Seth Rogen and the Secret to Happiness
How the comedian (and director, writer, ceramist and weed entrepreneur) has made a career out of mining the pitfalls and possibilities of adolescence.,
Seth Rogen and the Secret to Happiness
How the comedian (and director, writer, ceramist and weed entrepreneur) has made a career out of mining the pitfalls and possibilities of adolescence.
Credit…Chris Buck for The New York Times
By Jonah Weiner
- April 20, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
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Seth Rogen’s home sits on several wooded acres in the hills above Los Angeles, under a canopy of live oak and eucalyptus trees strung with outdoor pendants that light up around dusk, when the frogs on the grounds start croaking. I pulled up at the front gate on a recent afternoon, and Rogen’s voice rumbled through the intercom. “Hellooo!” He met me at the bottom of his driveway, which is long and steep enough that he keeps a golf cart up top “for schlepping big things up the driveway that are too heavy to walk,” he said, adding, as if bashful about coming off like the kind of guy who owns a dedicated driveway golf cart, “It doesn’t get a ton of use.”
Rogen wore a beard, chinos, a cardigan from the Japanese brand Needles and Birkenstocks with marled socks — laid-back Canyon chic. He led me to a switchback trail cut into a hillside, which we climbed to a vista point. Below us was Rogen’s office; the house he shares with his wife, Lauren, and their 11-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Zelda; and the converted garage where they make pottery. I was one of the first people, it turns out, to see the place. “I haven’t had many people over,” Rogen said, “because we moved in during the pandemic.”
Coyote paw prints pocked the trail. Water burbled somewhere beneath us. It was an idyllic scene disturbed only by Rogen’s phone, which was vibrating madly with messages. That morning, Houseplant, the cannabis company he co-founded in 2019 in Canada, his native country, officially started selling its own weed strains in California. Within moments of the launch there was an hourlong wait to enter the web store, and before long the whole site crashed under the weight of Rogen-loving hordes clamoring to buy what he described as his personally “hand-smoked” nugs. (The company also sells stoner home goods, like a blocky, Bauhausian table lighter designed to be impossible to lose.) “Crazy day,” he said, tapping at his screen. “I’m literally responding to people on Twitter, telling them we’re working on it — doing my own customer-service strategy, basically!”
Rogen’s overwhelmingly casual demeanor — chucklingly agreeable, continually stoned — has long belied his productivity: He has been working almost constantly since he was 13, when he started doing stand-up comedy around Vancouver. But it’s still easy to mistake him for a less frenetically ambitious person. A few weeks before I visited, we scheduled a 9:30 a.m. video call, during which, right up top, I watched him light a chubby joint. “I smoke weed all day,” he said. “You’ll see that when we’re together.” He punctuated this with a warm burst of laughter familiar to anyone who has spent 10 seconds in conversation with him: a low, gravelly cackle, like Chewbacca doing his best Fran Drescher.
Rogen was readying the release of “Yearbook,” a humor collection he’d spent nearly three years writing. But on social media, besides some posts about the book and about Houseplant, he’d mostly been making fun of Ted Cruz and posting pictures of his own trippy ceramic creations: undulating wide-mouth vases with speckled fluorescent finishes, nubby-glazed ashtrays with concave joint-holders affixed to their lips. And so I’d gotten it into my head that Rogen had downshifted into something of an early-retirement rhythm — the superstar comedian approaching middle age, shuffling between his memoirs and his pottery wheels, with nothing left to prove and nothing particularly urgent to do.
I was wrong. “Right now I’m writing two movies with Evan,” he told me, referring to his lifelong friend and collaborator, Evan Goldberg, with whom Rogen began writing screenplays in eighth grade and with whom he founded the production company Point Grey. “One’s called ‘Escape,’ which hasn’t been announced and no one knows about, that we’ve been working on for years, which hopefully we’ll make next year. And then we’re writing this movie for Luca Guadagnino” — the “Call Me by Your Name” director — “about Scotty Bowers, this Hollywood hustler from the ’40s. And we’re producing a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated movie.” On top of these projects were two others, in different media, that he asked me not to name, and then there was Houseplant. “On a given day I work on seven different things, probably, in little chunks,” he said, then puffed on the joint, shrugging. “But I don’t have kids!”
At 39, Rogen himself remains admirably childlike. A quarter century since he first set foot on a comedy-club stage, he has somehow preserved the openness of that 13-year-old, never quite hardening into a settled form. “It’s something I chase — that feeling of, Oh, this thing is working. Now this thing is working,” he said. Rogen set out knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life — make people laugh, smoke weed and hang out with his friends — and somehow managed to turn those three goals into the organizing principles of his whole career.
We descended the hillside, and Rogen got a call: The web store was back up. “Fantastic,” he said, swiping over to Twitter to share the news as we strolled over to his pottery workshop. “Ceramics is something else that having kids would make impossible,” he told me. When the subject of childlessness arises in interviews, Rogen likes to half-joke that he and Lauren did the math and decided they’d rather not have kids, and enjoy a life of continued freedom and risk, maybe regretting this decision for “a couple years before we die” than have kids now, dislike the life change tremendously and regret it for “the next 50 years.”
