Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey From Chosen People to Just Showing Up
Beer and loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman star of the new stoner man-child comedy ‘Neighbors’
I’m drinking a scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of Gods, Seth Rogen. Any minute now, he should be walking past 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably, beside a heat lamp. All around me are Hollywood executives, beautiful long-legged women, and chefs wearing tall white hats. I can hear the soothing splash of fountains and, now, on a stage behind me near a row of cabanas, live singing from Taylor Hicks, a former winner of American Idol.
I’ve thought of the perfect icebreaker for when Rogen arrives: We’re wearing the same exact color suit—gray. Hopefully the aqua glow from the Neptune Pool isn’t so bright as to illuminate the bloodstain on my collar. I cut myself shaving this afternoon inside a cheap motel about a half-mile down the Strip, behind the Vegas Ink tattoo parlor. I’m not supposed to be in the VIP area. I snuck in here a few minutes ago by hopping the rope when nobody was looking.
Rogen, the portly, pot-smoking 32-year-old actor with a textbook Jew-Fro is worth upwards of $45 million. He is in Las Vegas with his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, for CinemaCon, an annual convention for people in the movie business, where tonight, during a ceremony inside the Caesars Palace’s Colosseum, the duo accepted the “2014 Comedy Filmmakers of the Year Award.”
I landed in the desert just over 72 hours ago, with the task of interviewing Rogen and Goldberg for a story on why two fat Jewish kids from Vancouver were now plausible exemplars of the current state of American comedy. Having been anointed Hollywood’s funniest movie-makers in the wake of their 2013 hit This Is the End, and leading up to their new film (out last week) Neighbors, surely this was an ideal place to cover it all.
Rogen and Goldberg were both born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1982. They met in bar mitzvah class at age 12, where they became best friends. Their families attended the same synagogue, Beth El. Rogen wanted to be a film director and Goldberg a writer, and so they shot movies using Rogen’s father’s camcorder. Rogen has said that going into high school, he and Goldberg “knew we’d probably be losers, so we stuck together.”
By his early teens, Rogen had become a regular on the Vancouver standup comedy circuit. His mother, a social worker, drove him to sets. Rogen and his father, who worked for an advocacy group for disabled people, would watch Mel Brooks movies together. Around that time, perceiving a lack of realistic dialogue in contemporary movies, Rogen and Goldberg started writing a script for what would become Superbad, about issues they faced at the time, mostly related to their teenage insecurities and dirty sexual thoughts. Rogen was cast in the Judd Apatow show Freaks and Geeks and moved to Los Angeles, while Goldberg remained in Canada. But they spoke constantly by phone.
At age 21, they were hired as a team to write for the Da Ali G Show. In 2005, Apatow cast Rogen in a supporting role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Rogen helped with the script, convincing Apatow to use dirtier dialogue, arguing that that’s the way groups of guys he knew actually talk. The movie’s success helped Rogen land the leading part in Apatow’s 2007 hit,Knocked Up, in which he played a variation of himself: a pot-smoking slob with a good heart.
“I created a new look for rotund Jews,” Rogen said in an interview with Playboy magazine. “It’s the easily attainable look.”
In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpsons episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”
Before my trip I called Rogen’s publicist to arrange an interview. “Seth’s been sort of busy,” a receptionist said. Which was true: The previous day, Rogen had testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, a cause he supports through his nonprofit Hilarity for Charity. After opening with a joke about weed, and stating that he’d come in part because “I’m a huge House of Cards fan,” he’d said, of Alzheimer’s, “The situation is so dire that it has caused me, a lazy, self-involved, generally self-medicated man-child to start an entire charity organization.” His heartfelt talk went viral, but the story erupted when Rogen shamed senators on Twitter for skipping the hearing. (He would be both praised for his courage and criticized for his ignorance of congressional norms.)
Nonetheless, I was confident I’d get a meeting. I knew that Rogen despises the red carpet—“a nightmare,” he once called it—and the shallowness of the entertainment press, whose agenda is to “fit you into whatever their bullshit show is about that day, which is usually some shit that has nothing to do with us as comedians.”
In contrast, I was offering a substantive interview. Recent weeks had seen the deaths of comedic legends Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis; undoubtedly Rogen’s people would welcome a meaningful discussion on the current landscape, including whether Rogen and Goldberg see themselves as heirs to a storied tradition of Jewish comedy.
