Seth Rogen is only 25, but he already has more than a decade of comedic experience under his belt. Raised in Vancouver, Rogen began doing stand-up at the tender age of 13; eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, where his work caught the attention of Judd Apatow, who cast Rogen in his short-lived but beloved NBC show Freaks And Geeks and his short-lived but beloved Fox sitcom Undeclared. Though Rogen has had a few other television adventures, including an appearance on Dawson's Creek and a job writing for Da Ali G Show in its second season, his career has remained tethered to Apatow's, and the two have been on a hot streak lately. After a standout supporting turn in the surprise hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen steps into the lead for the first time in Apatow's Knocked Up, a similarly raunchy, disarmingly sweet-natured comedy about the terrifying prospect of parenthood. Rogen recently spoke to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: What led to you getting into stand-up comedy so early?
Seth Rogen: Um… I don't know. Hatred of myself? [Laughs.] I knew I just loved comedy, and I think it was my parents who initially brought up the notion of me trying to do stand-up. I think I actually tried writing jokes just at home, just kind of sitting around. But it seemed like a very real way to step into the world of comedy. I felt I could do it, so why not?
AVC: Well, it's fairly precocious to do it that young. Are there venues that let you perform? You were pretty far from the drinking age.
SR: Yeah, I'd perform at all the places anyone else would. I was in Canada, but we had Yuk Yuk's there, a chain of comedy clubs, so I'd perform there. Just like anywhere else, there were bars and restaurants that had comedy nights, and they'd let me in to perform and make me leave when I was done, usually.
AVC: Did it take you a while to feel confident on the stage?
SR: When I first started, there was a real novelty element to it, I'm sure: "Look, there's a 13-year-old kid doing comedy." And I'm sure that bought me a lot of slack. So I was probably more confident than I should have been, if anything. [Laughs.] I think was humbled as I got a little older doing it.
AVC: What kind of material did you do at that age? I mean, what do you know about life at that point?
SR: That's exactly what I was thinking, too, so I just tried to speak from my experiences. When I was 13 and 14, there were a lot of jokes about my bar mitzvah and my grandparents, and then when I got older, it became more about touching boobs and trying to get liquor, you know? [Laughs.] I kind of ran the gamut of infantile behavior.
AVC: So that's been kind of the bedrock throughout?
SR: Exactly. And I haven't moved one step forward since. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you ever had to perform in a hostile or unpromising environment?
SR: Yeah, definitely a bunch of times. I did four months in this bar in Whistler [British Columbia]. And it was just terrible. Oh my God, it was just so brutal. But I didn't really care sometimes. Sometimes, you just get in this mentality of "Fuck you, this is funny. If you don't think so, you're the asshole." I remember my first time ever doing stand-up in L.A., I went up at the Improv. All I remember is that I could hear the buzzing noise the speakers were making, the power coming through the speakers. I remember thinking as I was doing the jokes, "If I can hear that very clearly, I'm not hearing laughter." It just became deafening, this buzzing noise. I mean, it was brutal. It was really terrible. Then I remember thinking, "At least nobody important, or anyone who I really respect, saw that." And then literally right when I went off the stage, Jerry Seinfeld got up and went on. [Laughs.] So I was like, "Oh great. Seinfeld saw me bomb." On the other hand, I thought, "At least no one will be thinking of me anymore. They'll just be focusing on him."
AVC: Have you always been able to scrape together a living in show business? Did you skip the part where you work a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet?
SR: Yeah, I've never really had a real job. When I was young doing stand-up, I'd get 50 bucks a week here or 100 bucks a week there. You know, sometimes for headlining one of the rooms, or MC-ing, or something like that. So yeah, I've never had like a normal job.
AVC: Do you still have an interest in television after your experience with Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared?
SR: Yeah, I'm not put off it altogether. I did some work on Da Ali G Show after those shows, and that was a great experience. And a couple of my friends [Danny McBride and Jody Hill] are making an HBO pilot [tentatively titled P.E.] right now, and I'm doing a small part on the pilot. If it went to series, I would probably be somewhat involved with it. I feel like TV's still good. It didn't die with Undeclared. I would definitely lean more toward working with HBO or something like that. I feel like what amuses me is dirty and R-rated, generally speaking. And that was always a big battle on Undeclared, you know, "How do we get across what we think is funny, and still write something that you can broadcast?" And that's not something I really want to have to think about again.
