Rudd's latest entry in this shtick-flick genre is 'Knocked Up' (June 1), another Apatow movie, which will almost surely be the summer's biggest comedy. It reteams Rudd with Rogen, in roles written expressly for them, as best friends caught in existential crises. Rogen has a one-night stand with Rudd's sister-in-law ('Grey's Anatomy's' Katherine Heigl), a liaison that produces an unexpected pregnancy. Rudd's character is already married with kids, and loathing nearly every minute of it, setting a depressing example for his friend.
"I think a lot of married people will see aspects of themselves in this," says Rudd. "I've been with my wife for 12 years. We saw the rough cut and it was incredibly awkward watching it together. I'd look over at her, and she'd look at me, and it was clear that I had lifted from our life, and there it was onscreen."
Prior to filming he asked his wife Julie for a list of things she hated about him. For weeks she added to the inventory.
"It would be like, 'Here's one! How about your fucking coffee cups everywhere?'" Rudd remembers.
"I'm inconsiderate at times," he admits. "Self-involved. I'm an actor, so there's no way that I'm not. Now, I think I'm less self-involved than many others. But by definition I am a self-involved person."
Rudd is pleased with his transition from goopy love stories to the dropped-trou inanity of modern comedy. His résumé reveals him to be an improv all-star, with stints on such cult TV comedies as 'Strangers with Candy,' 'Stella,' and, more recently, 'Reno 911!,' as well as a fantastically random Internet-viral reenactment of the infamous Lily Tomlin-David O. Russell smackdown on the set of 'I Heart Huckabees.'
"I never really got the whole thing wherein people would say you are a leading man or you're a character actor," says Rudd. "I never felt the need to pursue a career based on those types of categories. I want to do things that I find interesting and of quality. I'm happy to do just three scenes in a movie."
That flexibility, married to Rudd's affection for the provocative, has made him difficult to pigeonhole, a frustration for Hollywood, where they like their leading men less subversive.
Rudd doesn't mind. He likes his quiet life in New York, at home with his wife and two-year-old son Jack. He has no interest in a television or movie project that he finds weak or unamusing.
"Paul is great because he clearly is a leading man, but for some reason he prefers to take any part that interests him, no matter the size or price he is paid," says Apatow. "He is a real artist. It costs him tens of millions of dollars to take this path, but it really helps me."
And if it seems that Rudd is suddenly everywhere – the movie 'Reno 911! Miami' and, over the next few months, the ensemble farce 'The Ten' and the romantic comedy 'I Could Never Be Your Woman,' not to mention 'Knocked Up' – it is not because he has evolved but because the culture has finally caught up with his don't-be-afraid-to-show-the-ugly modus operandi.
"Everyone knows someone like him or has met someone like him," says Rogen. "He is very natural and relatable. And he has this dirty sensibility about it all, which I find refreshing."
"In 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' half of what I do is make jokes about gay people," Rudd explains. "Now, in real life, I find people who have any lack of tolerance of homosexuality to be fucking morons. I feel the same way about people who are intolerant of any minority, black people, Jewish people. Not so much Puerto Ricans, because they're a dirty people. But, like, Chinks, I love them."
Rudd is nothing if not a master of the cheeky delivery. He can, and does, say anything – quips about rape, incest, ingesting fecal matter – sailing through on the absolution of intonation. Even on the most serious topics he appears constitutionally incapable of letting a punch line go. His is the humor of inclusion – the lowering or amplifying of his voice is the tell, the wink that lets you know he knows what he is about to say is shockingly offensive. The same words uttered by another actor might look cheap, mean-spirited, desperate, Michael Richards-like. But because it is Rudd speaking, most often through the window of a smile, they take on a harmless quality.
"Paul always knows what's funny about what he's doing," says Rogen. "And he is getting more interesting as he gets older. Now he can riff on grown-up things like marriage and kids."
"Paul is funny in the way you wish your friends were," adds Apatow. "And he has mental problems."
It is a chilly Manhattan day in early spring, and Rudd is on his way to buy wine for a dinner party. Shuffling along Hudson Street in his lug-soled boots and tweed blazer, he reflects on his current state of corporeal apathy.
"I weigh about 175 because I'm not working," he says. "When I'm not working I won't shave or cut my hair or exercise. I turn into Brian Wilson, the off years. I grow my fingernails out like that guy in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sometimes I'll wipe my ass with my wrist. I'll bare-wrist it. It's quicker. Hey, I have e-mails to answer."
As he's talking a young man passes, then does a double take.
"Are you somebody?" the man asks over his shoulder.
"I'm just good ol' Paulie from the neighborhood," Rudd answers, grinning. Then he sets to proving as much by saying hello to literally everyone he passes. Snarling hipster: "Hello!" Septuagenarian in gray tights: "Hello, gorgeous!" Dog walker: "Hey there!" The dog walker's dogs: "And hello to you, too!"
He does the whole routine with full commitment. His voice is a near shout, his tone cruise-ship cheesy. He leans into people, waves, nods, winks, makes long and potentially dangerous eye contact. "Let's see how long I can do this before I get hit," he says, half-joking.
He carries the gag a full four city blocks, and he is neither smacked nor recognized again, both modest disappointments.
Wine procured, Rudd heads toward home. On the way he muses on the source of his sense of humor. He credits his dad, a salesman for TWA. "Both my parents were English. And Jewish. I was Jewish when Jewish wasn't cool. Comedy is a way of getting people to like you. A lot of Jewish people are funny because we've been oppressed for so long. None of us are superquick and athletic. A large portion of us are thickset, with massive amounts of body hair. We wandered around in the desert for 40 years. At a certain point you gotta find the humor in that."