Seth Rogen Reveals the Rigorous Joke-Testing Process Behind 'Neighbors' (Q&A)
In a lively interview, Hollywood's funniest man says "yes" to pushing the comedy envelope, "no" to lazy politicians and "not yet" to having kids.
There is no more unbeatable comedy duo in Hollywood right now than Seth Rogen and his longtime writing, directing and producing collaborator, Evan Goldberg. The creative partnership of the childhood friends from Vancouver, B.C., first came to fruition with 2007's semi-autobiographical Superbad, a script they had written together as teenagers. They scored again with Pineapple Express (2008), and, after stumbling with The Green Hornet (2011) and The Guilt Trip (2012), returned to form with their apocalyptic comedy, This Is the End, which grossed more than $100 million in the summer of 2013.
The hot streak is sure to continue with Neighbors, a hard-R comedy that opens on Friday, which Rogen both produced and stars in, playing a new dad (mom is Bridesmaids' Rose Byrne) who goes to war with the frat next door, led by Zac Efron. Also slated for release in 2014 is The Interview, which they co-directed, in which James Franco plays a talk-show host enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. And 2015 will see the debut of Sausage Party, an animated film for adults set in a supermarket populated by anthropomorphized food. (Weed is a hell of a drug.)
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rogen and Goldberg shortly after Neighbors' world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
How's South by Southwest been treating you guys?
Evan Goldberg: This is the f---ing greatest movie premiering experience I've ever had.
Seth Rogen: Yeah, it's pretty good here.
Goldberg: I don't want to betray my fellow Canadians, but this may be better than the Toronto Film Festival.
Rogen: Way better food! People go crazy in Toronto during TIFF. The whole city loses its shit. Toronto's a wonderful city, but during TIFF it's a nightmare. I was there for months, no one bothered me, people were very respectful and polite. Then during TIFF, it's like people get permission to be aggressive assholes. It was crazy. I couldn't f---ing believe it.
Is that not something that follows you around in life in general? It seems everyone wants to be your best buddy.
Rogen: People are very nice to me in general, but at TIFF, people are screaming and grabbing at me!
Goldberg: You were Zac Efron for one hot afternoon.
A lot of jokes in Neighbors really hit close to home. Like the one where Rose Byrne goes off on you during a crisis for wanting to call your mother.
Rogen: "What is it with you f---ing Jews and your mothers?"
Goldberg: That one, you'd think it was all the Jews who laugh at it? But all the non-Jews are like, "Stupid Jews."
Rogen: It gets a bigger laugh than I'd like. I know there's not that many Jews in the audience. It's like oof, but it's so funny I can't stop it.
Goldberg: I'm proud of Rose for really giving it [to you].
Rogen: She must have said that before.
You guys have a pretty phenomenal track record writing your own stuff. Why did you gravitate to someone else's script in this case, and how much work did you do on it to make it your own?
Rogen: The first answer is that we can't produce enough. We like to make a lot of stuff. We're not those guys that make a movie every seven years like Quentin [Tarantino]. We work with our friends, we have fun working, so right now we're able to work a lot! So we're trying to do a lot while they're letting us, and because it's fun.
Goldberg: No matter how well we write something -- Superbad took ten years, Pineapple [Express] took five years, even This Is the End gestated for three years.
Rogen: Sausage Party we'd been writing for three years. We've come to the conclusion that we're very slow writers.
Goldberg: But we're fast re-writers.
Rogen: But it takes us a long time. This movie The Interview that we just directed -- we came up with that three or four years ago.
Goldberg: And we hired a different guy to write it and it went way faster!
Rogen: And better. We've just learned it takes us a really long time to write something. Also [Neighbors screenwriters Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien] are two of our best friends, so we see them all the time and had been saying we should work together. They came to us with this idea. Unlike a lot of ideas that we do, it instantly sounded like a movie that people would go see.
Goldberg: We kept saying it's just like "three friends go to Vegas on a bachelor party and lose the groom." But it's "a couple with a baby buys a house and a frat moves in next door."
Rogen: We never have our ideas. Our ideas are like --
Goldberg: An alien from a different dimension...
Rogen: Actors are playing themselves and the apocalypse happens! It's never something that looks good on paper.
Goldberg: Sausage Party is a metaphysical movie about food in a grocery store that's a joke. A kids' movie for adults.
Rogen: It was nice to have a movie that just sounded like a good idea. So that was honestly one of the things that drew us to [Neighbors]. We worked with them a lot on the script, I would say. They had never written a movie before -- at least not one that had been made. And I think you learn a lot from having your work made.
Goldberg: You learn. We've learned. You really love a certain joke, but if it doesn't work, it's out. And their script was about Seth and his two best friends going to war with the frat, and there was a wife, but she wasn't an integral character.
Rogen: Yeah, and then one of the things we were really vocal about is making it about a wife and husband versus a frat.
Goldberg: We did do four drafts of the four best buddies, and then [director] Nick [Stoller] was the one.
Rogen: No! It was my wife.
Goldberg: Was it?
Rogen: I will never forget -- she read it and was like, "This sucks. It should be about the wife." Lauren was the one who first read it and thought the friends are stupid, I think.
Goldberg: She's our romantic radar.
Does the film now position you as more of a grownup?
Rogen: In my next movie I have a good job! We're slowly opening people up to the idea of me growing up in little tiny pieces.
Goldberg: That's one of the reasons we got Nick. We're going through this phase, but Nick has gone through this phase. All our friends are having kids and just got married.
What about kids for you guys?
Goldberg: I want to have some kids soon. Not there yet. We focus on work a little bit too much.
But not you, Seth?
