Even over the phone, Seth Rogen's laugh sounds like nothing else on earth — a stuttering chuckle that sounds like a car engine desperately trying to turn over, too full and deep to be phony, too hearty and human to not be contagious. The 32-year-old Canadian comedian called in to talk about his latest film Neighbors, which pits suburbanite Rogen, his wife (Bridesmaids' Rose Byrne) and his family against the newly-moved-in party-hearty college fraternity next door, as led by alpha d-bag Zac Efron. We decided to grill Rogen about his favorite screen comedies — to which the star responded by extolling the virtues of the South Park movie's exquisite use of dildos, breaking down how gender balance affects comedy, and why it's actually easy to play against a ripped Zac Efron.
What are some of your Hall of Fame movie comedies?
Ghostbusters is a great comedy. The South Park movie, Team America,There's Something About Mary…all really very funny. More recently, I think movies like Bridesmaids is super funny. I think every movie I've made should be considered one of them….[Laughs]
For stuff like Ghostbusters and Team America, isn't it the whole thing of being on a mission that makes the comedy work?
I think each of them is different. Ghostbusters, it has a simple structure to it, you know? I think there's something to be said about a movie that embellishes on something that really isn't that complicated. It's like with food: Some people like fancy, frilly meals and then the more good food you eat, you slowly realize that a simple dish, prepared really well, is actually much more satisfying — and, in a way, much harder to accomplish.
It's like that when somebody tries to sell you a "special" burger that you can't pick up or can't get into your mouth cleanly.
Yeah, exactly. When it comes to screen comedy, I prefer just a really well-done, simple burger.
Do you think South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut still holds up so well because it's also a great musical?
I think that helps, but mostly, it's just really funny. I mean, obviously, we work in comedy, so we try over the years to intellectualize why certain things work and why certain things don't. It's funny, because the more we've done that, the more we've settled on the answer that some shit is funny and makes people laugh, and if it makes people laugh, then it is acceptable. And if it doesn't make you laugh, then it's not acceptable. I think that for whatever reason, (South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker) take ideas that most people would find objectionable and make them very easy to digest and fun to watch ... for no other reason than that, they are so unbelievably funny, you know?
The fact that Saddam Hussein is the worst boyfriend in the world in that movie…
Exactly. [Laughs] When he pulls out that dildo, it's one of the funniest moments ever in a movie.
It's interesting you also mentioned There's Something About Mary, as Neighbors has its share of edgy bodily-function gags, including one we'll call "leaping lactation."
When you're doing a gag like that you don't pause and think "We're going too far?"
I mean, I think we think that a lot, but we don't know for sure until we film it and then show it to audiences. We let them let us know. The "leaping lactation" gag you're referring to is, as far as I know, something based on a real thing that can happen. Reality is very nice, at times. It's a good kind of buffer for when you're doing something like that.
"Just because you may not have seen this doesn't mean it has never happened."
Right. So, again, we always take the approach that we'll film it, if it seems funny, then we test it, and if the audiences hate it, then we don't use it.
What's your stance on Blazing Saddles — an American comedy classic?
I think it's an unbelievably funny movie, but it's not a movie that my family watched a ton when I was a kid, you know? I grew up in the VHS generation, so you kind of grew up watching whatever 20 or 30 movies your family had on videotape. I mean, I've seen it, but it wasn't the one that was in my constant rotation.
What was in the Rogen household VHS library?
My parents were big action movie fans: Die Hard, Total Recall, Lethal Weapon. A lot of Woody Allen movies, like Hannah and Her Sisters and Annie Hall. Those were the movies I watched a ton of when I was a kid. Coming to America: Again, you talk about structure. It's, structurally, very simple and yet, it's an unbelievably well put-together movie. The way John Landis and Eddie Murphy approach it in such a new, interesting way…I love that movie. It's just so fucking funny.
Neighbors follows the template of 'the snobs vs. slobs' comedy — only it's more like "people who are slobs vs. people who used to be slobs and would probably like to be slobs again."
Exactly. They kind of miss being slobs.
So were you a Caddyshack fan?
That was one of the ones that I saw a couple of times when I was younger, but it wasn't one of the ones in the constant rotation.
What, to you, is the Number One thing about Neighbors, where you sit back and you watch it and you go "That makes me happy ..."
Honestly, it would be the relationship between me and Rose [Byrne] in the movie. I've never had a non-confrontational relationship with my female counterpart in a movie. So, it was really fun to do a movie where my comedy partner is my wife and we're really on the same page for 99% of the movie; even when we fight, it's kind of like a real couple fight. We make up instantaneously because we really love each other.
I remember when we tested the movie, people loved her, and the women were all like "I want to be friends with her, I want to hang out with that woman." It was so refreshing to do a movie with a female character that people just loved and who wasn't the one killing the fun, but was the one responsible for the fun. So, to me, that's kind of the most innovative idea in the whole thing, in a lot of ways.
Doesn't true equality in comedy mean women doing just as much stupid, horrible, funny stuff as men?
It really does. Women are painted as the smart, responsible ones, and that makes them the not-funny ones in most movies. The funny ones in a movie are always the ones doing the stupid shitt and pushing the comedy and the lunacy forward. Yeah, it might be counter-intuitive, but I think that is truly the more equal comedic way out.
For Neighbors, you knew you're going to be doing scenes with a very trim Mr. Efron — and a lot of comedy comes from contrast. Do you have an anti-trainer who wakes you up at four to go eat doughnuts?
Just being on the movie set kind of naturally can take care of that pretty easily. There's a lot of free food there. [Laughs]