Seth Rogen's stoner comedies defined the Noughties — but their jokes about sex and women make for uncomfortable viewing. What does he think of them now? Decca Aitkenhead finds out.
Among the first people to read an early draft of Seth Rogen's new memoir was his mother. She offered one editorial query. Why did her son feel the need to write at such length about how much he enjoys taking drugs?
"And it was actually really helpful," he says, "because when I sat down and thought about it, I realised that there is a good reason for why I feel a compulsion to talk about it." The comedy actor, writer, producer and director wanted to give drugs the good press he thinks they deserve. "Because I think we live in a world where the wrong drugs are prominent. If you're someone who was raised to think that alcohol was, like, a really great way of inebriating yourself — and things like acid and weed were very dangerous — then I could see how my book would seem to not agree with your viewpoint on things." He pauses to draw on his first spliff of the interview. "But there is a course correction that, in my opinion, would be beneficial.
"Being someone who smokes weed all day, who has dabbled in hallucinogens since I was young, I feel as though I'm a normal, functional member of society who is healthy and who has had actually some very positive insights from some of these experiences." Grinning, he adds: "Coupled with the fact that alcohol is terrible."
Rogen's recreational drug consumption is, by anyone's standards, prodigious. He has never been a fan of cocaine ("a f***ed-up drug and I don't recommend that people get into it") and gave up alcohol about a decade ago, defeated by the logic of drinking something that was fun for about an hour, made him feel dizzy for the next three, and then "like shit" for the "entire next day". The 39-year-old prefers to take MDMA or magic mushrooms at social engagements, and smokes weed from the moment he wakes up pretty much every day.
His wife smokes about as much as he does. Following the legalisation of cannabis in his native Canada, in 2019 Rogen launched his own brand, Houseplant, which he is now expanding into the US as the country's drug laws relax. "Truly," he beams, "it's like a fun new creative outlet."
His earliest attempt at selling weed was less successful. At 14 he and a friend pooled $300 to buy a wholesale consignment from a group of older and altogether more business-savvy boys, who lured them to an alleyway, produced "gigantic butcher knives" and stole half their money — along with his friend's grandfather's Holocaust necklace, which they generously agreed to sell back to the hapless pair for the remaining $150.
Rogen's inspiration for the movie roles that made him a star is, in other words, no mystery. Ever since his first leading role in 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin as a laddish stockroom worker who supplies weed to a co-worker, he has played a series of charmingly idiotic, directionless but loveable man-children. He was a terminally juvenile, jobless pothead who accidentally impregnates an ambitious TV reporter in Knocked Up; a shambolic stoner who goes on the run with his weed dealer in Pineapple Express. In Superbad, the semi-autobiographical movie Rogen began writing at 13, he cast Jonah Hill to play a sexually frustrated teenager frantic to lose his virginity — called Seth. In This Is the End, his 2013 apocalypse comedy, he literally played himself.
Your typical slacker's biography, however, reads absolutely nothing like Rogen's. Born in Vancouver to Jewish parents — his mother was a social worker, his father worked for a government disability agency — he began performing stand-up comedy at just 13 after signing up for a comedy class. His parents would drive him to gigs. There is a YouTube clip of his debut performance, — at an open-mike night in a Vancouver lesbian bar. By 16 he had moved to LA to star in the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks and formed a lifelong friendship with its director, Judd Apatow. Rogen's parents and big sister came with him, and he became his family's main breadwinner. In 2004 he was hired by Sacha Baron Cohen to write for Da Ali G Show, where he met his wife, Lauren Miller, a stunning actress and writer with whom he lives in the hills above LA on a private estate of woodland and waterfalls.
His childhood friend Evan Goldberg co-writes or co-produces almost everything he makes; his Hollywood friends — James Franco, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel — have featured in most of his films. He has co-starred with Barbra Streisand in Guilt Trip, played Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs biopic, voiced parts in Kung Fu Panda and The Lion King, and in 2016 made the highest-grossing R-rated (it was a 15 in the UK) animated film in history, Sausage Party.