The workshop smelled, unsurprisingly, dank. “There are probably some roaches sitting around,” he said. Through Houseplant, and on his own, Rogen has advocated for expunging criminal records that stem from marijuana arrests, and he is heartened by the drug’s steady creep toward legalization in the United States. He stressed that its illegality was “racist.” He went on: “It’s insane to arrest people for something that never should have been illegal in the first place. It’s just a way to put Black people in jail.”
Mark Rogen, Seth’s father, told me that his son suffered from an undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder as a kid, until “the miracle of marijuana changed his life — we had him on a strict diet that helped keep him in balance, but it wasn’t 100 percent. Marijuana finally made his cells relax.” Rogen compares his own weed habit to wearing shoes: He could probably make it through a day without it, but “it’s just not how I would prefer to be feeling.” He acts stoned, he directs stoned, he does interviews stoned. Absent the cultural stigma around marijuana, Rogen said, “it’s just a tool we use to make our experience more palatable, and some people need those tools a lot more than others. For me it’s like shoes. For you it might be like sunglasses. Not everyone’s the same. If someone doesn’t need to smoke weed? Great. It’s the same as someone telling me they don’t wear glasses. ‘Mazel tov! You don’t wear glasses. I do!'”
The pottery studio was cluttered but clean. There were three wheels and a kiln, and several worktables covered with test tiles for trying out new glazes, freeze-dried treats for Zelda and ceramics in various states of completion. Rogen’s pottery is good — sometimes astonishingly so — and the images he posts online routinely generate hundreds of thousands of likes. “I’ve spent years working on movies that fewer people pay attention to than a vase I spent 40 minutes on,” he said, laughing.
Rogen credited Lauren, who is also an actor and filmmaker, with encouraging him to try ceramics. “She made all the stuff in our house,” he said. But it was the late L.A. artist Ken Price — best known for his gloopily biomorphic, wild-hued sculptures — who first piqued Rogen’s interest in the form. “I went to his last show at LACMA in 2012, the one Frank Gehry did the installation for,” Rogen recalled. “It’s the first time I saw ceramics and said, ‘What the [expletive] is happening here?'” It was at this moment that Rogen noticed my T-shirt, which was printed with images of Price’s ceramics. “Where did that come from?!” he asked, delighted. “That’s amazing. I need that.”
Rogen has collected art for several years, with a focus on Pop and street art. In addition to a trove of vintage ashtrays he began amassing as a teenager, he showed me some painted sculptures by Barry McGee, figurines by KAWS and a large color drawing by George Condo. With ceramics, Rogen found a practice that spoke to both the left and right sides of his brain. He flipped open a notebook in which he’d written the chemical breakdowns of various glaze recipes. “This reminds me of the camera side of filmmaking, which is very scientific and technical, and which I actually understand really well,” he said. “It’s funny, whenever it’s revealed to someone that I know about cameras, they’re surprised, and it’s, like, I make movies!”
Rogen held up a vase he’d glazed with a multitude of wormy Cronenbergian protuberances. “This one’s gross,” he said, not unlovingly. “But what I love about it is it makes you want to touch it.” He showed me a more immediately pleasing one, with a saucer-shaped mouth and squat body he’d glazed with psychedelic swirls of blues, greens, reds and oranges, evoking a gasoline rainbow. “Beauty was not emphasized in the filmmaking climate that I grew up in,” Rogen said. “And we were never trying to make our work beautiful. We were trying to make it feel real and accessible and grounded.” He went on: “We were always trying to serve comedy, and beauty doesn’t always serve comedy.” Recently, he said, he’d started wondering what a beautiful Seth Rogen comedy might look like.
Rather than a hobby indulged in a vacuum, ceramics had become deeply enmeshed with Rogen’s sense of himself as a creative person — and had occasioned epiphanies he wanted to weave back into moviemaking. He talks about the meditative appeal of throwing clay, and about the particular pleasure, for someone who works in the increasingly dematerialized “content” industry, of a creative endeavor oriented around tactile artifacts. Beyond this, he told me, ceramics offered him an outlet for experimental impulses that were harder to chase in his day job: Making movies, he often felt that “there’s too much money involved to be truly experimental. When someone’s given you $40 million, is that really the time to be trying things you’re not sure are gonna work? But what pottery has shown me is there is actually a lot more experimenting we could be doing.” For instance, “I was watching the making of ‘Phantom Thread,’ and Paul Thomas Anderson is trying out 300 different film stocks — it’s not like Evan and I don’t want to do that, but they don’t let us do that. And we’re probably not fighting hard enough to do that.”
Under quarantine, as a kind of bonding exercise, Point Grey started a virtual movie club for its 13 employees. On occasion, directors and actors themselves joined video calls to discuss films they’d worked on: Amy Heckerling (who talked about making “Clueless”), James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”), Keanu Reeves (“The Matrix”) and Nancy Meyers, among others. One week, Alfonso Cuaron popped in to talk about “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and something he said lodged in Rogen’s head. “He talked about making that movie after he’d made some big studio films,” Rogen recalled. “And he said: ‘With this one, we wanted to make the movie we would have made before we even went to film school, as though we knew nothing. Any idea we had, we would do it, even if it seemed crazy or stupid or pretentious or whatever. We wouldn’t think about, Oh, it’s been done, or people will hate that, or that’s too weird.’
“It was so cool to hear him talk about that,” Rogen went on, “because — speaking to experimentation — he’d been locked into this thing where he was making big, expensive movies very early in his career, and then he kind of went back and said, No, this is what I want to do: Reset what I’m known for and take insane swings.”
Rogen built his comedic persona around the prerogatives of adolescence in real time: He started out telling summer-camp and Jewish-grandparent jokes in his stand-up act, improvising scenes on the NBC high school sitcom “Freaks and Geeks” and co-writing what would become the 2007 smash hit “Superbad.” Working on early drafts of that script in eighth grade with Goldberg, Rogen told me: “It was, like, we’re writing our favorite movie of all time, because it doesn’t exist. There are movies we like, but there’s no movie that’s us, with all the things we specifically want out of a movie: It’s about teenagers, they’re trying to buy booze, they’re trying to get laid, they’re failing, there are cops, they’re stupid. … “
This preoccupation has persisted into Rogen’s adulthood, from his 2007 star turn in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” in which he played a 20-something dude jostled out of an extended adolescence by an unexpected pregnancy after a drunken hookup, to “Long Shot” (2019), in which he played a 30-something dude who shares an adolescent bond with a politician (Charlize Theron) and works to remind her of her youthful ideals even as she works to disabuse him of what she sees as his stubborn naivete. Through Point Grey (named for the secondary school he and Goldberg attended), Rogen has put out “Good Boys” and “Blockers,” wildly profitable R-rated teen comedies. Last year, he voiced a teenager on “Big Mouth.” He has said that he envisions Point Grey’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot as “a great action-adventure movie that’s also a great teenage movie.”
I asked Rogen what it was about youth he found so compelling. “That time in your life is very fertile for good stories,” he said, “in the sense of lessons learned, things that are formative to you, things where you thought one thing then thought another. … ” He mulled it over a bit more. “I think a ton about organization — that’s a word, creatively, that comes into my head a lot. People crave stories because what stories do is organize experiences in ways that make them make sense. Like, the world is very scary and chaotic-feeling,” and youth is “the time in people’s lives that feels it could use the most organizing. It’s the least-reconciled part of a lot of people’s lives: ‘What do I do with that?'”
Rogen devotes much of “Yearbook,” which comes out next month, to organizing his own early life. He began writing it two and a half years ago, he said, “when Evan had his second kid and I had nothing to do for a few months.” His goal wasn’t to impart “life lessons,” he emphasized, just to be an affable raconteur: Rogen’s best movies feel like great hangs, after all, so why not make his writing feel the same way? Or as he put it: “I read Steve Martin’s book” — “Born Standing Up” — “and I was like, this is a beautiful memoir of one of the most influential people in comedy. That’s not what I’m going for!”
Rogen got in touch with old classmates, some of whom he hadn’t spoken to in ages, asking for permission to use their names in the book, and for their own recollections too. “This guy Saul Moscovich, who is the guy I first smoked weed with, I haven’t talked to him since I was 17,” Rogen said, “but it was funny getting his perspective on the first time we got high in the ravine behind our school.”
Rogen’s adolescence in Vancouver was, in his telling, an essentially untroubled one — he remarks in “Yearbook” that his life has been relatively low on adversity and mercifully unmarred by tragedy. When he was growing up, Rogen says, his family “did not have a ton of money.” This seems to have bothered him more than it did his parents, whom Rogen describes as resolutely anti-careerist “radical Jewish socialists.” His mother, Sandy, worked as a cashier and later as a social worker. As part of his student advocacy work at a local community college, Mark opened a game room, signing out table-tennis paddles; later he worked for nonprofits. (Rogen has an older sister, Danya, who is now a social worker, too.)
“Mark always said to our kids, ‘Never do anything just for the money,'” Sandy told me recently. “We were very lefty, very socialist, and tried to instill that in them: ‘You have to share.’ We always had people living in our house. Five or six people who had left their marriages and had nowhere to go, they came and lived with us and they weren’t separate from us — they were part of the family.”
