Comedy's go-to guy improvises his next career move after ''Knocked Up''

Paul Rudd wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for Gern Blanston. Rudd was a kid when he first met Blanston. Worshipped him like a god. Still does.

Yeah, just knowing Blanston has opened some sweet doors for Rudd. In fact, the guy gave Rudd his first in with writer-director-producer Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin). ”A friend of mine told me that Judd’s e-mail address was Gern Blanston,” recalls Rudd, between sips of coffee at a sidewalk table in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. (Sorry, comedy fans: Apatow’s e-mail address has since been changed.) ”I wrote to him because if Gern Blanston was his e-mail name, that’s someone I want to hang with.” Never mind that the guy doesn’t actually exist: Steve Martin used to joke that his real name was Gern Blanston — and now, in certain circles, just mentioning the nerdy moniker is akin to busting out a secret comedy-fraternity handshake.

Rudd’s always known the handshake, but thanks to his work over the past few years — Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and even Night at the Museum — he’s now a full-fledged member of the frat. On June 1, the 38-year-old actor will support his comedy brothers again, as the seemingly perfect but secretly panicked husband in Apatow’s Knocked Up, starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. Even though early reviews indicate the comedy could be a Virgin-size sleeper hit, Rudd expects to maintain his relative anonymity. ”I’m ‘that guy from Clueless,”’ he says, adding that fans of Friends (on which he played Lisa Kudrow’s boyfriend-turned-husband) often greet him with a ”Hey, how’s Phoebe?” And having witnessed the alternative — his Broadway costar Julia Roberts getting mobbed daily outside 2006’s Three Days of Rain — Rudd’s perfectly happy being ”kind of on the outside a little bit.”

He may not be the lead in any of Apatow’s improvisational comedies, but Rudd finds that making them is more like shooting indies than the usual big-studio fare. (And he loves himself a good indie: He stars in Diggers, a 1970s tale of Long Island clammers, out now; the summer rom-com I Could Never Be Your Woman with Michelle Pfeiffer; and August’s Sundance fave The Ten with Winona Ryder.) ”With 40 Year-Old Virgin,” says Rudd, ”we would improvise stuff and shoot it before we shot the movie, and then some of those things would work their way into the script.” Apatow says he also made use of Rudd’s brain while writing Knocked Up: ”I called and asked, ‘What about you really irritates your wife?’ He admitted he never read the baby books when his wife was pregnant.” (As a result, Rogen’s Ben Stone lets the baby books go unopened in their shopping bag.)

Rudd and his wife of four years, Julie, 38, ”a full-time mom,” live in the West Village with their son, Jack, 2. A typical day for Rudd and his child? Choosing tunes for their air-guitar sessions. ”He loves Loudon Wainwright III. He’s really into the Shins’ new record. Last week he was terrified of a Nickelback song, and now he loves it,” he continues. ”Though I don’t admit that readily.” The actor, who was raised in Overland Park, Kan., has his priorities very clear: ”I just want to have a nice life with my wife and kid and work on things that are fun and challenging, y’know?”

As an Apatow regular, he’s doing just that. After being e-mail buddies for a while, the two finally met at Rudd’s Anchorman audition. The riff-laden rapport was instant. ”It’s like he was a 14-year-old Asian girl who’d just come to the country for the first time,” recalls Rudd, joking about their pen-pal relationship. ”Welcome to the States! Here’s some blue jeans. Check it out: rock & roll music!” They’ve been goofing off together ever since, and Rudd just shot cameos in two more of Apatow’s productions. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by How I Met Your Mother‘s Jason Segel, Rudd plays ”a surf instructor whose head has hit the waves a few too many times,” says Apatow. And in the rock-biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Rudd appears alongside star John C. Reilly as — wait for it — John Lennon. ”I don’t think you can feel much more pressure than that,” he says. ”Even though it’s ridiculous. I get into a fight with Paul McCartney, [played by] Jack Black. So it’s not like we’re going for authenticity. To think that Yoko Ono would even see it makes me want to throw up.”

After spending all this time with improv actors who also write — like Rogen and Segel — Rudd’s now taken up the pen himself, though he’s wary to discuss specifics. ”So many of the people who work with Judd are writers. We all tend to laugh at the same things. I don’t know if it just kind of happens.” And then, like a revelation, Rudd figures it out: ”We’re all nerdy Jewish guys — of course we write.” Nerdy Jewish guys who owe it all to Gern Blanston.

Paul Rudd’s Must List

Little Britain (BBC)
”It’s given me so much pleasure in my life. I watch the DVDs. Love it.”

The Shroud of the Thwacker, Chris Elliott 2005 ”Kind of a takeoff on The Alienist, but absolutely absurdist. Completely made-up and wrong, and it basks in it.”

Chrysler Building
”Jesus, what an amazing building! I love New York.”

Kansas City Chiefs
”The NFL Sunday Ticket moved to DirecTV, [which I don’t have]. So I have to go to a bar to watch the Chiefs. I actually do that.”

TiVo ”I’m a total victim of technology. At a hotel, if we miss something on TV, Jack says, ‘Again!’ to tell me to rewind like we do at home.”