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.
Wearing a wrinkled button-down shirt and jeans, Rogen ambled up onto stage with the chunky grin of a class clown intent on mischief. “Is everyone drinking?” he said, upon reaching the microphone. The faithful roared and hollered in the affirmative. Then, comparing his movie to Celine Dion’s show, he added, “I assume this is the most dildo jokes that this theater has ever seen”—and at this, the crowd went bananas. (Rogen maintained a straight face throughout; it’s only when the humor is spontaneous that he breaks into his famous low giggle, like the laugh of an eighth-grade prankster.)
Goldberg, who’s bearded and balding, contributed to the shtick; as they often do when in public together, Rogen and Goldberg finished each other’s sentences, even talked over one another at times, as if trying to ensure at least partial credit for each joke.
Neighbors—about a young couple with a baby grappling with adulthood as a fraternity moves in next door—was, in the typical Rogen mold, filthy but light-hearted and left the crowd in jovial spirits for the “Frat Party” being held afterward in the Octavius Ballroom.
According to two delegates from Dolby Laboratories—one Indian, the other Australian, both of whom were howling the whole picture—celebrities are known to make cameos at post-screening bashes, and Rogen and Goldberg “will probably show up.”
But without an all-access pass, could I even get in? I followed the hordes of delegates through the casino and back up the escalators. A teal fraternity house, a replica of the one featured in the movie, had been constructed for the occasion. It was surrounded by a white picket fence, within which several beer pong tables stood atop pitches of artificial turf. The place rumbled with music courtesy of the DJ crew, “The Bangerz,” while up on stage, “Jabbawockeez,” a hip-hop dance team disguised in frightening white masks, performed. Booze was everywhere: beer kegs, Jell-O shots, fully-stocked bars, and ice sculptures through which frigid, sweet liquid alcohol dripped down various tubes and into your glass. Soon I was drunk and wandering the ballroom.
I kept getting conflicting information: Two volunteers told me that “talent” rarely shows up at after-parties. But a seasoned delegate said they usually do. After about an hour, I’d lost morale. I was on the verge of surrender when, from the microphone, someone boomed, “Evan Goldberg!” I squinted about a hundred yards through the mist, where I could make out Goldberg offering up a stiff, awkward wave, walking off stage. With a jolt of adrenaline, I elbowed my way through the throngs. It was a long way, but when I arrived, I was too late.
The next afternoon, Caesars Palace opened up its Titus Villa—an 11,000 square foot, $25,000 per night suite in an exclusive wing of the hotel—to the media. While wandering the villa I ran into a woman of about 40 who was nosing around a Jacuzzi bath as she snapped photos and gnawed on hors d’oeuvres. She said that she runs an entertainment website in Maryland, and that in the old days, back when this convention was called “ShowWest,” the quality of food and liquor was much higher, the access to celebrities greater. She described a Golden Age in which journalists and celebrities mingled as equals over exquisite food, where gift bags were bountiful and ripe with goodies. Nowadays, she complained, celebrities are flown in from Hollywood for mandatory appearances, whisked around behind tight security, then flown back to L.A. My only chance to speak to Rogen, she predicted, would be at the press conference before Thursday night’s “Big Screen Achievement Awards.”
I brought my appetizers and drink (there was a free open bar) into the villa’s private theater, which boasted a 100-inch flat screen TV set tuned to Blood Diamond. Inside the room were two $5,000 yoga massage chairs; buried in one was a little white-haired hippie who looked like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Glued to the other was a German female in her late 30s with straight dark hair and huge turquoise eyes. Despite regular traffic into the room, neither showed any interest in relinquishing their spots. Only after staff members had cleared the villa of journalists did they get up, albeit begrudgingly.
The hippie, John (who was celebrating his 63rd birthday), related the saga of how, after Woodstock ’94, his truck got stuck in mud. Sonia, the German, also lived in New York once, back when she practiced black magic. In the Colosseum’s lobby, she sadly pointed over to an area where, at a previous convention, a small zoo had been erected replete with lions, an alligator, and other beasts of prey. “It’s not what it used to be, man,” John commiserated.