Rogen: Not any time soon, no. It makes sense for me to be playing this guy. One of the things that makes it that our movies are always about people our age is that I act in them. We have to make movies relatable. I'm always amazed, like, take Good Will Hunting -- those guys wrote a movie where one of the main characters is a 50-year-old therapist. I could never do that. To me that's like, wow, it seems so outside what I know anything about.
I have a question about boundary-pushing in humor. Nick was telling me about how fearless Ike Barinholtz's improvs were during the shoot -- for example, his use of the N-word.
Rogen: He says it twice in about five minutes.
Goldberg: There was a screening where we were like, "Let's see if these work."
Rogen: That was a scary moment. It was a few months ago.
What is your smell test for something like that?
Rogen: On set, you have to do stuff that makes people uncomfortable. You have to always shoot stuff that's less than that. I don't mean genuinely uncomfortable, but there's something in your head that says, "This is f---ed up."
Goldberg: Like in This Is the End, Seth pees in his own face at one point, and then we filmed a poo joke, and we looked back at the crew and it was like, "Nope."
Rogen: The fact that we scaled something back to me peeing in my own face shows we're always willing to try. So we'll always push the envelope. If we have an idea and it makes us laugh, we'll film it. That is pretty much the rule we have on set. When we were making Pineapple Express, I said to James Franco, "You know what would be funny? If I said the weed smells like God's vagina." But I was like, that's too crazy a joke -- you can't say that. Then the next take, he said it! And it was probably around that moment that I realized that if we think of it, we should do it, because that honestly ended up being one of the biggest laughs in the whole f---ing movie, and my first instinct was like no, we can't do that, it's too far. Now we've trained ourselves so when you have that thought, it's when you do it. There's a good chance it won't work, but in case it does, it's an awesome joke. We test the movies a lot -- I mean a lot. We'll test the whole movie for one joke.
Goldberg: And if it's a risque joke and the audience doesn't like it and we love it, it's out.
Rogen: We always say it's way worse to have jokes that miss than to have no joke. We try to make it that every joke works. We really look at everything that could be a joke attempt, and we don't want any swings and misses. Sometimes you can't cut around them or you need it for some mechanical reason, but we try to screen the movies to the point where there's no swings and misses. Where everything that feels like we're trying to make you laugh will make you laugh. You have to be really hard on it, and you lose a lot of stuff and you have a lot of conversations with directors, or our executive producers are sitting with us as directors, and you record the laughter so there's no arguing it. I say, "I think that joke's funny." They say, "No it isn't." So we listen, and no one laughs. So I go, "OK, I guess it's not funny! No argument from me here."
Seth, can we talk about the Senate thing? You got a lot of attention for that and inspired a lot of people by calling them out. I wonder if you could tell me your side of that story and how you feel about it now.
Rogen: Um -- it was interesting. They asked me to come and testify, I knew there were 18 people on this committee. I don't know how the government works.
Goldberg: Who asked? The committee?
Rogen: The Alzheimer's Association asked me to come. My wife's mother has Alzheimer's and has had it since her early 50s, which is crazy, and now is completely debilitated from it. So we started our own charity, because it's drastically underfunded by the government and most people don't know anything about it. Me seeing it firsthand, it was just so drastically different from what I thought it was. So we tried to start our own thing to raise awareness, and I got invited to speak. Again, I was very happy that I had the opportunity, and my actual speech went on the Internet, and I think over 6 million people have watched me talking about Alzheimer's, which is ludicrous to think about and far beyond any attention that we ever hoped to get from doing it. But at the same time, I was confronted by a very stark realization about how f---ed up the government is and how there is a system in place that is literally designed for them to hear appeals for change and the way the system is, they don't have to attend these things.
What I was most shocked by was that I was looked at like a naive moron for expecting them to attend their committee. It's like, "Oh, they don't go to these, you idiot. Why would they go to these things? Their aides are here! They explain it to them." But, like, that's not how it's supposed to work, and it just made me think about, like, how many mothers whose kids have died in school shootings who are pleading to have laws changed who aren't talking to the people who change the laws! They're talking to some idiot who then goes to their boss and is like, "Oh, it's very sad, she wants the laws changed."
Goldberg: "How sad was she?"
Rogen: "Oh, she was super sad. Really sad." And it was honestly very -- not that I was anyone who had some grand illusion about how our government functioned -- but it was very disillusioning to me. And it seemed to strike a chord and piss off a lot of people. One of the senators from Chicago literally tweeted a picture of me and him and then he left for my thing. And I asked him what he was doing and he said he was meeting an astronaut. OK, we all want to meet an astronaut, but guess what? You should listen to the people talking about f---ing Alzheimer's for two hours. And it wasn't just me speaking -- in my section there were statisticians, there was another senator who had Alzheimer's. And you almost never get to hear someone who actually has Alzheimer's talk about it.
Goldberg: Who's also a senator.
Rogen: Who's also a senator who knows all these people! The fact that they wouldn't even wait for him...
So you were just addressing a roomful of empty seats.
Rogen: Behind me there were hundreds of people, because those are the public people who showed up who cared about it. Literally what we were looking at was 20 empty seats and two guys sitting in the middle. It was a true physical manifestation of people's needs and concerns not being represented by their government. Behind me it was full -- people were standing to watch this hearing -- and on the other side, two guys listening.
Yet they had time for a photo-op.
Rogen: Yeah, they do the photo-op, exactly, and then go and meet an astronaut. It would be lovely if we could all, instead of listening to depressing facts about Alzheimer's, go meet the guy from Apollo 13. I would like that as well. And then they're like, "They have busy schedules." We all have busy schedules. Do less things.