In addition to his childhood issues with attention, Rogen says he has a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome. “I knew when he was 4 that he would not be able to sit in school,” Sandy said, recalling Seth’s “night terrors and tantrums,” which abated after they put him on the doctor-prescribed diet. “We took him off dairy, wheat, sugar, yeast — everything good,” she said. Nonetheless, until about seventh grade, Mark said, they “spent almost as much time at his school as he did,” summoned to the vice principal’s office to discuss Seth’s behavior. Rogen would fidget incessantly, leave his seat and interrupt class, antagonizing teachers. “He was really smart and could take things teachers said and twist them against them,” Mark recalled, “making the class laugh at them and embarrassing them.” Sandy added that Seth would “make some teachers cry — but one of his favorite teachers used to tell us she had to send him out of the classroom because he was making her laugh so hard.”
Seth painted, drew and enlisted Sandy’s help in fashioning costumes. “He’d say, today I have to be Batman, today I have to be a cowboy, today I have to be Abraham Lincoln,” she told me. After Seth saw “The Terminator,” Mark recalled, he made himself a stunningly elaborate “replica of the Terminator’s gun” using duct tape, electrical tape, paper-towel and toilet-paper rolls. “That gun was amazing,” Sandy said.
By high school, Rogen had mellowed significantly — he played rugby, studied karate and won a provincial championship with the Point Grey improv team. (The brilliant comedian Nathan Fielder, it happens, was a teammate.) But he remained an idiosyncratic kid who dyed his hair green, wore a leather L.A. Raiders cap inspired by Ice Cube and, at 16, shared a subjectivity-obliterating 18-gram dose of psilocybin mushrooms with Goldberg in a local forest known as the Endowment Lands. “We lost our minds,” he told me, adding that, in the years since, he has experienced shroom-abetted ego death “like, 25 times.”
That same year, Rogen successfully auditioned for a role on “Freaks and Geeks,” the cult high school series created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig. Mark and Sandy were each laid off from their jobs before the gig materialized, and Rogen has suggested that “if there was any kind of dark, driving force” behind his early ambitions, it was most likely his desire for “some sense of financial security.” He became the family breadwinner, but this didn’t much change the household dynamic, because his parents had long instilled in their kids an everybody-pitches-in mentality. Rogen remembers their spending a chunk of the gift money from his bar mitzvah on a washer-dryer. Sandy told me, “I feel slightly guilty that Seth felt any pressure about money” — then added, with a laugh, “Mark doesn’t.”
When I asked Rogen’s parents if anything surprised them about the adult he became, Mark replied: “It surprises me that he’s such a workaholic! It’s kind of like Alex Keaton” — Michael J. Fox’s character on “Family Ties” — “this thing where the family is lefty and the son is right-wing. We were so laid back! Sandy was home with the kids for seven years, and I had low-paying jobs, and we worked because we had to, not because it was our life’s ambition. And now Seth is multitasking on 10 projects at any given moment.” Seth laughingly acknowledged to me that he “might have gone in the complete opposite direction” of his parents, but that, when it came to his career aspirations, “They never said, Hollywood is [expletive], wear bare feet and frolic the fields. They said, If this makes you happy, do it.”
All artworks are tethered to the moment of their making, but that’s especially true of comedy, where the perspectives, references and rhythms that animate jokes can date them — sometimes fatally — far more readily than, say, an outmoded hairstyle. Lately, comedy’s radioactive half-life has seemed to only accelerate, as cultural attitudes surrounding sex, identity and privilege are renegotiated precipitously, and this is especially true of comedies situated as squarely as Rogen and Goldberg’s have been in the world of men.
Rogen has addressed this renegotiation in interviews, acknowledging that there are jokes he made at the start of his career that he wouldn’t make today, and that he proceeds with more sensitivity now than he did in his 20s. He characterizes this not as a case of self-censorship but as a particularly high-stakes example of what any comedian fundamentally wants to do, which is exhibit control over his or her material: “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,” Rogen told New York magazine in 2018. “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.”
Films like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” meet this standard — for the most part. When the pubescent protagonists of the former issue idiotic declarations about the psychologies of the girls they obsess over, the movie makes it abundantly clear they have no idea what they’re talking about. “Pineapple Express” (2008) includes a shadowy group of drug dealers referred to only as “the Asians,” in the Orientalist style of the lug-headed ’80s action movies Rogen and Goldberg are pastiching. You can read this as a meta commentary on Hollywood racism, even if you debate its ultimate success.
At bottom, though, Rogen’s movies are sweet, fumbling love stories about sweet, fumbling dorks, and this has helped them age well. In “Yearbook,” we encounter a poignant encapsulation of this sensibility. When Rogen was 12, he writes, inspired by the 1993 Val Kilmer western “Tombstone,” he amassed a wardrobe of thrift-store vests that he paired with a pocket watch. Attending classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs, he describes how “a slow song would come on, boys would ask girls to dance, girls would ask boys to dance and I’d generally find myself standing on the side watching it all happen, spinning my pocket watch like some sort of 1920s mafia snitch.”
