whole – talent mattered more than an individual’s box office appeal. Thus, we got the middling Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the overlong-but-sporadically-brilliant Superbad, the terrible You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (and I say that as a Sandler fan, too), the forgettable Drillbit Taylor, the fun Pineapple Express and the decent Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And in the process, Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen got a foot up the ladder, too.

It should be noted producing was nothing new to Apatow, given that he also helped bring the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay collaborations Talladega Nights and the peerless Anchorman to the big screen, as well as the more recent Step Brothers.

Then there’s arguably his most divisive film, his second turn behind the camera. We’re talking Knocked Up. Not only did this catapult Seth Rogen’s career in the direction of the sky, but it also proved to be a massive hit, and in my view, rightly so.

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Knocked Up, for an assortment of reasons, is a terrific film, albeit an overlong one. It’s very funny, actually had a little to say about the worry and responsibility of fatherhood, and had a collection of excellent supporting characters who could come in and lift the film during its slower moments. Plus, I bought it. I bought the central, tricky relationship between Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. I actually gave a monkeys what happened to them.

It’s certainly a film far greater than the crude teen comedy it’s very, very unfairly dismissed as, and given the box office numbers and critical response, perhaps I might not be alone in my thinking there. I’m not saying it’s Citizen Kane, but find other examples of mass market Hollywood comedies in recent years that bothered to the extent of Knocked Up. They’re thin on the ground.

And we haven’t even talked about his television work. I defy anyone to say that Freaks & Geeks, the show that he produced along with its creator, Paul Feig, isn’t one of the best shows in recent times to get the axe. I had to import the DVD set from the States to find out what all the fuss was about, and found myself watching the 19 episodes that were made in a matter of days. For anyone who dismisses Apatow’s work (and he wrote and co-wrote many of the episodes here) as two dimensional, unfunny and male-focussed, Freaks & Geeks is the Perry Mason moment in the case for the defence. Bundled with the later series, Undeclared (which, of course, also got the axe quickly), these are, even before you get to his films, ample examples of Apatow’s genius.

So can we address the real problem here? Simply, the man’s successful, and it’s his turn to have darts thrown at him as a result. For years I’ve struggled to find consistently entertaining comedies, and I know that if Judd Apatow’s name is on it somewhere, my chances have increased somewhat. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I can’t think of anyone in recent times who has built so successfully and consistently on their successes, and continually delivered decent films.

Granted, that means that imitators are following in his path. And granted, that means that studios are greenlighting Apatow-a-like comedies hand over fist. But that’s not his fault. He’s just continuing to bother, to give us comedies that are beyond a 90 minute tirade of knob gags. And rather than hurling continually criticism at him, perhaps there should just be a grudging respect for what the guy’s doing.

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Instead, the real target of the criticisms aimed in Apatow’s direction should be the directors and producers who have been content to deliver underwhelming comedies and sat back to count the cash. That’s not to say Judd Apatow is impervious to criticism – heck, I have my problems with some of his films too – but last time I checked, he didn’t make Fired Up, or one of the other identikit crude comedies that come off the production line.

Which brings us back to Funny People. This summer, Apatow’s third film as director hits cinemas, bringing together Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, and it perhaps goes without saying that I can’t wait to see it.

Appreciating that the trailer seems to give an awful lot away – and I hope I’m wrong there – this again seems to have more to it than your standard summer comedy. See what you think of it here. If the early buzz on it is even half-way true, we could be in for a real treat.

Either way, though, I can’t help but think that Judd Apatow continually bothers. He doesn’t just get a cookie cutter out and make another film that’s identical to the last. Instead, he’s managed to inject the comedy genre with a bit more life, and surely that’s something to appreciate, rather to knock him for.

My ticket to Funny People is already sold, and has been since I walked out of Knocked Up back in the summer of 2007. And you know what? I’d wager it’s going to be one of the best and most interesting mainstream Hollywood comedies of the year. That’s it the Apatow-produced Year One doesn’t steal its thunder…