Evading ballroom security, I accompanied them to a dinner upstairs, at which a man with perfect hair read clichés off a teleprompter to the mass clinking of silverware. I expressed my hopes for hanging out with Rogen. John and Sonia smiled at each other. John said, “There’s no way you’ll talk to him, man.”
But what about at the media event tomorrow night? I asked.
I could, they said, maybe squeeze in one question.
I hoped so. I had a good one planned.
Worried about airport security, I’d opted not to bring a shaving razor, which I now regretted, desiring a clean look to accompany my gray suit. And so I bought a cheap, portable one on the Strip. It was a grave error, as I discovered when I shaved for the first time in a week. Half an hour before the press conference, my face was full of gashes and big blotches of hair, like the yard of an abandoned house. Panic set in. This could be my only shot at talking to Rogen, and I couldn’t imagine facing him in this state.
Somehow, I removed the major hair patches and calmed the bleeding. I quickly put on my suit and tie, and was headed for the door when I glanced into the mirror: A drop of blood had stained my white shirt collar. With check-in 15 minutes away, I raced to the sink and doused the collar. Then I raced out the door and up the Strip, into Caesars Palace and across the casino, until I reached Pure Nightclub, where a line of several dozen media people was gathered. Most wore jeans; not one had on a suit. I was sweating and wheezing. Together, we were shuffled into a dimly lit room with red velvet walls. Everyone stared at a microphone in front of a white screen with the CinemaCon and Coca-Cola logos.
The first celebrity to arrive was Kevin Costner. He’d come to promote his new movie, Draft Day, and to accept the “2014 Cinema Icon Award.” When he was done, the other award recipients—Shailene Woodley, Chris Pratt, Chadwick Boseman—came in, answered a few questions one at a time, and left. The actors radiated confidence, and the reporters gushed over them, cracking up at their jokes, addressing them by their first names, yelling questions like “What was your influence for this role?” and “What does winning this award mean to you?”
Finally, Rogen and Goldberg walked into the room. Rogen’s suit looked identical to mine! His hair looked curlier, and with greater verticality, than on screen. “Hi, guys,” Rogen said. He looked uncomfortable in the suit, fidgeting non-stop. “Hey,” added Goldberg, waving stiffly.
“What do we do?” Rogen said. “Do we dance?” He laughed at his own joke.
The rest was a noisy blur. Someone shouted a question relating to their other soon-to-be-released movie The Interview, about a talk-show host hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Rogen answered by saying that “a ridiculous entertainment journalist” was the type of person they’d chosen to execute the operation. There was a split second of silence, but nobody appeared offended.
Here was my chance. A question was halfway out of my mouth but first someone else shrieked, “Do you love Vegas, and what do you do when you’re here?”
“Yes, and gamble,” Goldberg said, shrugging as if the answer were obvious.
“Yes, and gamble and drink,” Rogen said.
And that would be the final question, a woman announced. While my mouth was still half open, Rogen and Goldberg walked toward the exit, as another reporter hollered, in a frantic tone, “Do you think the penis scene in This Is the End was too much?”
“No penis is too much, thank you!” Goldberg spat back.
“No penis is too much, goodbye!” Rogen said. They left to everyone cheering.
But not me. I was stepping over knees and bodies, following them outside. Eventually I landed in a hallway opposite a doorway, half blocked by a curtain. But through the gap I saw a curly-haired guy, about my age, standing alone, lost in thought. It was Rogen. He turned slightly and we locked eyes. He looked sad, which caught me off guard. But here was my opportunity to say something, to wave, nod—do something! But before I could act Rogen snapped out of whatever mental state he was in—someone must’ve gotten his attention—and walked off. I made a move toward the room but out of nowhere a body ferociously slid in front of me, blocking the way. “You can’t come in here!” barked a stocky woman.
After an argument that went nowhere, I moped down a long hallway, at the end of which I saw people noshing and sipping from wine glasses. Kicking myself for squandering the opportunity and starving—I hadn’t eaten a morsel since morning—I powered straight for the buffet, where I began loading shrimp cocktail into my mouth. I was so focused on the shrimp that it took me a while to notice the giant Access Hollywood set across the room, where hosts Billy Bush and Kit Hoover were interviewing Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. With a fresh mouthful of shrimp, I glided over to the bar, communicating a drink order as best I could while keeping an eye on the Access Hollywood booth, in the event that Rogen emerged.
