For the past two weeks, I’ve been digging through the gutter of ancient Greek and Roman comedy to find the grodiest jokes and weirdest plots from the classical world. Turns out, the founders of Western culture had dirty, dirty little minds just like we do in the good old US of A. But we can definitely give the Greeks and Romans a run for their money — the past few decades have been a golden age of gross-out gags. One name in particular has become synonymous with outrageous laughs. Whether he’s writing, directing, producing, or just making fart noises in the corner, Judd Apatow has become the face of a certain brand of smut. The funny thing is, a lot of his movies would have been right at home on the ancient stage. So here, ranked from least to most hilarious, are five of my favorite Apatow films — and the ancient plays that look a lot like them.
1. Celebrities in Hell: This Is the End and Frogs
Apatow mentored Seth Rogen as he filmed this 2013 apocaflic, in which a bunch of showbiz blockheads get hurled into hell on earth. Rogen and his stoner buddies (Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, etc.) get passed over by the rapture because their lives have been empty and debauched. So they have to fight to survive while the earth is plagued by molten brimstone, ravenous demons with grotesquely large genitalia, and Emma Watson. Only by demonstrating some kind of meaningful altruism can they get tractor-beamed up to heaven, where everyone gets a Segway and the Backstreet Boys are back together.
Aristophanes’ Frogs is also about a bunch of self-obsessed artists messing around in the pits of the damned. Dionysus, the showbiz god, descends past “forever-flowing crap,” an undead fiend who wants to rip his junk off, and a she-devil “with a bronze leg . . . and the other made of cow-poop,” in search of a writer worth his salt. The one playwright whose material has more substance than a shopping list gets tractor-beamed back to earth. Finding someone in show business who’s not too vapid to justify his existence turns out to take a worryingly long time.
(Aristophanes, Frogs 145 ff.; 475 ff.; 294 ff.)
2. Mismatched Bros: Step Brothers, Brothers, and The Two Menaechmuses
Step Brothers is a twist on the classic long-lost-brothers gag. In this version, two developmentally stunted troglodytes (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) are forced to share a room when their long-suffering single parents get married. After a brief period of unadulterated loathing, the two losers quickly become fast friends based on a mutual fondness for such classic sources of male bonding as Good Housekeeping and John Stamos. The unlikely team first breaks up and then rescues the upcoming marriage in a heartwarming tale of friendship, brotherhood, and the violent physical abuse of elementary school children.
The unlikely-brothers-get-united bit was a crowd favorite in ancient Greece and Rome — the routine usually involved two mismatched, long-lost bros getting implausibly reunited. Two Romans, Terence and Plautus, did their own versions, both ripping off old Greek schticks. Plautus had to start his remake, The Two Menaechmuses, by promising that “even though the story imitates the Greeks, it still doesn’t imitate Athens.” This time it’s different, I swear! Just like Ferrell and Reilly, Greek and Roman brothers usually went through a series of goofy misadventures before everything turned out alright and somebody (or everybody) got married.
(Plautus, The Two Menaechmuses 11-2)
3. Getting Laid: Superbad and The Grump
Even as a producer, Apatow employs subtly variegated recurring themes throughout his work — one might call them leitmotifs. Superbad is an extended meditation on the nuanced and sophisticated leitmotif of doughy dweebs who can’t get laid to save their lives. It’s funny because one of them is fat. The plot follows two loveably hopeless dinguses who try everything they can think of to get some action with the girls of their dreams. Along the way, they run into a couple of helpful lunatics who encourage kids to live on the wild side by doing things like setting police cars on fire.
Apatow’s not alone: the ancient Greek goofball Menander loved watching wimpy dorks trying desperately to get into girls’ pants, too. In Menander’s play The Grump the nerdy Sostratos is just as helplessly randy as the boys in Superbad. The Grump even comes with its own older, “wiser” nut job mentor, who tries to get Sostratos to loosen up by suggesting arson and kidnapping. The Grump’s title character — a bitter old man who’d donkey punch a guy for stepping on his lawn — even shows up for a cameo in Superbad. Only in Apatow’s film, he’s armed with a baseball bat…
4. Ladies’ Night: Bridesmaids and Lysistrata
In Bridesmaids poop jokes aren’t just for dudes anymore. Led by Kristen Wiig, a ragtag team of unlikely wedding planners limps its way through a gauntlet of prenuptial preparations, mostly involving either weird, uncomfortable innuendo, or farting. Highlights of their plans include a proposed bachelorette party with “tanned gentlemen that swallow fire and wear sarongs,” and a fitting session gone horribly, horribly wrong by way of food poisoning. At Salon.com (the celebrated media titan that brought you nothing of value ever), Mary Elizabeth Williams hailed Bridesmaids as a breakthrough moment for women in comedy, a “triumph for vomit, and feminism.”
Actually, though, girls have been making smutty jokes for thousands of years. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Greece fight for peace using the mighty power of their ladybits. At their first meeting, they start kidding around about their project: “how big is it?” the ladies ask. “Huge,” Lysistrata answers. “And is it thick, too?” They ask. “Oh my god it’s SO thick,” Lysistrata gushes. The rest of the play leaves no doubt that Aristophanes thought women could be as gross and sex-crazed as men. As usual, Williams and her fellow progressives are 2.5 millennia late to the party.
(Aristophanes, Lysistrata 23 ff.)
5. Unplanned Parenthood: Knocked Up and The Mother-in-Law
Apatow’s titles are many things, but subtle they aren’t. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl get trashed out of their minds and end up in bed together. Rogen seems pretty stoked about the whole thing — when he’s informed of it the next morning — until he finds out that Heigl’s pregnant. The situation seems potentially salvageable, except for the awkward fact that Rogen’s character is a washed-up schlub. But as Rogen gets his act together, Heigl starts to fall for him, and the two end up sticking together with their baby girl for an impromptu happily-ever-after.
Before The Mother-in-Law even opens, our hero Pamphilus has already knocked some chick up while trashed out of his mind. So he’s a step ahead of Rogen there. Pamphilus, too, spends the rest of his life with the “some chick,” whose name is Philumena. Just like Rogen and Heigl, Pamphilus and Philumena get off to several rocky starts: at first, Pamphilus is sure the kid isn’t his. But apparently, as Pamphilus’ dad says, “that’s no big deal,” and anyway the baby’s legit (even if Pamphilus forgot how it got there). Everyone shrugs it off and goes home.
(Terence, The Mother-in-Law 781)
Now, I know there are some Apatow fans out there, and I know you’ve got some favorites that aren’t on this list. What are they? The guy’s a movie-making machine: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Anchorman — classics, all (though not the ancient kind). And the list goes on. Which one’s your favorite, and why? And would any of them make good ancient comedies? The comments are open — toss out some ideas! Plus, come back next week for a wrap-up to the whole series, and an ode to the dirty joke.