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How Judd Apatow Shaped the Modern Dramedy

In 2017, ‘Apatovian’ is becoming more synonymous with emotional comedies than stoner jokes. That’s a good thing.

(Amazon Studios/AP Images/HBO/Lionsgate/Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Amazon Studios/AP Images/HBO/Lionsgate/Netflix/Ringer illustration)

The charm of The Big Sick lies in how comfortably it fits into preexisting genres. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s dramatization of their real-life courtship — the cowriters are now a married couple — has rightly been credited as casually revolutionary in its treatment of topics like immigrant identity, life-threatening illness, and dating across cultural lines. Nanjiani’s character, also named Kumail Nanjiani, struggles with the expectations — law school, arranged marriage — his parents place on him even as The Big Sick is careful not to demonize them. On the other side of the relationship, the film doesn’t shy away from the terror and shock of Emily’s sudden sickness, recognizing that, for the patient, recovery is only the beginning of working through your trauma.

The movie slyly packages this heady mix of themes in a recognizable narrative: the romantic comedy. Nanjiani is an avowed fan of the format — check out this thoroughly charming anecdote about his relationship with Four Weddings and a Funeral — and the warmth of his on-screen chemistry with Zoe Kazan, who plays Gordon, is essential to selling the emotion of the titular event. The Big Sick is the triumphant announcement of two new and refreshing voices with a masterful command of a largely dormant genre. But it’s also the latest iteration of the Judd Apatow Production, a designation with tropes and tics unto its own. Boosting performers has gone from a pleasant side effect of Apatow’s early career to, in 2017, a primary aim of his current one; though it’s far from the first, The Big Sick is one of the most successful products of Apatow’s model to date.

Even before Apatow pivoted into his current godfather role of elevating midcareer comedians to a new level of exposure, he’d earned a reputation as a talent scout. It’s hard to think of a television series with a more outsized ratio of influence to episode run as Freaks and Geeks, the beloved single-season NBC dramedy that launched James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel. (Apatow executive produced the show alongside creator Paul Feig and was largely responsible for the Freaks half of the cast, which all three actors’ characters fell into.) Apatow’s feature directing — The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is 40 — helped develop his signature style: the improvisatory basis, the accompanying two-hour runtimes, a fascination with the effects of age on beta-male masculinity. The films also continued Freaks and Geeks’ penchant for starting or accelerating careers. Before Virgin, Steve Carell was a Daily Show alum who appeared to have fulfilled his destiny with a season of The Office; now, he has an Oscar nomination and his pick of prestige roles.

But there’s been a perceptible shift in Apatow’s M.O. this decade, starting with his executive producer title on HBO’s Girls. Apatow cowrote 10 episodes of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s six-season series, but his involvement seemed to encompass the entire process of guiding an independent filmmaker into a premium-cable showrunner. "I thought: I can help Lena build a machine to let her do her best work," he told The New York Times in a 2017 joint interview with Dunham, who praised him as "deeply collaborative in a way I wasn’t when we started." Dunham and Konner made clear that Apatow’s position was far from ceremonial, pushing for anti-heroine Hannah Horvath to present as more realistically unpolished and even getting credit as "the man behind the breastfeeding plot" in April’s finale. Apatow’s influence can certainly be felt in Girls’ style, from the more traditionally comedic one-liners ("Every time I look at your baby, I’ll see my own death" was one of his suggestions) to the final season’s controversial focus on parenthood as a conduit to maturity. But the focus remained squarely on Dunham, as it should have, with Apatow’s contributions acting in service to her developing style rather than supplementing it with his own. The show is the beginning of Apatow-as-Guru, an identity that’s gradually come to supplant Apatow-as-Author.

That cultivation would become a common theme of Apatow’s subsequent works. Though Trainwreck is technically Apatow’s most recent feature, it’s largely remembered as the first — and so far, biggest — Amy Schumer Movie, translating her hard-partying persona into a box-office hit and instantly transforming her, for better or worse, into a movie star. Like Girls, Trainwreck is heavily autobiographical, another attribute of the stories Apatow seems drawn to in both his work and others’. There’s also Love, the Netflix series whose DNA bears a strong resemblance to The Big Sick: It, too, narrates the real-life romance between its two primary writers — cocreators Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin — with the male half of the couple playing a version of himself. And there’s Crashing and Career Suicide, the HBO projects from stand-ups Pete Holmes and Chris Gethard. When I spoke to both comics, each credited Apatow with having a hand in regulating the emotional tone of their stories about divorce (Crashing) and mental illness (Career Suicide). Gethard recalled how one of the most significant figures in contemporary comedy counterintuitively pushed him away from stand-up and toward more straightforward emotion. Along with the likes of Jenji Kohan, Apatow has arguably been a major force in shaping the modern dramedy, and along with it, audiences’ understanding that not all comedies have to be laugh riots.

The Big Sick brings nearly every strain of Apatow’s mentoring tendencies together into a single vehicle. Its star is a stand-up — Apatow is an avid fan and former practitioner of the form, even returning to it to promote Trainwreck in 2015 — who likely would have taken at least a couple of more years to make the leap from sitcom ensemble player to romantic lead without Apatow as patron. Its story combines specific strains like comedy shop talk and Pakistani American family dinners with more universal concerns like generational divides and whether bad timing can sink a relationship. Apatow himself was heavily involved — he suggested Holly Hunter and Ray Romano for the roles of Gordon’s onscreen parents — but the final product feels like the singular creation of its cowriters. And the romantic comedy about a comedian will almost certainly make you cry. "Judd’s whole thing is that stories should be messy and emotionally complicated," Nanjiani told Rolling Stone. "For him, the comedy comes last."

Over the years, Apatow has assembled an impressive group of colleagues and protegés that Nanjiani looks rightfully poised to join. (The Big Sick boasts an 85 on Metacritic and garnered the highest per-screen average of the year this past weekend in limited release, though it won’t open wide until July.) The Big Sick will be rightly hailed as a deeply felt story that achieves universality through specificity, taking on all kinds of undercovered subjects with nuance and empathy and without a whiff of self-importance. But the movie’s success is nonetheless a vindication of an admirably selfless strategy: find talent and use your clout and expertise to cultivate it. In the long run, Apatow may be as well remembered for the work he facilitated as the work he made himself. Considering Apatow’s track record, I think he’d take that as a compliment. It’s certainly intended as one.