DALLAS -- Judd Apatow doesn't seem like a guy on the cutting edge of comedy.
In fact, the director/producer/writer looks like a stereotypical version of what he is: a married, 45-year-old father. Yet, he has managed to redefine how and what we laugh at onscreen over the past decade -- from his ill-fated but now widely admired late '90s/early 2000s TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared through such films as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy , Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Bridesmaids. Apatow, whether he's writing, directing or producing, always walks a fine line between the raunchy and the romantic. And in the process, he has managed to push movie comedies away from the '90s anarchy of Ace Ventura, Happy Gilmore and There's Something About Mary to a more heartfelt and human place.
Certainly his latest film, This Is 40 (opening Friday), is no exception. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow's wife) reprise their 30-something Pete and Debbie roles from Knocked Up. This time, they're both on the verge of turning 40 and have to deal with Pete's failing business (a dying record label) and two increasingly headstrong daughters (Apatow's real-life daughters, Maude and Iris).
But Apatow is not just busy with This Is 40: He's also a producer on the popular but controversial HBO series about a group of 20-something New York women, Girls, and he edited the comedy-themed January issue of Vanity Fair.
We caught up with Apatow at the Ritz-Carlton on his recent visit to Dallas.
Did you know when you made Knocked Up that you might want to make a sequel?
After Funny People [in 2009], I was thinking about marriage and how we're all spinning too many plates and trying to be good parents. Everyone I know is caving in from their attempts to not screw anything up. One morning I just realized, 'Oh, this could be about Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up.'... People were really into them and people would quote their scenes to me. In one of their arguments, Leslie says to Paul, 'Just because you don't yell doesn't mean you're not mean.' People would mention that to me, and I said I'd love to explore what that is.
Are there parallels to your own life?
The main parallels are emotional. It is about how difficult it is to get along, how a lot of times you take on baggage from your childhood and project it onto your spouse. None of the events happened to us, but the emotional life is accurate. But it's heightened. It's us at our worst and exaggerated to make it interesting.
Graham Parker, the '70s cult British singer-songwriter, plays a big part in the film [he's signed to Pete's label]. Why Graham Parker?
I wanted Pete to be having financial problems, and in the last movie he worked for Sony as an A&R guy. So I thought maybe [now] he has his own label. The concept of the label is that he puts out all the artists he loved from his youth, Paul Westerberg and Frank Black. He thinks putting out this Graham Parker record will be a big hit for him. But he's facing the fact that Parker is getting older and do people care? A lot of great music and art doesn't get as many fans as more mainstream things. That's something I've always been sympathetic to. I love people like Warren Zevon, Loudon Wainwright and Elvis Costello.
Were you a Parker fan?
Yes. The last episode of Undeclared ends with his song Love Gets You Twisted. I needed a real funny guy who didn't mind satirizing his plight in the record industry. And Graham's a really happy person who lives in upstate New York. He does his shows and puts out a record every year or two. It doesn't matter what's happening commercially, he expresses himself the way he wants to. And I wanted someone who, when he performs in the movie, would be great.
You use many of the same people in your films -- Rudd, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen. Do you see it as something like a company?
To me, when you like someone and you have a similar sensibility, you want to work with them again. Sometimes you just want to be around them. If I don't make a movie with some of these people, I'm not going to see them because everyone's very busy.
What made you think your wife and children would be a good fit in your films?
I just observed my family and I think, 'We're an odd bunch.' We'll be at dinner and laughing and fighting and getting on each other's nerves and I always think, this is amusing. If someone taped this and watched this, they would think that 'Who are these crazy people?'
Your movies usually have a balance between the outrageous and the sweet. Is that a hard balance to walk?
Not for me because that's what I think life is. You have very serious moments and you have terrible conflict, and a moment later, you don't realize anyone's home, so you fart really loud and you hear from across the room, 'What is wrong with you?' That just feels like everyday life in most people's houses.
Do you feel like you've reshaped American movie comedies?
What I've done is champion a type of comedy that I like, which is really grounded, hopefully not generic. I like to make movies with filmmakers who are very passionate about what they're saying. It's in the same tradition of people like James Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Barry Levinson, Kevin Smith, Ivan Reitman and Woody Allen. Some of the process that we all learned from stand-up or Second City, we've all brought to how we make the films, and it's made them better. We shoot a lot of material; we shoot a lot of different jokes. The work is better because everyone has a lot to bring. It's a deep collaboration. Not just because of me: Because of a lot of people, comedies have gotten a lot better.
You've also broken the barrier for comedies in terms of length. [ This Is 40 runs 134 minutes.]
A lot of the movies I love, like Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire or Broadcast News, all are a little over two hours. There are a lot of dramedies that don't work when they're 90 minutes. You need the extra 20 minutes to have the depth.... Why do people want to watch the Titanic sink for three hours but they question whether it's OK to laugh for two hours and 13 minutes?
Many of the directors you mention as your inspiration have done straight-ahead drama as well. Do you have an interest in that?
I think there's humor in everything. But it would be interesting to not worry so much about whether I'm getting a laugh. At some point, you do become a slave to the laugh. One thing that's been fun about working on Girls is that even though it's very funny, there are a lot of moments where we don't care if it's funny.
There's been a lot of criticism of Girls. How surprising was that?
The entire time we were making it, I told [creator Lena Dunham] what the criticism was going to be, and it was. This is a watercooler show. This is a show you debate. It's not a show about the most likable people in the world. It is people making awful mistakes, and [for the people] who write about it in their criticism, we know and are doing it on purpose. People say, 'Are they self-entitled? Are they spoiled? Is it not culturally diverse enough?' That's the point of the show. Making mistakes, being in your bubble. It's a coming-of-age story and isn't for everybody.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571