Seth Rogen is 36 years old, hasn’t starred onscreen in a comedy in a couple of years, and his newest project is Hilarity for Charity, a Netflix special intended to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. None of that, though, should be taken for signs of maturity. “The special pretty much starts with me vaping weed through my cock,” says the impressively bearded Rogen, enjoying a cheeseburger at a quiet restaurant in downtown Manhattan. “My mother did express some dismay over that.”
Whatever his mom thinks, Rogen’s raunchy but good-hearted stoner sensibility has served him well so far, as evidenced by hit comedies like Knocked Up, Superbad, and This Is the End (and maybe served him less well in the infamous The Interview, which was widely believed to have goaded North Korea into hacking Sony Pictures). “But the truth is,” he says, whether he’s writing, acting, directing or, increasingly, producing, “I don’t know how to do anything other than make the things I think are funny.” Then he laughs his big, booming laugh. “Things like cock-vaping.”
What thoughts get kicked up when you see North Korea in the news these days?
It does kick stuff up for sure. Honestly, I really don’t think North Korea hacked Sony.
When the trailer for The Interview came out we were called into a meeting at Sony, where they told us that North Korea had probably already hacked into their system and seen the movie and that the statements they’d put out was their response. Then, months later, when the movie itself finally came out, all this hacking shit happened. This was months after North Korea had probably already seen the movie. Why would they wait? And they never did anything like that before and haven’t done anything like it since. So things just never quite added up. The guy I’d hired to do my cybersecurity even told me, “There’s no way this was a hack. It had to be a physical act.” The amount of stuff that was stolen would have had to have physical mass to it.
In the sense that whoever stole the information needed to have his or her hands on a server at some point?
Yeah, it wasn’t something you could’ve hacked remotely. It required plugging shit into other shit. And the hack also seemed weirdly targeted at Amy [Pascal], which seems fishy — of all the people to target? Why not me? Why not Michael Lynton?
Has anyone given you a plausible theory for who else might be responsible?
I’ve heard that it was a disgruntled Sony employee. I’ve also heard people say that they think someone was hired to do the hack as a way of getting Amy Pascal fired. I don’t know if I subscribe to those theories, but I kind of don’t think it was North Korea.
Did the Sony hack change anything about the way you do business?
No. It literally did not create one hitch as far as work. The hack happened in November , I started shooting Steve Jobs that January. We directed the Preacher pilot that April. We got into Neighbors 2 a couple months after that. When I look back at that whole situation, the thing I regret is that Sony convinced me to pretend to the press that we didn’t know what we were doing when we made The Interview. They wanted us to act like we were just trying to make a silly comedy and didn’t know we were making something controversial.
They were asking you to play naïve?
They were asking us to look like these dumb stoner filmmakers who just happened to make a movie about Kim Jong-un without really thinking about it. Like, we had no idea North Korea might be mad!
So why’d you play along?
Look, I mean it all was happening in real time. They [Sony] were not protecting us very well. They pulled the movie from theaters when I was in a green room about to go on Colbert. No one from Sony came up to me being like, “Yo, we’re doing this.” They totally floated us out on our own. They just kept saying, “Say [The Interview] wasn’t meant to be controversial. Say the controversy was an accident.” And that’s what we did! Just because it was all happening so fast and we didn’t know what the fuck was going on. So that’s what I honestly regret: not just saying, “We knew exactly what we were doing with The Interview.”
Maybe this question doesn’t quite apply if North Korea wasn’t responsible for the hack, but did your experience with The Interview make you think any differently about the stakes of satire? Just insofar as realizing that there can consequences for taking shots at people.
Maybe. But even if the hack was North Korea, I don’t regret doing the movie. The other regret I do have is that we could have made the movie itself better. Creatively we could have done things to help the tone. There was a joke in Hilarity for Charity that we wound up cutting out where Nick Kroll was yelling at me about The Interview, and he’s like, “Your failure to wrangle James Franco’s performance gave the whole movie tonal problems.”
Is there truth to that?
I do think it’s true! I think I could now make a better movie, but as far as the actual content of the movie goes, I don’t regret anything.
