Published at: July 30, 2009, 11:52 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Fresh off of his unsettling performance as a sociopathic mall cop in OBSERVE AND REPORT, Seth Rogen has taken on what is easily his least likable character yet in Judd Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE: he's a joke thief.
As struggling stand-up Ira Wright, Rogen has been forced to dial down his natural charm (and wit) to effectively portray a nondescript young man who has no comedic voice and, worst of all, no scruples when presented with the opportunity to tag along with and write material for George Simmons, a big-time Adam Sandler-esque movie star played by Adam Sandler. Ira impresses Simmons when he busts on the older comic for delivering a mystifyingly morose and unfunny set at a local club; however, when Simmons invites Ira and his roommate Leo (Jonah Hill) to pen some new material for him, Ira, spurred on by competitive jealousy (Leo is funnier), never passes the offer along. But that doesn't stop him from using some of Leo's jokes.
Rogen started doing stand-up in his early teens (he's twenty-seven now), so he's definitely seen his share of opportunistic ugliness - which means he's been the victim of a joke thief himself (and a rather famous one at that). But if you're looking for any other parallels between his career and Ira's, forget about it: Rogen makes it clear in the below interview that not only is he completely different from Ira, he really doesn't like the guy. At all.
So how does someone as inherently funny as Rogen convincingly play an awkward and only occasionally funny comic? We discussed that, as well as his admiration for vintage stand-up, the development of his own comedic personality, and his upcoming THE GREEN HORNET (all of which was excerpted for a previous news item on the site). But we began with an unfortunate wardrobe choice on my part...
Mr. Beaks: I feel like a douchebag for wearing my De Palma t-shirt to this interview.
Beaks: They're great. It's just that I now feel like I'm going, "Hey, I've got one, too!" (Laughs) You're always wearing interesting shirts in these movies. Are you selecting them, or is that costuming?
Rogen: I don't go out and get the giant wealth of them from which to select generally. Pretty much at the beginning of the movie, they'll ask me some bands that maybe they could try to get some t-shirts of. I was just watching KNOCKED UP the other day, and noticed I was wearing a Rob Zombie t-shirt. I totally forgot about that. But I'm a big Rob Zombie fan, so I was like, "Hey, I got that in there!" But I won't wear something I hate. For example, I won't wear a Fox News shirt. (Laughs)
Beaks: Unless you're playing, like--
Rogen: A complete douche. Exactly.
Beaks: (Laughing) Last night, I was talking about the movie with some friends, and we were discussing the album covers and comedian photos your characters have hung up in the apartment. Most young people probably don't know the first thing about Redd Foxx, but these are comedy nerds, so I guess it's appropriate.
Rogen: What's funny is that Jonah would wander around the set and marvel, "It's scary how many of these pictures I have up on my wall." I think that's what it is. It was a strong choice, and we talked about it a lot. We were like, "It's a strong choice to have pictures of these old-timey comedians in the background of every shot in the apartment." But once we committed to the notion that these guys are comedy fans, we were like, "If they were really into rock-and-roll, maybe they'd have pictures of Bela Fleck on the wall. So in their place, they should have pictures of Redd Foxx on the wall." That's just how it is. We thought these guys would have that, and it wouldn't seem too weird. I have one of those Peter Sellers pictures on my wall. The one that gets me is the picture of Jason Schwartzman. That one makes me laugh.
Beaks: That giant one? He probably kept that.
Rogen: I don't know if he did. He should've.
Beaks: In your evolution as a stand-up, when did you start discovering some of these older comics?
Rogen: That's a good question. I would just listen to what the older comics would tell me was funny. I was around all of these comics who were way, way older than I was; when I was fifteen, they were in their thirties and forties. And they would just tell me, "You've got to listen to these people!" I remember someone was like, "You kind of sound like Steven Wright." I was much lower energy then. (Laughs) So I went out and bought some of Steven Wright's shit, and was like, "Oh, that's great!" I really consumed it. I wasn't like Judd. Judd was weird into it. I wasn't that weirdly into it, but I was definitely into it. It was a point of pride to some degree to know that I was aware of the routines of these various comics throughout the years. It's an incredibly nerdy point of pride. (Laughs)
Beaks: So what were you basing Ira on? I mean, it's Judd's script, but were you drawing on some of your own experiences?
