Sexuality and Sex Comedy
Tasha: On the most recent episode of The Dissolve Podcast, we used Sex Tape as a springboard for a conversation about sex comedies, and why so many of the ones aimed at adults fail. One of the conclusions we reached: Teen sex comedies are often about failure and humiliation, mixed with eventual relief at finally joining the fellowship of People Who’ve Experienced That Thing Everyone Talks About As The Be-All And End-All Of Human Experience. Whereas adult sex comedies generally have to find a take on sex that isn’t about peer pressure, or first-time fears, and they generally try to get at the topic from a less snickery direction. One of the reasons The 40-Year-Old Virgin works so well is because it’s shaped so much like a teenage sex comedy: It’s raunchy and sniggering, and it’s about first-time jitters and peer pressure. But at the same time, it feels fresh because it finds a more adult perspective on those things. It isn’t just about the sad, desperate adventures of the non-sex-having dude, it’s about what sex means to adults, from the way thinking about it channels us straight back to those snickering adolescent days to the sweeter side that takes in the trust and connection implied by intimate human contact. It’s a sex comedy that manages to have its cake and eat it too, no double entendres intended.
Scott: That’s exactly right, Tasha. The 40-Year-Old Virgin has all the elements of a teen sex comedy—the quest-to-end-virginity plot, the comic humiliation, the terrible advice from more experienced friends, the underlying sweetness—but having a middle-aged man as the hero rather than a teenager makes all the difference. It isn’t that funny if a teenager wakes up with an erection and pees all over the bathroom—that would be a documentary—but it’s a perfectly hilarious way to open this movie, with Carell in a state of arrested adolescence. By the same token, a young person likening a woman’s breasts to “bags of sand” might be amusingly naïve, but the conceit again amplifies the laughs, especially in the context of dudes exchanging nasty sex stories. But the film is smart about how a 40-year-old virgin would really feel about sex at this late stage of his life—absolutely terrified—and about his true desire, which isn’t to lose his virginity (a prospect he abandoned long ago), but to find some companionship. And there we arrive at a favorite Apatow theme: man-children learning to become men.
Genevieve: Here’s something I’ve never gotten about this movie’s take on sex, though: Once Andy comes clean to Trish about his virginity, the film cuts immediately to their wedding, and then to their post-wedding hotel-room deflowering… which means the couple continued to wait at least a few months before doing the deed. (I don’t care how much money Andy got for those mint-in-box toys, a wedding that lavish needs at least half a year of planning.) So ultimately, Andy ends up waiting for marriage, which is a weirdly traditional ending for this very non-traditional comedy to take. Then again, comedies—in the Shakespearian sense of the word—almost always end with a wedding, so it’s kind of a neat nod to that convention. But even though it’s a natural extension of the film’s theme of “relationship first, sex second,” the whole “they got married and lived happily ever after” conclusion has always rubbed me the wrong way just a bit. Thankfully, it’s immediately undercut by the fantastically silly “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” closing number, which remains one of my favorite elements of the movie.
Now, at the risk of being a killjoy: Since the heading here is sex and sexuality, I feel I have to bring up 40-Year-Old Virgin’s politically incorrect approach to homosexuality. The “You know how I know you’re gay” runner is one of the film’s most enduring bits, and while it certainly works as a way to illustrate the immaturity of Andy’s friends, there’s something discomforting about a film—which has no gay characters to offer a corrective—throwing around “gay” as an insult. And don’t even get me started on the bit about the “transvestite” prostitute. I realize I’ve just thrown us into a minefield here, and I truly don’t think 40-Year-Old Virgin means any of these gags in a mean-spirited way, but I wonder how they scan to all of you nine years after the fact?
Tasha: I’m curious whether that sex-worker scene plays differently in different versions—I think Scott and I watched the Unrated Director’s Cut, and Genevieve and Nathan watched the theatrical cut. In the UDC, Carell’s line after the extremely brief hotel encounter is “You know what? Hiring a transvestite prostitute isn’t helping me, man,” and it’s delivered with a mild exasperation that doesn’t register as gay panic for me, so much as yet another instance of, “Guuuuuys, please stop trying.” He doesn’t flee in terror the way he would have in the 1980s, he just decides this experience isn’t going to fix his problems. The scene is still problematic, but it isn’t Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, either.
