There’s no question that Judd Apatow’s films, both those in which he’s served as director and producer, changed the landscape of comedy within the 21st century. Supported by a generation who didn’t grow up in a time where Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Dan Akroyd were firmly situated at the height of their careers, we found kindred spirits amongst Apatow’s rabble of former stand-up comedians and bit players turned leads. While the comedians of the late 1970s, ’80s and ’90s had a universal appeal that connected with audiences of all generations, Apatow’s group of comedians weren’t looking to please everyone, which made them a bit taboo, a bit dangerous, and a lot more appealing to 21st century young adults whose primary source of entertainment came from pushing buttons, both figuratively and literally.
In an age when most 14 to 21-year-olds found more laughs from then newly established YouTube than from multiplexes and television, comedy had new audience to experiment with—immature, a little directionless, creative, and yes, good-naturedly offensive. Myspace, Facebook and YouTube gave rise to a generation of millennials who developed internet personas driven by a search for relatability–the pursuit of people like us–unmarred by location, race, gender, or even age. These were the people Judd Apatow built his comedy empire around, but he didn’t always cater to this group (though his television work on Freaks and Geeks clearly showed a desire to move in that direction). His early screenwriting and production work on Frat Pack comedies like The Cable Guy, Kicking & Screaming, Fun with Dick and Jane, and the pop culture giant that is Anchorman, were firmly rooted in the comedic styles of Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell. These comedies were closely tied to the SNL roots of their collaborators and couldn’t help feeling like sketch comedy stretched to feature length runtimes. And there was nothing wrong with this kind of comedy, although its doofus protagonists and far-fetched plots had more in common with fantasy than reality. They worked for the most part, while offering no messy emotions to clean up after the credits. Instead they provide adults with a means to reconnect with an immaturity they kept on a wire hanger in the back of their closest. Yes, these comedies worked but rarely for me.
I was never big on the comedy genre growing up. The Eddie Murphy that had impressed my parents was gone, replaced by someone driven more by profit than laughter, and my infatuation with rubberband man Jim Carrey was brief once I realized he pretty much only had one shtick as a comedian. There were of course comedies I liked, that made me laugh; Meet the Parents, and Anchorman were my gold standard for some time. But this wasn’t comedy I related to or got anything more other than a quotable line to laugh over with friends. For the most part, comedy wasn’t on my radar, and even Apatow’s first two directorial features, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I dismissed without bothering to watch. And despite my love of Anchorman, Judd Apatow meant no more to me than Andy Dick; it was a genre that was mostly irrelevant to me, and I was unable to parse through the bad to find the good. Over time, I saw and loved these early Apatow-directed films and quickly began to understand their appeal. If the Frat Pack comedy that had taken off through the ’90s and early 2000s had been a means of allowing adults to be immature again, then Apatow’s comedy was a pitch on maturity to the young and immature, those of us who from 18, 21, 25, 30 and so on brought us no closer to feeling that fabled sense of adulthood we were allegedly supposed to feel.
In many ways, most of my pop cultural lessons on how to be an adult stem from Judd Apatow’s filmography. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, and This is 40 are all guides for my generation (Reagan is crawling out of his grave now), guides that tell us adulthood doesn’t mean shirking off your old personality traits, hobbies, or even vices. It simply means reorganizing, making room for something I call “Responsibility and…” So whatever that may be in Apatow’s films, responsibility and weed, responsibility and an unopened action figure collection, responsibility and sex, or responsibility and puppetry, they each present a series of benefits and consequences that allow us 21st century cases in arrested development to judge these characters and form our own “responsibility and…” without the guilt-tripping that forced previous generations to grow up before their time. (Reagan is fully out now and lumbering to come find me.) Ultimately, through his distinctly personal and sometimes painful lens of honesty, Judd Apatow fostered my love of comedy, but it was really one movie that helped me love and learn from the rest: Superbad.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, of all the Apatow produced and directed comedies, how did he come to love comedy through Superbad? Keep in mind that when the movie came out, I was a senior in high school–a senior with a pile of college applications, a senior with a large friend group that was slowly but surely splintering, and a senior who never heard anything more socially inappropriate in a film than what had been featured in Scorsese’s The Departed. In many ways, Greg Mottola’s Superbad was an eye-opener, evidence of the fact that there were Hollywood people that understood exactly how my friends and I talked and interacted, people that could accurately portray high-school life that wasn’t divided into clichéd cliques, people who understood a generation who saw graduation wasn’t about growing up but of separation from the very notions of relatability the internet promised. There was a reality to it all, something recognizable about Seth, Evan, Jules, and, yes, even Fogel—a desire to cling to the familiar regardless of the fact that you may have outgrown it, dislike it, or that it might not even be right for you. But this wasn’t a drama, and despite the reality of the emotions at stake, the actual plot concerning the purchase of alcohol, a high-school party, and two of the worst cops to ever grace the screen was anything but close to my reality. But that plot didn’t feel like sketch comedy stretched too thin. It was filled with moments of genuine humor that came more so from the dialogue than any narrative.
I haven’t laughed so hard at a theatre since Superbad, and the classmates I saw it with, some friends we never saw again after high school and some we did, some crushes who were never right for us, and some Fogels of our own making, we laughed until we were close to tears. Though I think we knew we’d just experienced something different, I don’t think any of us really thought too much about why we thought the film was so funny. Comedy is built on whatever’s inappropriate at the time, and Superbad, for all of its dick jokes, isn’t innovative in that regard. I think the film was so funny because it was an unabashedly honest portrait of us, one that doesn’t let its characters off easy with the promise of never-ending friendship. Instead it leaves its characters going in separate ways, looking back at each other from the escalator and uncertain of their future or their choices. In a world where we could add countless Myspace or Facebook friends in hopes of finding a connection, coupled with the looming possibility that adulthood meant losing those physical friends that defined you, everything seemed to point towards a loss of definition. We were left with an inability to stand out in that crowd of smiling profile pics of strangers categorized under the Friends tab. At the time, I don’t think anything made me happy or so remorseful. File it away under exaggeration if you choose, but I sincerely believe that for me and many others that Superbad’s ending is my generation’s version of The Graduate. But no one noticed, and I can’t help but laugh at that, because it really explains a lot.