James Franco is something I have to ask you about. Were the recent allegations against him in keeping with the person you know?
The truth is that my perspective on this is the least relevant perspective. I’m friends with these people and I’m a dude. All that combined makes me the last person who should be talking about this.
Is it fair to say that the allegations didn’t change anything about your willingness to work with him in the future?
Can you tell me about the experience of seeing someone you know so well involved in a controversy like that?
There are so many people with real things to contribute to the #MeToo discussion that anything I say is not going to add anything useful.
What you’re saying about your perspective as a white guy not being the most relevant to these larger cultural discussions — how does your awareness of that affect how you think about your work?
I just try to be with the curve, not behind it. This is not in any way about pandering, but I think Neighbors 2 had an incredibly progressive message. I think Blockers has an incredibly progressive message. We hired Kay Cannon to direct it and she did an amazing job. We’re hyperaware of trying to be as representative as possible in the directors and writers and actors we work with. I’m sure we could definitely be doing more to be ahead of the curve in that way, but, again, I couldn’t be more aware that my perspective is not one people are clamoring for.
So much of the work that you’ve done is rooted, on some level, in trying to put characters onscreen that are antidotes to Hollywood clichés. Like, Superbad was your attempt to show teens you actually recognized instead of teens as they appeared in American Pie. Or Pineapple Express put plausible real-life stoners in an action-movie setting. So what antidotes are you most eager to put onscreen next? What gaps need filling?
Evan [Goldberg] and I talk about this a lot. We’re trying to make the movies that we wish we could be seeing but aren’t. This movie I did that’s coming out with Charlize Theron called Flarsky — what titles puts asses in seats better than random Jewish last names? But anyway, it’s a big R-rated romantic comedy like Pretty Woman, which is something you don’t see a lot of anymore. It’s for adults, unabashedly, and it’s the exact type of thing that I would love to go see with my wife. And it’s also the exact type of thing that’s barely in existence right now.
How is Invincible going to be novel in that way? There’s no shortage of superhero movies.
The idea to do Invincible came from our wanting to do a very traditional superhero movie — suits and capes and flying around — and include elements that are incredibly antithetical to traditional superhero movies. We want to participate in genres but also approach them differently than how they’re normally approached.
Does “we” mean you and Evan?
Yeah, sorry, me and Evan. I make very few autonomous decisions in my career.
Got it. On the subject of superhero movies, is there a part of you that’s glad The Green Hornet didn’t land? If it’d done well, you’d probably still be making Green Hornet movies.
It’s more that I’m glad that we did that movie when we did it. We were a little before the superhero curve. We did that once, and it went as bad as you would imagine, for all the reasons you would imagine, and now we know it’s not for us. So many people’s careers get sucked into these giant movie franchises, but we’ve learned that it’s a fucking nightmare when you’re making a studio’s most expensive movie. The studio involvement on a project of that size is just not worth the trouble. It’s a lot better to be making the studio’s least expensive movie.
How close was Nicolas Cage to playing The Green Hornet’s villain?
Yeah, that shit was crazy. Which is funny, because in retrospect maybe what he’d wanted to do wouldn’t have been any worse — the movie didn’t turn out so great, so maybe he would’ve made it crazier. Which would’ve at least been interesting.
Wait, what are you talking about?
Basically, when you’re making a movie that expensive the studio has a real say in who you cast. So the studio was like, “You gotta make the villain a star. We want you to cast Nicolas Cage.” So we thought, let’s talk to him. And we do, and he tells us that he wants to do the movie, but he wants to play the character as, like, a white Bahamian or Jamaican. Which to us was a little worrisome.
Yeah, not that there aren’t white Bahamians, but it seemed perhaps insensitive. So then we were going to have a big dinner with Nicolas Cage at Amy Pascal’s house to talk about the movie. And I remember driving to the dinner with Evan and saying, “If he does the white Bahamian thing at the dinner, I’m going to lose it.” [Laughs.] I was like, “I can’t deal with being face-to-face with Nicolas Cage as he’s doing a Bahamian accent.”