In the same way, the “Know how I know you’re gay?” scene didn’t much alarm me, both because Rogen and Rudd’s characters are so openly played as overgrown, twerpy adolescents that the film never seems to approve of anything they do, and because again, there’s no sense that either of them is recoiling from the prospect of being gay, or misidentified as gay. Instead, they’re actively encouraging those digs. In both cases, it feels like the movie’s going through the motions of older, more homophobic gags, and defanging them—the same way it does with the nigh-endless UDC scene where Jay and Mooj argue about commissions and call themselves (rather than each other) the N-word. It feels like the film is trying to chew up all sorts of aggressive, obnoxious, regressive humor, and regurgitate it as something milder, just a series of soft joshes between friends.
Nathan: Genevieve, I’m with you. Forget “politically incorrect”; there are a lot of things in 40-Year-Old Virgin that are just plain offensive from the standpoint of 2014. Aggressive female sexuality is often treated in a mocking light; Leslie Mann and Elizabeth Banks’ boldly uninhibited, brazenly unselfconscious performances as women the protagonist does not have sex with helped establish them as top-tier physical comedians down for anything, but their indiscriminate horniness is supposed to repulse the audience as well as Andy. Yet I imagine that when Apatow was making the movie, concepts like slut-shaming, transphobia, and virgin-whore complexes were far from his mind. He was making a raunchy, R-rated sex comedy with a distinctly bro vibe, so even though we’re giving the film credit for a certain emotional sensitivity rare in the genre, I think it’s a mistake to give it credit for being too sensitive. So my question for you all is, is it fair to see this movie through the prism of 2014 identity politics and cultural sensitivity? It feels like a period piece.
Genevieve: I don’t know if it’s a matter of 2014 being more culturally sensitive than 2005, so much as a matter of my expectations changing as I grow older. I was 21 the first time I saw this movie, working in a restaurant and hanging out with dudes who behaved more or less exactly like Andy’s friends, give or take a misogynistic comment or three; I didn’t exactly relate to them more than Andy, but I definitely understood them more. Now, at 30, those jokes strike me as hopelessly immature, and I understand and relate to Andy’s frustration with his friends’ childish antics. On this viewing, I was far more aware of the pained looks and reactions he has to his friends when they act like horny teenage boys, which makes their bro-y interactions go down a little easier than if the film was merely celebrating them.
Scott: So many cans of worms here. Funny as it seems, I think we do need to look at The 40-Year-Old Virgin as a period piece, because 2014 really is a much more culturally sensitive time than 2001, to the point where veteran comedians like Apatow, Louis C.K., and Patton Oswalt have been put on the defensive about what can and cannot be said without raising hackles. That said, I think there’s a distinction worth drawing between a sequence like “You know how I know you’re gay” and the scene with the transsexual prostitute. The former can be written off as immature dudes being immature dudes, since, as Genevieve notes, the film does make it clear that Andy is often appalled by their antics. The latter made me wince quite a bit more this time around, because it joins a long tradition of transgendered people being planted as “twists” in a narrative, whether comic or dramatic (The Crying Game) or grotesque (Sleepaway Camp). It should be noted, though, that I reviewed this film back in the day, and I can’t recall anyone raising strong objections to those particular scenes in the film. I could be wrong about that, but at the time, we didn’t quite have the cultural-thinkpiece apparatus in place that we do now, when objections are raised to scenes far less offensive than those. Do you all see either of those scenes making the final cut in 2014?
Nathan: Scott, I don’t see either of those scenes making the final cut in 2014, both because the culture has evolved and become more sensitive where areas of language are concerned, but also because Apatow himself has evolved as a filmmaker as well. It’s worth noting that the two of the most talked about and zeitgeist-capturing Apatow projects of the past five years—Girls and Bridesmaids—were both created by women, and are women-focused. In fact, I remembered The 40-Year-Old Virgin as such a sweet, fundamentally gentle film that I was way more surprised by the film’s abrasiveness than I really should be, considering that I was watching a sex comedy called The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Tasha: Maybe a 2014 version of the film could get away with them if actual gay or transsexual comedians were involved, and the film were tapping into more of the reclaiming/self-deprecating/self-awareness humor that’s in vogue today, instead of being a bunch of straight white guys teasing each other. The film makes a point of setting up its characters as approaching sex from different perspectives—Paul Rudd as the bereft, bitter guy just getting out of a relationship; Seth Rogen as the casual stoner who regards sex as one of the fundamental staples of life; Romany Falco as both the womanizer and the harried boyfriend; Jane Lynch as the confident cougar on the prowl. It seems like it would have been natural enough to have gay characters with their own perspective on virginity and the importance or unimportance of an active sex life.
As to the “you’re gay” business we did get… the director’s cut has a long deleted scene that shows Rogen and Rudd improvising back and forth about the possibility of Rudd committing suicide due to his depression over being dumped, and the “Know how I know you’re gay?” joke visibly emerges and evolves in that sequence. (In the commentary on the scene, Rogen cackles about witnessing the exact moment the first line came to him.) It’s interesting to watch—especially since so many of the early iterations were cruder, but also much closer to “I know you’re gay because I’m gay too,” e.g. “…because your dick tastes like shit.” The deleted version isn’t a better version, but it reveals a lot about the process, and the seeming lack of malice—but also the lack of stretching for better, more sophisticated material—from two funny people casually looking for something outrageous to say, riffing around the idea of characters trash-talking as idly as they’re playing that videogame.
Scott: To pivot a bit from what Genevieve was saying about the fact that Andy, even after his reconciliation with Trish, waits until his wedding night to lose his virginity: On the one hand, hey, the guy has waited decades to have sex, so what’s another few months? On the other, Apatow has some old-fashioned, even conservative, ideas about what being a man is all about. Andy waits until marriage to have sex, and in Apatow’s next film, Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s slobby hero follows a one-night stand through pregnancy and into fatherhood. Andy’s friends in The 40-Year-Old Virgin do him the service of shaking him from bachelor complacency and putting him back onto the field of play, but otherwise, it’s Andy’s instincts, sweetness, and decency that let him survive their hilariously terrible ideas and land him Trish. When Andy stands up for Trish’s daughter in that group session by admitting that he, too, has never had sex, that’s the sort of masculinity Apatow respects: He’s courageous, protective, and self-sacrificing, but he certainly isn’t thumping his chest.
Genevieve: Don’t forget about This Is 40 (huh, I never realized 50 percent of Apatow’s directorial filmography is about 40-year-olds specifically), which basically ends with its conflicted male lead (Paul Rudd) sucking it up and being the family man he’s meant to be, helping raise his third child. The fatherhood angle is interesting in this film, too, as Andy slots into Trish’s family, winning over her two kids (well, the two who still live at home) with relative ease. Sure, befriending the older Marla (an alarmingly shrieky Kat Dennings) isn’t as easy as charming the magic-loving Julia, but one embarrassing Planned Parenthood confession later, she’s on his side. There’s no trepidation or hesitation on Andy’s part about the fact that Trish not only has multiple kids, but a grandkid as well; he’s surprised at first, but in no way dismayed, and he takes to the stepdad role almost immediately. It’s hard to imagine any of his SmartTech buds handling the kid situation with a fraction as much maturity as Andy displays.
Nathan: The famous chest-waxing scene is particularly fascinating and complicated when it comes to depictions of masculinity. On one hand, Andy is subjecting himself to something he knows will be excruciatingly painful, which is the height of macho. At the same time, waxing is generally associated with women and men who are obsessed with their appearance. Andy’s friends all tag along to support their friend while he undergoes what is essentially a beauty treatment, but they also derive unseemly delight in a buddy’s physical suffering, which is the cornerstone of fraternity hazing rituals.
