Seth Rogen may be the most consistent comedy actor in Hollywood. Whether or not you’re a fan of his style of humour, it’s clear he’s established a distinctive comedic character – a lovable, foul-mouthed, well-meaning stoner, with a great laugh to boot. And while he does play that role well, there’s a lot more to Seth Rogen than people might give him credit for.
Practically led to success by friend and frequent collaborator Judd Apatow, Rogen’s first role came in the brilliant and cancelled-too-soon Freaks and Geeks, as the supporting cynical ‘Freak’ Ken Miller. This character was actually quite against the type that Rogen is known for now, and he excelled at it. Again, with his first supporting role in a comedy film, Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen plays a tattooed, self-proclaimed ladies’ man who works with Steve Carell’s titular virgin – not the type of role audiences know him for today.
Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and This Is the End are all good-to-great examples of Rogen’s solid writing and acting abilities when it comes to ‘bromantic’ comedies; easy watching with some solid lessons in male friendship and responsibility. Rogen is almost always a character with faults or, at the very least, one without direction. Knocked Up explores Rogen’s growth from an aimless stoner to a potentially responsible parent, capable of much more than his behavior in the opening of the film would suggest.
This formula practically became the blueprint for many of Rogen’s comedic roles, including a couple that he scripted and directed. He even playing to this type in This Is the End, a film in which the actors were parodying themselves. This isn’t to say that Rogen wasn’t great in this role or funny (because he is, a lot of the time), but the act can only go so far – it worked for absurd stoner comedies such as Pineapple Express, but soon began to tread water.
Despite this, many of his recent roles have been among his most mature, and have actually come from his turns as supporting characters. Beyond his own works, Rogen has been slowly but surely breaking out of the ‘Seth Rogen character’, appearing in more dramatic roles in Jonathan Levine’s cancer dramedy 50/50 and Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs. Rogen appears as a steadying presence as a supporting character in both films, albeit in different manners.
Written by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a film that is hitched to Michael Fassbender’s wild performance as yet another high-functioning antisocial tool; the audience simply gets dragged along as Jobs makes life hell for everyone around him. This includes one Steve “Woz” Wozniak, Jobs’ mild-mannered collaborator on Apple 2, and one-time best friend, played by Rogen. Rogen’s Woz is warm and polite, but frustrated with Jobs and often painfully honest when it comes to getting the credit the Apple 2 team deserves, something that spans several decades and three acts of Boyle’s extremely theatrical drama.
In 50/50, Rogen yet again appears as the comic foil for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Adam, but in a way that feels the most genuine out of all of his roles of this type – in this case, he’s a supporting character that has to do a lot of actual supporting, as Gordon-Levitt’s Adam struggles with people’s perceptions of his attitude to cancer, chemotherapy, and his terrible girlfriend’s antics. Rogen’s bromantic persona and crude comedy in 50/50 doesn’t come off as typical of the Rogen we saw in This Is the End or Paul, but it really is a relief. Kyle serves as a foil to Adam in a far more profound way than, say, The Interview’s strange parody of Rogen and Franco’s friendship – Kyle is adventurous and out there in a way Adam really needs to be, especially in the face of the odds. Kyle’s honesty is much needed in a film in which no-one can be straight with the protagonist, the film making a big point that Kyle’s seeming nonchalance towards Adam’s condition comes out of love and respect, rather than a lack of care.
In a sense, Apatow’s comedies have always been about this kind of honesty. Freaks and Geeks, which featured Rogen’s first role, was absolutely concerned with the reality of growing up at the high school age, and the categories thrust upon you. Knocked Up was concerned with the reality of adult responsibility. Maybe in becoming an honest, supporting character again, Rogen is getting back to his roots.