AVC: When you're working on a show that's critically acclaimed, has a passionate following, yet isn't doing well in the ratings, does that shake your faith in what you're doing?
SR: Um, no. Luckily, due to my own ego, probably, I'm always quicker to blame other people. [Laughs.] It was more like, "What's wrong with the world?" It never seemed like that much of a mystery why those shows failed. When you're doing a show called Freaks And Geeks about young people in high school, and it's on Saturday nights at 8 and there's no promotion for it, it's not really hard to guess why no one's watching it. And when you're doing a college goofball comedy that premières three weeks after Sept. 11, it's not that hard to piece together why that's not the most important thing on the radar.
AVC: At the end of the day, would you rather be like a King Of Queens and mildly entertain a lot of people for many seasons, or be part of a show that's beloved by fewer people and on for one season?
SR: Definitely the latter. I'm very happy with my experiences with Undeclared and Freaks And Geeks. You know, it's funny. To me, that was the perfect amount of time to work on a TV show. When I'm doing movies now, around the end of the movie, I start to think, "I'm done with this. I don't really need to wear these clothes any more or make jokes about holding babies any more. That's pretty much all I've got on that subject." There's a part of me that… I wouldn't say is grateful those shows were cancelled, but I've really learned to view the bright side of the coin in that I'm not now 25 years old, trying to think of reasons to justify why I'm still in high school.
AVC: You're saying with a second season, you wouldn't have been as funny in those shows?
SR: Maybe not. There's something you can get away with when you know you're only going to be on one season. There's no sense of, "We should save that." It's just like, "Use that! Get it out there now. They could shut us down any second!"
AVC: Was Undeclared your first experience writing for television?
AVC: Writing for a network like Fox, was there a lot involved in getting a script through?
SR: Not too much. There was always the dance about "How much can you really imply they're getting drunk?" or something. You couldn't show them smoking weed, you couldn't show them swearing, and you couldn't show a blowjob. Once you accepted that, it wasn't that hard to get what you were trying to do out there.
AVC: Since you wrote, or co-wrote, several of the scripts for Undeclared, were you also involved in mapping season two, or was that Judd Apatow's department?
SR: No, all the writers were involved in mapping out the season, I would say. Undeclared was different in that it was fully staffed with writers before the pilot was written. So we started with like a seven-episode commitment, so before there was a pilot, we knew we were going to be shooting at least seven episodes. That gave all the writers an opportunity to help shape the show and kind of give their two cents as to its direction.
AVC: And did you seize upon certain ideas? If you proposed something for a particular episode, would you claim the script as yours to write?
SR: Yeah. How I worked with Judd is actually different from how I think most shows work, in that you'd go to him with your ideas. You'd say, like, "I have these five ideas for an episode," and he'd says something like, "Well, I like these two. Maybe flesh them out a little more." When we knew Adam Sandler was going to do the show, maybe that was a little different, because it was like, "Okay, we need a Sandler episode." But generally speaking, it was the writers' own ideas and whatever they wanted to write about.
AVC: How did you get involved writing for Da Ali G Show?
SR: That was, surprisingly, through Judd. [Laughs.] I was sitting in my apartment, amongst a haze of illegal smoke, I'm sure, and it was probably like my second or third year of doing absolutely nothing. I got a phone call from Judd saying he just met with Sacha, and he was looking for new writers to go on the road for him for the second season of the show. And me and my writing partner, Evan [Goldberg], said we'd love to go meet him. And we went and met with him and really hit it off, just got along really well with Sacha, and we got the job.
AVC: Since much of his shtick involves interacting with other people, what would you script beforehand?
SR: A lot of what he says is scripted. There's a real science to it. It's almost like a magic trick. You get better at guessing what other people are going to say, and you can almost write it. If all goes according to plan, it is almost completely scripted.
AVC: Was there any one character that you felt most comfortable writing, that you connected with most strongly?
SR: Oddly enough, we ended up writing a lot of the Bruno stuff. That just started to be very funny to us. I found myself speaking in this gay Austrian voice for weeks and weeks on end. [Laughs.] It kind of begins to seep into your brain. I would go to sleep thinking of Bruno jokes. Ali G was fun to write for, too, just because he was so stupid. [Laughs.]
