Collectively, they are anything but conventional movie stars: short and fat or tall and skinny, with bad hair, skin and fashion sense, and a terminal awkwardness around women. They are the kind of actors who usually appear in movies as the goofy sideshow rather than the main attraction, and who rarely ever get the girl. But in Apatow land, it's the suave, perfectly coifed matinee idol who would seem out of his element.
"When we were making Knocked Up," Apatow says, "there were all sorts of debates about whether or not it's believable that Seth could get this woman, which I always thought were funny debates, because I believe that if you're funny and reasonably intelligent, there's no one really out of your range. But certain people are like, 'This could not happen!' They project their own issues onto it."
Still, despite his growing empire and his bloodhound's nose for fresh comic talent, Apatow is quick to downplay his status as the paterfamilias of contemporary screen comedy. "I'm a fan of comedy and I try to work with people who I admire," he says. "As a result, I have connections and working relationships with a lot of people who hopefully are good at what they do, because I would hope that I don't have crappy taste. No one's really relying on me so much as I'm relying on them. I'm lucky to have Seth as the star of a movie, because I know he can do it. Even if the town doesn't know it, in my head, I'm working with Steve Martin."
Talk to Apatow for a while and you begin to see how this self-described "typical Long Island nerdy kid" who still very much looks the part in scruffy beard, baggy pants and dirty sneakers has moved through life with the outsider's confidence that what goes around comes around.
"When I was a kid," he tells me, "I thought that so much of school was unfair. I thought, 'How come every day they line us up against the fence and everyone tells me that I suck? And no matter how hard I try, I can't prove to them that I'm good at sports, because I'm playing deep right field and the ball never comes to me. And because the ball never comes to me, I'm not getting better.'"
It was Apatow's early love of comedy and standup comedians, he says, that "empowered me and it made me feel better about my situation. I thought, 'Someday, people will appreciate the fact that I'm different.' We put a lot of that into Freaks and Geeks the idea that even though these kids were under the thumb of these bullies, they knew they were actually the people who would do well. It's almost like, subconsciously, they knew they would create Microsoft."
For the record, Apatow did not create Microsoft, but by the age of 16, he had already landed a job washing dishes and busing tables in a Long Island comedy club. The salary was barely enough to cover the cost of Apatow's cab fare. "I wasn't there to make money," he recalls, "I was there for the moments in between when I could watch." Around the same time, he started his own talk show on his high school's radio station. The signal may have barely made it out of the parking lot, but that hardly dulled the young Apatow's ambition.
"I just started calling up comedians' publicists, trying to get interviews, and they didn't know it wasn't a real radio station," he says. "I would show up with this enormous tape recorder from the AV squad and they would have to tolerate me for an hour." Those were the boom days of standup, and over the next two years, Apatow's "guests" included up-and-coming comics with names like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, John Candy, and Garry Shandling, for whom Apatow would work years later as a writer and executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show.
"I could ask them, 'How do you write a joke?' And they would actually lay it out."
He also learned the value of patience and determination. "The thing I took away from all the interviews was that it takes a very long time [to make it]. Someone had told me that to be a standup comedian which was my only goal at the time it takes seven years to figure out what your persona is. And if you have that kind of discipline when you're first starting out, it changes your whole way of looking at things. I was 15 or 16 at the time, so I figured it would take me about 10 years, that by the time I was 25 or 26, I'd be doing okay."