If practice really does make perfect, then Knocked Up should be just about the perfect comedy.
Writer and director Judd Apatow’s follow-up to 2005’s funniest movie—The 40-Year-Old Virgin—re-teams many of the same actors he used in Virgin as well as other projects he has had a hand in over the past decade. The result is like listening to a well-honed jazz band in which all the players can anticipate the turns in the road and react appropriately because they’ve shared those bends before.
Katherine Heigl, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 1 Jun 2007 (General release); 2007)
“When you find someone who’s very funny and you’re in sync with, you just tend to want to work with them again,” Apatow, 39, said by phone last week.
That acquisition of talent began during his days writing and producing the acclaimed television show Freaks and Geeks, which featured a teenage Seth Rogen. Apatow nurtured his young star’s career with supporting roles in Anchor Man: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (which he produced) and Virgin before casting him as the lazy Ben, who impregnates Katherine Heigl’s Alison during a drunken one-night stand in Knocked Up. And Apatow didn’t forget Rogen’s friends, many of whom also starred in Freaks and Geeks and another of Apatow’s television shows, Undeclared. The result is a familiarity you can’t rehearse.
“I knew that if I hired all of Seth’s real best friends that they would have this funny chemistry, because I’ve seen what they’re like when they hang out together. And they always made me laugh.” Apatow says. “It’s actually kind of a lazy thing for a writer to do—I’ll just get all these real people to play themselves. I didn’t even bother to change their names—Jonah Hill plays Jonah; Jason Segel plays Jason. But you do get a shorthand with people. It’s not like I was trying to avoid strangers or anything.”
Much of Apatow’s success can be attributed to his careful casting. When he gets an idea for a new project, one of the first things he does is make calls to the actors he’d like to take part. Armed with the knowledge of who will deliver the lines he’s writing, he says he is better able to tailor the parts to the person.
Part of that process is picking the actors’ brains. While writing Knocked Up, the director phoned Paul Rudd, whom he previously worked with on Anchor Man and Virgin, to ask about his experiences expecting his first child. Apatow says he meticulously read all of the books available for parents-to-be and was surprised to learn that Rudd read nary a page. The reason? Rudd told Apatow that if he had read the books, the frightening experience he was about to have would actually be real.
In Knocked Up, Rudd’s character is married with kids to Alison’s older sister (played by Virgin vet and Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann), but his story went on to inform Ben’s outlook on preparing for the baby. “I’m just kind of looking for little truths that are funny that the audience recognizes in themselves,” Apatow says.
With cast set and script written, it’s time to shoot. And it’s also the time when all of this familiarity pays its biggest dividends. Many of the biggest laughs come from jokes that never appear on the written page and are the result of that ad-libbed comedic interplay that only comes through time.
“I think you have a shorthand when it comes to improvising scenes. We know each other’s senses of humor and we just know the other person,” Rudd said at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival, a day after Knocked Up screened to a howling crowd. “There’s stuff in Knocked Up, like with Seth and I, when Seth comes to the birthday party and we have an exchange where we try and top each other with insults. We did a long run of those, and that came about I would imagine from that whole `You Know How I Know You’re Gay Game.’ That whole scene was just sort of improvised on the spot in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
“I kinda know if I yell out a line to Paul, I generally know how he’ll do it,” Apatow says. (Rudd admits that one of the best one-liners in the movie is one Apatow yelled out during the middle of filming a scene. When the production was delayed 10 minutes so that everyone could finish laughing, it found its way into the film.)
“It’s not like I’m working really hard on getting his performance correct—I know him well enough that very quickly he can be performing it in a way that I have in my head. And then I want him to surprise me. That’s the best part of the process. When he does something that’s so unique to his own life that I never could think of it.”
With its positive buzz and championship pedigree, there’s no reason to think that Knocked Up won’t lap up big bucks at the box office (Virgin made $109 million). And with that kind of money coming in, it should come as no surprise that Apatow is sticking with his go-with-who-you-know strategy. Case in point: Each of his next five producing projects involve at least one person who stars in Knocked Up.