A not-so-funny thing happened to Judd Apatow, Hollywood's reigning buddha of belly laughs, when "Walk Hard" opened late last year.
The movie honcho might have taken cinematic hilarity to new R-rated highs (and lows) with 2007's "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," grossing a combined $270.3 million, but the musical biopic spoof that he produced and co-wrote tripped on its way to the box office, taking in a measly $18 million.
Apatow blames bad timing. "When we picked the date (Dec. 21), there wasn't a lot opening," he says. "But then, hey, they put 'Sweeney Todd' on that date and 'Charlie Wilson's War.' And it was a week after 'I Am Legend' came out."
But a rare misstep means little to this purveyor of man-child mirth, especially since the second coming of Judd is just around the corner.
Apatow, 40, who has been on a pretty steady hot streak since 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," is destined to regain his mojo in the next couple months with the arrival of a much-anticipated quartet of farces released under his production banner.
First up Friday is the PG-13 "Drillbit Taylor" with Owen Wilson as a homeless con man turned bodyguard for hapless high-schoolers.
It's followed by more typical R-rated risqué business: "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (April 18) starring Jason Segel as a breakup casualty; "Step Brothers" with headliners Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as rival sibs by marriage (July 25); and "Pineapple Express" (Aug. 8) with Seth Rogen and James Franco as stoners on the run.
All showcase regulars, both in front of the camera and behind, of an ever-burgeoning Apatow comedy network that has its main roots in the cast and crew of his one-season TV wonders, 1999's "Freak and Geeks" and 2001's "Undeclared."
And all follow at least a portion of what has evolved into the filmmaker's signature crowd-pleasing formula, one perfected by his first directing effort, 2004's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Ingredients include either a couple in an unstable relationship or a gaggle of misfit male buddies, a heavy dose of raunch and raucous behavior, dialogue both frank and foul that is often ad-libbed, visual shockers and a cameo by Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill or some combination.
Apatow insists the provocative stuff is mere window dressing -- or undressing, as the case may be.
"We try to start with a good story and characters that people care about," he says. "Then we hang the humor on that. I don't start with a wacky premise, then add emotion later. To us, that is the most important part of making it funny. My big inspiration was the series 'Taxi,'" co-created by one of his comedy heroes, James L. Brooks. "It was smart and funny but with humanity and characters you cared about."
Still, Judd Hirsch's Alex Reiger never felt the need to wiggle his wee-wee at the camera, a recent addition in Apatow's squirm-worthy bag of naughty tricks.
Random male members pop up in both "Walk Hard" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." In fact, Segel's apparatus is granted four separate scenes, which collectively earn almost as much screen time as Ruby Dee's Oscar-nominated role in "American Gangster."
Another, yet-unexplored body part is in "Step Brothers" as well.