THE BACK PAGES

Clown prince

How a stoner from B.C. came to make two of the season’s hottest movies—and reinvent the slacker comedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 13 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Clown prince

How a stoner from B.C. came to make two of the season’s hottest movies—and reinvent the slacker comedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 13 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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Clown prince

How a stoner from B.C. came to make two of the season’s hottest movies—and reinvent the slacker comedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

film

Seth Rogen has been getting a lot of mileage out of his penis lately. As Steve Carell’s best friend in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he boasted, “I’m as ugly as f--k by traditional standards, but I still get with women.” Then, as if to prove his point, he became Hollywood’s most unlikely leading man in Knocked Up, which featured a pregnant-sex scene that hinged on his character’s fear of ramming the fetus. Now Rogen takes the penis joke back to its juvenile roots with Superbad, a hilarious teen comedy that he began writing with Evan Goldberg, a childhood friend from Vancouver, when they were in their early teens. The movie, which could be called 17-Year-Old Virgins, is about two high-school buddies named Evan and Seth who try to buy liquor to impress girls. Seth has a secret: he compulsively draws pictures of male genitals. To his eternal embarrassment, his teacher discovers Seth’s archive of self-made pornstashed in his Ghostbusters lunchbox.

There you have the Seth Rogen revolution in a nutshell: turning a Ghostbusters lunchbox into a treasure chest for a stack of dick jokes. And with it, a Canadian legacy comes full circle. It was Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, another Canadian, who pioneered slacker comedy with the original stars of Saturday Night Live. Since then, a virtual species of overgrown adolescents-Mike Meyers, Jim Carrey, Kevin Smith, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller—has emerged to take up the slack. Smart guys proudly acting like idiots.

But Rogen and his clubhouse of colleagues, led by Knocked Up writer-director Judd Apa-

tow, have sent the genre sprawling in a new direction. While pushing the envelope of profanity, they’ve offset it with a genuine tenderness that’s been lacking in Hollywood comedies for a long time. The result is a weirdly viable mix of sex, drugs and family values. “Filth and sweetness seem to go well together,” muses Rogen. “In Kjiocked Up and Superbad, the scenes I like best are when in an instant it can go from filthy to sweet and back again, because those are the scenes that feel real to me.”

Rogen lives in Eos Angeles with his screen-

The films are an odd mix of sex, drugs and family values. Tilth and sweetness go well together.1

writer girlfriend, Fauren Miller. He speaks in a gravelly baritone, carving out emphasis with the deliberate diction of a high-school dropout who’s made money with his mouth ever since landing his first stand-up gig at 13 in a Vancouver lesbian bar. Almost every

thought is punctuated by a nervous, rolling belly laugh, as if you’ve surprised St. Nick in the middle of a bong-smoking summer sabbatical. For someone so young, Rogen has an oddly avuncular manner. Even as an angry teenage stoner in his debut role on Freaks and Geeks, Apatow’s short-lived NBC series, he conveyed an uncanny authority.

At 25, Rogen has quietly become the hottest young comic talent in Hollywood. He will likely have the two top-grossing movies of the summer that are not sequels or cartoons. Knocked Up has grossed about $150 million since its June release, and Superbad, a movie every adolescent will want to see, should easily clear $100 million. In the fall, Rogen stars as a stoner on the run in The Pineapple Express, an action comedy that he wrote with Goldberg.

In his spare time, he dispenses script advice to Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen— his new best friend. He and Goldberg wrote for Cohen’s Da Ali G Show four years ago. Rogen says they discovered a common bond: both spent their formative years involved with the Zionist socialist youth movement Habonim Dror. ‘He’s the most normal person I’ve met in all of Eos Angeles since I moved here,” says Rogen. “A couple of days ago, he was talking to me about several things he might do and I was helping him decide what was funny and worth doing.”

For a guy who spent high school in a marijuana haze and has become Hollywood’s poster boy for weed, Rogen must be the hardest-working slacker in show business—“I’ve really given potheads a bad name,” he reckons. And his next ambition is to slip on a cape as a comic-book superhero. Recent news that

Rogen is closing a deal with Sony to play the Green Hornet has set off alarms on the Internet. “I never thought it would create such a massive s-tstorm,” says Rogen. “Me and Evan were like ‘Let’s try to write The Green Hornet.’ We never thought, ‘Wow, this will piss off a million nerds.’ All of a sudden everyone’s a big Green Hornet fan. Look, having been a Green Hornet fan for a long time, I know for a fact there are no other Green Hornet fans.” Rogen is routinely hailed as the next Will Ferrell—another furry, curly-haired schlump endowed with a fearless wit and a La-Z-Boy physique. But unlike Farrell, he deals in realistic self-revelation, not deadpan caricature.

