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‘The Big Sick’ Producer Judd Apatow: Inside His Unlikely Comedy Empire

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"The Big Sick" star Kumail Nanjiani is the next in a long line of comedians Apatow has helped to unlock their big screen potential.

Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Amazon and Lionsgate’s release of The Big Sick – opening in theaters June 23rd in New York & Los Angeles and everywhere July 14. Find out more here.

Kumail Nanjiani is about to become a movie star. His film “The Big Sick” was the hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became the best reviewed comedy in recent memory.

Nanjiani is an unlikely star. A Pakistani-American stand up comedian – best known for playing the straight man in supporting roles, most notably as Dinesh in HBO’s “Silicon Valley”. Instead, the way he got his breakout role in “The Big Sick” was writing it himself. Under the mentorship of producer of Judd Apatow, Nanjiani and his wife, co-writer Emily V. Gordon, spent three years developing the story of their unusual real life courtship and Nanjiani’s conflict of keeping his relationship with a white woman from his immigrant parents.

Nanjiani isn’t the first nontraditional comedic star Apatow has encouraged to follow this path. By helping comedians like Nanjiani craft stories that embrace both their unfiltered, edgy (and sometimes raunchy) humor, as well as the emotionally messy conflicts that lie beneath their persona, Apatow has helped create a new generation of stars that has changed the face of the modern Hollywood movie comedies.

Steve Carell

“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was Apatow’s big screen debut as a director, and his first foray into building a film around an unlikely comedic protagonist.  Carell, who co-wrote the film with Apatow, was best known as the earnest, nerdy correspondent on “The Daily Show.” The film, which was largely improvised, takes a standard male comedy promise – let’s get the virgin laid – and finds incredible depth in how hard it is for men to grow up and establish healthy relationships. From an inward search by Carell’s character into his hermetically sealed world emerges an incredibly moving relationship with a customer (Catherine Keener) he meets on the sale floor at the electronics store where he works.

Following the film’s surprising success, Carell went on the star in a number of big-budget Hollywood comedies like “Evan Almighty” and “Date Night,” while anchoring NBC’s “The Office” for six seasons.

Seth Rogen

Since he was 18 years old, Rogen has been a part of the Apatow universe, playing supporting roles in “Freaks and Geeks” and “40-Year-Old Virgin.” In “Knocked Up” Apatow took Rogen’s lovable stoner persona and built a movie around the premise of “What if this guy got you pregnant?” The film was an enormous breakout success, and Rogen became a bankable Hollywood star playing the lovable slacker, but who could no longer be seen as a two-dimensional character used simply for comedic relief.

Even as a teenager. Rogen wanted to write, which Apatow encouraged with early gigs on his TV shows. After the success of “Knocked Up,” Apatow produced Rogen and his writing/producing partner Evan Goldberg’s first films “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.”

Lena Dunham

When Dunham’s $65,000 film “Tiny Furniture” premiered at SXSW in 2010, she was part of a new breed of lo-fi, low-budget and sometimes low-energy indies that spoke to post-college malaise. Apatow instantly saw a unique and surprisingly well-developed voice in the 24-year-old actress, writer and director, and helped her setup the groundbreaking series “Girls” at HBO. Apatow, who occasionally wrote an episode himself, helped guide Dunham in making sure the show never compromised and preserved Dunham’s vision of looking at characters who weren’t always the lovable TV versions of best friends.

Jason Segel

There is something so incredibly enduring about Segel’s onscreen persona that it is easy to imagine he would have had a successful Hollywood career without Apatow, who first cast him as a teenager in “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Yet there’s a depressive, introspective side to Segel – underneath his lovable puppy dog persona that he made famous in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” – that Apatow knew could make him a big-screen leading man. This aspect of his personality was tapped in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which Segel wrote for himself to star in under the guidance of Apatow. From that point forward, Segel was able to play the romantic lead, not just the best friend, while also being able to tackle dense roles like literary genius David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.”

Amy Schumer

Despite Apatow’s track record, there were quite a few eyebrows raised when it was announced that he’d be directing Schumer in a story that would be based heavily on the comedian’s real life issues with commitment. Schumer was a well-established stand-up, and unlike Rogen or Segel hadn’t been in Apatow’s orbit, nor done narrative material like Dunham. But that didn’t matter to Apatow.

One morning, while listening to Schumer on Howard Stern’s radio show, Apatow found himself sitting in his car in a parking lot, captivated as the comedian talked about her father’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. There was something so funny and brutally honest about Schumer’s stories, he knew he wanted to help her capture that in a movie. The result was “Trainwreck,” the project that made Schumer one of the most sought after comedians in Hollywood.

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