Rogen: Ira was based... you know, back in I think 2000, when we were making UNDECLARED... what year did GLADIATOR come out?
Beaks: That was summer of 2000.
Rogen: Yeah. And Judd was like, "Come out to see GLADIATOR with me tonight." I was like, "Okay." So he picked me up, and we went to have dinner at Jim Carrey's house. (Laughs) With him and Garry Shandling. And then we all went out to see GLADIATOR together. And I don't think I said one word throughout the five hours I was with these people. I think about that a lot, honestly. I think about how I felt at that moment. It's that, and it's kind of, honestly, what I imagine Judd was like in his twenties. When I watch myself in this movie, I want to reach through the screen and smack myself. "What are you doing, man!" (Laughs) I think that guy exists. I think I've met people like [Ira]. But, personally, I relate to this guy very little. He's a chump in a lot of ways. (Laughs)
Beaks: Well, he's a joke thief.
Rogen: Yeah! He's a joke thief and he's just kind of a weakling.
Beaks: Have you ever had any experiences with joke thieves?
Rogen: You know, when I was really young, I told a joke and apparently someone heard Robin Williams tell the same joke a few weeks later on some talk show.
Beaks: Jesus! Every comic has that story!
Rogen: He's notorious for it, I've heard. But I remember that night someone told me his manager or something was in the crowd. And, to be honest with you, I didn't even think it was that good a joke. Maybe he took it to another level. (Laughs) But I did hear from a few people that they heard the exact same joke.
Beaks: I've heard that story a lot, and it usually ends with a check mysteriously showing up in the mail.
Rogen: I didn't get a check. That did not happen. (Laughs) I was originally cast in FATHER'S DAY, though.
Beaks: (Laughing) It seems like you guys stuck closer to the script on this movie than on the others. Was there as much riffing on FUNNY PEOPLE.?
Rogen: I would say on the whole that our riffing has greatly evolved over the years. It's not how it used to be. It used to be that Judd would just put the camera somewhere and say, "Go!" And we would just talk about shit until someone said something funny. Now that we've made a few movies, and we know what type of stuff makes it into the movie ultimately, and what type of stuff it's helpful to have in the editing room... it's a lot more controlled at this point. Also, visually, he was going for something that was a step forward, and you do have to sacrifice some looseness when you're doing shots that are planned; you can't just go for it because you'll ruin the logistics of what's being filmed.
That being said, there were some scenes, like with all the stand-up comics, where we had five cameras shooting at once. We also had five cameras going during the concert scenes. So in some ways, when we were doing the stand-up, we could do whatever the hell we wanted. We could do it as a routine and talk to the audience. So that was totally loose and didn't honestly feel anything like shooting a movie; it felt like we were filming a concert or something like that. But the actual scenes... yeah, it's a much more refined process now. We maybe go a little crazier in the rehearsals, and then pick what we know works. And between takes we'll go and talk about how things are going and rewrite things. But I think it is a much more reigned-in process than it used to be.
Beaks: But you still fire off some great improvised lines. I especially liked the DEER HUNTER joke.
Rogen: That was totally improvised. A lot of stuff in that scene was. But in a lot of scenes it's just a line here and line there; it's not like, "Okay... talk! There are five cameras going!"
Beaks: But were there any instances where you'd had to stop and say, "That line's too good for Ira?"
Rogen: Yes! That would happen. And then someone else would take it. (Laughs)
Beaks: So you ended up generating a lot of great material for everyone else?
Rogen: But everyone does that. I think the joke you see Jonah tell in the movie is a joke Sandler wrote originally. And some of the jokes Sandler does are jokes I wrote. It's all fluid, and we all pass it around. It's a very communal comedy environment. (Laughs)
Beaks: Is there ever any jealously or competitiveness like we see in the house?
Rogen: No, it's not like that at all. I don't care. We've all got nice cars. (Laughs)
Beaks: You've said that Adam was a huge early influence on your comedy. How intimidating was it working with him on this?
