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Seth Rogen: A Career in T-shirts

How do you measure an actor’s greatness? You watch how he uses his instrument, that unique gift he wields to make magic onscreen. For Sir John Gielgud, it was his magisterial voice. For Christian Bale, it’s his shape-shifting body. For Keanu Reeves, it’s his endlessly expressive face.

And for Seth Rogen, whose latest surefire blockbuster, Funny People, comes out today? It’s his T-shirts.

Yes, few realize that behind Seth Rogen’s rise from supporting player on Freaks and Geeks to toplining, multi-million-dollar–movie star is a collection of expertly-curated T-shirts, each one of which — through a delicate balance of sincerity and irony, washedness and unwashedness — has driven his performances to heights he might never have reached on his own. From bands Seth Rogen’s character likes to bands he likes ironically, from Los Angeles chicken restaurants to fictional TV shows, the T-shirts of Seth Rogen have stories to tell.

We’ve culled through hours of footage to find the greatest T-shirts of Seth Rogen’s career. And we’ve tested every one on our patented Iron-i-Meter™, which measures how ironic each shirt is* on a scale of 1 (say, a Nirvana shirt) to 10 (“Wisconsin: Smell Our Dairy Air”). How has Seth Rogen grown as an actor and an artist over the past fourteen years? His shirts tell the tale.

*This is not to be confused with the Iron-o-Meter™, which measures how frequently the shirt in question has been ironed. All of Seth’s shirts received a 0 on the Iron-o-Meter.