Tasha: For what it’s worth on the wedding front, I don’t think they waited that long, elaborate decorations and real-world planning time aside: Jay’s girlfriend is clearly less than halfway through her pregnancy, implying it’s only been a few months. And as we learned from the clinic sequence, there are plenty of “outercourse” things they could have tried in the meantime, to help get Andy over his crippling fear/obsession with The One Specific Deed. But yes, it still seems like a mighty conservative step that after all that, they waited until the wedding night, and it seems to speak to Apatow’s odd traditionalist bent, which has always struck me as a lack of interest in, or understanding of, what being a grown-up means. His movies are obsessed with man-children who need to grow up, but they’re also much, much more interested in observing those man-children at play in their various areas of arrested development than in exploring any meaningful or satisfying things about the goals they’re supposedly trying to reach. The point in his movies where the man-kids grow up has always struck me as a little akin to the generic, broad stuff kids come up with to represent grown-up life when they play house: In this case, there’s a mommy, and a daddy, and they have kids, and they get married, and then they go to bed. In that order.
But one of the many reasons The 40-Year-Old Virgin is my favorite Apatow film is that it does have a separate take on manhood that’s subtler and more interesting, in the form of Andy’s gradual progression at loosening up—which means merit-based promotions at work, making actual friends, learning how to help parent, and in general being less afraid of, and defensive about, life. Becoming a man eventually means giving up his toys, but it also means taking a lot of less-dramatic and more meaningful steps, by learning to live in the world, with the people around him, without constantly bracing for a fight.
The Apatow School
Scott: One of the reasons we chose The 40-Year-Old Virgin for Blockbuster Month is its sphere of influence, which is as vast as any comedy produced this young century. Though Apatow had been a presence in comedy circles long before his debut feature, he was appreciated mainly for his involvement in one-season wonders Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, both of which now seem like the infrastructure for a comedy empire. Many of the cast members of those shows (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Jay Baruchel especially) became Apatow players, and many of the key crew members went on to helm Apatow productions, including Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Greg Mottola (Superbad). Bit players in Virgin, like Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, Mindy Kaling, and Kat Dennings, have since gotten full vehicles. And that really just scratches the surface. Apatow’s aesthetic influence is, naturally, just as prominent, with its emphasis on big comic setpieces, heroes who are slow to grow up, and films that give the actors a great deal of latitude. What are your feelings on the Apatow School? And what have I missed?
Genevieve: I think in general, I appreciate Apatow as a facilitator more than a filmmaker. As a director, he has yet to do anything I like as much as 40-Year-Old Virgin, but as a producer and the keystone of an ever-expanding group of filmmakers and actors, he’s a crucial part of the current comedy landscape. Nathan already mentioned his contributions to both Bridesmaids and Girls, both of which win him an enormous amount of goodwill in my estimation. But I’m also grateful for the hand he’s had in establishing the career of Stoller, who started out writing for Undeclared, then made his name as a director with a couple of Apatow productions, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the underrated The Five-Year Engagement. Stoller’s more recent projects, co-writing the new Muppets movies and directing this year’s winning Neighbors, were made outside the umbrella of “the Apatow school,” but the association remains, in both the onscreen talent involved in these projects, and the general feeling of loose, see-what-sticks improvisational humor. At this point, “the Apatow school” is like a sprawling, multi-generational family tree, one with numerous and varied branches that may or may not be directly connected, but deep down, all share common DNA.
Nathan: Apatow is generous with his actors, his characters, and his audience. Apatow productions (including the many films he produces, as well as the ones he writes and directs), offer the sense that he creates characters with his actors. It doesn’t seem like Apatow is writing for actors so much as collaborating with them on the creation of characters and moments, some of which are entirely of his actors’ devising. He’s given them the tools to create their own comedy, and it’s remarkable thinking about how many of the actors Apatow has worked with have gone on to have successful writing careers; we’ve mentioned many of them here, but one name that is seldom brought up is Freaks And Geeks star John Francis Daley, who is not yet 30, but has screenwriting credits on Horrible Bosses and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the latter starring Carell. The tendrils of the Apatow empire extend everywhere.
