Raised in a suburb of Kansas City, Rudd attended the University of Kansas, then drama school in Los Angeles, where, while waiting for his big break, he worked for nearly two years as an MC at bar mitzvahs, manically dancing as a character dubbed "Donnie the Dweeb," and generally marinating in the sort of life-altering humiliation that he now deploys as his chief comedic weapon.
He fled L.A. for a Jacobean drama course at Oxford, then later for New York theater, where he got plenty of stage work, most notably with director Neil LaBute, who later cast him in the movie version of 'The Shape of Things' and describes Rudd as an actor who is "not afraid to look stupid. He relishes it."
Rudd's role in 2001's indie hit 'Wet Hot American Summer' caught the eye of "comedy people," he says, which led to 'Anchorman,' which led to 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' "which led me to be part of this group." This group is the so-called Frat Pack, a loose coalition of comedy actors that includes Rogen, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and the Wilson brothers, among others, who work together again and again, simultaneously embracing and spoofing eternal male adolescence.
"I do love what I do," Rudd says. "I love the company of the people I work with. But my circle of friends is pretty small. I don't hang out with movie stars. I don't have an entourage. I'm a normal guy. I'm fucking married."
Rudd was never a player. He views himself more as a furry mensch, with some maturation issues.
"I have trouble with long-term things. I tend to get obsessed with stuff and then move on. Roles, songs, video games. That's why I was afraid of marriage. Because it was like a lifelong game of Madden."
Back at his apartment, a casual, homey space with wedding pictures on the wall and toddler toys strewn about the living room, Rudd removes his jacket and commences dancing around his living room, playing air guitar with his son Jack. Jack has become obsessed with Elton John, a development Rudd encourages by playing "Crocodile Rock" over and over while the two of them tick their hips and sing along.
"I think I was ill-equipped to deal with getting older and dealing with real life," he says, spinning Jack in a circle. "Other people make that transition more smoothly."
"Now I'm better. I don't overthink or look back. Really. Why be afraid of any of it? There's no point in freaking out about anything in life. Just see where it goes. Nothing has to make sense."
Jack spits, relishing the wet burble.
"I don't have the time and energy to put into anything anymore," Rudd says, wiping his son's mouth. "The only thing I put time and energy into is the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. It's just a really fun distraction from the grind and ennui of daily life."
Rudd chuckles, exhales a long, deliberate sigh.
"That's a jokey way of saying absolutely what I really feel."
Over a diner lunch of hamburgers and black coffee, Rudd shares his feelings about what's fair game for humor. "If phrased right, anything is funny," he says. "I feel bad about it sometimes. Like we made that joke at Coldplay's expense in 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin.' Then I heard Chris Martin was upset, and I felt horrible about it. I did. I thought about writing him a note."
"It all stems from wanting to be liked by everyone. I don't like making fun of people, even though I have, a lot of times. I don't lose sleep over it. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me at all.
"Sometimes I think I'm funny," he says, taking a sip of coffee. "But then sometimes I see myself and I think, there's somebody trying to be funny."
Apatow recalls one such instance.
"When we were shooting 'Virgin' there was a scene where Paul's character has to have a mental breakdown at work at Smart Tech," he says. "I wanted him to take a video camera and point it at his naked butt so it would appear on every TV in the store as he ranted. For some reason Paul could not get in the groove, so I made him video his ass for hours and hours. It was quite humiliating. He got really frustrated – not at showing his ass, just at not nailing his scene. Eventually his shame at not doing it right fused with the shame of the scene and he got insanely funny."
"I remember when I was starting off, I said to myself that I'd hate to be one of those people that Dennis Miller makes a joke about," Rudd says. "Fear is always involved. Fear is what makes comedy funny. But anyone who is in this business, we want to be respected. We are all fragile to a certain extent. Not me, personally. But everybody else."
Rudd segues into a story about Barry Manilow, a man who knows something about fragility.
"I saw him in concert recently and it was fun in the way that you would expect."
Rudd explains how, in the last 20 minutes of the show, after Manilow had just sung "Copacabana," he launched into another song he wrote, called "Let Freedom Ring," and cannons shot out red, white, and blue streamers all over the audience.
"It turned into this faux, bombastic, Lee Greenwoody Americana. It was so weird. I loved it. But not for the reasons that were intended."
Rudd pauses, takes a bite of pickle.
"And now Barry Manilow is going to read this and say, 'I fucking hate Paul Rudd.' And he's going to call Chris Martin from Coldplay and they're going to talk about what a fucking douchebag I am."
Rudd stops, considers going for the next joke, but, remarkably, passes.
"Honestly? If someone made fun of me I'd be bummed out. But I'd play it like I thought it was hilarious."
"Look, I'm still just a man."