Apatow protg pokes fun at tragic breakups in Sarah Marshall

Nicholas Stoller remembers the day he joined the “Jew-Tang Clan,” the creative posse led by comedy wunderkind Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”).

Apatow was interviewing the then-24-year-old writer for a job on his 2000 college sitcom, “Undeclared.”

“I was incredibly nervous,” said Stoller, who directs Apatow Productions’ latest heroic-shlub-fest, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But he impressed the producer with an idea based on his own college days: “I had a sleepover in a friend’s room, and he put on an Erasure song, and we both cried about our long-distance girlfriends,” Stoller said. “Judd laughed really hard at that.”

“Sarah Marshall” — which stars “Undeclared” alumnus Jason Segel — is an ode to this kind of male blubbering. When sweet slacker Peter Bretter (Segal) is dumped by his TV-star girlfriend, he endeavors to forget his woes by flying off to Hawaii — only to find that he is staying at the same resort where his ex is cavorting with her new beau.

Between misadventures, the distraught Peter bawls everywhere: in public, on the floor curled up in the fetal position and on the balcony of his lavish suite, where the romantic sunset in the background only enhances his misery. His howls are so deafening that guests complain about a woman crying too loudly somewhere in the hotel. Inevitably, a new love interest emerges, in the form of a feisty hotel employee (Mila Kunis); the film becomes the kind of raunch-fest with a heart one expects of Apatow et al., who have carved a niche (and created blockbusters) by combining gross-out gags with chick-flick sincerity.

“Jason and I find ‘Pathetic Man’ hilarious,” Stoller said of the inspiration for “Sarah Marshall.” “The idea of a grown man crying is the funniest thing in the world to us. Of course, relationship troubles and breakups can be devastating. But the melodrama is also kind of amusing.”

Stoller is not the first Jew-Tanger to draw on his own neuroses. The New York Times called Apatow’s protégés “a dedicated core of comedy geeks … propelled by social sensibilities that all of them acknowledge are lodged firmly in high school.”

Stoller attended high school at St. Paul’s, a New Hampshire boarding school affiliated with the Episcopal Church. “I had a girlfriend but I didn’t play lacrosse, and I was obsessed with comedy movies, which is a big notch on the nerd board,” he recalls.

“It’s not like anyone burned a cross outside my room,” he added of being one of the few Jews at school. “But it was hard for me to engage in that very reserved, WASPy ethos. In general, I found that my Jewish friends and I were much more open to talking about our fears and teenage angst. But I’m glad I went to St. Paul’s, because it was the most difficult social situation I’ve ever been in. When I went to Harvard, it was just really easy from there on out.”

Stoller wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and performed in a school improvisational troupe — but did not escape relationship woes. Consider the time a college girlfriend broke up with him, then asked for one last kiss: “I started to tear up in what I imagined was a romantic way, then I started to cry, then I started to cry really hard — and then she left, because it was really weird and awkward,” Stoller said with a laugh. “I spent the next month drunk, which was good.”

Today, Stoller shares a Los Angeles home with his wife, Francesca Delbanco, and their 6-month-old daughter, Penelope. The droll and occasionally self-deprecating director met Delbanco through friends at an informal writers workshop in 2001. (She is the author of a well-received novel, “Ask Me Anything,” about the single life of a struggling actress.)

They were both dating other people at the time, and Delbanco lived in New York, so their first date didn’t take place until the following year. They met in Big Sur, made each other laugh constantly and moved in together after two more transcontinental dates. In 2005, they wed in a Jewish ceremony in Los Angeles, where guests included fellow Apatow-niks such as Seth Rogen.

Stoller was hanging around on the set of “Knocked Up” when Segel, his favorite writing partner, mentioned a script about his own experiences as a dumpee. (The actor actually had a girlfriend break up with him while he was naked, which became “Marshall’s” opening sequence.)

“I went to Judd and asked if I could direct the movie — my first — if I helped Jason through the writing process,” Stoller said.

Apatow agreed on the spot.

Now Stoller and Segel have two more projects in the works: a new Muppet film for Disney and an interfaith romance, “The Five-Year Engagement,” which will also star Segel.

“The Jewish character is an atheist, but he suddenly becomes very religious when someone suggests a priest officiate at the wedding,” Stoller said.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal