By Roger Moore
They met, and as the poets say, the sparks flew.
“He and I clicked pretty quickly back when we did ‘Knocked Up,’” Paul Rudd recalls, wistfully.
“Truthfully, we crossed paths at a table read for ‘Anchor Man,’” corrects Jason Segel.
There was instant chemistry. They felt something.
“I think it was trust,” Segel explains.
“He just makes me laugh,” sighs Rudd.
A budding “bromance” was born. Two members of a crew that Vanity Fair has dubbed the new “legends” of screen comedy became a couple.
“In ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ we were out on the ocean, on surfboards, for hours,” Segel says. “I can’t speak for Paul. I don’t know if I heard violins, but there was magic in the air.”
They’re so in sync that the most difficult acting in their third film together, “I Love You, Man” (opening Friday) “was pretending like we haven’t known each other for 10 years,” Segel says.
“Five years,” Rudd corrects.
“Oh, I’ve romanticized my relationship with Paul,” Segel apologizes. “Five years is like 35 in dog years!”
At 29, Segel is emerging as a comic force in movies and on TV (“How I Met Your Mother”). Rudd, 39, is a screen vet who found his niche when Segel and his Judd Apatow posse (Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill) brought him into the fold with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Together, they’re the very picture of bromance, that “complicated love and affection shared by two straight males” (“The Urban Dictionary”).
“Two women who don’t know each other can walk into a bathroom and come out as BFF,” Segel marvels. “But with a guy, there’s no following him to the restroom. You could get arrested.”
It may be just a new romantic-comedy twist on that Hollywood staple, “the buddy picture.” But Segel connected with “I Love You, Man’s” message, that men aren’t very good at making male friends or expressing their feelings to them.
“I’d lived with my best friend since I was 12 years old, Brian,” Segel says. “He moved out right as we were about to do the movie. I gave him a hug with a pat when he left. ‘All right man, I’ll catch you in New York.’ And I woke up that night crying hysterically.”
Rudd didn’t cry. But he looked around after reading the John Hamburg script and realized that “Guys, once they’re out of school, forget how to make friends. There are no rules. Or if there are, we don’t know them. You know, my father’s entire social circle was formed by my mom. So it’s not just my generation.”
Frequent collaborators Segel, Hill and Rogen may be half a generation removed from Apatow and Rudd. But the bond that binds these guys is a simple one best explained by the title of the TV show that gave Apatow his big break — “Freaks & Geeks.”
“None of us really do fit the alpha-male mold,” Rudd explains. “In fact, we’re not even beta males. We’re like, epsilon males, I think. We’ve dropped that low.”
It’s the “prideless approach” to character comedy, Segel says, that keeps this clique working together, comic actors in service of a character-driven, “not a joke-driven” script.
Friendship plays a part, too. Rudd buys into Dear Abby’s adage, “a friend is someone who sees through you and enjoys the show.”
Take Segel’s dirty little secret, one in the finale to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Whatever the perks of a rising Hollywood star, he’s still devoted to his first performing art — puppetry.
“Many a time I’ve brought a girl over and shown her the house, thinking I’m going to close the deal,” Segel says. “I show her ‘the puppet room,’ and she heads straight out the door.”
His close friends understand.
“You know, you don’t have to know Jason that well to make fun of him,” Rudd disagrees.
“People who just meet him make fun of the fact that he plays with puppets.”