Apatow first worked in television, with an eye on producing even early in his career. He co-created The Ben Stiller Show just two years out of college and won an Emmy award. After that was canceled, he worked on The Larry Sanders Show and The Critic.
It wasn’t long before he get jobs on a few film projects. He co-wrote the universally-panned family comedy Heavyweights before performing rewrites on The Cable Guy and The Wedding Singer.
In 1999, Apatow wrote and produced a pilot for a sitcom called Sick in the Head, but FOX passed. His TV season now free, he signed on as an Executive Producer for a show called Freaks and Geeks, which has gone down as one of the great one-and-done canceled TV shows. (Hold that thought for a month or so.)
Shortly after, Apatow co-produced Undeclared, F&G’s spiritual successor. After two more rejected pilots, Apatow finally turned to the thing that would be his public breakthrough: Producing comedy films.
Here are a breakdown of some of the films he’s (including all of the ones he’s directed, except This is 40, which I haven’t seen yet):
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
This is the first movie Apatow took the helm of following his 8 year break from the silver screen. It put him on the map as a rising star: Anchorman made tons of money and instantly went down as a comedy classic. I wasn’t much of a fan when I first saw it, but I think that was backlash to high expectations — I watched it again recently and had to admit it’s excellent. “Where did you get that ______, the toilet store?” is a universal insult.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Apatow’s directorial debut, and the first film he received main writing credit for. This is where he piloted his awkward, warm comedy style from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared — but with R-rated jokes. It works. I remember watching it when I was a junior in high school and noticing that it operated on a slightly different level and different tone than I was used to seeing in films.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
It has some funny beats, but this movie is proof to me that Apatow should focus on less broad comedy. The prayer at the dinner table will never not be funny, but Will Ferrell running around in his underwear is a sight gag that never worked.
Knocked Up (2007)
Judd’s directorial successor to 40-Year-Old Virgin, and a better movie. It’s slightly too long, foreshadowing the criticism Apatow would receive for his subsequent films, but it’s probably the best movie he’s directed. Seth Rogen is perfect as the protagonist, and the focus on the characters pays off: The ending actually made Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s decision to stay together seem worthwhile.
One of my top 25 or so favorite movies, but that’s not too surprising: I love high school comedies and this is one of the better ones from my lifetime. You’ve probably seen it, so I won’t spend much time here extolling its virtues, but it’s well-plotted with a legendary script of jokes. Pretty much every line is funny, with special props going to Seth Rogen and Bill Hader as cop buddies. Superbad is probably my second favorite Apatow pic.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
My favorite Apatow-produced movie. More on this one in a later post.
Step Brothers (2008)
The red-band trailer is one of my favorite movie previews ever — a perfectly-edited clip of 30-or-so absolutely hilarious lines. Too bad it was the best stuff in the movie, and pretty much every funny gag was spoiled.
Funny People (2009)
A few of my friends hate this film (the third Apatow directed), and they have good justification: There’s no real structure or over-arching conflict to it. It’s just some stuff that happens, some of which is funny. It runs way longer than it should and doesn’t give us much of an ending. And yet… I can’t help but love it. Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen are equally mesmerizing, and the emphasis on showing real stand-up makes the film feel at least somewhat authentic. It’s a winner in my book.
Get Him to the Greek (2010)
A totally unnecessary spinoff from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and a confusing one too: Jonah Hill plays a different character than he did in the movie he spun off from. Hill and Elizabeth Moss feel miscast, and the jokes made me cringe more often than they made me laugh. This doesn’t need to exist.
Critically adored and award-winning. I didn’t love it as much as most people did, but it’s hard not to feel like the new emphasis on female-oriented raunchy comedy is an important development. Wiig is fantastic, if occasionally unhinged, as is Rose Byrne, but Jon Hamm’s self-parody may be my favorite part of the film.
Honorable mentions: MacGruber, I Love You Man (not actually Apatow films)
Not Apatow films, but there are some clear Apatow influences (particularly in the latter). MacGruber was way funnier than it should have been, especially if you’re in tune with Will Forte’s comic wavelength. I feel like this is going to be a cult classic ten years from now.
I Love You, Man, on the other hand, received solid reviews by mimicking Apatow’s brand well. Jason Segel and Paul Rudd are always a delight, and here they’re great together. Rudd, in particular, reminds us he’s one of the most charming men in Hollywood.
I’m looking forward to seeing This is 40 despite the underwhelming reviews, and there are a few more obvious cracks in Apatow’s filmography for me to fill. But for now I cite him as one of the most trusted directors and producers in Hollywood: His name on the poster is all the convincing I need to see something, and it will take a bunch of failures for that to change.