Sometimes it seems as if all comedy roads go through Judd Apatow's id. As a failed stand-up comedian, he used to open for Jim Carrey. He roomed with Adam Sandler. He wrote for "The Larry Sanders Show" and produced "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights."
"The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the first film Apatow wrote and directed, was a surprise smash hit in 2005, grossing more than $100 million. Now Hollywood is waiting to see if that was a fluke, or if Apatow can become a filmmaker who can write his own ticket.
The test comes in the form of another Apatow movie about to hit theaters: "Knocked Up," starring one of Apatow's favorite actors, Seth Rogen, and "Grey's Anatomy's" Katherine Heigl as a couple whose one-night stand leads to an unwanted pregnancy.
As with most overnight successes, Judd Apatow's moment has been decades in the making. The writer and director of the 2005 smash hit "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and the much-anticipated "Knocked Up," which opens June 1, openly admits that not long ago he was perhaps best known as a critically acclaimed television failure.
He co-created Fox's "The Ben Stiller Show," which was canceled after only 12 episodes, after which it won a 1993 Emmy for outstanding writing in a variety series. In 1999, Apatow and creator Paul Feig brought NBC a show called "Freaks and Geeks," about a gang of burnouts and a clatch of dorks at a Michigan High School in 1981. The cast purposefully did not resemble the model stars of, say, "Dawson's Creek," and while their stories were funny, they did not always end happily.
"We're all unhappy. That's the thing about life," said character Lindsay Weir.
The show also received critical acclaim, and it lasted only 18 episodes before NBC yanked it from the air for poor ratings.
"I had a meeting with the head of the network, and he said, 'Judd, could you please give these kids more victories?'" Apatow told ABC's "Nightline." "Because television is about escapism; it's fantasy fulfillment. And I really didn't know how to do it because Paul's idea was really that this television show was about kids failing and what they learned from their failures."
"Freaks and Geeks" was followed by "Undeclared," a show on Fox about college life, which lasted even fewer episodes. When asked what he learned from these failures, Apatow said, "It's hard to say what I learned. Very early in my career, I met Warren Zevon. I was trying to get him to score a movie that I was hoping to make, which never happened. And I was talking to him and I said [the movie] might change because I was waiting to get notes from the studio and [he said], 'You would change it because somebody else told you to change it?' And it hit me -- oh, that's what an artist is. An artist is a guy who doesn't change it because someone else says they like this thing rather than that thing. And I never forgot that look in his eyes."
A recurring theme in Apatow's work is of a geeky guy getting a girl whom he normally wouldn't be able to get.
"It's a nerd fantasy," explained Apatow. "That's the bad thing about doing a lot of work. Slowly the seams begin to show. … You realize it's all one idea: pretty ladies like goofy guys. It's just a fantasy. ... But I think that a lot of it comes from the fact that on some level it's really about wanting people to recognize you for who you are, or take the time to get to know you."