The Apatow comedy tree is as deep a roster as you’re likely to find. It’s comedy’s version of the Bill Walsh coaching tree. Most of the familiar faces came together for Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared at the start of the millennium (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Martin Starr, Jay Baruchel) and others were added along the way (Danny McBride, Mindy Kaling). Most of the gang has re-assembled for apocalyptic horror-comedy mash up, This is the End. There’s a substantial amount of TV and film credits spread across the cast. Most of the TV shows are regarded as classics while the respective film work is all over the spectrum. For the love of lists, here’s a breakdown of where everyone’s best work to-date can be seen.
Seth Rogen – No. Between Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared Rogen has prominent roles on two of the most beloved shows of the last decade. This is where the one-and-done nature of those shows leaves its mark. On both shows Rogen didn’t get enough opportunity to really develop beyond being just a supporting role. His best role to date is easily Observe and Report as mentally unstable mall cop Ronnie. It’s the one role that really pushed Rogen beyond the schlumpy stoner persona that is his calling card.
Jay Baruchel – Yes. As the lead of Undeclared Baruchel’s Steve Karp was the heart of the show. His social awkwardness and attempts to come of age still ring true today. Baruchel has played a leading man and second banana on the big screen, but he best film work has been behind the camera writing last year’s excellent hockey comedy Goon.
James Franco – No. Franco is easily the most prolific actor in the group, and possibly the most prolific person on Earth. Despite the massive resume and Oscar nomination, his work as Daniel Desario on Freaks was still the leader in the clubhouse. Then came his role as Alien in Spring Breakers. Outfitted with cornrows, a grill, and instant classic monologues (“I got ‘Scarface’…on RE-PEAT”), Franco reached a new high by going in to extremes that broadcast TV never would’ve allowed Daniel to reach.
Danny McBride – Maybe. This one is a toss-up. McBride’s two most popular roles are basically the same character. What gives Kenny Powers (Eastbound and Down) the edge over delusional karate instructor Fred Simmons (Foot Fist Way) is the fact that Kenny has been around long enough to evolve beyond the one-note character Fred is confined to.
Craig Robinson – Yes. On The Office, he went from warehouse to middle management during the nine-season run of the biggest television comedy of the last 10 years. He was supposed to be a decorative backline piece for zingers but his zingers were too damn funny to not extrapolate and stretch out into a fully realized, satisfying character. His best moments? Teaching Michael Scott fake urban slang like “fleece it out,” and telling him that in the ‘hood, disputes were settled over tickle fights.
Michael Cera – No. Yes, Arrested Development is an all-timer, and George Michael and his cousin-loving, light saber-practicing ways are a big part of that. He filled his role in the ensemble admirably. But his career peak is a toss-up between “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” I’ll stick with “Scott,” but just barely.
Jonah Hill – No. Hill’s most prominent TV work to date is on the short-lived animated show Allen Gregory. Even though a short-lived show is a prerequisite for this group, Allen is fairly unremarkable. Hill went out of his comedy wheel-house to great success in Moneyball, but there’s only one right choice. Seth from Superbad was Hill’s breakout role and it’s still the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the actor.
Mindy Kaling – Yes. Unless Hollywood stops repeating history, Kaling is too old to be a leading lady—even in slacker comedy pictures—at 33. Plus she’s been a beast as a writer and performer on The Office and her funny, emerging, self-titled Fox sitcom (the best line thus far, uttered by a drunk Kaling suitor, “I look fly and I smell legit”). But this is all now. She has the chops to rise like an executive in the next three-to-five years and turn a Tina Fey corner on the silver screen.
Martin Starr – Yes. Bill Haverchuck is one of the most heartbreaking, hilarious, and sympathetic characters you’ll ever see on TV. Freaks is without a doubt the best material that Starr has had to work with so far. It’s a shame too, because Starr is quite good when he’s not relegated to cliché nerd/awkward guy roles. If fictional universes could overlap, it’s easy to see a hardened version of Bill growing up to be ornery sci-fi writer/caterer Roman DeBeers on Party Down.
Aziz Ansari – Yes. Ansari’s only truly memorable movie role is a bit part in the previously mentioned Observe and Report. As memorable as his spiel about Chik-fil-A is, it’s still just one scene. But Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford makes full use of Ansari’s comedy arsenal. So what if that arsenal is limited to a high-cultured aspiring mogul? He plays it for all it’s worth.
Rihanna – No. She is a multi-platinum recording artist.