If Judd Apatow had been home when the Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles, at 4.30am on 17 January 1994, he'd have been killed by his chimney as it crashed through the bedroom ceiling. "The only reason I wasn't there," the director later explained, "was because I was painting the house. For about three days, I really appreciated life ... but just for three days."
The near-death experience acted as inspiration for Apatow's latest movie, Funny People. After beginning treatment for a rare form of leukaemia, George Simmons – a lonely, misanthropic comedy superstar played by Adam Sandler – prepares for death, only to find himself cured. Apatow's film, the director says, is: "Based on the idea: if you survive, do you learn anything from it that you keep using in your life?"
Had Apatow been crushed by that falling chimney, Hollywood comedy would be a very different beast. Much of the publicity for Funny People, which opens in the UK next Friday, has focused on the fact that it's only his third film as writer-director. The Apatow brand is so pervasive that this seems barely plausible. Depending on your point of view, he's either a comedy great courtesy of his first two films, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up; or he's squandered the critical collateral they earned him by putting his name to too many ill-advised projects such as Drillbit Taylor, Year One and You Don't Mess with the Zohan.
Whatever you think of Apatow's oeuvre, however, there's no doubting his influence nor his success. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was made in 2005 for $26m, grossed $177m worldwide, and set off an almost unrivalled winning streak. Since then, Apatow has produced 12 more films, including Talladega Nights, Superbad and Pineapple Express – and taken writing credits on six of them.
"Judd has had a bigger impact on the film comedy scene than anybody in a long time," says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety magazine. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a break-out hit, Talladega Nights was a break-out hit, Knocked Up was a break-out hit, Superbad was a break-out hit. Step Brothers was a solid hit, Pineapple Express was a solid hit, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a solid hit. I can't think of anybody in the business who's had five years like that. His comedies have grossed well over $1bn between them."
Apatow dominates not only the box office, but the content of Hollywood comedy. As the teen flicks of the late John Hughes gave way to the rom-coms of Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in the 1980s, so "gross-out" – the pre-eminent comedy subgenre of the 1990s – has bowed to Apatow and his imitators' "bromances": male-centric romantic comedies that frequently favour the bawdy bonds between men over those of heterosexual romance.
"The bromance formula," says Gaydos, "mixes poignant, character-driven and feelings-based rel-ationship drama with raunchy humour." Says Apatow: "I like movies that are, you know, up-lifting and hopeful ... and I like filth."
Bromantic protagonists tend to be immature and ambition-free beta males, stuck in a spiral of pornography and junk food, and forced to grow up when they encounter women, children and responsibilities. In the case of Apatow's films, they are played by a consistent stable of actors and co-conspirators known in Hollywood as "Apatown". He counts among his filmmaking influences the improvisational ensemble pictures of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes.
"I work with the same people over and over," says Apatow, "because it's hard to find actors who are really funny and willing to give up all their personal problems and conversations and use them in the story. So when I find someone great I tend to stick with them." While Apatow alone may not have monopolised the brom-com genre he pioneered, so synonymous are the likes of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill with his work that every film they appear in might as well have the Apatow stamp on it.
Two of Rudd's recent credits, for instance, are Role Models and I Love You, Man (which also stars Segel). Neither film had anything to do with Apatow, yet each was a distillation of one of his recurring bromantic concerns. In Role Models, two unruly man-boys learn to grow up when given the responsibility of caring for children, thus – in the case of Rudd's character – winning back a beautiful, career-woman girlfriend.
In I Love You, Man, Rudd must choose between an immature male friendship with an emotionally-stunted sidekick, or mature heterosexual happiness with his fiancée. The central relationship in Funny People, meanwhile, is that between George and Ira (played by Rogen), the aspiring young comedian he hires to be his lackey and companion.
"It is weird that Apatow's films are mar- keted as romantic comedies," says Jessica Grose, managing editor of the online women's magazine Double X, "even though that heterosexual romantic relationship is often secondary, plotwise. We had a dialogue about these comedies on Double X and one writer called them 'chick flicks for dicks'! Because the emotional content has a patina of dirty humour, guys feel comfortable with it. Apatow focuses more on male relationships than male-female relationships, but he provides an honest lens into that world, so women are interested, too."
Apatow was born in Syosset, Long Island, in 1967. His parents divorced when he was 12, a painful episode that arguably informed his later attitude to marriage. His youthful heroes were the stars of comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live. On holiday in LA as a child, he approached one of them, Steve Martin, for an autograph and was rebuffed. He wrote the comic an angry letter and was rewarded with a signed copy of Martin's book and an apology note: "I'm sorry. I didn't realise I was speaking to the Judd Apatow."
Such forwardness served Apatow well and as a teenager he interviewed a number of famous comedians for his high school radio station, including Howard Stern, John Candy and Jerry Seinfeld. After moving to LA to take up a screenwriting course at the University of Southern California, Apatow joined the city's stand-up circuit, on which he met a then-unknown Adam Sandler, who became his room-mate.
Realising he would never have the performance skills of his friends Sandler, Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey, Apatow decided his future lay offstage. In 1992 he produced a short-lived TV sketch show for Stiller, then was hired as a writer for The Larry Sanders Show, starring comedian Garry Shandling. At his mentor Shandling's urging – and after winning six Emmy nominations for his work on the show – Apatow struck out on his own.
But as his peers' careers went stratospheric, he remained frustrated. The Cable Guy, a 1996 film he scripted for Stiller and Carrey, was a critical and commercial disappointment, and his two widely-acclaimed TV series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were cancelled after a season each. He sent the Fox executive responsible for Undeclared's cancellation a framed copy of one of its many glowing reviews – the package was intercepted by Apatow's agent, but the story spread through Hollywood nonetheless.
As well as riling studio execs, Apatow developed anxiety attacks and chronic back pain, but it was also in this period that he met his wife Leslie Mann. His skill at turning both his neuroses and the inner workings of his own relationship into comedy were finally the making of his career. Indeed, he and Mann plumbed the depths of their own marriage to create an emotionally honest portrayal of a struggling young couple in Knocked Up; Pete and Debbie, played by Rudd and Mann herself, were arguably far more interesting than leads Ben (Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl). "I see all the movies as dealing with my personal problems," Apatow has said, "whether it's about virginity, bad sex, marital issues, unplanned pregnancy or, in the case of Funny People, death."
The idea for Apatow's first film as writer-director originally came from its star, Steve Carell, whom Apatow met while producing Anchorman in 2004. The two wrote The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which featured Carell as Andy, a man on the verge of middle age who is still awaiting his first sexual experience. His co-workers at an LA electrical store push him, inexpertly but affectionately, towards romance with Trish, a single mother played by Catherine Keener.
The huge success of Virgin led to 2007's Knocked Up, in which schlubby slacker Ben has a one-night stand with Alison, a beautiful young TV presenter, leading to an unexpected pregnancy – and an even more unexpected "reverse" courtship. Both films were considerably longer than traditional Hollywood comedies, and concerned as much with emotional realism as they were with dick jokes. They asked searching questions about sex, marriage and maturity.
"There's only two things going on in Hollywood right now," says Steven Gaydos. "There are blockbusters, and there's the comedy, which in my view is the one thing that Hollywood does well today. The writing is better, the attention to character-driven action is better. They have more social observation, more ideas, they're more subversive, they cost less, they make money and they make you laugh."
In an interview with Vanity Fair soon after Knocked Up made her a household name, Katherine Heigl described the film as "a little sexist: it paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys". Apatow's former collaborator Mike White, a comic actor, writer and director, also expressed concerns with the Apatovian tendency towards jokes that seem to mock both women and gay men.
"It's too easy to say 'Judd Apatow is sexist'," argues Jessica Grose. "As a director he is very fond of women; I just think he's scared of them. He really believes in marriage and children and heterosexual love, and he believes that's what being a grown-up is. But he presents being a grown-up as not really all that fun. It's like eating your vegetables: romantic love and marriage is what you should do. He sees hanging out with the guys as a perfect state but one that can't last forever."
In a 2007 piece for the New Yorker, critic David Denby identified the era's typical roman- tic comedy leads as "the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow". "The slacker has certain charms," he wrote, but Apatow's films are "dev-oted to the dissolution of a male pack, the ending of a juvenile male bond ... the slacker-striver genre reduces women to the role of vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up."
This trend for shrewish, straight-arrow female leads is not restricted to Apatow's films. "I would love to see a romantic comedy with a more complex female lead," says Grose, "but Judd Apatow is a whipping-boy for the portrayal of women in comedies. Women film-makers who make romantic comedies are worse, because they're cruel to their heroines. In The Proposal – written by a man but directed by a woman – Sandra Bullock's character is an awful battleaxe. She's completely and utterly unlikeable, and her motivations are totally two-dimensional. The Ugly Truth [starring and produced by Heigl, no less] is even worse, and that was written by women. Apatow's portrayals are kinder, because his women are actually likeable."
Another observation frequently made of Apatow's films is that they are, at heart, highly conservative. Abortion is an option Alison barely considers in Knocked Up. Apatow respects mon-ogamy, he values marriage, he idealises the family. Especially his own family: in Funny People, Mann plays Laura, George's beloved ex-girlfriend. When he visits her and her children (Apatow and Mann's real daughters) in the last third of the film, he glimpses the perfect family life he might have had.
Despite George's affections and the faults of her husband, Laura's marriage is sacred. "There 's something honourable about holding out for love and not breaking up for the sake of the baby," says Apatow. "I see people get divorced and there is a part of me that wonders how hard they tried."
Funny People, its creators are at pains to emphasise, is not about Sandler or Apatow, but about the man either could have become had they not started families. It is, nevertheless, Apatow's most personal film, making use of real footage from his past – of Sandler when the two were room-mates, of Mann in early acting roles, of their daughter Maude appearing in a school musical.
In spite of its relative seriousness, the film also demonstrates the director's love of comedy, its processes as well as its product. His scripts are collaborative efforts, reworked through improvisation; and Apatow, Sandler and Rogen toured comedy clubs to hone the film's stand-up routines. Many of Apatow's heroes and contemporaries have walk-on roles. Yet the film also suggests that funny people often have to be mean to generate laughs. And they're certainly not happy people. It questions the values of Apatow's business.