One weekend, hugging the wall at a bat mitzvah, Rogen noticed “two other guys also standing on the sidelines, watching with longing as the other kids had fun.” With a sinking feeling, he recognized himself in them. But then “I noticed two OTHER guys. They weren’t standing on the side, watching with longing. They actually seemed like they wanted nothing to do with the girls or the boys or the dancing or any of that.” These boys — Evan Goldberg and Sammy Fogell (who would go on to inspire the character McLovin in “Superbad”) — were happily picking up “discarded glow sticks, cutting them open and pouring the glowing noxious goop that was inside all over their hands,” Rogen recounts. He went over and started cracking open the glow sticks, too — he’d found his people.
Rogen captures something in this moment that’s both geeky and precious. Perched on the symbolic precipice of adulthood, troubled by hormonal disturbances, nascent anxieties and social pressures, three friends find safe harbor in one another’s company. It’s Rogen and Goldberg’s origin story, reverberating throughout their creative partnership. “Our brains formed around working with one another,” Rogen told me. “Your brain is not fully formed when you’re 13, and that’s when we started sitting down to write together.” Decades later, he went on, “we’ve been able to keep that childlike energy of just working on the thing that you want to be doing, the thing you want to watch, the thing that’s really just for you.”
In Danny Boyle’s film “Steve Jobs,” Rogen appears opposite Michael Fassbender, who plays Jobs, as a supportive but aggrieved Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder. Even though Aaron Sorkin wrote the script, when Rogen is onscreen, you can glimpse the Point Grey version of the film: two mismatched bros — the inventor and the marketer — hanging out in a Cupertino garage, balancing shared affections and aspirations against festering resentments. In their films, Rogen and Goldberg love nothing so much as stories about friends whose abundant love for each other is tested — by power imbalances between them, by weaknesses of character, by societal forces tugging them apart. This is the emotional engine at the core of “Superbad” (2007, an impending college departure threatens a friendship); “The Green Hornet” (2011, pampered arrogance threatens a friendship); “This Is the End” (2013, Hollywood threatens a friendship); and “The Interview” (2014, diverging career goals threaten a friendship).
One of my favorite Rogen comedies is a bleak exception: Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report” (2009), in which Rogen plays a reactionary mall cop with bipolar disorder, delusions of grandeur and no friends to speak of. Rogen’s greatest script with Goldberg, “Pineapple Express,” which David Gordon Green directed, also inverts the typical structure: Amid a life-threatening adventure, a friendship blossoms.
In “Knocked Up,” Judd Apatow framed goofy adolescent bliss as an entertaining but ultimately stunted condition that Rogen’s protagonist had to reluctantly outgrow. The movie grossed $220 million and made Rogen an unlikely star. But in the films he has made with Goldberg, the advent of maturity is treated with more ambiguity, if not outright skepticism. In their hands, adolescence is not merely a stage of life but a state of mind, where the exploratory, joyful fumbling of childhood has yet to give way to the compromises and conformities imposed on us by a fraudulent adult world. Goldberg told me that he and Rogen share a “philosophical bent” that stems from adolescence: “We’re irked by people who say, ‘This is how it should be, and I know what’s right.’ No one knows what’s right, the entire universe is madness. So people who proclaim to know how other people’s lives should be lived irk us — and those people tend to look down on young people.”
The most radical expression of this mentality comes at the end of “Sausage Party,” a 2016 animated feature about anthropomorphic supermarket foodstuffs that have been taught paradise awaits them upon being purchased, then discover the grim truth and rebel. Voiced by actors like Rogen, Kristen Wiig and Salma Hayek, the heroes question the belief system that has kept them docile and, in the finale, become violent revolutionaries, massacring their oblivious human oppressors in the supermarket aisles before enjoying a wildly uninhibited pansexual victory orgy. Writing sequences like these, Rogen told me, he and Goldberg “will look at each other and say, I bet this is partially because we did a lot of mushrooms when we were in high school.”
“Whoa,” Rogen said, checking his phone in the ceramics studio. The Houseplant web store was not merely back, but it was looking as if everything was going to sell out by day’s end. “Part of me was, like, will anyone buy this [expletive]?” he admitted. “Like, our movies cost $15 to go see, most people see them for free now. Will someone pay $100” for an ashtray and a vase?
For Rogen, Houseplant represented a “big swing” of the sort he liked hearing Cuaron champion. Rogen had taken to calling the cannabis company “his life’s work,” and he assured me he didn’t mean this jokingly. “It feels like something I’m more uniquely. … ” He thought for a second. “More people could make comedies than could do this,” he said.
All the same, I asked if he was plotting some big cinematic swing too. “The thing with our movies is, we’re always trying to do that,” he replied. ” ‘Sausage Party’ was a big swing. As we were making ‘This Is the End'” — a movie about the Rapture, set in Hollywood, in which Rogen and a host of other celebrities like Rihanna and Jonah Hill played versions of themselves — “we were saying, this is an experiment.” He laughed. “And then I’d argue that ‘The Interview’ is an experiment that maybe went awry!”
