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pop culture's bravest

Year in Review: Judd Apatow Is the Man

Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images

From now until the end of the year, Vulture will celebrate the people who made 2007 what it was: Pop Culture's Bravest.

It finally happened last week: We threw away our ratty McKinley High ringer T-shirt, purchased online seven years ago now from a Website quixotically begging NBC not to cancel Freaks and Geeks. By the time the shirt arrived in the mail, Freaks and Geeks was toast and Judd Apatow was off preparing his next failed TV show, Undeclared. Even though it could no longer do any good, we wore the shirt all the time, as a secret Valentine to fellow Apatow fans. So seven years later, as we tossed the holey shirt in the trash, it was pretty amazing to survey what has happened to Apatow's career.

2007 was the year that fans who had thought themselves alone in their worship of Judd Apatow watched in bewilderment, then wonder, then outright joy as all of America suddenly and unexpectedly agreed with them. Knocked Up and Superbad were indisputably the thinking person's comedies of the year, breathing new life into tired genres — the romantic comedy, the teenage buddy flick — with sharp writing, unexpected emotional depth, and some foulmouthed truth-telling about the state of the American male. Suddenly Judd Apatow became Judd Apatow™ — beloved comic brand, the source for the upcoming presumed monster hits Walk Hard, Pineapple Express, Drillbit Taylor, and Dumped (each of which will include wangs). When was the last time a screenwriter had such cachet with a broad audience? When was the last time the producer was the star of the film?

How did Apatovian humor suddenly become marketable? Maybe Apatow learned from his experience producing Will Ferrell hits like Anchorman and Talladega Nights how to broaden his comedy, to sacrifice some of the discomfort and honesty of Freaks and Geeks in the service of bigger laughs. Maybe American moviegoers are just getting smarter, or more frustrated with the unfunny crap that passes for comedy these days. Or maybe Apatow finally found the perfect ratio of Seth Rogen to penises necessary to ensure a hit.

But as Team Apatow became ubiquitous on the comedy scene — starring in viral videos featuring funny fake outtakes, signing new deals for new, funny-sounding movies, even appearing at the damn New Yorker Festival — an undercurrent of dissatisfaction tempered our Judd Apatow love. Did Mike White have a point when he complained that Apatow had moved from appreciating the underdog to personifying the bully? Didn't the constant self-referential viral videos get a little tiring?

And could it be possible that Nussbaum was right, that Knocked Up really was a little bit sexist? He certainly didn't do himself any favors with his nonresponse response when Katherine Heigl — the female star of Knocked Up, in the movie and out seemingly a world away from the Apatow posse — reasonably expressed her concerns to Vanity Fair. "I think the characters are sexist at times," he told us, "but it's really about immature people who are afraid of women and relationships and learn to grow up. If people say that the characters are sexist, I say, yeah, that's what I was going for in the first part of the movie, and then they change." But of course that wasn't the question, Judd Apatow. Actually, the characters aren't all that sexist, but the movie kind of is. The problems with Knocked Up have been pointed out by many writers, most ably (if also with the least timeliness) by Slate's Meghan O'Rourke.

Does that mean it wasn't funny? Hell no — it was so funny Apatow could cut a bunch of funny lines just for the sake of pacing. Is Superbad still the greatest movie ever made, despite its sacrifice of its bland female co-stars in the service of making its adorable boys even more adorable? Of course it is! But we can't help that wishing that just once, instead of the men with whom Apatow always collaborates — Ferrell, Steve Carell, Rogen, Jake Kasdan, Adam Sandler — he would co-write a screenplay with Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler, or Diablo Cody, or some other smart, perceptive woman. It would be nice to see Apatow's heart, wit, and brain directed on the other half of the population, too.