Even when a project goes wrong — as his 2014 film The Interview did, spectacularly — his status is only enhanced. North Korea took great exception to the satirical comedy about Kim Jong-un and the regime threatened "merciless" retaliation against the US. When Sony's computer systems were hacked, the studio took fright and cancelled its theatrical release. President Obama sided with Rogen's view that Sony should have held its nerve, however, conferring moral victory on the movie's star. In short, Rogen's life resembles wraparound success, both professional and personal.
And now he has written Yearbook, one of the funniest, cleverest celebrity memoirs I've read. The puzzle is how its permanently stoned, affable protagonist could possibly have pulled all this off.
He looks like a big smiley bear when we meet over Zoom, and when he laughs — which is a lot — he sounds like a tractor. For most of the interview he comes across exactly like the version of him who appears in the book — relaxed, amused, unguarded — so I tell him I'm struggling to reconcile this persona with his productivity and achievement.
Part of it is down to genetic luck. "It's true," he agrees, "weed is incorporated into my life in a different way than most people's." Having suffered from undiagnosed ADHD and mild Tourette's as a child, he found cannabis could settle and focus his thoughts. If he doesn't appear anything like competitive or driven enough for his cut-throat industry, he puts that down to precocity. Rogen hadn't needed to be fiercely ambitious to perform comedy, because his stand-up career began before he was old enough to feel daunted. "Kids just don't have the same fear that adults have." By the time he'd realised it was terrifying, he was already a pro.
As a consequence Rogen can seem like an undercover civilian who has infiltrated the celebrity enclave of Hollywood. Yearbook conforms to none of his industry's conventions of discretion: "It's me trying to frame and understand the behaviour of other famous people, as a famous person who is trying to just be slightly more normal than these other famous people," he chuckles. He offers up anecdotes about A-listers so surreal, I have to ask if details were embellished for comic effect. He bursts out laughing. "No, I did not purposely embellish the stories in any way, shape or form." Were the incidents at least rare? "Uhhhh, no. I could write plenty more."
According to Rogen, George Lucas confidently promised him in 2012 that the world would end before the year was out. "It's science," the Star Wars director told him. "And I know science." (A spokesman for Lucasfilm later said that he had "not been serious".) Tom Cruise assured Rogen that the pharmaceutical industry was responsible for editing TV studio footage of the actor leaping up and down on Oprah's sofa to make him look mad.
When Rogen met Snoop Dogg and asked him to write a verse of rap for a movie, the rapper turned to his entourage, "narrowed his eyes and said … 'Bring in the hos.'" Thirty seconds later, out of nowhere, half a dozen women dressed as strippers entered the room and danced for 20 minutes while Snoop composed a rap on his phone, leaving Rogen to conclude that this mobile troupe had to be Snoop's muses, on permanent standby.
Kanye West once accosted Rogen and his wife in a hotel lobby, summoned them into his enormous van parked outside and half-described, half-rapped his entire forthcoming album at them for two and a half hours straight, oblivious to their bewildered embarrassment.
"I don't think any of the people look back at those nights the same way I do. I don't think they're, like, 'That was a weird night for me'," Rogen says when I ask if any self-awareness was discernible in the divaish eccentricity. "No, I think for them they're just, like, 'That was a normal Thursday for me. '" Since the West encounter he has come across about 15 other people who have been similarly bundled into the rapper's van.
From what Rogen has observed, fame exercises an almost irresistible gravitational pull towards hubris. "If you are a famous person you are in the perfect position to have gravity pulling you into becoming a f***ing asshole. Certain things just will become something that you don't want them to unless you very deliberately stop them. Just the hope that it won't become that thing isn't enough. It has to be steered aggressively away. Otherwise you might just look around and be, like, 'Oh! I wrote the exact movie I didn't want to write.' Or, 'I treated this person in the exact way I didn't want to treat someone.' "
I ask what he deploys to steer himself away. "I've had the odd therapeutic session, but not a lot." He starts to laugh. "My entire family are social workers, so I literally can't interact with a member of my family without getting some sort of therapy." It also probably helps that several close childhood friends work in Hollywood with him — not just Goldberg, but the comedy writers Nathan Fielder and Kyle Hunter — tethering him to his pre-celebrity self. Above all, he credits his marriage for playing "a huge role, probably bigger than any other" in grounding him.