“The Interview” is the second movie Rogen and Goldberg directed, and it doesn’t feel like much of an overstatement to say it had the most turbulent rollout in the history of Hollywood. The movie is about a Ryan Seacrest-style TV host (James Franco), whom the C.I.A. enlists, along with his trusted producer (Rogen), to assassinate Kim Jong-un during an interview. Any putative stoner comedy where you find yourself rooting for C.I.A.-backed regime change deserves, at least, a hard sidelong glance, and if the film weren’t so thoroughly silly, you could argue that it is, on some level, pro-U.S. propaganda.
This was the vociferously held position of North Korea, at any rate. Its state-news agency promised “stern” and “merciless” retaliation ahead of the film’s release, with the country’s United Nations ambassador calling it “an act of war” in June 2014. That November, after a historic cyberattack on Sony Pictures servers that the F.B.I. linked to North Korean hackers, thousands of internal company emails were leaked, leading to the resignation of Amy Pascal, the studio boss at the time. In a last-minute swerve, citing safety concerns, Sony yanked “The Interview” from theaters and gave it a streaming-only release (a rehearsal, it turned out, for pandemic-era upheavals in distribution).
Rogen was somehow able to take all this in relative stride, even growing accustomed to the full-time security guard hired to protect him. It was easier, it turned out, to abstract himself from geopolitical strife than from bad reviews. “What’s painful,” he said, “is the joy people seemed to take in deriding it,” by which he meant “major publications who took the time to write articles that were, like, And by the way, this movie sucks. Yes, it’s the center of a major controversy, but don’t let it be lost on you that it’s also terrible.” Rogen laughed with a mixture of mirth and bitterness. The saga left him feeling “gun shy,” he said. “It was something that for sure felt like we burned our hands on the stove. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we haven’t directed a film since.”
Last July, Rogen found himself at the center of a relatively more muted international controversy. During an interview with Marc Maron, Rogen articulated his conflicted thoughts about Israel — the country where his parents met, on a kibbutz, and where he traveled as a teenager. Rogen told Maron that, growing up, he was “fed a huge amount of lies” about Palestinian claims to the land: “They never tell you that, oh, by the way, there were people there,” he told Maron. “They make it seem like it was just sitting there, like, the [expletive] door’s open.” As for the basic notion of a Jewish state, he added, “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place,” especially not “when that place is proven to be pretty volatile, you know? I’m trying to keep all these things safe, I’m gonna put them in my blender.”
Outcry followed, with some Jewish voices celebrating Rogen for speaking tough truths and other, more conservative ones denouncing him. The Maron interview, Rogen said, “put people in a funny situation where they had to say I’m anti-Jewish, which is a hard thing for me to wrap my head around.” As a kid, Rogen attended Jewish day school and Jewish summer camps. Last year, after the death of his mother-in-law from Alzheimer’s, Rogen developed a greater appreciation for what he calls Judaism’s “practical” aspects. “When you look at what Jews do after death, you go to work, you get the body together, you hang out together, you get food, you get alcohol: There’s infrastructure in place to deal with these things that are truly hard to deal with,” he said. He was especially struck by the stark finality of one ritual in particular: “You bury the body yourselves,” he said. “It’s crazy — you’re dumping dirt on the body.”
Rogen conceded that his remarks on Maron’s podcast had been “flippant” and that, after the interview, Lauren told him, “You know this is a very sensitive subject for people, but you’re speaking like you don’t, and that’s where you seem stupid, and not who you are.” But he emphasized that, at root, he didn’t say anything he didn’t believe. Rogen told me: “That was in some ways the last taboo, for me as a Jewish comedian, saying that about Israel. It was the one thing, almost, I would never talk about, and probably part of this bad-instinct O.C.D. part of my brain that’s, like, when someone says, ‘Don’t touch that one button,’ part of me says, ‘What would happen if I did?'”
“Let me get my computer and show you something,” Rogen said. He closed up the garage and we made for a sunny second-story deck adjoining his office, where he rolled himself a fresh joint — a proprietary Houseplant strain known as Diablo Wind, named after a weather pattern that affects Northern California. “It’s a pretty strong sativa,” he explained. “A good work-throughout-the-day weed.”
Rogen had come to accept that his and Evan’s chance “to be the biggest names in movies has come and gone,” he said. But rather than demoralizing him, this insight was freeing, and now he and Goldberg were plotting their return to filmmaking with a project unlike anything they’d done: “A big action movie,” as Rogen put it, called “Escape,” that was heavily inspired by Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan.
“Escape” grew out of a challenge the duo set for themselves to try and make people laugh without using dialogue. In “Pineapple Express,” Rogen explained, “the scenes people remember are the fights, the foot through the windshield and, like, with ‘Neighbors,’ you think of the airbags” — moments, that is, of outsize physical comedy. “We were like, Why are those just the supporting things? Why are those, amidst a sea of talky jokes, these things that pop up once in a while? Why don’t we make a bunch of these jokes and not rely on verbal humor?”
