Knocked Up managed to topple Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End as the top film at the box office last weekend, it would’ve been the story of the summer (until Evan Almighty tanks, but more on that later); unfortunately, Judd Apatow’s excellent romantic comedy came up $14 million short (though it did get a $1 million bump on Monday when the actual numbers hit). So while the movie appears as if it’s going to be more of a stealth blockbuster ala The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it’s still incredibly significant that it overtook the Bruckheimer behemoth on Monday to become the most popular movie in America.

Blame it on the nearly three-hour length or the bad word of mouth or the bellboy (as played to hilariously bungling effect by Bronson Pinchot); whatever the cause, audiences are clearly less enthused by this purportedly final installment of the Pirates franchise, but enthralled with Knocked Up – which is now grossing more per day than its heavily-hyped rival despite being on 1,500 fewer screens. Though serious competition arrives this Friday in the form of Ocean’s Thirteen and Hostel: Part II, some prognosticators think the sensationally well received Apatow movie could hold steadily enough to stay above $20 million for a second consecutive weekend. The last comedy to exhibit this kind of staying power was Borat, but it also received an extra 1,700 screens in its second frame. Though Universal would probably love to expand Knocked Up right now based on the enthusiastic buzz (even my mom dug the movie, and she rarely likes anything that doesn’t feature Richard Chamberlain), I doubt that the screens are there to allow for this (considering that Ocean’s Thirteen and the apparently very good Surf’s Up will be occupying over 3,000 apiece).

Given the love and likely repeat business from twentysomethings and (late) teens, what’s to stop Knocked Up from hitting, say, $150 million? Recently, I had a conversation with CHUD‘s Grand Wizard of the Box Office, Andre Dellamorte (oh, how we chat!), and he posed a good question: might Universal sacrifice Knocked Up‘s screens in order to let the troubled and expensive Evan Almighty play as long as possible, and, therefore, rack up a semi-respectable gross (provided it bombs like many figure it will)? As you’ll recall, Warner Brothers kept Superman Returns in theaters until the end of October in order to shove the underperforming franchise re-launch over the $200 million barrier. Though it looked pathetic at the time, Warner Brothers got the number they needed to avoid excess shame and to barely maintain the commercial viability of the brand (though it’s still unclear whether the Man of Steel will be back anytime soon). It’s all about perception; in a few years, no one’s going to remember or care about that unseemly four-month march to the new milestone of blockbuster respectability.

The two nagging issues plaguing Evan Almighty, however, are a) does it even have a shot at $100 million, and b) is that number big enough to excuse Universal spending $200 million on the least-anticipated sequel since Texasville? And would the studio be willing to sabotage Knocked Up‘s potentially long run just to save face on an ill-considered greenlight?

Divining the wisdom of Universal execs is a perilous errand, but I’d like to think that they’ll crunch the numbers and decide three mega-hits in Knocked Up, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and The Bourne Ultimatum will offset the inexplicable mistake of Evan Almighty. And I bet Tom Shadyac’s reported tantrum last week only pushed them further in this direction. If so, good; Apatow making more money = more creative freedom for the most fertile mind in (film) comedy, and a hopeful end to the era of hucksters like Shadyac, Brian Robbins and (especially if Hairspray bottoms out this summer) Adam Shankman. You’d have to hate movies an awful lot to wish for anything different.

But if Knocked Up suddenly disappears from your local megaplex after July 4th (and Evan Almighty doesn’t), you’ll know why.