‘The Nerds And The Geeks Will Have Their Day’: Exploring The Comedic Evolution Of Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow is 47 years old today, and this seems like the perfect time to look back at his career to this point. Over the span of 25 years, Apatow went from being a relatively unknown stand-up comedian to becoming one of the most powerful names in showbiz. His art is continuing to evolve, transitioning from the goofiness of Knocked Up to more contemplative works like This Is 40.With that, let’s track Apatow’s road from his humble beginnings to a successful career as one of the most influential names in comedy.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Apatow worked as a stand-up, and while he never became truly famous in this realm, he was featured on an HBO special in 1992. Perhaps the most notable facet of Apatow’s stand-up career was his joke about a man with an electrolarynx voice box trying in vain to order food at a drive-through. A joke which was seemingly stolen by Denis Leary. You can judge for yourself in the clip below, but the two routines are undeniably similar:

While his stand-up was funny, Apatow cut his teeth working as a writer and producer on television. From the ’90s to the early 2000s, he would be involved in works that were critically acclaimed, but never found a significant audience. In the mid ’90s, he was a writer and producer on The Critic, a much-beloved show that was sadly canceled after just 23 episodes. Later on, he would work as a director and producer on Paul Feig’s Freaks And Geeks, another canceled-too-soon show that also launched the careers of Apatow regulars like Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel.

After the tragic cancellation of Freaks And Geeks, Apatow would create yet another beloved-but-short-lived series, Undeclared, which aired for just one season. Basically, everything Apatow worked on would receive rave reviews, and gain a devoted cult following, but none of it was appealing to a mainstream audience. To oversimplify things just a bit, these projects, while great, were before their time.

Eventually, though, the public at large had started noticing Apatow’s work, particularly in 2005 when he directed his first feature film, the enormous hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This time around, the rave reviews were matched by audience participation and the film would gross $177 million worldwide. The success of this movie would prove to be the beginning of an enormous winning streak for Apatow. For the next few years, every movie he touched — whether as a director or a producer — would become a smash hit, and receive favorable reviews from critics. Knocked UpSuperbad, Step Brothers, and Pineapple Express were all huge hits, cementing Apatow as one of the most important people in the film industry. At this point, when you thought of movie comedies, Judd Apatow was the first name that popped in your head.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of how much Apatow’s film’s — and his style — had become embedded in our culture came in the late 2000s with the presence of a “parody” entitled The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall And Felt Superbad About It. As you might guess, it’s a take-off on Apatow’s films in the vein of Epic Movie or Meet The Spartans, except the filmmakers likely would have been sued if they had tried to call it Apatow Movie. Look, I can’t really judge this movie, because I haven’t seen it, but it certainly doesn’t sound like anything worth watching. Still, nothing speaks to how influential Apatow has been in the world of film than the fact that someone would try to make Apatow Movie. His style of films were as recognizable as disaster, horror, action or anything else.

But that ubiquity raises a clear concern; was Apatow repeating himself too much? Based on recent choices, it seems likely that he’s pondered this possibility. In 2009, with the world still madly in love with Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express, he threw his fans for a bit of a loop with Funny People, a movie far more serious that anything he had directed, produced, or been associated with at that point.

Funny People is a flawed movie to be sure — for one thing, it goes on about 45 minutes too long — but it’s also one of Apatow’s more interesting pictures. When he made it, he likely realized that he could make clones of Superbad for decades and become filthy rich, and this was him rebelling against that as much as he possibly could. Consider George Simmons, the character played by Adam Sandler in the film. He’s a rich-but-not-necessarily respected comedic actor who has starred in a bunch of increasingly silly movies that one can only assume were panned at the box office.

To state the obvious, it’s hard not to look at this character and draw parallels between Sandler’s own career. Sandler has made some hilarious movies (Billy Madison, The Wedding Singer, Happy Gilmore), but throughout his career, he’s repeated himself endlessly, sometimes to the point where even the critics who are capable of appreciating his shtick have grown tired of it. Basically, you can only make The Waterboy so many times before you end up making You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (which, ironically, Apatow was a writer on). Apatow seemed to recognize this — eventually what worked in Knocked Up and Superbad was going to stop working, and he had to avoid falling into that trap, even if it meant alienating his fan base. That he managed to tap Adam Sandler to star in a movie about how he didn’t want to repeat himself the way Adam Sandler did is marvelous in its own right.

Apatow’s evolution continued with This Is 40, the fourth feature film he directed. Once again, he got away from the world of fun-loving man-children giving us some laughs for awhile and it to the more mature world a 40-year-old father and husband. In other words, it focuses on a character with a life more like the one Judd Apatow actually has.  Apatow seems to recognize that to keep himself honest as an artist, he has to make work that he can relate to. Repeating the formula that made him a household name would have eventually made him irrelevant. Instead, he’s continued to grow, and it has shown in his work. It’ll be fascinating to see the kind of films Apatow makes in his 50s and 60s. If his past work is any indication, they’ll be personal, relatable, and hilarious.