"My wife truly knows me, and so I think she can see when I'm maybe portraying myself in a way that isn't representative of who I actually am, or acting out in a way that clashes with my actual values. She's very honest and very upfront with me, and she's constantly reminding me of who I am."
The son of radical socialists has always considered himself a left-wing, feminist progressive. His recent Twitter spat with the Republican senator Ted Cruz (Rogen: "F*** off you fascist") was deadly earnest — "The state of America is infuriating to me" — and he supports dozens of liberal charities, as well as running his own to fund research into Alzheimer's. In the past he has apologised for jokes that haven't aged well, saying, "I'm not one of these comedians who's, like, 'People are too PC and it's ruining comedy.' " He has publicly regretted references to "faggots" in Superbad, and the "How I know you're gay" riff in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Gay people had described their discomfort to be surrounded by a cinema audience laughing, he said, "and I don't want anyone to have that experience watching our movies".
Rewatching his films now, though, what feels incredible is that he has not addressed another glaring discrepancy between his stated values and his output. An awful lot of Rogen's early work is so eye-wateringly misogynistic, I do not ever want my young sons to watch it.
I ask if he has seen Promising Young Woman, in which Carey Mulligan's character pretends to be drunk in bars. Under the pretext of getting her home safely, "nice guys" invariably try to have sex with her, sometimes even when she appears to be semi-conscious or asleep. "Yes, I have."
Did it remind him of the scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin when a handsome colleague of the eponymous virgin (played by Steve Carell) offers advice on the easiest way to get laid: trawl bars for drunk girls?
"Yes." Rogen is suddenly sombre and speaks slowly. "I would say that is something that is unfortunately representative of a very real mentality — but not something that we would be making comedy about, by any stretch of the imagination, any more. I look at that and think, yeah, that is not something we'd be doing today."
That film came out in 2005, long before #MeToo, and even longer before the Everyone's Invited website began publishing thousands of schoolgirls' testimony of a prevailing rape culture. I'm curious to know when Rogen began to reconsider the amusement value of dialogue about hunting down "drunk chicks. Don't confuse that with tipsy. We're talking about drunk. I want vomit in the hair. Bruised-up kneecaps. Broken heels is a plus."
"I think by the time even we made Superbad [in 2007]," he says, sounding faintly defensive, "it shows a very different mentality." But in that film the character called Seth compulsively objectifies girls, in revoltingly crass terms. In Knocked Up, released the same year, Rogen's porn-obsessed character compiles a database of the precise second in every movie to fast-forward to for the — female, obviously — nudity scenes. If teenage boys were supposed to see that this made his character a jerk, I'm pretty sure the inference went over their heads. I think what they saw is that this is how their favourite movie star talks and thinks about women.
Rogen tells me he's relieved that internet porn did not exist when he was growing up. "I look back," he shudders, "and think, thank God I missed that." He had been traumatised enough by the first porn VHS tape he ever watched at 15. "This is what sex was?" he writes. "It scared me." But Yearbook is packed full of very funny references to porn, for which he is a voracious enthusiast, including one comic anecdote where the punchline goes: "I did it. I looked at all the porn on the internet." I wonder how these are going to age. Does he think in a few years' time an interviewer may well put to him something like: "You made loads of jokes about porn in your book and your films — but we now recognise the terrible damage internet porn has done to a generation of young men and women, and it's not funny"?
