The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
If you lived in the US in 1999 and were sitting down to watch NBC on the 25th of September of that year, then you would have been considered crazy if you declared that you were watching the next batch of comedy superstars make their mark. You would have been correct, however. When Freaks and Geeks premiered on television that year, it was not a hit with audiences, but it did connect with a cult following, gained critical acclaim and not only launched the career of several of its stars, but also the careers of many prominent writers and directors involved with the series.
A television series starring Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, James Franco and John Francis Daley, with Paul Feig as creator and Judd Apatow as an executive producer would no doubt be a smash hit today, but audiences in 1999 seemingly didn’t care, even if it did fall into the realm of a teen comedy-drama, a massively popular genre at the best of times, on the small screen as it was on the big.
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The late 90s was the era of glossier fare such as Dawson’s Creek, and being a teen drama meant that Freaks and Geeks couldn’t help but be compared to Kevin Williamson’s series. It was a much more honest and realistic-feeling concoction, but being on a network that didn’t know how to promote it or deal with it – not to mention Feig and Apatow’s approach to character and comedy meaning that its cast weren’t the obvious type of supermodels that you would usually find in such a series, and a tone that was bittersweet and sad as much as funny – meant that it would end up joining the pantheon of great shows cancelled before their time.
Flash forward several years later and Apatow and many involved in the series would have the last laugh. Apatow would come to define the voice of big-screen American comedy in a way not seen since the days of the many SNL alumni and John Hughes in the 80s. That Hughes was an influence on Apatow isn’t a surprise, but his approach to comedy and his name would be on a plethora of movies as a producer, while he would also be writer and director of many of his own productions as well.
It might be strange to think of Knocked Up as a romantic comedy, but for all intents and purposes it is. It’s a romantic comedy that was one of the biggest of 2007, cemented Apatow’s now big-name status as a writer and director of Hollywood comedies, and sealed the deal, so to speak, for the rest of his career following the similar blockbuster success of his previous film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a film that not only made Steve Carell a massive star but which also proved a beneficial boost to the then-struggling ratings of the US version of The Office.
The film is undoubtedly a coarser proposition in terms of its humour, but showed the direction that comedy films, in general, were going and comedies of a romantic nature. The central conceit at the heart of the film and which drives most of the humour isn’t just merely the pregnancy storyline that kickstarts events, but also just how vastly different the lead characters are to each other. Seth Rogen’s Ben is very much like his Freaks and Geeks character, only this time in the throes of adulthood. That two of his best friends are portrayed by Jason Segel and Martin Starr, also Freaks and Geeks regulars, just reiterated how much Ben’s life felt like an extension of the world of the television series that he, his co-stars and Apatow had gotten their big breaks with.
Copious amounts of pot are smoked, bodily fluid antics are played out, and his life is one fuelled by the constant use of a bong and a partying lifestyle. On the opposite end is Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, who meets Ben at a bar, one thing leads to another and before she knows it she’s pregnant with his child. Her life is more ordered, with a well-paid job working with the E! Entertainment Network (which leads to cameos from Apatow alumni such as James Franco and Steve Carell) and a more orderly home life where she lives in the guest house of her sister and brother in law, played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. The differences couldn’t be clearer, and where most romantic comedies end with sex or end up building up to it, this begins there and then works its way to a happy ending between the two, but not before laying on comedy and drama based on their differences.
Apatow’s brand of humour sometimes falls more into the realm of stoner humour and was even touched upon in as far as they could go with it on Freaks and Geeks’ network television home. This is no different, with Ben’s life made up of him and his friends getting high, drunk, taking illicit substances and having a generally fun time. Allison’s life is more ordered, less fun, the film positing the notion that the guys get to have fun, but it’s the girls that need to keep things ordered and as such not have as much fun at all.
Of course, I’m not the first one to make that observation. A few years after its release, Katherine Heigl said the same thing in an interview and got criticised for seemingly biting the hand that was feeding her, but she’s not far off in her critique of the film. The trajectory of Ben’s story arc is that he moves away from his pot-fuelled lifestyle and attempts at starting a website devoted to allowing users to find nude scenes from movies to a more stable job and new apartment, thus becoming the type of guy that Alison deserves.
However, the way the film is done, there is no doubt that Apatow the writer and director wants us to enjoy the antics of the guys more; they are wittier and funnier to be around, while Alison and sister Debbie are more stern and serious, although Mann does great work with her subtly funny withering line delivery and eventual heartbreak when her suspicions of Pete having an affair turn out to be for nought as she learns that his secret life involved fantasy football, in a scene that is played to perfection by Mann and Rudd but which manages to be strangely sad and funny at the same time because of Pete’s confession that he wanted time away from her.
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The somewhat disjointed gender disparity doesn’t just extend to Allison and Ben; the same happens to supporting characters Debbie and Pete, quiet scene stealers that Apatow would centre a spin-off movie around entitled This is 40, somewhat given a hard time by the critics but which I thought was one of Apatow’s best films, possibly even his best.
While the film has a lot of stoner and sexual humour, the two-hour running time of this and so many of his directed films and the snapshot they give of the lives they follow have a feeling more reminiscent of James L. Brooks and John Hughes than Richard Curtis or Nora Ephron. Apatow isn’t a romantic comedy writer, but this does fall into the genre for the story it tells and he would once again return to the genre in a way with Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, a film that would make Schumer an international star but which would also, brilliantly, subvert the gender tropes displayed here.