May 27, 2007 — FAME, FORTUNE and box-office records be damned – Judd Apatow swears he will never be one of the popular kids.
“I’m the guy the girl breaks up with,” the director insists. “I’m never the guy who breaks up with the girl.”
Nor is Ben Stone, the lead character in his new movie, “Knocked Up.” Or, for that matter, Steve Carell’s character in 2005’s “40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Or any of the scrawny guys in his short-lived TV shows, “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” or in his other projects over the years: “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Ben Stiller Show” and “The Critic.”
Apatow’s underdog schtick is getting a little harder to pull off, though. What do you do when you see yourself as the nerdy outsider, but are nonetheless making a major name for yourself in Hollywood?
You stick to your roots, casting the guy least likely to be the leading man – that would be actor Seth Rogen – as the leading man.
Then, you prominently feature a close-up of his naked butt (maybe the closest you can get to actually mooning Hollywood).
“When we were shooting, we saw it small, on the monitor – but on the big screen, every hair on his butt is like a pine tree,” says Apatow. “Seth said that if you were in stadium seating, it’d look like you might get sucked into it. It was like a scene out of ‘Willy Wonka.'”
“No one,” adds Rogen, “should see their a– that big.”
Like many of the movie’s most memorable bits, that scene was a spur-of-the-moment thing.
“It was supposed to be that they woke up in bed together, that Katherine Heigl woke up with Seth breathing in her face,” explains Apatow. “But when we were shooting, it occurred to me that it might be hilarious to have her already showered, waking him up, with his a– out there for all to see. For way too much of the scene.”
It’s a small moment that encapsulates much about what’s put Apatow on the map – first with “40-Year-Old Virgin,” his big-screen directorial debut, and now with “Knocked Up,” the story of an unlikely one-night stand that results in an unintended pregnancy.
Apatow has several stylistic staples: The ability to push comedy well into the realm of the awkward and still pull it off. An improvisational energy on his sets. Easy camaraderie that comes from working with the same group of actors, movie after movie.
And, of course, the Rogen factor.
The 25-year-old Canadian has been involved in nearly everything the director’s done since 1999’s “Freaks and Geeks,” which was cancelled after only 18 episodes. In that show – and in every role since – Rogen’s played the sarcastic, stonery sidekick type. The guy who may not get the girl, but reliably gets the funniest line.
Except now, he gets the girl, too. Much to Apatow’s delight.
“I wanted Seth to be the lead of ‘Undeclared,'” says Apatow, “and they laughed. They really laughed at me. They acted like it was the most insane idea. So it’s nice to see him carry this movie and really do a great job.
“Seth’s a great comic presence,” he adds. “I just find him a very kind of relatable everyman.”
“40-Year-Old Virgin” fans may know Rogen best from a scene in which he and Paul Rudd goof on macho posturing:
“You know how I know you’re gay?”
“How? How do you know I’m gay?”
“Cause you macramÈd yourself a pair of jean shorts.”
“You know how I know you’re gay? You just told me you’re not sleeping with women anymore.”
“You know how I know you’re gay? You like Coldplay.”
“You know how I know you’re gay? I saw you make a spinach dip in a loaf of sourdough bread once.”
That largely improvised scene – which can be viewed in all its unedited glory on the DVD – is a stellar example of why Apatow’s directorial style works. He may start with the scripted version, then go off-book, either feeding new lines to his actors via earpieces, or simply letting them roll with it.
“I’m really just trying to make the performances come alive,” says Apatow. “I find that when all the actors in a scene know that at any moment, an actor may change his lines a little bit, everyone is on their toes. And I tend to cast people who aren’t that different from their part, so they can riff and speak naturally. Seth can talk all day long from his character, because it’s 70 percent his real life.”
One of Apatow’s favorite improvised bits in this movie, he says, is a conversation between the couple about why Ben didn’t wear a condom on their one-night stand.
“She says, ‘I thought you were wearing one.’ And Seth says,” Apatow laughs, “‘How come you couldn’t tell? Did you think I was wearing a condom made of penis skin?’
“Another,” he adds, “was a really funny line where he asks her if they can do it doggie style. And she says, ‘I don’t want you to do it like I’m a dog.’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s just a style.’
“And then Seth adds this: ‘I mean, we don’t have to go outside or anything.'”
The movie’s core group of stoners – Ben’s four roommates – is particularly close to Apatow’s heart, as they’re drawn from his TV shows. Jason Segel and Martin Starr come from “Freaks and Geeks,” while Jay Baruchel was the star of “Undeclared.” (Jonah Hill, the youngest of the bunch, stars in an upcoming movie, “Superbad,” which was co-written by Rogen). The actors have been close ever since, and it shows in their effortless banter onscreen (not to mention that all four play characters with their own names).
In the film’s longest running gag, Starr grows out his facial hair on a bet with his housemates, who rib him about which hirsute personality he resembles. “We fed them a lot of lines,” says Apatow. “We’re like, do one about Serpico! Do one about Yasser Arafat! Do one about ZZ Top!”
As befits the R-rated comedy genre – which Apatow has been credited with reviving – off-color jokes are the mainstay. But the director also clearly relishes pushing the boundaries of what adult comedy entails.
The climactic birth scene is where he breaks new ground this time around. “I thought if I didn’t show something very graphic, it would feel like a sitcom,” he says. “In the script, it says: ‘You see everything. This is not ‘The Cosby Show.'”
And yet, popularity-wise, “Knocked Up” looks to be similarly huge. Which tends to make Apatow and co. nervous.
“Before, we could say ‘well, the critics like us, and f— everyone else,’ like [we did] with ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and ‘Undeclared,'” says Rogen. “[But] it’s much scarier to be accepted on a wide scale.”