Frat Pack Is Back!
The beer-soaked fraternity comedy Old School may have inaugurated the genre of man-child bromances, but Anchorman first united the “Frat Pack” under its presumptive leader, Judd Apatow, launching the filmmaker’s awesomely puerile career. The “Frat Packager” has since enjoyed a remarkable string of hits—a streak predicted to continue with Anchorman 2, in which most of the gang reprise their roles. Ladies and gentlemen, the Frat Pack is back!
Judd Apatow’s first commercial success, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy marked the beginning of an era when he could write his own ticket. After years of scripting and producing smart satire, Apatow had found a winning formula: dressing up the Frat Pack in campy outfits and having them play characters who range from merely moronic to intellectually disabled (IQ of 48). Despite this, Anchorman is a good send-up of inane, happy talk news; the “story of the year” is a panda giving birth at the San Diego Zoo. The film also skewers 1970s sexism, with reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), more qualified than any of her sub-mental coworkers, trying to make it in a man’s world where male colleagues are busy, as she puts it, “laughing and grab-assing.” When Veronica says she wants to be a network anchor, Burgundy (Will Ferrell) thinks she’s joking. After all, he points out, men discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower, while women like Veronica are handicapped with small brains, one third the size of men’s—at least according to “science.” Then again, the best pickup line a sozzled Ron can summon for Veronica is “I want to be on you.”
Ever since Alfred Hitchcock made a clever game of taking walk-on parts in his films, directorial cameos have amused and enthralled audiences. Spotting the auteur gives viewers a jolt of satisfaction and proves their attentiveness, since many such appearances are exceptionally brief. The stunt also served as a signature for Hitch, a fun little tag that has been mimicked by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and even Ben Stiller, who stepped out of his director’s chair on The Cable Guy (1996) for a spot as a former child star on trial for killing his identical twin. Cameos like Stiller’s have become a running gag in the Frat Pack oeuvre, although they lack the subtlety of the tradition’s early examples—and maybe strive to do so. In Anchorman every Frat Pack member except Owen Wilson puts in screen time, and the cameos are hardly difficult to spot. Mini-performances by Luke Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jack Black and Stiller all take center stage. Stiller’s turn as a Latino anchorman is so exaggerated he was nominated for a Razzie—the Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor of the year.
Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow, both considered leaders of the Frat Pack, began collaborating on films and television shows more than 20 years ago, not long after meeting outside an Elvis Costello concert in 1990. But their initial joint projects—The Ben Stiller Show, The Cable Guy and Heavyweights—were marked by early cancellation, disappointing box office revenues and critical denunciation, respectively.
Perhaps the duo was simply ahead of its time. The Cable Guy, which Apatow helped write and Stiller directed, has gained cult status as a standout in the dark comedy genre, providing layered cultural references to films like Cape Fear and shows like Star Trek—notably in the jousting scene at Medieval Times, the “best restaurant in town.” Similarly, The Ben Stiller Show, which Apatow has said made his career, counted on viewers’ high cultural literacy. The show won an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series for its parodies, such as “Die Hard 12: Die Hungry,” in which Stiller hams it up as Bruce Willis’s action hero John McClane while terrorists lay siege to the local grocery store and decimate the produce section with automatic weapons.
Although we think of Judd Apatow as more closely aligned with Ben Stiller’s clique, the Frat Packager has also collaborated with the lower-brow Happy Madison Gang. This group takes its name from Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, two mid-1990s movies starring Adam Sandler, with whom Apatow arguably had his first bromance. While the two were coming up in Los Angeles comedy clubs—the Hollywood Improv, in particular—they shared an apartment in the Valley, where they apparently enjoyed late-night fettuccine, monthly dinners out at Red Lobster and Sandler’s charming game of trying to catch a glimpse of Apatow’s junk. Then Saturday Night Live hired Sandler, who promptly left for New York. But the bros reunited in Funny People, a 2009 comedy starring Sandler, directed by Apatow and coproduced by Apatow Productions and Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. Funny People remains the least critically acclaimed of the four films Apatow has directed. Maybe he should stick with the Frat Pack or, better yet, the “Slack Pack”—Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, who soften the crudeness of the buddy flick with self-deprecating humor and the occasional “I love you, man.”
Old School launched the Frat Pack by spotlighting three of the clique’s most prominent actors—Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughan. Its title accurately describes this frat-boy comedy, in which grown men must, rather improbably, return to school. This scenario isn’t new: Rodney Dangerfield did it in, well, Back to School (1986). But at least when Wilson and Ferrell do it, they aim a little higher than grammar school—unlike Billy Madison (1995), which follows Adam Sandler as he returns to elementary school as a grown man, something he turns out to be barely qualified for. Billy Madison, along with Happy Gilmore (1996), spawned the Happy Madison Gang, the Frat Pack’s rival clutch of big-screen comedic actors led by Sandler, who created such gems as You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) and the David Spade vehicles Joe Dirt (2001) and Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003). As juvenile as Old School, Anchorman and other Frat Pack films are, they don’t come close to the sub-humor of the Happy Madison lot, as the titles of their seminal films painfully demonstrate.
