By the time their new comedy "Knocked Up" is released nationwide on June 1, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen will have been working together on and off for more than eight years. But if you go by what Apatow told ABC's Joel Siegel, their relationship was love at first sight.
"He's 25 now. I met him when he was 16 years old," Apatow said of the young actor and star of his latest and most heavily anticipated film. "He's one of these freaks of nature. He came out of his mother's womb with a fully formed comic identity."
The trip from the placenta to Apatow's stable of talented comic actors was a little more complicated than they might admit, though still pretty linear.
Apatow hired Rogen after a single audition for the 1999 TV show "Freaks and Geeks." The show aired on NBC and became a cult hit, and like so many cult hits before, a ratings failure. It lasted just 15 episodes.
Today, with Rogen's silver screen star rising after a highly rated performance as Cal, one of Steve Carrell's buddies in 2005's "The 40 Year Old Virgin," the two are free to attack, with big studio-backing, any project they choose.
"One day [Rogen] came to my office. He was pitching me ideas. He wanted to do a big sci-fi comedy," Apatow said. "And I said, Seth, you don't need aliens and wizards to be funny. You could just get a girl pregnant … That would be enough for a whole movie."
As it turns out, he was right. The stripped down plot summary for "Knocked Up" reads like this: Slacker impregnates girl during one-night stand. Comedy ensues.
The jokes in between are crude, naturally. Apatow says the studio urges him to earn his R-ratings. But it's Rogen's "sweet heart," he said, that "shines through in those scenes" and triggers such a positive response from audiences.
The Reluctant 'Mayor of Comedy'
Not always so sweet, Apatow remembers, was the road to becoming the L.A. Times-proclaimed "Mayor of Comedy." That's the title of a feature story on Apatow's career the paper ran on May 13.
Apatow said the phrase, which was quoted from another comedian, makes him uneasy.
"I think the writer interviewed a comedian who said that as a joke, as if it were true, as if people call me that. And she wrote it as if it were true and now I'm stuck with it," he said. "It's just a terrible, terrible, practical joke. The only mayor I can think of is the mayor of Munchkin Land."
Growing up in the Long Island suburbs of New York, Apatow was hardly the mayoral type. He preferred to spend his afternoon hours alone in front of the television. There's nothing apparently spectacular about that of course, but it's safe now to say he was doing more than passing the hours.
"I was fascinated by the comedians," he said, listing "I Love Lucy," Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas and "The Tonight Show" as his favorites. "That's all I wanted to do is get into this world of funny people."
The process took time, but Apatow would soon get his wish. He started a radio show a little after his 16th birthday and soon found himself interviewing promising young comedians.
"Now I had an excuse to ask them questions," he said. "I interviewed Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld in the early '80s before they were big stars and said, 'How do you write a joke?' and 'How do you get onstage?'"
Apatow would try his hand at stand-up comedy, but like a comic sage, decided he was better off writing the jokes than saying them in an empty room.
"Jim Carrey I was not," he said.
Learning to Write From TV
Professional comedy, as some like to say, is no laughing matter. Comedians travel for months and years, testing their material and refining their onstage routine.
As a writer, Apatow had his own methods. Among them was to tape episodes of "Saturday Night Live" and copy verbatim the show's dialogue onto paper. Like a young Hunter S. Thompson transcribing the entire texts of "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises" into his typewriter, he was determined to know how it felt to write those magical words.
The sensibility of certain styles of comedy "gets hard-wired into your brain," Apatow said, "and it becomes like a language you can't shake if you try."
No longer just writing and directing, 2007 is set to be the year Apatow becomes one of the biggest comedy producers in Hollywood. This year alone he has at least two more films on which his imprimatur is sure to be prominently stamped.
Due out in August is another collaboration with Seth Rogen, but that movie, called "Superbad," is a Rogen original. He wrote it with pal Jonah Goldberg and delivered the script to Apatow around 2001. It took some time, but the flick that the producer calls "a really sweet, ridiculously raunchy, R-rated movie" is tipped to be a late summer hit.
For Christmas time, Apatow and fellow "Freaks and Geeks" alum Jake Kasdan will present "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." It will star John C. Reilly in a satiric take on Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash and Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles.
"It's a fake music biopic and it really makes me laugh," Apatow said. "It's the 70 years of this gentleman. He's been addicted to a lot of drugs, had many marriages, ups and downs, a slight addiction to PCP for a while, and this is his life story."
Apatow's home life is slightly tamer. He's married to actress and "Knocked Up" co-star Leslie Mann, and he cast the couple's two young daughters in the film.
Nepotism is a big part of Hollywood culture, but Apatow's not so sure he's done his daughters any huge favor.
"Those are my children playing the kids and it's very cruel to them because they're two of the stars of the movie, but it's a very kind of racy R-movie and they will never get to see the movie," he said, now on the verge of cracking a smile. "What can you do to a kid that's meaner than that? Let them star in a movie they never see…"
Listen closely to Judd Apatow and there's no question. It's good to be the mayor.