Even at 12, young Seth Rogen was aware that a good T-shirt could help a performer ease into a role — in this case, one of his first attempts at stand-up, as documented in Funny People’s promotional materials. Feeling nervous about telling jokes in front of a crowd? Slip on a shirt that mocks your peers’ infatuation with Stussy as “Stupid.”
It’s no coincidence that the pilot episode of Seth Rogen’s breakthrough series, Freaks and Geeks, begins with an argument over who owns that awesome Molly Hatchet shirt with the executioner and the severed head. “That’s my shirt!” protests Seth’s character, Ken Miller. The series was Rogen’s introduction to the great acting that a great T-shirt can do — no more so in Rogen’s standout ep, “The Little Things,” in which Ken’s girlfriend’s admission that she was born with both male and female genitalia leads to Ken’s crisis of sexuality. The heavy-metal T-shirts peeking from beneath his collar are a potent metaphor for the flowering of Ken’s understanding about the broad sweep of human eroticism.
On the other hand, Freaks and Geeks follow-up Undeclared owes its lack of even cult success to Fox’s foolish decision to clothe Rogen almost exclusively in polo shirts. It seems like at one point series creator Judd Apatow became so angry at his network’s hiding Rogen under a bushel that he staged this shot to sarcastically remind the network suits of the power of simple words on clothing.
Playing a second-banana role in his major-film supporting debut, Seth plays it straight with his T-shirt choices, wearing exclusively hipster-approved bands: Public Enemy, GZA, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth. SmartTech shipping and receiving guy Cal is a straightforward dude, and he wears straightforward shirts.
Given his first lead role, in 2007 comedy Knocked Up, Rogen knew he needed to step up his game. And so the collection of T-shirts he busts out is unsurpassed in the history of modern film, tracing Ben Stone’s evolution from hirsute, pot-smoking fuck-up to caring, semi-responsible dad. Early on, Ben’s T-shirts are ratty, disgusting, and impenetrable. Commenters, what does this shirt say? “QUACK TALES”? “QUACK NADES,” as one rip-off-T-shirt outlet suggests? And why is that duck holding a screwdriver? Ironic? Not at all. He really is that slob.
In one of Knocked Up’s most famous scenes, Ben and Alison (Katherine Heigl) confirm via sonogram that she’s pregnant. The pathos and comedy of this scene comes in part from Heigl’s committed, emotional performance, but mostly from Seth Rogen’s inappropriately psychedelic T-shirt emblazoned with a stoned frog and the words “TASTES LIKE CHICKEN.”
Soon, however, Ben grits his teeth and pitches in. As the pair interview doctors, Ben’s T-shirts get less and less humiliating, culminating in this OB/GYN appointment in which Ben defends Alison from the advances of a handsome young doctor while wearing a (comparatively) classy old-school Mr. Bill shirt.
With Knocked Up, Seth Rogen made an incredible acting discovery: His T-shirts could act even when he wasn’t wearing them himself. Here the seventies-style bikini-babe shirt Ben wore for his first hook-up with Alison reappears later in the movie — worn by Alison, in a rich moment that demonstrates how far their relationship has come.
For his next two hit movies, Superbad and Pineapple Express, a selfless Rogen gracefully ceded the T-shirt-wearing to lesser-known co-stars James Franco and Jonah Hill, launching their careers to new heights.
Director Kevin Smith made the critical mistake of setting 2008’s Zach and Miri Make a Porno in frosty Monroeville, PA, where winter conditions and verisimilitude demanded that Rogen hide his T-shirts under layers of flannel and Gore-Tex. As a result, he seemed lost through much of the film, as in this scene in which he strains to emote through his hat. Audiences, unwilling to accept Rogen as a character with covered forearms, stayed away.
Seth Rogen’s black comedy Observe and Report didn’t do much better at the box office than Zack and Miri, but artistically, it was far superior, thanks in part to the most unironic T-shirt of Seth’s career. Though Ronnie Barnhardt spends much of the film wearing his security-guard uniform, he does bust out a T-shirt in his desperate attempt to qualify for the Conway Police Department. You can read the difference between Knocked Up and Observe and Report in this one image: Ben Stone would wear that T-shirt as a laugh. Ronnie Barnhardt would sooner die.
As Rogen’s newest comedy opens, his character Ira Wright uses T-shirts to establish his bona fides as an artist and a comedian. From the Upright Citizens Brigade logo to the Wilco shirt, Ira’s choices remind us that this is a guy who’s serious about his career and serious about making a life in Hollywood. Most telling of all is this shirt positing the auteur as rock star: Martin Scorsese’s last name, printed in the familiar font of the Scorpions’ logo.
Ira has a complicated relationship with Judaism; he takes pride in his heritage but at the same time has, as Adam Sandler’s George Simmons notes, changed his last name. In a virtuoso display of T-shirt acting, Seth Rogen conveys this rich tapestry of feeling simply by sporting a Superjew shirt.
To see a man who once wore, in character, a GZA shirt sport a Huey Lewis and the News tee is, in a way, shocking. Of course Ira Wright is wearing this shirt ironically. But if “The Heart of Rock and Roll” came on the radio, he would know all the words.
In Funny People, Seth Rogen takes T-shirt-acting to levels it’s never before reached. No longer must T-shirts simply comment on the action on the screen – now they directly contribute to the atmosphere of a given scene. As George Simmons tells Ira about his terminal illness, Seth Rogen’s dark-blue-on-blue “VOTE KERRY” shirt adds notes of tragedy, regret, and despair, rendering the scene almost unwatchably painful.
In contrast, the shirt Rogen’s wearing when he learns George has been cured is bright, cheerful, and named after a beloved Los Angeles Lebanese chicken joint. How great is Ira’s joy? It’s vivid, it’s yellow, and it tastes like chicken – a witty comment on Rogen’s previous poultry-themed T-shirts (see slides 5 and 6).
Seth Rogen’s finely-tuned sense of T-shirt irony reaches its apogee in this tee, worn late in the movie as Ira is becoming more and more confident as a comedian. He’s wearing the shirt sincerely, in the sense that his roommate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is the star of the hit NBC sitcom Yo Teach!. He’s wearing it ironically, in the sense that he doesn’t actually like Yo Teach!. And this scene reaches the level of the head-spinningly metatextual when one realizes that Yo Teach! is a fictional terrible TV show, supported by an actual terrible network, and so even though the show itself doesn’t exist in the real world, it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks until the T-shirt does.
Seth Rogen: A Career in T-shirts