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The Apatow Factor: Funny and Prolific to a Fault?

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The Apatow Factor: Funny and Prolific to a Fault?

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The Apatow Factor: Funny and Prolific to a Fault?

The Apatow Factor: Funny and Prolific to a Fault?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89678912/89771205" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Judd Apatow

Some have suggested that writer-producer-director Judd Apatow has been stretching himself a bit thin of late. But Hollywood history has precedents. Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures
Steve Carell and Judd Apatow look over Star Wars figurines. i

Judd Apatow (right) and Steve Carell toy with action figures on the set of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Universal Pictures hide caption

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Steve Carell and Judd Apatow look over Star Wars figurines.

Judd Apatow (right) and Steve Carell toy with action figures on the set of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Universal Pictures

From Apatow's Repertoire

'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'

'Drillbit Taylor

'Superbad'

Jonah Hill, Jason Segel in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" i

The same actors turn up again and again in Apatow films — think of Jonah Hill (Superbad), here with Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures
Jonah Hill, Jason Segel in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

The same actors turn up again and again in Apatow films — think of Jonah Hill (Superbad), here with Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures

More than 20 entertainments in the last eight years have had Judd Apatow's name somewhere in the credits: He wrote and directed Knocked Up, came up with the songs for the musical spoof Walk Hard, produced Superbad and Drillbit Taylor, and so on. Inevitably, perhaps, some critics have begun suggesting that he may be spreading himself too thin.

I'm not so sure.

True, you kinda know what you're getting with Judd Apatow comedies — they're optimistic romps in which really ordinary guys get really lucky.

(Or, as Jon Stewart put it on his Daily Show earlier this week: "Funny movies where beautiful women fall in love with underachieving, average-looking Jews.")

That certainly fits The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and now Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But Stewart left a crucial ingredient out — the unapologetic vulgarity that makes Apatow's romantic comedies appeal to the young men who see everybody else's romantic comedies as chick flicks. Think of that Knocked Up conversation about how pink-eye relates to flatulence — or the chest-waxing sequence in 40-Year-Old Virgin.

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there's full-frontal humiliation for an un-buff Jason Segel. Countless mortifications were visited on Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. And Apatow juvenalia positively revels in the crude — think of Superbad where the high-schoolers (who are ultimately revealed to be kinda sweet) swear like, well, high-schoolers.

Now, Apatow is hardly the first filmmaker to realize that gross-outs and movie grosses can go hand in hand. Nor is he the first with the average-guy/gorgeous-gal bit, which was, after all, a Woody Allen staple.

But if his narrative devices aren't new, in combination they feel new. What he's done is formulate a repeatable, recognizably realistic blend of cuddly raunch — a sweet bawdiness — and then he's produced a lot of it.

And because he uses what's become a recognizable Apatovian repertory company — in which folks like Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill keep showing up in each other's films — the movies that Apatow has directed, or written, or sometimes simply helped green light all blend together in the public mind.

And that, I think, is where this notion comes in that the Apatow brand is overextended. A decade ago, Apatow had his fingers in just as many pies as he does now: The Larry Sanders Show and The Critic, both on TV, plus The Cable Guy and two other movies, all in a single year. But nobody was saying "Apatow, Apatow, Apatow" back then; they were saying "Larry Sanders" and "Jim Carrey."

These days, Mr. Multitasker is doing the interviews — and getting the attention — so when his projects slip a little, as Drillbit Taylor did, he gets the fallout, too.

Drillbit was sluggish at the box office, so has Apatow lost his touch? Well, he didn't write or direct it; he was one of its four producers, which is also true of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. So if those films feel less funny than Knocked Up, which was itself clumsier than The 40-Year-Old Virgin, should he get the blame? Probably not. For reference, think back a generation or so to the man who might be called the Judd Apatow of the '80s: John Hughes.

Hughes, also a writer, director, producer, actor and sometime songwriter, directed The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller's Day Off — all in one three-year burst of activity. Within a couple of years of that, he'd written and/or produced Uncle Buck, Mr. Mom, Pretty in Pink, Home Alone, two National Lampoon Vacation movies — not to mention a dozen other comedies.

Overexposed? Absolutely. In his dotage, at least, he's slowed down a little. (That's a joke. Hughes is still in his 50s.) Eventually Apatow will slow down too, but he's just turned 40, so it's not quite time yet to make Producerman: The Legend of Judd Apatow.

When somebody does, let one thing be noted. Y'know where the Apatovians got their story for Drillbit Taylor?

From writer John Hughes. In Hollywood, legends recognize legacies.

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