Then came the bad news. “We will respectfully decline,” an email from Rogen’s publicist read. “The guys have a very truncated schedule in Vegas.” Not only that, while I was granted media clearance into the convention, an email from the CinemaCon people emphasized: “Your working press credential DOES NOT guarantee you access to studio functions, screenings, breakfasts, luncheons, receptions, dinners.”
Despite these setbacks, I figured that if there’s anyplace where big things can and do occur in the face of long odds, it’s Las Vegas. But there’s also a dangerous flipside: As a great journalist once said, “For a loser, Vegas is the meanest town on Earth.”
In the airport and during my five-hour flight, I watched Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End, three movies that Rogen and Goldberg wrote. They are raunchy, R-rated comedies about, respectively, a pair of high-school geeks trying to buy alcohol so they can get laid; a guy and his pot dealer getting mixed up with a drug cartel; and a band of celebrities facing Armageddon while barricaded in actor James Franco’s house. But at their core they tell similar stories: of buddies who share a crazy experience and have a brief falling out, only to realize their foolishness and declare their eternal love for one another.
My motel, the Travelodge Las Vegas Center Strip, was painted light blue and yellow—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—and located next to the Harley Davidson Café, near a gigantic billboard that said “Strip Club Tonight?” My room smelled like a calamity had befallen it and the maids had then overcompensated by smearing deodorant on the walls to cover it all up. The air conditioner, which rattled loudly, looked like someone had blasted it with a shotgun. But it was cheap and in close proximity to Caesars Palace, where I needed to go to obtain my press credentials.
The 15-minute walk up the Strip took me past the typical Vegas street scene: tourists sipping from tall cans of Budweiser; tiny Latin American migrants distributing flyers and wearing T-shirts reading “Hotassescorts.com” and “Orgasm Clinic: Accepting New Patients;” showgirls wearing feathers atop their heads but little else; and packs of bros in their 20s slurping neon-colored booze from tall, bong-shaped glasses (the same beverages, I recalled, that Rogen and Paul Rudd’s characters drink while walking the Strip in Knocked Up).
In front of Caesars Palace, a monstrosity of ancient Roman splendor, people photographed each other next to sculptures of naked goddesses and anyplace the words “Caesars Palace” or the emperor’s head was engraved in stone. I walked through the bright, ornate lobby, with its domed ceiling and murals depicting white horses, gods, and chariots, and into the labyrinth of the casino, through mazes of jingling slot machines and gambling tables, down marble hallways lined with posh shops, across fake piazzas with blue skies painted on ceilings. When I reached the replica of Michelangelo’s David, I found the 18-foot-tall, three-ton male nude outfitted with a director’s hat, clapboard, and megaphone that said “CinemaCon: Celebrating the Moviegoing Experience.”
A banner welcoming the approximately 5,000 delegates noted that CinemaCon is the “official convention of NATO,” which is not that NATO, but another NATO altogether: the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade organization whose members include the world’s largest cinema chains as well as hundreds of independent theater operators. After registering in the Capri Room, where media people sat at laptops, looking serious and busy, I walked the convention’s elegant hallways, which were lined with posters for movies starring actors who’d be making cameos here, like Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson AKA The Rock, Angelina Jolie and her five children, Morgan Freeman, Channing Tatum, and Clint Eastwood.
But no actor was being as aggressively marketed as Rogen. Banners of Neighbors, showing a gleeful, open-mouthed, Rogen hoisting up a can of beer, were everywhere. Universal Pictures was holding a special advanced screening that night inside the Colosseum, which Rogen and Goldberg themselves were expected to attend.
The Colosseum overlooks the Forum Casino, a jungle of slot machines thick with cigar and cigarette smoke. Everything about this area warps one’s sense of time and space, especially the people, who look like they’d been abducted from houses and trailers across Middle America in the 1990s and placed at slot machines here, where they’ve remained, taking breaks only to replenish their cigarettes or chow down on double cheeseburgers at the food court. Gazing out over this entire scene—wearing no shirt, his large belly flopping downward, hand on a hip—was Rogen, on another banner attached to the Colosseum’s classical façade. The delegates were now intersecting the casino floor and filing into the Colosseum (an $870 million theater built for Celine Dion’s show) for the Neighbors screening.
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