Selected filmography: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), Funny People (2009)
When you have names like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, and Steve Carell attached to a film, you know you have a box office hit, if not the comedy of the summer, or, ideally, a comedy that defines a generation. There's a secret behind those comedy touchstones, and his name is Judd Apatow.
Everything the man attaches himself to is guaranteed to be billed as a comedy triumph, so much so that he's credited with creating a new formula for the genre. It's inspired Rogen's own work, namely This Is the End, and encourages other up-and-comers to seek out notes about this new science, including his protege Lena Dunham.
He offers us the big feelings we crave from the movies. At his best, he moves us to laughter and tears, as is the case with with Funny People, a film about a comedian with a terminal health condition. Apatow's movies are never too happy or too dramatic to the point where you're reminded that this is a film, this is all fantasy.
Many of his movies, including ones he produces, feel like teen comedies that just hit puberty. They're coming-of-age tales, but for adults. The 40-Year-Old Virgin remains the best example of this. In the film, a grown man is confronted with the same hardship a kid heading off to college might face: getting laid for the first time. Knocked Up explores a similar topic, with a man-boy forced to grow up after a one-night stand results in a pregnancy. There's a reason why these films have become the ones you stop to watch while channel surfing on a Saturday afternoon: You can relate to them.
This humanization is a testament to the actors that Apatow has brought into his crew. He's truly created a family out of his favorite people. He trusts his actors, and in turn they trust him, and in Rogen and Segel's case, they even emulate him. In one decade, Apatow helped launch the movie careers of Rogen, James Franco, and Steve Carell. On top of that, he helped recreate Paul Rudd, who was making the switch from supporting roles or the romantic interest in teen comedies, as a full-fledge comedy star.
His movies made them the personalities who are considered the faces of comedy today, as he tends to focus on the real actor behind the character rather than the character itself. Pineapple Express and This Is the End would never have been successful if we didn't know these actors as the heightened versions of themselves Apatow introduced us to.
And his impeccable eye for talent has never failed him; we'd be hardpressed to find someone he put on that didn't find greater success. He gave Aubrey Plaza a shot and let Jonah Hill shine in Funny People and, in the following decade, helped make Kristin Wiig the biggest name in comedy by producing Bridesmaids. Even his cameos shouldn't be dismissed; Jane Lynch, Leslie Mann, and Elizabeth Banks are unforgettable in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Apatow is one of the only modern directors we'd put up against Howard Hawks and Woody Allen. His influence on comedy films today is too broad—he created them and everyone in them. —Tara Aquino