Comedy’s New Wave which was reigned in by Judd Apatow and company, has helped establish the norm in comedies being made today. If it wasn’t for a little film called The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the whole outlook of comedy in cinema today could be different.
That’s not to say there weren’t outliers at this time that were making films like the one’s Apatow helped make popular in the mainstream. I think Office Space, American Pie, Clerks, and The Big Lebowski can all definitely be looked at as early influences for Judd Apatow’s New Frat Pack. But, this wasn’t the norm for making comedies at the time.
I call Judd Apatow’s crew the ‘New Frat Pack’ because during the 90’s, comedy saw it’s peak with Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. But, at the same time, a new wave of actors, writers, and directors were entering the scene that would later come to be known as comedy’s Frat Pack. The Frat Pack’s starting lineup included Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and Vince Vaughn. These guys were about to start creating the same close relationship with audiences that Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler had perfected and were going to start making films that would entwine the worlds of the Frat Pack and the New Frat Pack.
In 1996, Ben Stiller came in and directed Jim Carrey in the Cable Guy while, the Wilson brothers were working on their first film with Wes Anderson. Soon Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, and the whole crew started making films that would at least go on to be cult classics, if not immediate classics. By the early 00’s, they were all consistently heading their own films like Zoolander, Old School, Dodgeball, and Anchorman. But, in 2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin came on the scene and changed the status of how comedy would be perceived in the mainstream.
Judd Apatow seems to be the biggest conductor of this new excited class of members of the Frat Pack, but Todd Phillips and Adam Mckay also played very prominent roles in the formation of the New Frat Pack through directing and writing. Apatow spent his early years producing smaller films and contributing writing to others like Happy Gilmore, The Cable Guy, and Bruce Almighty. But, when he took his directorial debut with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, things changed, not only for him, but for his whole crew.
Some of the big comedies that prefaced The 40-Year-Old Virgin were Zoolander, Dodgeball, and Anchorman. The latter films were all very extreme and idiosyncratic in its characters, story, and setting. We got our kicks out of the absurdity of the story as a whole. On the other hand, The 40-Year-Old Virgin introduced what Office Space, Clerks, and American Pie had previously done. They presented a story that was relatable. They ditched the fantastic and peculiar characters and plots and substituted it for people in situations you could relate to. They were no longer deriving humor from the sheer absurdity of the characters and story, they were creating humor by acknowledging the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of our own reality.
The idea of there being a helplessly anxious 40 year-old-virgin out there in the world isn’t just a possibility, it’s a damn statistic. The 40-Year-Old Virgin also introduced and officially welcomed guys like Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen into the Frat Pack. Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Jason Segel and even James Franco are some of the others that joined the brigade as well. I guess you could look at them as the new freshman class that just pledged and were about to be initiated as a new class headed by Judd Apatow. Soon a new style of comedies were being made a la The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Knocked Up, Superbad, and The Hangover were all timeless comedies that hit because they were all instances people had either gone through, were going through, or could go through. Even Step Brothers could be plausible and at it’s core is taken from that new sibling rivalry and new family dynamic that’s very real in homes being joined together through marriage.
Today, most comedies being made are going to be based on this ‘Relatable’ formula that Judd Apatow and his crew set as precedent. Think of the last actual good comedy you saw lately. If it sucked shit then it likely didn’t follow the formula, or if they did, maybe the director was just trash. But, that’s a whole other conversation maybe we can have in the future. Nonetheless, it may have seemed small at the time, but the impact that The 40-Year-Old Virgin made is something that is going to be looked back on as a major point marking a shift in the dynamics and storytelling of comedies in film.