But slowly the room began to clear out. Barrymore and Sandler disappeared, and staff spread word that the awards ceremony was to begin. I walked, pouting, back across the casino floor and into the Colosseum.
At the Awards Ceremony, I was barely paying attention when Rogen and Goldberg gave their acceptance speech, to huge laughs. Rogen said, “I think us being up here officially makes Celine Dion the third-sexiest Canadian to appear on this stage.”
Goldberg said, “We want to thank NATO, you know, they protect North America from evil and at the same time they—”
“ … Distribute movies at the same time,” Rogen said, “How do they do that?
“We also want to thank Coca-Cola for powering Hollywood,” Rogen continued. “We also know it’s not the only coke that powers Hollywood.”
“In all seriousness,” Goldberg chimed in, “Coca-Cola made us really fat and unhealthy over the years, and we do thank you for that.”
Following the ceremony I walked across the hotel to the Garden of the Gods for the After Party, which was open to all delegates and media. I was depressed and looking for free alcohol. “What kind of reporter am I?” I thought. Here I’d flown 2,500 miles, nearly the entire expanse of North America and had flat-out blown my assignment, which was to ask Seth Rogen a single question.
In the center of the sprawling pool oasis—which is boxed in by stone towers and pillared monuments—I noticed a narrow roped-off area being guarded by an immaculately dressed man. I approached and said, “What’s going on here?”
“The VIP area,” he said, firing a glance at my right arm. “Wristbands only.”
Suddenly I was intrigued. With a raised eyebrow, I said, “Do you know if Seth Rogen is coming?”
To my disbelief, he nodded. “I believe so, yes,” he said, quietly. Then he added, “Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore too. They’re coming now.”
I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption. Clandestinely, I retreated along the perimeter of the VIP rope. When it appeared that I was off the well-dressed man’s radar, I scanned the area—all seemed clear—and swiftly but cautiously hurdled the rope, like a burglar avoiding an electronic sensor. I blended into a group near the bar, ordered a scotch, and settled beside a heat lamp, imagining myself and Rogen sharing laughs over a drink, partying with him and his crew.
But there’s a problem: Someone was calling my name. “Louie!” I hear. I whirl around to find John, the old hippie, clumsily stepping over the VIP rope, drawing numerous stares. He’s wearing a Spider-man cap and Spider-man T-shirt, and, to my horror, he’s waving other people inside: a Kid Rock lookalike who’s headed toward the buffet to tear apart some chicken tenders, and a guy with greasy, slicked-back hair wearing a sport coat over another Spider-man shirt. Stone-faced staff members wearing nametags are looking over at the disturbance, and at me—my cover most definitely blown.
“I can’t eat this!” announces John, waving dismissively at tins of food. He’s mumbling something about the cuisine at ShowWest, and Sonia, the large-eyed German who must’ve joined when I wasn’t looking, nods. “It’s cold outside,” she says, “I’m going back to see my friends in the cabana.”
Everything is falling apart. All I can do now is nervously sip my drink and wait to be escorted out and deposited back onto the Boulevard, where I belong.
But several minutes have gone by, and still no one’s bothering me. But now that I think about it, this is worrisome: Where’s the scrutiny? And where are the celebrities? Rogen was supposed to be here by now! Fear of humiliation and physical removal has now been replaced by a much colder prospect: Rogen was never coming after all.
“He’s not coming,” I said, acceptance sinking in. John is standing beside me.
“You mean Seth Rogen?” he says, “I just talked to him inside.”
“What!” I scream, “Where?”
“After the press conference,” he says, casually, “In that back room, near Access Hollywood.”
“Why!” I cry, “You mean, like, in the back … near all the—with the shrimp?” I’m losing my composure.
“Yeah, man, back there,” he says.
“What did you talk about?” I demand.
“I dunno, we talked for a few minutes,” he says, in carefree fashion. “He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.”
“What did you talk about?” I repeat. But I’m no longer listening. “Is he coming here?” I say, pathetically.
He shakes his head. “Sorry, man. He’s probably gone back to L.A.”
In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto. His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” Why is that? I’d asked.
“It might have to do with him being the ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”
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