Between the ages of 10 and 14, my Friday nights had a singular agenda. My best friends and I would go to Katie’s house, where her mom, Deb, would make us a massive platter of chicken nuggets from Costco alongside a jug of Arizona Blueberry Green Tea. We’d head down to the finished basement, turn on Comcast On Demand, and rent whatever idiotic $3.99 rated-R (or better yet, unrated) comedy had since been added to the service. The remote control always stayed close by, ready to hit pause at the first sign of footsteps above heading toward the basement door.
It was here, in these sessions, that Judd Apatow and his ilk would teach us what sex was. Or, at least what it looked like in the movies.
In middle school, kids only ever talked about movies if they contained two qualities. First, they had to be funny in a way a middle schooler would appreciate. Second, they had to show boobs. Apatow’s movies didn’t always hit the second mark, but the wider genre of buddy and romantic comedies that he worked within often did. A few of the scenes planted deepest in my mind had no affiliation with Apatow whatsoever, like the montage in Good Luck Chuck where he has sex with multiple different bare-chested women, or the scene in Wedding Crashers where Isla Fisher’s character tries to get Vince Vaughn erect as he sits on a toilet. Both films, in fact, contain Good Luck Chuck-style montages displaying the breasts of the countless women the films’ protagonists sleep with early in the films, to which my friends and I would always half-heartedly act shocked and ask each other whether we really wanted to keep watching. We always did.
I don’t know for sure that I ever learned anything of substance about the actual act of sex from these movies, especially those not from Apatow. It seems unlikely. What I took away most was the idea that sex was typically conducted in cowgirl or reverse cowgirl, and that these positions alone yielded orgasmic experiences for the women each time.
But the better of Apatow’s films at least taught us something realistic about the culture surrounding it. Superbad, which I watched at age 12, foreshadowed the various fumblings, misconceptions and overvaluation of sex that would come in high school. For example, Michael Cera tells Jonah Hill he’s brought lube for the party ahead, to which Hill replies, “What, you think Becca’s going to be psyched that you brought a bottle of lube? ‘Oh, Evan! Thank you so much for bringing that lube for my pussy! I could never handle your fucking four-inch dick inside my pussy without your gigantic bottle of lube!’ These girls are 18 years old. They aren’t dried up old ladies, man. They’re good to go!”
Of course, what this taught me was that lube should not be on my radar for decades to come, when in reality it probably would have made my earliest sexual encounters far more comfortable. To its credit, though, this is the type of notion teenagers authentically held about sex. What else could teach us these ideas, besides the very movies themselves?
Looking back, this is something I’ve come to appreciate more about Apatow movies. It’s also what separates an Apatow movie from the rest of the 2000s genre: At the crux of many scenes in his movies is the idea that sex can be bad, performative or have unintended consequences. That’s why it’s funny.
It would take a few extra years beyond the first viewings to realize that the scene in Forty-Year-Old Virgin where Elizabeth Banks masturbates in the bathtub is intended to be uncomfortable to even the non-40-year-old virgin, and that the scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Kristen Bell attempts to make Jason Segel jealous by having loud, un-pleasurable sex with a disinterested Russell Brand is actually a play on the type of visual portrayal of sex in the genre. None of it is aspirational or even truly accurate, but it is, in some sense, honest.
Early aughts Apatow movies, and those that tried to ape them, are almost an object of the past. Never mind the improbability of a movie actually being released in theaters, the feature-length comedy film just doesn’t gain the traction that it used to. The recent Palm Springs treads some similar territory, opening with Andy Samberg struggling to enjoy sex with his girlfriend, who tells him to jack off and watch while she panic-searches through her suitcase instead — it’s an awkward, completely unsexy scene almost on par with those of Apatow. The problem is, I doubt it will have taught anyone anything.
Maybe that’s for the best. But I can’t help but feel some sense of nostalgic regret for the teens whose formative understanding of sex won’t be gleaned from watching movies in their friend’s basement, accompanied by a plate of chicken nuggets.