Comedy has a brand name these days: “Apatow.”
That would be Judd Apatow, the high priest of TV’s “Freaks & Geeks” who moved on to “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” “Talladega Nights,” “Walk Hard” and “Knocked Up,” a guy who has had a writing, producing, casting and/or directing hand in just about every comedy of note to come out of late.
“He’s the man, the boss,” says longtime friend Steven Brill, who directed the Apatow-produced “Drillbit Taylor,” a comedy about teenagers who hire an ex-military hard case (Owen Wilson) to protect them from bullies. Brill co-wrote “Heavyweights” with Apatow back in the early 1990s - and if you’ve ever worked with or been Hollywood pals with Apatow, you know his loyalty. A vast circle of showbiz friends shows up and cashes in on movies with his name on them. Just knowing him seems to be golden.
“You are about to make a lot of money off this phone call,” Apatow jokes. “Everyone thinks I’m making more money than I am. I need to talk to somebody about that.”
His movies, from “Superbad” to his frequent Will Ferrell team-ups, turn into hits so frequently that it’s a shock when one (“Walk Hard”) isn’t.
“If you want to do a comedy, right now, he’s the guy you go to,” says David Gordon Green, the Southern-Gothic indie icon (“All the Real Girls” and the new “Snow Angels”) who takes his first stab at comedy with “The Pineapple Express,” which Apatow produced. “I figured if I was going to try comedy, he’s the man I’d want to try it with.”
“The comedy I like was made by people who really cared about the stories they were telling and the characters they wrote,” Apatow says “I love movies like `Say Anything’ and `Terms of Endearment,’ `Animal House,’ `Clerks’ - character-driven comedies made by people who are passionate about those characters.”
“All Judd’s movies are very sweet, benign, even the raunchier ones,” says “Drillbit’s” Brill. “The comedy isn’t cheap. That’s his secret. The laughs come from character.”
Apatow is also, says influential Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells, single-handedly changing what a young comic leading man looks like, into “guys who look like real guys.”
“People want to watch actors that they can relate to,” says Apatow. “It’s very strange that Hollywood thinks we can only relate to really attractive actors. None of us are that guy. The classic leading man is fine for dramas, superhero movies. But it’s more fun to root for somebody who looks like Seth Rogen or John C. Reilly.
“Comedy stars don’t need to be attractive. Look at Jack Klugman!”
Pick on him for pairing the dishy Katherine Heigl with his lumpy leading man Rogen in “Knocked Up,” and he has the one-liner.
“Have you seen me? Have you seen my wife (the hilarious and gorgeous Leslie Mann, who co-stars in “Knocked Up” and “Drillbit Taylor”)? Women make that kind of mistake, marrying guys who look like me, all the time!”
Still, there are striking leading blonds he will work with. Such as Owen Wilson. Apatow and his pal Ben Stiller first met Wilson when they worked together re-writing “The Cable Guy.”
“He’s very good at this sort of slippery-funny character, a not-tough guy pretending to be tough,” says Apatow, expressing relief that Wilson’s bout with depression and his suicide attempt last fall seem to be behind him. “I was happy to get the chance to work with him again. But Ben is obsessed with Owen.”
Apatow has a hand in helping re-write and even cast the films he takes a producing credit on, much like the man whose work inspired “Drillbit Taylor.” Though the movie is based on a classic 1980s coming-of-age film, “My Bodyguard,” the project started life as a John Hughes screen treatment that Apatow came on board to flesh out. He hired pals Rogen and Chris Brown (“Beavis & Butthead”) to write it and got his friend Brill to direct.
“It felt like it was going to be in the tradition of `My Bodyguard,’ which I love, but also all those John Hughes movies like `Uncle Buck’ or `Sixteen Candles.’ Which I also love.”
He’s aware that the culture is different today than it was when “My Bodyguard” came out. Bullies are still around, and they’re taken much more seriously.
“Clearly, bullying is a serious problem that affects kids’ lives forever,” Apatow, 40. “The few times it happened to me, I was humiliated and it stuck with me.
“But we’re making an effort to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong about dealing with bullies in a way that’s funny.
“All comedy is about difficult situations,” Apatow says. And then he laughs, remembering a certain Apatow blockbuster (“Knocked Up”) from last summer. ” There’s nothing funny about getting a stranger pregnant, either.”