At 146 minutes, many US critics have found Funny People messy and overlong. Apatow, it is suggested, has reached a point in his career when he no longer has to listen to anyone else's advice, least of all the troublesome execs who thwarted his early projects and who might have made him shave half an hour off the film.
The year's biggest comedy at the box office is The Hangover, made by Todd Phillips, director of Starsky and Hutch and Old School and Apatow's biggest bromantic rival. Funny People, in contrast, which opened in the US last month, has thus far been classed as a box office disappointment. Some compared Apatow to the late John Hughes, who had a moment of dominance in the 1980s before the Hollywood spotlight receded. The Farrelly brothers, so successful 10 years ago, saw their star wane, too. Will Apatow meet the same fate?
At least one critic thinks not. In his review, Denby described Funny People as "Apatow's richest, most complicated movie yet". It is certainly one of the most ambitious Hollywood productions of the summer, and considering its themes, length and unsympathetic central character, its box office figures (a $23.4m opening weekend in the US) aren't bad. Shaggy dog story it may be, but Funny People is pockmarked with numerous instances of painful, hilarious truth – and contains a revelatory central performance from Sandler.
Apatow's stock might have dropped momentarily, but, says Gaydos: "Universal just signed a three-picture deal with Judd. And they're deligh-ted, even though Funny People is underperforming, because his track record is extraordinary, and his impact is extraordinary."
Right now, Apatow has a hand in nine projects, including Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall starring Hill and Russell Brand; a comedy version of Sherlock Holmes starring Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen; and two films scripted by female comics Kristen Wiig and Charlyne Yi.
Funny People's middling performance at the US box office may feel like another near-death experience to Apatow. The question is: will it tempt him to change and grow up? Or will he stay the same funny guy he's always been?
Watch clips from "Funny People" at independent.co.uk/ funny-people
Apatown: Who’s who in Judd’s universe
He's hardly a conventional romantic lead, but one of Apatow's conditions prior to "Knocked Up" was that Rogen – with him ever since 1999's "Freaks and Geeks" – play Ben. Rogen's script "Superbad", originally a simple teen sex comedy, became with Apatow's nurturing a touching tale of two high-school friends at a crossroads: a bromance, and a box-office sensation.
Apatow met his wife on the set of "The Cable Guy" in 1996, and has cast her in each of his three films as writer-director. She vomited on Steve Carell as a drunk in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin", provided some of the best moments of Knocked Up as Katherine Heigl's uptight sister, and plays Adam Sandler's lovely (but married) ex-girlfriend in "Funny People".
When Apatow wangled a writing deal for young comic actor Jonah Hill (who is in "Knocked Up" and "Funny People"), the two were still only passing acquaintances. "I was living at home," Hill recalled, "getting an email from Judd saying, 'Here's your Universal movie deal. Now write down 100 ideas.' My parents were like, 'Is this guy touching you?'"
Paul Rudd was already known for roles in "Friends" and "Clueless". But since becoming a citizen of "Apatown", he is a bromantic behemoth, so familiar to the genre's fans that he's the subject of a self-referential gag in "Funny People", when George's agent tells him he has lots of film offers, including "a bromance, with Paul Rudd".
Jason Segel appeared, like Rogen, in Apatow's TV shows "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared", then played one of Ben's stoner buddies in "Knocked Up". Apatow produced his script "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008), in which he also starred – leading to a role as the "bruv interest" in this year's bromance, "I Love You, Man".
A taste of Apatow. . .
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Cal: You’re gay, now?
David: No, I’m not gay. I’m just celibate.
Cal: I think … I mean, that sounds gay. I just want you to know this is, like, the first conversation of, like, three conversations that leads to you being gay. Like, there’s this and then in a year it’s like, “Oh, you know, I’m kinda gonna want to get back out there, but I think I like guys,” and then there’s the big, “Oh, I’m … I’m … I’m a gay guy now.”
David: You’re gay for saying that.
Cal: I’m gay for saying that?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? Cause you’re gay? And you can tell who other gay people are?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
David: You like Coldplay.
Knocked Up (2007)
[Ben and Alison are in bed, morning]
Alison Scott: Hey …
Ben Stone: I’m naked.
Alison Scott: Yeah.
Ben Stone: Did we have sex?
Alison Scott: Yes.
Ben Stone: Nice.
Officer Slater: [talking to Fogell with Officer Michaels in the liquor store after a robbery] May we see your identification?
[Fogell uneasily hands over his fake ID]
Officer Slater: McLovin?
[Fogell is really nervous]
Officer Slater: [pauses] That’s a cool name.
Fogell: [amazed his fake ID worked] Wha… wha …
Officer Slater: Yeah, people have weird names nowadays. Once I pulled arrested this man-lady, and his legal first name was “Fuck”.
Officer Michaels: He was Vietnamese, so it was spelled “Ph” but still that’s pretty jarring to see on a driver’s licence.
Funny People (2009)
George Simmons: There’s always the one girl out there that got away. “The one that got away.” Guys have that – and serial killers have that.