Youth is ‘the time in people’s lives that feels it could use the most organizing. It’s the least-reconciled part of a lot of people’s lives: “What do I do with that?” ‘
Rogen and Goldberg have flaunted virtuoso stoner ingenuity when it comes to crafting set pieces — even the unfairly maligned “The Green Hornet,” which they wrote and which Michel Gondry directed, is significantly redeemed by its daffily inspired action sequences alone, like the one in which a car rides an elevator, or the one in which a character shoves another character into a foosball table and “kicks” him in the face repeatedly. With “Escape,” Rogen said, “we did add talking eventually, but for a while there was almost none.”
He opened his laptop, where the desktop image was the Wu-Tang logo rendered in rainbow colors so that it resembled the ’80s-era Apple logo. Rogen clicked over to a folder marked ESCAPE, revealing hundreds of documents within. Every time he and Goldberg have an idea for a movie, Rogen explained, they start compiling lists of “ideas for anything: characters, scenes, lines, plot twists, turns — it could be as general as, like, ‘Someone locks themselves in the closet while trying to hide,’ or it could be like, ‘OK, this character’s been this way their whole life. … ‘”
Over time, whether they’re in the same room or emailing back and forth, as they’ve done during the pandemic, Rogen and Goldberg sculpt these lists into outlines, then sculpt those outlines into scripts: “You start to say, ‘OK, these 10 things could go together,'” Rogen said. “Or, ‘OK, that’s a chunk of a movie,’ or, ‘If we want all these ideas in the same movie, what’s a character that could support that?'”
He scrolled through the folder. “These are our ‘Escape’ files — oh, Jesus — going back to January 2016,” he said. He glanced at an early list. “This totally changed,” he said, opening another. “These are gags,” he explained. Rogen and Goldberg had collected dozens of Keaton-worthy ideas, which he asked me not to reveal. He scrolled to another document, dated February 2019 and titled “Boarded Action Beats” — “These are gags we started to actually draw,” he said.
Working with an illustrator, Rogen and Goldberg had completed what was in essence a digital flip book diagraming every scene in “Escape.” “We’re literally storyboarding every second of the movie,” Rogen said. One open-ended, three-word gag I’d seen in a list from May 2019 — centered delightfully on something you could buy in a hardware store — had been storyboarded into an elaborate action sequence. Rogen showed it to me frame by frame, narrating as he went. “She’s trying to go from there to there … these guys are chasing her. … ” His finger tapped the right arrow. “She grabs that guy, he’s falling, bam, whoop!“
Even in flip-book form, the scene was funny. “We need to know if these jokes are working, and if the timing is right,” Rogen said, “and you can’t do a table read and see if people laugh or not, because that would be me saying, like, ‘He throws the thing, it bounces off the door, it hits him in the face.'” He laughed. “We need to be able to see that!”
There’s a story Mark Rogen tells about the early days of Seth’s career: When the family first moved to L.A., for ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ Seth signed with a manager and a lawyer, and after some time, “his lawyer threatened to fire him, because Seth kept getting offered different gigs and saying, ‘I’m not doing that, that’s not a movie I’d go see and it’s not a movie I’d want my friends to see me in.'”
Rogen’s self-assurance might be the most enviable thing about him: The fact that, with rare exceptions, he has only ever seemed to work on exactly what he wants to work on. Rogen once recalled his friend Jonah Hill’s approaching him for advice after being offered a part in a “Transformers” sequel. “I can see if Steven Spielberg’s calling you, asking you to do something, how that’s hard to turn down,” Rogen told an interviewer, recounting the exchange. But in this case, he told Hill: “You want to make a movie about fightin’ robots? Make your own movie about fightin’ robots. You can do that. That’s on the table now.” This story has an echo in “Yearbook,” in a chapter where Spielberg himself actually invites Rogen and Goldberg to collaborate on a project inspired by the 1984 sci-fi movie “The Last Starfighter.” The same idea had already occurred to them, and they decided they’d rather just make their own version. Rogen isn’t overly concerned in the book with flattering the powerful. There’s also a funny story about George Lucas — that, within moments of meeting Rogen and Goldberg in 2012, he expressed his certitude that the world would end later that year (Lucas, through a representative, denied this account) — and an even funnier story about Nicolas Cage pretending to be a white Bahamian for a possible role in “The Green Hornet,” bellowing improvised dialogue in a Caribbean patois.
‘We were always trying to serve comedy, and beauty doesn’t always serve comedy.’
With Point Grey, Rogen can exert that much more control over his career. This has turned out to be good for him not just creatively and financially, but also as a way of weathering industry tumult. Rogen’s stock in trade — the midbudget comedy — has long been on the endangered-species list in the Marvel era, during which time comedy talent has undergone a mass migration from movies to streaming television. And yet Rogen has largely bucked both of these trends: The Hollywood Reporter recently named Point Grey “masters of the midbudget comedy,” crediting its films’ success with “keeping the genre alive.”