So what happened?
Within 20 minutes of getting to the dinner he’s fully doing it.
Was the accent good?
It was good! But I think he could so viscerally tell that we didn’t like the idea that he just left right in the middle of dinner. He was just like, “I gotta go.” It was as if I just stood up right now with you and walked out. That’s how abrupt it was. Then he called me two days after that and said, “I’m getting the sense that you don’t want me in this movie.” That’s what happened. But God bless Nicolas Cage. I’m a huge fan.
What’s good and what’s bad about how much superhero movies are dominating Hollywood?
I think Evan and I have managed to avoid feeling the pressure from them. We make reasonably budgeted movies that, so far, have made those budgets back. But you know what’s funny? When we used to schedule our movies’ release dates, the idea was always that we didn’t want to come out near another R-rated comedy, and now there’s only like three big R-rated comedies a year, and sometimes we produce two of them. But every once in a while a major piece of IP will come up to us through our agents, and they’ll say, “Do you guys want to have a meeting about this?” And because of The Green Hornet our answer is always “no.” We’ve been served well by trying to stay on the lower end of budgets rather than get back into the hundreds of millions of dollars budget game.
You did a joint interview with Judd Apatow a few years back where you said, I think only partly joking, that you hadn’t gotten any funnier since you were a teenager writing Superbad. Do you really think that’s true? And if it is, then what have you gotten better at over the years?
Am I much funnier than when I was 17? Probably not. But I do things less by accident than I used to. It used to be that I’d come up with stuff almost just through sheer quantity. I remember hearing a quote once — I’m going to get it wrong — but it was something like, “You know you’ve gotten better at something when you’re actually able to make the thing your taste is telling you to make.” In the past, we’d have ideas but weren’t able to get them across exactly how we wanted. More and more, we can actually achieve the things we imagine making. That’s been a shift I’m proud of.
So using that criteria, what movie of yours are you proudest of?
This Is the End is the craziest movie conceptually that we could’ve made at that time, and the fact that it seemed to function and be received well was very surprising. Because we were like, “This was a big swing,” you know? I don’t know if that’s our best movie — Superbad I’m sure has more fans and Pineapple Express is probably the movie people mention most when they come up to me on the street — but as far as my own feelings, This Is the End had the most ways it could go wrong, and we avoided most of the pitfalls.
You’ve also said previously that you’re aware of how some of the jokes in Superbad haven’t aged that well. But is it possible to write edgy comedy with an eye on what might age badly? Especially now, it feels like a joke can go from basically being okay to being irredeemably offensive in the space of weeks.
I have accepted that a lot of what I do just won’t age well, but the thing is, nothing ages well. Animal House is one of the best comedies of all time and you watch it today and it’s appalling. There’s tons of shit in that movie that back then was “edgy” and today feels categorically wrong. That’s just part of comedy. But I also accept that some people won’t like what we do, and those people will express that, and I’ll listen to what they say. I try to understand where the lines in the culture are. I want to know when I am crossing the line, and I also want to convey to the audience, in some subtle way, that I’m aware of the lines. Audiences get nervous when they don’t trust that the filmmakers fully understand what they’re doing; you want to know that the people making the offensive jokes understand what’s offensive about them. It’s hard because, like you said, the line is always moving, but I think having the lines is right. I’m not one of these comedians who’s like, “People are too PC and it’s ruining comedy.” The man is not cracking down on my jokes.
Are there jokes you’ve come up with but didn’t use because they were too offensive?
What’s one of them? I’m always curious about where individual comedian’s lines are.
Actually I don’t think we’ve ever not used a joke because it was too offensive. There would also have to have been another reason. If the joke was pushing the line and was also not funny enough then we wouldn’t use it. But if it was pushing the line and everyone was laughing and it served the story and no one complained afterward, then it’d be okay. It’s almost like you need for there to be a negative symptom before you can determine that a joke is a problem. But we have taken jokes out of movies when test audiences just went, “That’s too fucked up.”