He becomes uncharacteristically hesitant. "Er, I don't know what the consensus will be. I'm genuinely curious, you know. Honestly, I have no f***ing clue. Certainly we're reshaping our thinking on a lot of things, thank God, so I don't know if porn will ultimately become one of those things. But yeah, no, it's something — yeah. I just don't know." The sentence tails away into slightly awkward laughter.
One of his current projects is Pam & Tommy, a TV drama about the infamous 1995 theft of a sex tape from the home of newlyweds Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, in which Rogen plays the thief. The popular narrative surrounding the sex tape's theft and release was always that Anderson, though not actually in on the plot, did so well out of the resulting notoriety that no one ever needs to feel bad about watching it. "Yes," he nods. "That is very much like how people viewed that." Was that how he felt about it? "No," he says, "I think her privacy was violated by it, and the whole world exploded something incredibly private and personal without the consent of the people involved. I think it's terrible, and I hope the show corrects that false narrative. It will hopefully be one that ages well and we're all incredibly proud of for a very long time."
I'm unsure what to expect when I bring up his great friend James Franco. In 2014 the American actor, then 35, propositioned a British schoolgirl of 17 on Instagram. The story swept the gossip columns, and when Rogen hosted Saturday Night Live he made a big joke of it, with Franco joining in the laughs on stage. In 2018 five women made allegations against Franco of inappropriate or sexually exploitative behaviour. One claimed that during a nude orgy scene they had filmed together, he had removed protective plastic guards covering several actresses' vaginas while simulating oral sex on them.
Weeks later an interviewer asked Rogen if he would still be happy to work with Franco. "Yes," he replied. But he didn't want to discuss the Franco allegations, he said, because they were friends and "I'm a dude" — by which he meant that he was "the last person who should be talking about this" because "my perspective on this is the least relevant perspective". When another interviewer brought the subject up, he insisted that he didn't know much because he hadn't been following the news. Legal settlements were reached with two of Franco's accusers earlier this year, but the controversy isn't going away. Last month Charlyne Yi, Franco's co-star in a 2017 film Rogen had co-produced, accused the actor of being a "sexual predator" and Rogen of being his "enabler".
Has he given any consideration, I ask, to the possibility that this might be true?
"Erm." He shifts uneasily. "What I can say is that I despise abuse and harassment and I would never cover or conceal the actions of someone doing it, or knowingly put someone in a situation where they were around someone like that. However, I do look back at a joke I made on Saturday Night Live in 2014 and I very much regret making that joke. It was a terrible joke, honestly. And I also look back to that interview in 2018 where I comment that I would keep working with James, and the truth is that I have not and I do not plan to right now." The end of their professional relationship is not a coincidence? "No. It is not a coincidence."
Has it affected their friendship? "I'd say yes." Is their personal relationship now over? "Erm," he begins haltingly, "I don't know if I can define that right now during this interview. I can say it, um, you know, it has changed many things in our relationship and our dynamic." That must have been painful. "Yeah. But not as painful and difficult as it is for a lot of other people involved. I have no pity for myself in this situation."
While he falls into silent introspection, something Kate Beckinsale once said comes to mind. Our self-appraisal of our sexual currency, the actress observed, tends to be determined in early teens — and no matter how attractive we may later become tends not to be updated. Growing up in Vancouver, Rogen felt a lot like Seth in Superbad — a sexually clueless loser — while the girls around him looked impossibly hot and thus infinitely powerful. So many of his subsequent movies were filmed through that lens that I wonder if he had failed to notice he had in fact become the Hollywood A-lister, the one who called the shots. A more accurate appraisal of his own power — and therefore responsibility — might have begun to form only belatedly.
He looks up. "Pardon me just thinking — did I say what I should have said? I don't always articulate myself perfectly in the moment and sometimes I need time to think about it. Am I representing — again, my wife has now made me rethink — am I representing myself properly? Or am I tripping over my own words?"
A rueful grin spreads across his face and he begins to laugh. "My words have failed me many times in the past, and I do not assume that they won't yet again."
Yearbook by Seth Rogen is available from Wednesday.
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London