Rogen told me, “In the last few years, we released ‘Blockers’ and ‘Good Boys,’ and they both did really well, and they’re both 100 percent the exact thing people say doesn’t work anymore: $20-million comedies with no huge names that were just funny R-rated comedies — and they both made a very healthy multiple of their budget.” Of “Good Boys,” he noted, “That’s a script that was around awhile, and no one wanted to make it, because it’s about 12-year-olds, and 12-year-olds can’t see it. And we say, Everyone’s been 12! ‘South Park’ has been on for 20 years, and they’re 9! I watch movies about talking dogs — I’m not a dog!”
Setting aside the myopia of financial backers, Rogen went on: “I don’t know if other filmmakers are having the conversation that we’re always having, which is, Will this work in a movie theater?” This wasn’t, he went on, “a conversation you used to have to have, but now you do” — even more so, post-pandemic — “and we’re very clear — we want this to be in a theater, so it has to do things that a movie that works in a theater does. Those movies are different. An audience paying to go out of the house and be surrounded by hundreds of people? That’s a very specific product, so you have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘Is this ticking the boxes for that product?’ I look at other movies and say, ‘Did they think this was gonna be in theaters? Did they think this was ticking those boxes?'”
He contrasted “Good Boys” with another Point Grey release, “An American Pickle.” With the former, Rogen said, “The concept was super-relatable and believable and easy” — three sixth-grade friends ditch school and are waylaid by a series of misadventures en route to a party — “and it has set pieces, so it feels like it has a scope to it.” Whereas, with “An American Pickle” — the first original feature film to stream on HBO Max, in which Rogen stars as both a Brooklynite web designer and his shtetl-hardened great-grandfather, Herschel — “we had no illusions: This is not a movie people are gonna necessarily leave their houses for, a quiet character movie with three people in it.”
None of which meant that Rogen was sanguine about the state of the industry. At one point, he told me that his plan was “hypothetically” to star in “Escape” “if it gets made one day.” I expressed surprise at his uncertainty, since the film seemed well into preproduction. “I’m not convinced we’re making a movie until we’re two weeks into filming it,” he said. “That used to be a thing, where you were told, ‘You’re greenlit.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”
On top of the obvious appeal for Rogen of starting a cannabis company, then, Houseplant has the added benefit of depending in no way on Hollywood for its existence. The week after I visited him at home, I joined Rogen and Goldberg on a video call dedicated to Houseplant business.
“OK, what are we doing?” Rogen asked, sitting at his desk in Los Angeles.
“We’re smoking weed!” Goldberg said in Vancouver.
This was not untrue, though the primary reason for the call was to write copy that would accompany two forthcoming products, something they like to do themselves: a leatherbound carrying case for loose joints and a “desk lamp with an ashtray built into it, kind of,” Rogen said, holding up a prototype so I could see.
They agreed that, with the carrying case, “there should be a joke of some nature,” as Goldberg put it, but that it could “start from a more utilitarian place, because it’s genuinely solving a problem,” Rogen added. But no one had been screaming for a combination lamp-ashtray, which meant it had far more comedic potential.
“I thought we could do an ‘And then there was light’ joke. … ” Goldberg said, kicking things off.
Rogen sidestepped this idea and offered another: “There’s also a simple one,” he said, “like, ‘For years I stared at my desk lamp and my ashtray, sitting beside each other — two stupidly separate things. … ‘” “Yeah,” Goldberg replied, building on the bit. ” ‘I kept thinking of the pencil and the eraser, before they were brought together. … ‘”
“Exactly,” Rogen said. “What are other disparate things that –“
Goldberg started riffing: ” ‘Pepperoni used to not even know pizza! A jukebox, combined with your phone? Absurd!'”
Rogen started writing down these ideas in a shared document, as Goldberg experimented with wording to encapsulate them: ” ‘Not everything that should be together, is together. … ‘” Rogen laughed at this and said: “Yeah! ‘Until someone has the audacity to combine them. … ‘”
Warming up now, Goldberg got sillier: ” ‘The concept of a chair and wheels combined to become the bicycle, which revolutionized the way — ‘” Rogen cracked up so loudly at this that I couldn’t hear the rest.
” ‘Buses and missiles combined to become airplanes. … ‘” Goldberg continued.
” ‘Buses and birds ‘” Rogen suggested, grinning, and Goldberg’s laughter indicated that this revision was a keeper.
For the next 20 minutes, I watched their shared document take form, their names hovering above their cursors, dancing manically around the screen, unfurling jokes. Soon the copy for both the lamp and the case was done, the sun was low in the sky and the frogs at Rogen’s place were croaking. It was nearly 5 p.m., which is when he likes to head to his pottery studio — to clock off for the day and go make some more things.
Jonah Weiner is a contributing writer based in Oakland, Calif. He writes the style and culture newsletter Blackbird Spyplane. Chris Buck is a photographer based in New York. His latest book is “Gentlemen’s Club: Partners of Exotic Dancers.”