There was an early version of Sausage Party where Douche captured the group and was going to torture someone. So he got a rat, lifted up its tail and fingered the rat’s butt. Then took his rat-butt finger and swooshed it around in Lavash’s mouth. You could tell the test audience would have preferred if we hadn’t done that. So we took it out.
Do you ever wonder about the shelf life of the raunchy stoner-comedian persona? It’s like, it’s great to be your generation’s Tommy Chong while you’re in your 20s and 30s. But at some point no one but Tommy Chong should be their generation’s Tommy Chong. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. That’s very true. I don’t think it’s gotten sad for me yet — but it’s close! Like I said, we’ve always made the movies that we would want to go see and seeing comedies where people are high all the time is not at the top of my list of shit to go see anymore. But it helps me to know that we’ve got things in the pipeline that are moving things in different directions for me. Like, I’m 35 now and the movie we just made is about a 35-year-old.
You’re talking about the romantic comedy — what was it? Lipschitz?
Yeah, the movie soon-to-be-called-something-other-than-Flarsky — that name is going to change. But that movie is a step in a more adult direction. It’s definitely an R-rated movie but it’s drawing humor from new areas. Our sensibility is evolving. It just may be that it’s happening glacially.
Is a romantic comedy where you and Charlize Theron play the leads going to invite some of the same negative criticisms that bubbled up when you and Katherine Heigl played opposite each other in Knocked Up?
Probably! We’ll see how progressive people have gotten regarding my attractiveness over the last ten years.
Did you find those criticisms offensive?
I got what people meant. What I was shocked by was that people didn’t seem to understand that we didn’t invent that dynamic. As much as I would like to think we were the first to put a fucking Jewish dude and a shiksa in a movie together, we were not. Did those people not see When Harry Met Sally? That’s been a comedy formula for a long time: the schlubby guy and this woman who maybe is out of his league in some capacity. Every movie I watched growing up was like that. Every Woody Allen movie. John Candy movies. All the Bill Murray movies. I was surprised that people were acting like it was this new thing in Knocked Up.
I think the question was not really about whether or not that dynamic had existed prior but about whether or not its existence in movies is inherently messed up.
It was one of those things where if I really wanted to intellectualize how silly the discussion was, I could, but I would have been fighting someone else’s fight. I personally wasn’t offended.
Fair enough. I have what’s maybe a stoner-y question about weed for you: How much of your comedic sensibility was enhanced by drugs and how much was it actually formed by them?
That’s hard to know. What I do know is that I’ve started reading more about drugs as I’ve gotten older and what I’ve read has made me think, Man, I did a lot of shrooms when I was like 13 and 14 years old — dozens of times at a formative age. It’s a real consciousness-expanding drug, so maybe it’s had pretty deep effects.
Do you still regularly take hallucinogenic drugs?
I don’t know if I’d say regularly, but I do them, yeah.
For fun or insight?
Shrooms are a very insightful drug — very introspective.
What’s an insight you’ve gotten from them?
I did shrooms recently and then quit a job the next day. So yeah, I’ve made some real-life decisions as a result.
Can you say what the job was?
How important is weed to your creative process?
What I’ve found, more than anything, is that weed makes me willing to work. When I was young I found that a lot of people I knew were trudging through the workday. They were just waiting to go home so they could do what they really wanted to do and smoke weed. At some point I was just like, “If I smoke weed while I’m working, then I don’t have to do the trudging part.”
A two-birds, one-stone situation.
Exactly. If I’m stoned I’ll happily work all day long. I don’t really smoke when I’m acting because I can tell I look stoned, but other than that, being high makes me more willing to spend ten hours doing something that could otherwise get laborious.
Do you ever write sober?
Probably just by nature of time passing every once in a while.
You mean in the time between one high wearing off and the next one kicking in?
Yeah, moments arise organically where I find myself sober but I never will be like, “I’m gonna write sober today.”
High or sober, what are the funniest things you’ve seen lately?