His humour is rooted in real behaviour, not gags and sketches. What’s appealing is that he comes across as a character actor, not a star. So many of his Hollywood predecessors—from Bill Murray to Dan Aykroyd, from Mike Meyers to Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell—were already famous when they hit the big screen, as alumni of Saturday Night Live. Rogen seems to have come out of nowhere, a refugee from a couple of brilliant TV shows that were abruptly cancelled.

So when the studio decided to promote Knocked Up by putting his relatively unknown face on the poster, he thought they were nuts. “I told them, T don’t think people want to see my head on a billboard.’ They said, ‘It worked for 40-Year-Old Virgin. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never seen your big head before.’ That movie showed the studio you don’t need a famous guy. The Superbad posters have two guys with goofy looks on their faces, and no one knows who they are. But what’s new about these movies is the whole feel—they feel different from other movies.”

For one thing, they’re not studio concoctions or star vehicles. They’re created by an organic ensemble—the posse of young mavericks marshalled by Apatow, 39, who pro-

duced Superbad and Pineapple Express as well as directing 40-Year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. “What seems different about our group is that we’re actually friends,” says Rogen. “I don’t know how many nights a week Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller are hanging out watching TV together—I would bet none. We actually all hang out together. Maybe it’s because we’re younger and don’t have families. But we really are friends. We’re not friends just because it makes everyone money.”

InKnocked Up, Rogen’s stoner posse—Jason, Jay, Jonah and Martin—are his actual friends. Those are their real names. And much of their dialogue is improvised. Apatow, who developed his taste for improv as a producer on The Larry Sanders Show, has imported most of his troupe

He performed his first stand-up gig at 13, at a lesbian bar— he thought it was just ladies night

from the wilder fringes of television—notably his two short-lived TV series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. He collared Greg Mottola to direct Superbad, because he’d directed five episodes of Undeclared. When Rogen realized he was too old to play the movie’s Seth character, Apatow tapped a Rogen look-alike from their inner circle—Knocked Dp’s Jonah Hill.

Rogen, who has lived in Los Angeles from the age of 16, has never worked in Canadian film or TV. But his Canadian identity seems immutable. In Knocked Up, his persona is pure B.C. Bud. That idea popped up during one of many long improvised auditions with actresses, he explains. “Once we stumbled upon the notion that I’m Canadian and can’t even legally work in America, it was really amusing to us.” One of his co-stars in the movie is Ottawa-born Jay Baruchel. “He is the most patriotic Canadian I’ve met,” says Rogen. “If

you took it from him, I’m the worst thing that could possibly happen to a Canadian actor: you move to L. A. and make American movies. But more people see American movies, and if you can make one where the star is Canadian, his roommate is Canadian, and there’s a Canadian flag hanging in his bedroom and a Canadian flag tattooed on his chest that’s not covered by makeup, then you’re getting the Canadian idea out there maybe more than if you were just making Canadian movies.” Goldberg, Rogen’s best friend and writing partner, goes even farther. “I think all this is happening because we’re Canadian. We’re like Americans without the attachment.” Superbad, meanwhile, is rife with CanCon. Evan is played by Michael Cera (Arrested

Development), a 19-year-old from Brampton, Ont. His love interest is played by Charlottetown-born Martha Maclsaac, once the face of a RE.I. tourist campaign. Goldberg’s brother in Vancouver, who’s about to write his bar exam, drew all the penises. And the basic hook of the story hasn’t changed since Seth and Evan dreamed it up in high school—including the notion of buddy cops getting loaded on confiscated booze. “At the time,” says Rogen, “we’d be at parties and cops would come and take your beer. And we’d say, T bet they take that beer and drink it, man.’ ” Born in Vancouver, Rogen grew up in a socially conscious household. His parents, Mark and Sandy Rogen, met on a kibbutz. His mother and his sister are both social workers. His father, originally from New Jersey, worked for the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, and for the Workman’s Circle, a Jewish community organization. Seth cultivated his sense of humour at Camp Miriam, a Habonim Dror summer camp. Of Vancouver’s two Jewish summer camps, he recalls, “there was the rich one and the hippie one.” He went to the hippie one, while his friend Goldberg went to the rich one. “There was nothing to do at a labour Zionist summer

camp all day,” Rogen recalls. “We didn’t have horses. We didn’t have water-skiing. You just had to sit around and joke with people all day long.”

At camp, like so many kids, he discovered the joy of filth. His big influence was a comedy album recorded by Adam Sandler. “I don’t think Adam Sandler has ever made an R-rated movie,” says Rogen. “But this was the filthiest thing I’d heard in my entire life. It was like wow—l never thought something this filthy could be universally accepted. At the same time it was coming from a nice place, sung in this sweet Frank Sinatra style.”

