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How Seth Rogen went from schlubby slacker to the saviour of mainstream comedy

In Good Boys, the sweet and dirty pre-teen comedy currently at the top of the US box office, its three young heroes find themselves in possession of a prescription bottle full of MDMA. It’s a set piece that immediately conjures images of rowdy tweens spiralling out of their minds while under the influence. But that moment doesn’t come, because no matter how hard they try and crack the bottle open, they can’t manage to pop its child-proof cap.

It is one of the funniest jokes in the movie, but one that also speaks to the eagerness of the film’s producer Seth Rogen to evolve from the pot-smoking man-child persona he cultivated in his early career, where trippy, drug-fuelled set-pieces were de rigueur. If he were lazier, he could have driven those gags and tropes into the ground years ago, but Rogen has also been quietly saving comedy for more than a decade at this point, advancing his own sense of humour and elevating fresh talent in accordance with what we’re crying out for as a culture. Even when we don’t realise we want it.

It’s most evident in the shocked reaction to the success of Good Boys, which Rogen brought to the screen with his long-time producing partner Evan Goldberg, and that this weekend grossed $21m at the US box office and became the first R-rated comedy to open at number one since 2016. That it has made so much money has been described as a welcome surprise, but it truly shouldn’t have been, as it fits squarely into the modern Rogen wheelhouse – potty-mouthed and silly, but with very human and heartwarming conflicts interspersed with gags about sex swings, masturbation and anal beads.

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A decade ago, a run of hits including Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and The 40-Year-Old Virgin cemented Rogen as cinema’s go-to slacker, framed in clouds of marijuana smoke with glamorous blondes such as Katherine Heigl and Amber Heard on his arm. It was an enjoyable on-screen persona cultivated by comedy super-producer Judd Apatow eight years earlier, after Rogen, then a teenage stand-up on the Vancouver comedy circuit, landed an audition for Apatow’s teen comedy series Freaks and Geeks and subsequently moved to Los Angeles.

Freaks and Geeks would only run for 18 episodes, each one its own mini-masterpiece driven by very real feelings of being an outsider and trying beyond all measure to fit in and discover yourself. But despite its curtailed existence, Freaks and Geeks would birth a cult fanbase and a staggering number of stars, from series regulars James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel and Busy Philipps, to guest stars like Rashida Jones, Ben Foster and Lizzy Caplan.

The cast of 'Freaks and Geeks' (NBC)

Rogen, however, was its most unexpected breakout, possessing a schlubby energy that felt markedly different for an era in which Orlando Bloom and Justin Timberlake were popular male pin-ups. But while there was something vaguely revolutionary about Rogen becoming a leading man, many of the films that assisted his rise to fame often echoed the lazier comedy tactics of the era. They were largely very good, Superbad and Knocked Up in particular modern classics of a sort, but they also struggled to give their female characters much to do.

They had a tendency to be written as uptight nags struggling to keep their men in check, as articulated, in inexplicably controversial comments to Vanity Fair at the time, by Knocked Up’s Katherine Heigl: “It paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys,” she said. Many of their jokes, meanwhile, were endlessly buoyed by casual homophobia. We laughed, and if we continue to do so today, it is with the knowledge that much of this has become regressive and mean in the years since. 

But instead of complaining about the fact that his “brand” has aged poorly, or loudly pushing the same sense of humour, regardless of whether it has fallen out of favour, Rogen has matured. “I think if you actually care, then it’s easy,” Rogen told GQ Magazine in May. “We do not want people to feel bad when they’re watching our movies. I’ve had people come up to me and be like, ‘That made me feel like s*** when I was in the movie theatre and everyone was laughing about that.’ Like the ‘How I know you’re gay’ thing [from The 40-Year-Old Virgin], it’s something people have been like, ‘It’s not fun to be in the theatre when people are laughing at that, knowing what they’re probably actually laughing at.’ And I don’t want anyone to have that experience watching our movies.” 

Long Shot, his May romantic comedy with Charlize Theron, didn’t set the box office alight, but it demonstrated how dedicated Rogen was to improving upon his weaker impulses a decade ago. In the film, Theron is every bit Rogen’s comic equal, with greater pathos and personality than the vast majority of Rogen’s on-screen love interests in the past.

Behind the camera, too, his evolution is easily seen. Last year’s Blockers, which he produced, was a female spin on American Pie, starring a trio of teenage girls eager to lose their virginity on prom night, and the busy-bodying parents desperate to stop them. It was still dirty and sweary and occasionally scatalogical but also had real heart, with a sensitively told coming-out story and genuine understanding of being a teenage girl baked into it. This was largely down to director Kay Cannon, who was brought on by Rogen to transform what was reportedly a grim parent-centric script called Cherries. 

This new Rogen hasn’t always been lucrative – indeed, the failure of Long Shot rivalled only that of Booksmart in terms of the “what does this mean for Hollywood?” think pieces it produced. But it did mark an exciting new creative era for the star, who appears to have finally found his groove in an industry that has shifted enormously since his box-office heyday.

Those professional left-turns haven’t always been successful. One of the most interesting chapters of Rogen’s career came at the beginning of this decade, when his attempts to break into new genres resulted in a run of critical and commercial failures. The Green Hornet, his doomed adaptation of the famed 1930s serial, was an expensive disaster, earning Rogen career-worst reviews, while The Guilt Trip, a tonally uncertain team-up with Barbra Streisand, wasn’t the cosy Christmas hit many expected it to be. But both projects were valuable lessons, he has said, in particular The Green Hornet.

“It went as bad as you would imagine, for all the reasons you would imagine, and now we know it’s not for us,” he told Vulture last year. “So many people’s careers get sucked into these giant movie franchises, but we’ve learned that it’s a f***ing nightmare when you’re making a studio’s most expensive movie. The studio involvement on a project of that size is just not worth the trouble. It’s a lot better to be making the studio’s least expensive movie.”

Keith L Williams, Jacob Tremblay and Brady Noon in 'Good Boys' (Sony Pictures)

It is hard to find failures on such a grand scale in the years since. Rogen’s Kim Jong-Un comedy The Interview was an inexplicably infamous movie that few actually saw, embroiled as it was in the 2014 Sony hack (A North Korea-affiliated hacker group claimed that they hacked thousands of emails from Sony employees and would bomb cinemas showing the film in retaliation for its existence), but otherwise he has been smart with his choices. The frat house comedy Bad Neighbours, X-rated animated film Sausage Party and the celebrity-apocalypse movie This Is the End earned rave reviews and enormous amounts of money, confirming that Rogen still recognises what we find funny.

He and Goldberg have also been busy building a television empire, producing series including Black Monday, Preacher, Future Man and the dark superhero comedy The Boys. Their impressive TV hit ratio is another remarkable achievement, but also not as important as the success of Good Boys – in a crowded television landscape, it’s not especially difficult for very famous super-producers to turn comic book adaptations and weirdo comedy series into cult hits.

That Good Boys has been a surprise smash, already earning back its $20m budget in a single weekend, helps confirm that the mainstream comedy film isn’t dead – and, if anything, that Seth Rogen is its new king.

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