The Good Place I really like. It’s totally insane and interesting. Big Mouth is emotionally resonant, it’s hilarious, it’s outrageous. I couldn’t enjoy it more. Rick and Morty is super smart and funny. I rarely like to use the phrase “next-level shit” but Nathan for You and “Finding Frances” was next-level shit. I watched it three times. I honestly think Nathan for You is the most brilliant thing on television.
Was it clear to you back in high school that Nathan Fielder was a genius?
I thought so. Being in high school with him was, like, imagine him the way he is on the show but there’s nothing telling you it’s a bit — no cameras, it’s not on Comedy Central. He came across to a lot of people as awkward or weird but I could tell it was a shtick. We were on the improv team together and he would do his thing. You knew he understood what he was doing, too, because he used it to make audiences laugh. It wasn’t like he was just a weirdo. When I saw Nathan for You, I was like, “Oh yeah, Nathan’s found the perfect vehicle.”
While we’re talking about comedians with whom you have somewhat random associations: Did you ever figure out why Rob Schneider picked a fight with you on Twitter?
I never did. My best guess is that — is he very conservative politically?
That’s my understanding.
Yeah, so the best I could do was that maybe he was preemptively cutting off what he thought was an avenue for conflict if I were to go after him. The truth is, I’ve said so many mean things about so many famous people that I have a hard time keeping track. I’m working with Jon Favreau right now, and he was like, “That joke you made about me in Funny People actually hurt my feelings.” And I was like, “I honestly don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” For the life of me I didn’t remember making a joke about him — even one that wound up in a major motion picture.
Just to go back to the subject of how your sensibility has evolved: Your movies are comedies before they’re anything else, but they nod to serious subjects. This Is the End involves people having to look back at their lives and determine if they’ve been good people. And Sausage Party, in addition to having a sexually explicit animated orgy between food products, touches on how we rationalize death. What other big human ideas are you interested in right now?
Evan and I are definitely drawn to the political climate right now, and how exactly to approach that is a question that some projects we’re working on might address. But the thing Evan and I have been talking about the most is that we want to make a silent movie. Like a Buster Keaton movie.
I’m sick of fucking watching people talk. And our comedy has grown very reliant on dialogue. So the idea is “Can we make a movie that plays like Sausage Party or This Is the End, but where no one talks?”
How far along are you?
We’ve been working on the concept for two-and-a-half or three years. We have a pretty solid outline, but with almost all of our movies there’s always been one idea that ends up locking everything into place, and we haven’t found it yet with the silent movie. With This Is the End, for years we couldn’t think of what would happen in the third act. But once we thought of, the characters figure out they can still go to heaven, we finished the script within a month.
At this stage of your career, as opposed to back when you didn’t know anything, who do you go to for advice?
Jon Favreau is someone I talk to a lot. The funny thing is that when I was young and wanted to be an actor he was one of the guys I remember looking at and thinking, I kind of look like him. If he’s an actor, I could be an actor. Who else? Judd [Apatow]. He’s like family at this point. [Laughs.] With all the good and bad of a family relationship. And Sacha Baron Cohen gives me a lot of advice. During the whole The Interview predicament he was by far the most helpful person advice-wise.
What’d he tell you?
To not say anything. Everyone was calling me and saying, “You’ve gotta talk to this person. You’ve gotta do an interview with these guys. You’ve gotta do a press conference with these people.” Sacha was the only one who said, “Do you want more attention?” “Nope.” “Then shut the fuck up.” That was good advice. We didn’t do any press. We didn’t tweet. We just kept working and didn’t bring any more attention to ourselves than we had to.
Where has Sacha Baron Cohen been lately? I always wonder if he’s struggling to find his next character or if he’s just rich and doesn’t need to work.
I know the answer and I can’t tell you what is. I literally can’t talk about it.
That’s awfully enigmatic.
You’ll understand why.
All right. Are you ever curious about going back to stand-up? That’s where you started, and you haven’t touched it in years, but there are aspects of what you do in the Netflix special that are sort of stand-up-like.