Genevieve: Along with 2004’s Anchorman (which Apatow also produced), The 40-Year-Old Virgin is usually posited as the dawn of the era of heavily improvised movie comedy. Improvisation is nothing new in movies (Christopher Guest’s career is built upon it), but Apatow and his collaborators put it front and center in such a way that it couldn’t help but become a part of the discussion surrounding these films—and every subsequent film to come out of the Apatow school, as well as many that didn’t. It’s gotten to the point that it’s getting hard to talk about mainstream comedies without debating what is and isn’t improvised (to the chagrin, I’m sure, of filmmakers who eschew improvisational looseness in favor of tightly scripted comedy). Whether this is ultimately good or bad for comedy in general is probably a debate for another time, but it’s hard to deny that 40-Year-Old Virgin is a prime example of what can be accomplished when a talented group of improvisors and an accommodating filmmaker get together.
Two of the film’s most memorable bits—the “You know how I know you’re gay” riff and the chest-waxing scene—are famously improvised; in the case of the latter, Carrell actually had his chest hair ripped out, as five cameras rolled to catch the reactions of him and the rest of the guys. There’s a reason that scene has become a classic: It has the livewire energy and sense of spontaneity that represent the best possible outcome of improvisational comedy. Do any other moments of the film strike you guys as particularly inspired bits of improvisation—or, alternately, that cross the line into the realm of “indulgent”?
Tasha: I haven’t checked the script on this one, but there were a couple of moments that certainly felt improvised that kind of bugged me: One where Andy’s co-worker Jay (Romany Malco) gets into a fight with a customer (a young Kevin Hart), and the one I mentioned earlier, where Jay and his co-worker Mooj (Gerry Bednob) argue over a sniped sales commission. Both scenes are mildly important in understanding Jay’s character, but they also both have the same basic beats, with a lot of escalation and mutual insult, and both participants throwing the N-word around. Both scenes have a tension, but they also both seem kind of lazy, and neither adds anything to Andy’s central story. (Again, I’m curious whether they stayed in the theatrical cut, or are just in the longer, baggier director’s cut I watched for this convo.) For that matter, I find the waxing scene overlong and repetitive; after the first few rips, it’s clear how the rest will go, but it’s necessary to see the whole thing to set up the way Carell continues to look like a “man-o-lantern” whenever he has his shirt off. That’s my biggest problem with improv-based comedy movies: Often, there’s an eventual payoff, an indelible surprise moment, but sometimes to set it up, directors have to leave in a lot of wandering support material that drags down the pacing.
Scott: In Apatow’s case, that problem with length and excess has been a critical bugaboo from the start: The theatrical version of this film is 116 minutes, Knocked Up is 129 minutes, Funny People is 146 minutes, and This Is 40 is 133 minutes. But then, one person’s “indulgent” is another person’s “generous.” Apatow likes to work with large ensembles, and he likes to give his actors the latitude to make big impressions in even minor roles. Think of Andy’s co-workers at SmartTech for a start: Beyond David, Cal, and Jay, there’s also wonderful stuff from Bednob’s Mooj and especially Jane Lynch as Paula, each compounding Andy’s fears about sexual practices (the Rusty Trumbone, the Dirty Sanchez, etc.) and sexual experiences. (Lynch’s monologue about the “beautiful old Guatemalan love song” is the biggest laugh in the movie for me.) As ever, we can’t know the extent to which certain scenes were scripted or modified on set—a frustration Genevieve astutely notes is shared by critics and filmmakers alike—but there’s certainly a looseness to Apatow’s work that can make it feel shaggy, but also fill it with specific life and really emphasize the talents of his actors. For as much as a film career as Carell has enjoyed after this one, I don’t think he’s ever been as funny or as fully utilized.
Tasha: Agreed, that moment where Jane Lynch lays out the story of her weird romance-novel deflowering and sings her little love song is a classic. And she says she improvised the whole thing; all she told Steve Carell was to be prepared for her to burst into song. Apparently it’s even more hilarious if you speak Spanish, and realize she’s doing entirely irrelevant first-year-Spanish-class mock dialogue—something along the line of, “Where are you going in such a hurry? / To the soccer game.” That’s a perfect example of an improvised scene that stretches a moment until it feels like it’s going to snap, but cuts just before it goes on too long.
