By the time Mel Brooks hit his early-’80s stride, he had redefined crude comedy with “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “History of the World: Part 1,” giving birth to careers and providing punch lines that would be quoted, cribbed and ripped off for years to come. Two decades later, a man named Judd Apatow would hit Hollywood, survey a sad landscape cluttered with “Legally Blonde” sequels and Martin Lawrence vehicles, and similarly give us renewed reasons to laugh.
It’s a beautiful story line, and one that seemed to take hold over the past few years: The writer/director endured a decade of Hollywood struggles to break through with instant classics like “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Robby” and his behind-the-camera debut, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Last summer, Apatow proved himself as much a part of the season as sunburn with his directorial follow-up, “Knocked Up,” and the raunchy teen triumph “Superbad.”
But something unfunny happened on the way to the comedy hall of fame: “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Drillbit Taylor” both opened to bad reviews and worse box-office profits. So with four films in the next four months, can Apatow once again prove that he’s the king of comedy?
“What I would say is unique about the process is that everybody is open to reinventing, everybody is open to improvisation, everybody is not necessarily so overly concerned with conceiving what your day is before you get there,” explained director David Gordon Green of the Apatow troupe, which he officially joins when his “Pineapple Express” hits theaters August 8. “So when we wake up in the morning, we have a game plan, we’ve opened the toy box — but we don’t necessarily know what games are going to be inside it.”
Acclaimed indie director Green has taken the Apatow name and clout, cast himself a comedy/action film, and handed his producer a movie that is already receiving enormous advance buzz. The flick stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as a pair of stoners who are in over their heads, attempting to evade cops and drug lords, among various other eccentrics.
That flick arrives in theaters just a few weeks after Apatow reunites with Ferrell and “Walk Hard” star John C. Reilly for “Step Brothers,” a screwy “Dumb & Dumber”-like comedy about two grown men who become ultra-competitive after their single parents tie the knot.
“Many of [the improvs] are way too dirty for basic cable, or any hard-core cable, or actually any adult X-rated cable station. Most of it, I don’t know if it could ever be in the movies because it is so off-the-charts disgusting,” Apatow said of working with talents like Reilly, Rogen and Paul Rudd. “I’m always amused when things that weren’t even meant to be that funny come out, and they’re really hilarious.”
Keeping with the idea of bringing big stars back to the spontaneity that made them funny in the first place, the “Freaks & Geeks” and “Undeclared” creator teamed with pal Adam Sandler for “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a flick he wrote for the former “SNL” funnyman.
“He’s a soldier, and he fakes his own death in a fight so he can come to New York and become a hairstylist,” Sandler explained of the Apatow script. The comedy also stars Rob Schneider, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Mariah Carey as herself.
“What’s great about working on these Judd movies is that we all bring a part of ourselves out in our characters,” explained Jason Segel, who hopes to have kicked off the Second Summer of Apatow with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” “That’s part of why these movies work.”
“It was much more collaborative than I had anticipated,” insisted Segel’s leading lady, Kristen Bell, who follows in a tradition of unorthodox Apatow objects of affection that also includes Catherine Keener and Katherine Heigl. “We do a lot of improv rehearsals in the beginning that they videotape … [then] you’re sitting next to Jonah Hill, and it’s really difficult to come up with the funniest thing in the room, but I think I contributed. It’s really a neat process to be involved with, because you have to come in with a lot of decisions about your character, but also you have to come completely game to change anything.”
By the very nature of what Apatow does, it makes sense that for every triumph, we’d have to endure a “Drillbit Taylor.” It is that unpredictability in front of the camera that creates his brand of comedy, and it can also lead to some mind-numbingly unfunny moments of failure. Hey, even Mel Brooks had his “Men in Tights,” right?
“It’s nice to be allowed to do some of the things that we have always wanted to do that people always said ’no’ to,” Apatow said of his many projects. “We are going to do it while they let us, until they stop us. They may stop us at any moment, but we are going to try to get as much done in this window of opportunity [as possible].”
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