What you’re talking about with the special is more me commenting on funny props and introducing other people and stuff like that. I was actually adamant about was not having any moments where it seemed like I was doing stand-up because I didn’t think it would be fair to other comedians who actually regularly do stand-up. But I am curious about doing it again. I just don’t know if my ego could handle not being good at it. Not that I’m the best at everything I do, but I have a pretty good handle on something like writing. When I watch great stand-ups, I know I am not as good as they are. I never was. That’s why I stopped.
Not because you had the chance to do other kinds of work?
It was because as soon as I moved to L.A. and was on the same shows as Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, and David Cross I thought, I can’t do what they do. But then I started writing screenplays and realized I could do that really well and that I just got it more. But maybe I’d try it again. You know, we had to do stand-up for Funny People, and I remember Louis C.K. sitting me and Jonah [Hill] down for 45 minutes and explaining to us why we weren’t good.
What’d he say?
“The delivery is not good. You seem nervous up there. You’re rushing. You’re not taking your time. You’re sweating. Your jokes are structured badly.” It was all the reasons someone isn’t good at stand-up comedy! I really get curious about doing it again but it’s just not my skill set. It’s like Kanye: Just make great music, man. Actually, no, I’m wrong. Kanye should do everything. He should not put himself in any corner.
What about dramatic acting? Are there roles you’ve seen that you would’ve liked a shot at?
If that’s happened it’s been with a role Jonah got, and he’s a better actor than I am, so it’s okay.
He must lord those Oscar nominations over you.
Oh, yes! Very much! But the truth is that I produce a lot of stuff, so if there’s something I really want to make happen, I can probably find a way to make it happen. Like, there’s a movie now that I hope we get to make — I’m obsessed with the fact that in the ’70s I probably could have been an action star. Big Jewish dudes used to be the most masculine thing there was. Elliott Gould could play a hard-boiled detective! So there’s a movie we’re working on that’s a completely straight, violent underbelly ’70s type of movie, and I’d be in that. But working with other people outside of the stuff we produce is what I can’t control, and it’s always so fun when I get to do it because I can see how other people work and steal from them.
Whenever I talk to filmmakers, I’m fascinated by how much of a crapshoot moviemaking is. Nobody ever seems to know if something is going to turn out well. I know you’ve talked before about how there were clues during the making of The Guilt Trip that the movie wasn’t coming together, but can you remember specifically what those clues were?
On that one it just felt like the tonal approach was not how I’d originally seen it. I saw that movie as being more dramatic — almost like an Alexander Payne–type movie — than how it wound up. The conversations we’d had going in made me think that everyone was on the same page, and then when we started actually filming, I knew enough about camera placement and how things get put together to realize that it wasn’t going to be the kind of movie I’d thought it was. But for there to be a disconnect between the perspectives of the people making a movie is not weird. I’ve done rewriting work on other people’s movies when I was convinced that the approach the filmmakers were taking was wrong, and then I saw the finished movie and realized, Oh no, I was definitely the one who was wrong.
At least on Guilt Trip you got to hang out with Streisand.
The coolest thing about making that movie was being in a car with Barbra Streisand all day. I would just shamelessly extract stories from her: “Did you meet Elvis?” And yeah, she knew Elvis. She was saying she wanted to cast Elvis in — what was it?
A Star Is Born, I think.
Yeah, yeah. And people thought Elvis was too dangerous or something. She had amazing stories about almost everybody. Pierre Trudeau, she had fling with him. She went on a road trip with Marlon Brando. That was a good story. Her and Brando went on a road trip across America, staying at shitty motels and stuff. Yeah, and she and, I think, Elliott Gould got high with Peter Sellers. Maybe Julie Andrews was involved? Maybe Blake Edwards? I don’t 100 percent remember, but they all smoked weed at Peter Sellers’s apartment and then went out to dinner. [Streisand] said, “All I remember is laughing uncontrollably the entire time.”
I have a feeling that when you get older, people won’t be as intrigued to hear that you smoked weed with different celebrities.
You’d be surprised. People still ask me if I smoke.
Really? It seems like a given that you’re getting high with everyone.
At this point, it should be. [Laughs.]
This interview has been condensed and edited from two conversations.
Photograph by Koury Angelo/Netflix.
Annotations by Matt Stieb.