Rogen: It was great to work with him. And it was great to work with him on a movie that tonally was closer to the stuff that I first started liking him for. This is the first movie where he's, like, really filthy. He doesn't usually swear in a comedy. It was just blowing my mind filming these scenes. We'd roll, and me and Jonah and Evan would turn to each other and be like, "He's so filthy! Can you believe it?" There were days where we felt like we had a front-row seat to the funniest comedy show in town. It was really exciting. There was no sense of "We're the new guys, move over." After every take, we'd be like, "Fuck! He's funnier than us! He comes up with amazing shit, like, constantly!"
Beaks: I know that Sandler got a huge following working blue on those records, but, as a friend pointed out after the screening, he's completely clean when he's doing those prank calls.
Rogen: Yeah! He is pretty clean. I don't know. He claims that telling these dirty jokes in the movie made him uncomfortable, and that it was only something he thought his character would do. I don't know how much of that I believe. (Laughs)<.h3>
Mr. Beaks: I keep getting emails from some guy who's trying to play the role of hollywood insider on GREEN HORNET. He keeps trying to feed me information, and he is consistently wrong.
Seth Rogen: Yeah? (Laughs)
Beaks: He's always trying to tell me the movie is dead. And I'm like, "I'm pretty sure it's not!"
Rogen: No, we're building sets! There's more people working on the film every day! They traditionally don't spend millions and millions of dollars on movies that are dead. (Laughs)
Beaks: Just know there's someone out there trying to kill your movie via email.
Rogen: There are tons of people doing that. (Laughs)
Beaks: So where are you with the casting of Kato?
Rogen: We are reading many, many people from all over the globe, and it is a wild adventure. We're just looking everywhere, honestly. We're looking at people who are really famous overseas, and we're looking at people who are completely unknown. We're looking at people who are American. We're looking at people who are martial arts experts. We're also looking at people who don't do any martial arts, and who do Broadway and are actors. We know what we want. And there's some wiggle room. We're the type of writers who can easily adapt the roles to whoever is playing it. We've done that on every movie we've ever written. But we know how we want the relationships to work, and so someone needs to fill that general role. It's been really interesting, I can say that. You meet these people, and you're like, "You are clearly famous in Korea! I can see from 100 feet away that you are the most famous person in whatever country you're from!" (Laughs) And I just feel bad that we make them read with us.
Beaks: I just figured you guys put an immediate call out to Ernie Reyes, Jr.
Rogen: (Laughing) Yes, exactly! Anyone who's seen TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2 knows that that guy can kick some ass.
Beaks: About the writing of the script, you've talked about tone before, but it sounds like Kato is the serious role and you're handling more of the comedy.
Rogen: Honestly, there have been different versions of it. There are versions where we've had more comedically-inclined people in mind for the role - and in that version, it was a tit-for-tat type of relationship. There have also been versions where we've been forced to confront "This guy doesn't speak any fucking English!" That obviously changes their relationship a little bit. That means it would be a lot more on me to be the person who drives the scenes verbally. These are all just things that have been discussed during the endless hours of talking about this movie. Obviously, there are different versions. And they're all written. We've been writing this movie for a long time. But until we find the absolute perfect person [for Kato], we'll... just keep looking! There have been some people we've seen who we think might be the perfect person, but we're just not sure yet.
Beaks: You've had all of these different versions of the script, but now that you've got Michel Gondry on board - and he's evidently going to mute his style for this movie-- (Rogen bursts into laughter) Oh, so he's not going to mute his style! Perhaps he was just talking a good game on that?
Rogen: (Laughing) Exactly. I mean, I feel like people who are fans of his won't feel let down by what they see. We're encouraging him to make it as visually exciting and inventive as anything anyone has ever seen. We're fans of these types of movies when they're done well. We think that we can handle the story and the script and the dialogue, but we know nothing about cameras and lights and fancy ways of making things look amazing. And that's what he's better at than anyone in the world pretty much. So we're encouraging him to really go for it. If he considers what he's doing on this muted - which may be the case - then I can't imagine what he first came into it thinking.
But we've been having an amazing time with him. He's so funny and so collaborative. We really work well together, I think - me, him and Evan. It's just been a lot of fun.
Beaks: I'm just glad to hear he's making a Michel Gondry film and not, like, a Shawn Levy film.
Rogen: Not at all. He's incapable of it. As much as he'd like to think he could do that, he just can't. (Laughs) There is a limit to his abilities in that capacity.
FUNNY PEOPLE opens nationwide July 31st. See it.