AVC: Borat and these two movies you've done with Judd Apatow suggest that comedy's kind of going in this new direction, one that's less dependent on traditional screenplays and built more by people who are skilled at improv and sketch comedy. Is that a fair statement?
SR: Maybe. I don't know. I guess time will tell. We're not the first guys to do this. Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman and movies like that have been popular for years and years. If you talk to people like Harold Ramis, you quickly learn that they shot very similar to how we shoot with their improv and their riffing and stuff like that. I think right now, maybe our movies are the ones that people are responding to. And Sacha's movie. But I don't know trend-wise if it's a new thing, or how long it will be around. I already see the wave of terrible Borat imitators coming, and I'm sure it will put the whole thing to bed. [Laughs.]
AVC: How does improvisation work on a Judd Apatow set? Do you work around lines that are scripted, or were you just given a situation and told to go from there?
SR: It depends. Generally, you'll shoot the scene as scripted a few times until Judd's comfortable that we have that version of it. Then he'll just kind of let you go off. He'll be like, "What else would you say? What else could you do here? What are other things you could be talking about?" It's really just as simple as that. It could be as small as replacing one joke with another. Or sometimes we just throw out the lines altogether and start new. It really ranges from scene to scene. But yeah, he'll let you go for it.
AVC: Do you tend to come to the set with a lot of ideas ready for a scene, or is it more spontaneous?
SR: Sometimes. I usually don't spend a lot of time the night before, for example. It's different for me [than the other actors] because I'm so involved with the process from its early, early phases. By the time we're shooting, I've said every idea that I have. It's not like I have a lot left in me to sit down the night before and scribble down new things. That being said, you know always, things will just pop up. You'll be eating dinner one night and then suddenly you'll think, "Hey, you know what might be funny? In the scene where [Katherine Heigl] calls and says she wants to go out with me, what if I'm humping the air the whole time?" I mean, something like that will just pop into your head every once in a while, and you kind of just make a note of it. But generally, I just kind of try to go in with an open mind and see what the other actors are going to bring to it, and just see what happens.
AVC: Were you involved early on 40-Year-Old Virgin, too?
SR: Yeah, pretty much right after the movie was green-lit, and after the very first draft was written, was when I came onboard. Months and months and months before we started shooting.
AVC: What do you end up contributing at that stage? Does Judd write the script in full and then you kind of work with it from there, or are you helping him develop scenes?
SR: I'm helping him think of new scenes. Different ways the structure could work, or different order of the events. I just keep giving ideas until someone tells me to shut up, basically. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you're working with actors that aren't accustomed to improv, like Katherine Heigl, how do you keep from throwing them off their game? Is it a tough adjustment for them to work in an environment like that?
SR: No. I don't think so. I think she's great at it. A lot of people think since [Paul] Rudd and Leslie [Mann] and Jonah [Hill] and myself have done improv a lot, it makes it hard for people with less experience to just jump in with us. But I think if anything, it makes it a lot easier to improv with people that are comfortable doing it and are good at it, and it just begins to feel like talking. You know, Katherine did it every single time. There was never a time when we'd look at her to say something and she'd just say, "I don't know what to say." I mean, if you can carry a conversation and be comfortable on film, then you can improvise.
AVC: Is there anything as an actor that you feel uncomfortable doing? Is it harder for you to be, say, really sincere than to sort of cut up? Do you feel like you're fully together as an actor?
SR: Um, I don't know. I'm not entirely comfortable saying I'm an actor, because it seems like a very weird, almost dorky thing to say you are. I laugh after every take just out of the discomfort I feel that I'm even on film. It's an awkward thing for me to be doing. Once we get going, it's always fine, and as we're shooting, I'm never thinking about it. I'd say that all my time in front of the camera is equally uncomfortable for me. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about the whole idea of carrying a movie? Was that something you had any trepidation about?
SR: Well, I knew I wouldn't be really carrying the movie, which is nice. I knew it was an ensemble, and Rudd would be there, and Leslie, and all the roommates, and ultimately Katherine. I just tried to take it scene by scene. I'm not really a heavier presence in any one scene in Knocked Up than I was in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I happen to be in more scenes than other people in the movie, but I'm not carrying it by any means.
AVC: Knocked Up is nearly as raunchy as 40-Year-Old Virgin, but the earlier film was a sex comedy, and this one is about parenthood. Was anyone at the studio wondering, "Hey, can't this be more family-friendly?" Or were you given license to do whatever you wanted?
