As it happens, by the time he was 26, Apatow had already landed his Larry Sanders gig, having spent most of his early 20s pounding the pavement of the standup circuit. He'd had his own act and written material for other comics. Then, "Just when I started to be decent at standup, my writing career took off. I realized that I didn't have the energy to do both, and it was becoming clear that I wasn't as funny as the people I was writing for. I used to open up on the road for Jim Carrey, and it was pretty clear I was not going to be as funny as him."
Through a mutual friend, Apatow met Ben Stiller, and together they developed an idea for an irreverent sketch-comedy series that they pitched to HBO. HBO bought the show, only to turn around and sell it to Fox, making Apatow, at the tender age of 24, one of the executive producers of a prime-time network comedy series, The Ben Stiller Show.
"I couldn't get on staff at Saturday Night Live or In Living Color," he recalls. "And then, suddenly, I have a show on the air and I'm running it and I don't know how to do anything. Ben knew what to do, so I would follow his lead and I tried to learn as fast as I could. I had no idea how to deal with the network, so I wasn't handling that well at all. If they didn't like an idea, I'd just say, 'Well, that's too bad.' I was just frank and awful and they instantly hated me."
Of his subsequent adventures in the small-screen trade, Apatow is scarcely more charitable, and it is one of the ironies of his career that this former wunderkind of that supposed "writer's medium" has found far greater creative freedom in the movies. "You don't really have any freedom on television, because you make television with a gun to your head," he says. "You write a script, and then they say, 'If you don't make these changes, we won't make your pilot.' Then, after you make your pilot, they say, 'We will not pick it up as a series unless you get rid of this actor or make these other changes.' And then, when you're on the air, they say, 'We can cancel you at any moment if you disagree with us about anything.' It's just a terrible process that makes garbage unless you luck out and find an executive who really understands what you do and has some respect for the way that you work."
Apatow has been fortunate in that respect at Universal, which produced Knocked Up, and at Sony, which will release Superbad and where he has an overall production deal. He remains committed to a feverish pace of work, provided it keeps him close to home. (About Knocked Up, which was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles, he says, "I thought, 'How close can I get to my house every day? Can I make the set literally down the street?'") He's also ever on the lookout for new faces, like Knocked Up scene-stealer Kristen Wiig, who also plays a leading role in Walk Hard and is currently writing a script that Apatow plans to produce. He hopes, above all, to continue being personal, because, he says, "I'm just getting old enough, as I head into my 40th year, to have something to say."
As I'm about to leave, Apatow asks me if I'd like to hear something. It's the title song from the Walk Hard soundtrack, as it will appear during one of the film's climactic scenes: a star-studded tribute show to the movie's faux music legend, Dewey Cox (played by John C. Reilly). Tomorrow, back on the Walk Hard set, they'll actually shoot the scene, complete with appearances by Jackson Browne, Ghostface Killah and Jewel (who memorably yodels during the bridge). Though the song is intended as parody, its lyrics, about struggling against hardship and being true to yourself, are, like so much else about Apatow's work, at once comic and heartfelt. Along with "I'm One," it could well be the anthem of his career.