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There is a moment early on in "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," the 14th episode of the brilliant but canceled television series Freaks and Geeks, in which gangly, bespectacled, picked-last-in-gym-class high school freshman Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) arrives home from school, makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich, and sits down to watch an up-and-coming comic named Garry Shandling perform on The Dinah Shore Show. All the while, the wailing strains of the Who's "I'm One" play on the sound track: Every year is the same/And I feel it again/I'm a loser — no chance to win.
"You realize that this is his friend, the television," says Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed the episode, and served as an executive producer for the duration of Freaks and Geeks' ratings-challenged 18-episode run. "He has no one to play with in the afternoon. His mom is at work. His parents are divorced."
That scene, Apatow says, was a veritable snapshot of his own teenage years, as a small-for-his-age, unathletic, comedy-obsessed child of divorce on the middle-class end of Long Island in the early 1980s. After the episode aired, Apatow's friend and fellow Freaks director Jake Kasdan told him it was the most personal thing he'd ever seen him do. For Apatow, who'd up to then spent most of his career writing material for other comedians, it was something of an epiphany. "I really enjoy people who are deeply personal," he says, slouching in a chair in his Santa Monica office and scarfing down some vegetarian takeout a few weeks before the release of his second feature film as writer-director, Knocked Up. "I just never had the balls to try, until relatively recently. It took me a very long time to think that if I wrote from a personal place, it would be interesting to anyone but myself."
Apatow's self-doubt is perfectly understandable in an industry where the idiosyncratic and the original are regularly sacrificed in the name of higher ratings and bigger grosses. But in the seven years since Freaks' untimely departure from NBC, Apatow has continued to tap into his own life for inspiration, marshaling new comic armies of neurotic, socially maladroit teens, twentysomethings, and even middle-agers into America's living rooms and onto its movie screens.
Released in the summer of 2005 to little advance hype, Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin took a premise that might have made for a one-joke raunch fest and spun it into an exuberantly vulgar and unexpectedly tender farce about one man's belated coming, so to speak, of age. It was, I wrote at the time, a movie Blake Edwards — or perhaps a dirtier-minded John Hughes — might have made, an altogether revivifying breath of fresh comic air in a terminally sophomoric movie-comedy landscape. All the more remarkable was the fact that Apatow, who had never directed a movie before, had managed to make Virgin at a major studio (Universal), with a relatively unknown star (Steve Carell) and a great deal of creative autonomy. It was also, arriving on the heels of another axed series (Undeclared) and several unsold pilots, Apatow's first bona fide hit.
Now, I know what you're thinking: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a personal film? Who on earth would fess up to that? "It's not specifically me," Apatow clarifies. "But, unfortunately, I really understand all of those emotions — namely, insecurity and fear that people are going to think you're a freak."
Like Virgin, Knocked Up also takes flight from a state of emotional panic — its title refers to the unplanned consequences of a drunken one-night stand between an upstart TV news reporter (Katherine Heigl) and the slacker-stoner layabout (Virgin co-star Seth Rogen) she meets in a Hollywood bar. But as before, the movie's real subject is that of men struggling to cast off the vestiges of their carefree bachelorhood and accept grown-up responsibility, regardless of what age they happen to be. Consider it Apatow's hilarious — and, yes, personal — examination of parenthood from both ends of the looking glass, as the struggles of the film's expectant young couple are paralleled with those of Heigl's married-with-children sister (played by Apatow's own wife, Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd), who find themselves navigating some serious bumps in their own relationship.
Apatow, an admitted workaholic who has been married since 1997 and is the father of two young daughters (both conceived in wedlock), describes his new film as "a love letter and an apology to my family," and says that both couples represent comic exaggerations of his own marriage at various stages.
"I remember when I first had children," he says. "I'd be sitting on the floor with my daughter, and she'd want to play with her doctor kit or something, and there'd be a part of me that was preoccupied, thinking about a fight I was having with the network. In that moment, I would know how fucked-up it was that I couldn't let go of this fight and just play doctor, that I wasn't fully present. But when things get to the point where your family will no longer tolerate them, then you make a change."
Such candor courses through Knocked Up, where it is regularly offset by the kind of uninhibited, go-for-broke comic set pieces that made Virgin into an instantly quotable classic. The constant is that, in Apatow's work, the jokes never come at the expense of the characters' emotional reality, but rather grow directly out of it. Case in point: A scene in Knocked Up where, in the chaos of a late-night earthquake, a dazed and confused Rogen thinks first about rescuing his bong and only later about his sleeping pregnant girlfriend.
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