SR: No, we were given license. They knew what it was we do. The studio people know me personally pretty well, so they know where my sensibilities lie. And I'm sure it was never surprising to them, the jokes I was making. And they let us go for it. To their credit, we never heard word one about toning anything down at all.
AVC: In the movie, the decision on whether to keep the baby is settled pretty quickly. You have that scene where Jonah Hill suggests something "that rhymes with sma-smortion," but the story doesn't linger there long. Was there any discussion of having that decision be a bigger part of the movie? Or is that sort of a non-starter as far as the comedy goes?
SR: We always knew that was not something we wanted to dwell on. It wasn't a movie about a woman deciding whether she should keep her baby; it was about a woman who decided she was going to keep the baby. We shot a lot of versions of the scene with Katherine and her mother, where her mother's talking about it. And there's the scene you mentioned where the guys talk about it. But ultimately, we just used as much or as little of it as we felt we needed to and was entertaining. Politically, I have no relevant opinions. I'm not going to shatter anyone's world by our take on Planned Parenthood. But it just seemed like, you need her to make that decision to get to the other hour and a half of the movie, so let's just try to get there.
AVC: What were your experiences showing The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up in front of a test audience? Do you feel like there's anything constructive to be learned from that process?
SR: Yeah. I have become a giant fan of the testing process, especially with a comedy. I mean, they tell you what's funny. It's almost tailor-made for people who shoot the way we shoot, trying a million different options and versions of things. Because the audience doesn't laugh at a joke, we put in another joke. If they don't laugh at the next joke, we put in another joke. We did about 10 test screenings of Knocked Up, and I would have happily done 10 more if the studio would have given us the money. You just keep doing them and you can get the movie to the point where every joke is funny, if you have enough options in the can. It's always a little nerve-wracking, because you never know how that first audience is going to react. But luckily, our movies have tested pretty well. I think it's outrageously useful, the information we get from those audiences.
AVC: But aren't there times when you just have to just trust your instincts that something is funny, even if not everybody gets it?
SR: Yeah. Take the crowning shots [in Knocked Up], for example. Like, I'd say, probably more people pointed out that they didn't like that in the movie than that they did. But we're there, we see how the theater reacts to it, and you know, they clearly like it. [Laughs.] They might not want to say they do. Even if, in retrospect, they didn't enjoy watching it, it made the movie a little bit better and more interesting, and we know that, so we just kind of have to trust that. Same with the singing and dancing at the end of Virgin, actually. Over half of the test audience didn't like the dancing. They were like, "It's weird, it comes out of nowhere." And we just had to say, "It's fucking funny." "I think it's funny. Do you guys think it's funny?" "I think it's fucking funny, too." "Fuck it, let's just put it in."
AVC: How much of Knocked Up ended on the cutting-room floor? Is there a three-hour version of the film out there?
SR: Yeah. There's at least three hours on the cutting-room floor. [Laughs.] When you shoot 1.6 million feet of film, that's as much as four movies shoot, usually. Yeah, there's a ton of shit. I expect a very thorough DVD in the people's future.
AVC: Are there any scenes that just pained you to cut from the film?
SR: People always ask me that, and I always say that I'm not shocked by what they didn't use, I'm more shocked by what they did use. You know, I'll watch the movie and I'll think, "They used that? They have us talking about Munich in there? That's in the movie?" Of course, there are always a few funny scenes that you miss. But overwhelmingly, I'm shocked that they use as much as they do.
AVC: What can you say about The Pineapple Express?
SR: We just finished shooting it. David Gordon Green directed it. It's a comedy. It's an action-comedy, actually. Not the first name you'd think of for that, either. It's a strange movie. It's more like Midnight Run or Lethal Weapon than the stuff we've been doing. But we wanted to have that real emotional center that people like about the movies that we've been doing. And we figured if we're really going to make this one be different and not just an action comedy, then we should get a director who will really bring something to it. And that's why we thought David was a great choice, because you watch his movies and they're so emotional and poignant and touching and odd that we figured he was a good left-field choice. And he's just a great guy. That's the most important thing. You meet him and he's hilarious and he just has crazy ideas. And it seemed like it could work. This could make an interesting movie.
AVC: Was this done independently, through a studio?
SR: No. Sony made it. We've got car chases. Explosions. I shoot an AK-47 many scenes in the movie.