March 19, 2008 -- 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.
"We do have a very revealing moment with Mr. Ferrell," promises its director and co-writer, Adam McKay, who previously teamed with Apatow on "Anchorman" and "Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." What exactly is shown is under wraps. But at early screenings, he says, "the big question has been, 'Was it real or not?' "
Suddenly, Rogen's bulbous naked butt in "Knocked Up" seems quaint.
Such one-upmanship raises the question: Will there come a point when audiences tire of this penchant for down-and-dirty frivolity and ribald foolishness?
"I've shown all the movies to audiences, and they play great," flatly states a confident Apatow, who suggests each title is a different shade of his comedy rainbow. "'Pineapple Express' is about a drug dealer and client running from assassins. 'Step Brothers' is a demented version of 'The Parent Trap.' 'Finding Sarah Marshall' is a romantic disaster movie about getting dumped."
For him, an R rating is simply a way to make sure there will be some semblance of reality on-screen. "It's just an excuse to be honest and show how people speak and behave," he says. "Everything I do during the day would put me in an R rating. Even now I'm naked."
His mix of sex, swearing and silly antics has yet to bore fans, says Kevin Crossman, ringleader of the Frat Pack Tribute website. Judging by the response to the upcoming trailers, "People are still jazzed about this stuff." The key: Work that adult rating, baby. "R-rated romps have to look and act like R-rated romps," while "Walk Hard" was dismissed as R-lite.
There also is an altruistic thrust to Apatow's need to dictate our national comic tastes. His expanding sphere of influence in the industry has given him the power to grant the career wishes of others.
He's the fairy godfather of comedy. A hairy goof like Rogen wants to become a romantic lead and get his scripts produced? POOF! "Knocked Up" happened. The doughy gentle giant Segel, another "Freaks and Geeks" alum, wants to follow suit? POOF! Here is "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."
"I noticed that it was very hard for unique actors to find a job that showed off their talents," Apatow says. "Then I noticed that people who write scripts for themselves would break through, like Jim Carrey when he co-wrote 'Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.' So I encourage them to write for themselves. Jason knows what is funny for Jason."
Segel has a different theory on why Apatow is so bent on making a star out of everyone from "Freaks and Geeks."
"When Judd got on this comedy steam train, he decided to make a point to everyone who canceled the show that they were wrong. We were on a plane recently, and I heard him let out a long exhale. 'I finally got you a lead in a movie,' he said. 'You're the last one.' "
Once Apatow launches them, however, he tends to keep them. With "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" riding a wave of buzz, he quickly re-signed Segel and director pal Nicholas Stoller for another romantic comedy, "Five-Year Engagement."
Apatow also is spreading his talent net beyond past associates. He lured well-regarded director David Gordon Green into his fold for "Pineapple Express."
Green, whose latest, "Snow Angels," is best described as dark and disturbing, gushed to New York magazine: "I just
wanted to do something fun and loose and light, with some action in it. … It was a blast. I can't wait to do it again."
As for Franco, Apatow was bent on rescuing his "Freaks and Geeks" slacker from being forever typecast as the dour Harry Osborne in the "Spider-Man" blockbusters.
When filmmaker and star ran into each other at the 2005 Austin Film Festival, "He told me, 'I miss the funny Franco,' " the actor recalls. "I told him I would love to do something with him. I did a lot of movies I was not proud of after Freaks. In hindsight, the show was such a special time. I didn't know how unique it was until later."
Apatow turned to producing only in self-defense. "I am primarily a writer," he says. "I produce to help ensure that things get made well. Earlier in my career, I wasn't a producer, and I could not control the way things would turn out. To protect what I envisioned, I had to be a producer. And if I am the producer, I don't have to fight with the producer."
Accordingly, he seems psyched about the writing credit he shares with former roommate Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame on "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," the June 6 comedy about a Mossad agent who becomes a hairdresser. Not so coincidentally, Apatow just snared Sandler to star in his yet-untitled third directorial project.
The only drawback of being a member of the Judd club is that his involvement often overshadows the contributions of others. The Drillbit Taylor trailer declares, "From the guys who brought you 'Knocked Up' and 'Superbad,'" meaning Apatow and Rogen, a co-writer. But director Steven Brill had nothing to do with those films.
Brill doesn't bristle over the billing. "It's a marketing thing." It's also a case of turnabout is fair play.
"When Judd and I did Heavy Weights in 1995, we were partners 100%," he says of their co-written fat-camp comedy. "But the ads said, 'From the creator of ''The Mighty Ducks,'' " referring to Brill.
How the mighty Hollywood heavyweights have shifted.