Rogen sums up his academic career at Vancouver’s Point Grey Secondary School by saying, “I smoked a lot of weed and didn’t do much.” Then, on reflection, he adds, “I worked

really hard at some stuff. Me and Evan wrote Superbad in high school. For me, smoking weed never stopped my motivation—it was a motivation to buy more weed, if I had money.” And comedy, he says, “just seemed like a good job. Having a normal job seemed terrible.” He performed his first stand-up gig at 13 for a female audience at a club in Vancouver, without realizing it was a lesbian bar. (He thought it was ladies night.) Soon he was a fixture on the stand-up circuit, playing bars long before he was of legal drinking age. His retort for hecklers: “I’m 13. In 30 years, I’ll be 43You’ll be dead.”

After Apatow plucked him from an open casting call in Vancouver, Rogen moved to Los Angeles and never looked back. On Freaks and Geeks, he played an acerbic “freak” involved with a tuba player who confesses, in a delicate moment, that she was born a hermaphrodite. (As weird as that sounds, it was achingly poignant, and typical of the acute behavioural realism that has become Apatow’s hallmark.) After poor ratings killed the show, Rogen landed his first film role in the cult classic Donnie Darko. Apatow next tried to cast him as the lead in Fox’s college comedy Undeclared, but Fox rejected the idea,

so Rogen came on board as a writer with a small role onscreen. Then he and Goldberg joined the final season of HBO’s Da Ali G Show, and in 2005 both received Emmy nominations as part of its writing team.

While he struggled with his own career, Apatow continued to cultivate roles for his protege—as a cameraman on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which Apatow helped produce, then as Steve Carell’s sex-

Tm a worried guy to begin with. That's before you put me in a flesh-coloured thong on a movie set.’

crazed friend in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. With the one-two punch of Virgin and Knocked Up, Apatow became Hollywood’s new king of comedy, and Rogen his clown prince.

The very qualities that made Fox reject Rogen as a leading man for Undeclared made him ideal for Knocked Up. He looked like he didn’t belong on a billboard, or in bed with Katherine Heigl. His anxiety was palpable. Recalling their love scenes, he says, “I’m just trying not to drip sweat on her and make sure one of my testicles isn’t popping out of my little thong. I’m a worried guy to begin with. That’s before you put me in a flesh-coloured thong on a movie set that costs thousands of dollars per minute. Luckily they’re supposed to be funny sex scenes.”

Although Rogen has no writing credit on Knocked Up, there’s so much improvisation

every actor “helps out,” he says. Once the scripted scene is in the can, Apatow just lets the actors riff while the camera rolls. He shot 1.6 million feet of film for Knocked Up. “We had about 20 or 3 0 scenes that were entirely improvised,” says Goldberg.

One writer who felt she’d made an uncredited contribution to the movie was Maclean’s contributor Rebecca Eckler, who claimed Apatow stole the idea for Knocked Up from her book of the same name. Arguing her case in this magazine, she went after the film’s producers with a lawsuit, which is now almost settled. Asked about Eckler’s article, Rogen laughs. “The funniest line was, like, ‘Maybe Seth Rogen picked up my book.’ And I remember thinking, f-k, if she knew me, she would know that would never happen! I would never pick up a book.”

That’s not quite accurate. Since childhood, Rogen has been an obsessive reader and collector of comic books. But while he never finished Grade 12, his writing partner has been more studious. Goldberg persevered with his education, graduating with a B.A. in history at McGill in 2005. Embroiled in applications for U.S. work permits, he’s also eager to debunk any notion that they draw their inspiration from weed—“Getting stoned and writing makes you stupider.” He says they both groaned when Apatow, “who is in no way a stoner,” asked them to write a pothead movie—Pineapple Express (directed by David Gordon Green, an indie actor who has never done action or comedy). “No one smoked pot once on that set,” Goldberg insists. “This is the chance to make a career. Why in the world would we want to jeopardize that?”

It’s hard to be taken seriously when you’ve made it by being a goof. Rogen resents the furor over him playing the Green Hornet. “Once people see Pineapple Express, they’re going to understand a lot more about the adventure movies we’re capable of making. People assume it’s going to be like Superbad, like a filthy romp—‘Oh, fat, Jewish superhero.’ If I was 20 lb. lighter and didn’t eat cheeseburgers for 10 months, would that be fine with everybody? Are people so superficial they think 20 lb. will be the difference between the greatest movie of all time and the biggest stinky piece of s-t they’ve seen?” Then again, maybe the world could use a fat Jewish superhero. Just make him Canadian. M