Since many consider Old School the ur–Frat Pack movie and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks foreshadows many of his films, the two projects can be seen as harbingers of the bromances that dominate big screens today—especially since both focus on friendships in small, exceedingly loyal circles and feature school mascots, streaking and dope. But the similarities stop there: Frat boys exist on an entirely different plane than either freaks or geeks. This real-world division is made clear in an early scene from Freaks and Geeks, in which a cheerleader and a jock sit happily in the bleachers. The camera then pans down to the burnouts, assembled in a netherworld beneath the stands.
Frat humor as depicted, for example, in Old School and Animal House (1978) is raunchy, alcohol-soaked and juvenile, and it typically portrays women as either sex objects or obstacles to having a good time. The nerds in Freaks and Geeks are largely innocent but wise beyond their years; for them, girls are completely unobtainable. If nerd humor is about grown-up minds trapped in adolescent bodies, frat humor is about stunted adolescents inhabiting the bodies of full-grown men.
When precocious comedy geek Judd Apatow was in high school, he started his own campus radio show, largely as a pretext for meeting and interviewing stand-up comics. Apatow landed interviews with legends such as Steve Allen, John Candy and Jerry Seinfeld. The list, however, did not include his core holy trinity of heroes—the Marx Brothers (who were dead), Bill Cosby and Steve Martin—although he did score a “personal response” from Martin, a fill-in-the-blank, thank-you form letter ironically admonishing celebrities who don’t take the time to write back to their fans. Martin thereby earned Apatow’s enduring respect, and when Apatow, with filmmaker Paul Feig, created Freaks and Geeks, set during the 1980-to-1981 school year, he made the white-haired comedian a recurring motif. In a crucial moment, nerdy Sam Weir realizes he can’t ever love Cindy Sanders, a girl who finds no humor whatsoever in Martin’s performance in The Jerk (1979). If there’s a little bit of Apatow in Sam, there’s an even larger sprinkling in another of the show’s geeks, Neal Schweiber, a suburban Jewish kid who lives for Saturday Night Live, does bad impressions and dresses up as Groucho Marx for Halloween.
Although he was neither 40 nor, presumably, a virgin at the time, Judd Apatow has said The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the most personal thing he has ever written. He relates only too well to Steve Carell’s comically chaste Andy Stitzer, a character who hangs out with a gang of womanizing players but is himself insecure around women. Andy’s posse offers ludicrously bad advice, coaxing him into dating a prostitute, picking up drunk women, speed dating and manscaping. These strategies net Andy a transvestite, a clubber who vomits in his face, a woman who wants him to wear a dress, and a smiley-face pattern of raw patches on his hysterically hirsute chest. (The chest-waxing scene finds Carell issuing a string of increasingly absurd expletives, such as “nipple fuck” and “Kelly Clarkson.”) Incidentally, Apatow also relates to an abundance of body hair, claiming Carell’s chest mane is nothing compared with his own. But there’s another autobiographical aspect of The 40-Year-Old Virgin: namely, the man-child running smack into middle age. The next three projects Apatow directed, Knocked Up, Funny People and This Is 40, feature Peter Pan types shocked out of protracted adolescence by grown-up situations—impending parenthood, life-threatening disease and midlife crisis.
If Sam Weir, lead geek from Freaks and Geeks, were to stay pretty much the same as he was as a high school freshman, he might well grow up to be Andy Stitzer, the famed 40-year-old virgin. There’s a bit of Pee-wee Herman in Steve Carell’s bike-riding, breakfast-loving, toy-collecting character but also an equal dose of Sam, who frets about having the right amount of chest hair and worries that nobody will ever find him attractive. If Andy is Sam’s future, it seems inevitable that he’ll eventually befriend those on the freak side of the divide, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s deadpan stoner, Cal, the logical extension of Ken Miller from Freaks and Geeks. Both are played by Seth Rogen, who specializes in smart, sardonic slackers with a soft side. In the case of Freaks and Geeks, this tenderness also comes from Sam’s sister, Lindsay (played by the winsome Linda Cardellini), from whose perspective the show is mostly told. And Catherine Keener, playing Andy’s clear-eyed love interest, Trish Piedmont, outclasses typical Frat Pack raunch, turning Virgin into a rom com–bromance crossover. More than anything, the film feels like a grown-up version of the entire sweet, sentimental show.