Nathan: It seems fitting that that The 40 Year-Old-Virgin makes a prominent DVD joke (and a canny one at that, in joking that a DVD-VCR combo would be a palatable bit of technology for oh, another six months or so), because it benefitted tremendously from the greater freedom afforded by DVD. The technology let filmmakers and studios include much longer cuts with raunchier content and more adult language, as well as voluminous deleted scenes and audio commentaries that re-create the fun of hanging out with the likes of Apatow, Rogen, and Carell. DVD was made for improvisation-heavy comedies; heck, the Apatow-produced Anchorman created so much comedy that didn’t make it into the original film, they turned the deleted scenes into a second, almost completely different version called Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that the Apatow age of improvised comedy coincided with the rise of DVD and unrated director’s cuts. The two fed into each other in a way that highlighted the usefulness and value of both.
Nathan: What scenes or moments stick with you? I love how, after Cal describes a dispiriting evening watching a horse fuck a woman in Mexico, Andy counters with a bone-dry monologue about a weekend spent preparing egg salad. He offers a methodical, step-by-step account of the process, before revealing that he never actually ate the egg salad he made, in part because he had no bread. It’s a true shaggy-dog story: a whole lot of build-up for no payoff, without even an egg-salad sandwich at the end of the tale. There are no real jokes in the scene, beyond Cal miming suicide by gunshot blast behind Andy as he drones on and on, but the moment says so much about Andy’s cozily sad life. What stands out in your mind about this most quotable of comedies?
Genevieve: We’ve already talked a lot about the movie’s most notoriously quotable line, but my favorite part of the “How I know you’re gay” bit is actually a tiny visual detail: David’s T-shirt, which says “Employee of the month” beneath a cheap computer-transfer image of… David’s face, looking even more disheveled and unsavory than usual. (Well, as unsavory as Paul Rudd can look, which is to say, not very.) There’s never any acknowledgement or explanation for it, it just exists as a tiny, perfect character detail, a sartorial expression of this character’s delusional blend of self-absorption and self-hatred.
Tasha: One of my favorite things about this movie is the density of the comedy, to the point where the film can afford to make some jokes into toss-offs. The one that always gets me is where Andy meets Trish for a date at his apartment, which his friends have completely expunged. That gag doesn’t land on a practical level for me—where’d they put it all? How’d they do it so fast?—and yet it lands on a conceptual level, by communicating that absolutely everything about his life is too embarrassing to expose to a stranger. It’s a silly gag, but also a sad one. But the real capper is when he claims he’s having carpet put in—and then jokes that maybe he should tear up the hardwood, to see if there’s carpet underneath. That gag also lands on two levels: To the audience, it’s a desperate deflection, but to Trish, who believes the carpet lie (which gets a callback later in the film when she calls him on it, which is belatedly funny too), it’s just a funny line. And it gets laughs on both levels. And then Carell makes it even better by muttering, “That’s never the case,” meaning that despite what he just said, duh, there’s never carpet under hardwood—but Trish has already accepted the joke and moved on, and only the audience sees how he’s so uncomfortable, he’s sabotaging his own successful joke. Picking this whole progression apart inevitably makes it less hilarious, but it’s a favorite moment for me because there’s so much going on in such a short moment, viewers have to run to keep up.
Scott: The 40-Year-Old Virgin remains my favorite Apatow film—though Knocked Up comes in a close second—and I could tick off dozens of scenes and gags that got big laughs from me (the egg salad/horse-fucking scene Nathan mentions, the poker game that leads to Andy’s revelation, and any number of scenes at SmartTech, from Jane Lynch’s come-ons to the wage-slave detail of the guys smashing fluorescent lights while chatting on break), but I also think that his more recent films, Funny People and This Is 40, have shown tremendous growth, even though they aren’t as successful. The filmmaking has gotten more sophisticated—the point-and-shoot visual indifference to this film improved vastly with subsequent efforts. And I think Apatow has been working toward accommodating the stuff of real life into loose-knit narratives, which has naturally led to some lumpy storytelling, but also truer, more personal observations about aging, marriage, family, etc. The 40-Year-Old Virgin doesn’t have that level of ambition; what it has, fortunately, is a lot of laughs.
Yesterday, Nathan Rabin kicked off our The 40-Year-Old Virgin conversation with a consideration of the film’s pop-culture-focused character building. Tomorrow, Noel Murray will survey Apatow’s Hollywood work from before his directorial debut.