Seth Rogen was a stand-up comedian by age 12, a screenwriter by age 13. A few years later, he auditioned for a role on a TV series called “Freaks and Geeks.” That audition, available on the show’s DVD box set and on YouTube, is 82 seconds of excruciating awkwardness: Rogen, visibly nervous, doesn’t know where to look or put his jittery hands. Based on the footage, it’s remarkable that Rogen got the part, and more remarkable still that less than a decade later, that uncomfortable teenager would become arguably the biggest comedy star in Hollywood. By now, Rogen has made not looking the part into an entire comedic persona.
On “Freaks and Geeks,” Rogen played Ken Miller who, for most of the show’s 18 episode run, was the least explored central character. He was primarily used as comic relief, and he quickly proved a dependable presence as the quick-witted deliverer of snarky putdowns. His one chance to show off more emotional range came only after the show had already been canceled and relegated to basic cable. In the series’ second-to-last episode, “The Little Things,” Ken learns that his girlfriend Amy was born with ambiguous genitalia and has to figure out what that means about his sexuality and his feelings for her.
Most of the “freak” side of the “Freaks and Geeks” cast didn’t cut their hair during the show’s run; by episode 17, Rogen had a full-on Jewfro and matching set of muttonchops. That, coupled with the character’s inherently apathetic attitude, made him an unconventional candidate for a tortured romantic dilemma. But that very improbability made the drama all the more compelling, and the couple’s eventual reconciliation all the sweeter. Watching Ken grapple with his predicament made us reevaluate our preconceived notions of his character, and his tender reunion with Amy at the episode’s climax stands as one of the series’ sweetest, happiest moments, even as Rogen leavens the melodrama by smacking his head on his lady’s tuba during their triumphant embrace.
With his curly locks, pudgy features and Jewish-Canadian background, Rogen made for an unusual romantic hero on network television, and this incongruity between appearance and action has been at the core of all of Rogen’s major performances since. It isn’t simply that his looks make him an unlikely leading man: it’s that unlikeliness, as a husband, or a cop, or a father, or a porn star, is written right into each and every one of his roles. As a movie star, Rogen’s characters never fit in and are always butting up against imperfection. Even self-improvement leads to further problems. In his latest film, “Funny People,” Rogen’s weight loss means that now he doesn’t even look the part of comedian. “You shouldn’t have lost all that weight, man.” Jonah Hill’s character says to Rogen’s. “There’s nothing funny about a physically fit man. No one wants to watch Lance Armstrong do comedy.”
Judd Apatow, writer and director of “Funny People,” recognized Rogen’s potential back when he was executive producer of “Freaks and Geeks.” He realized the actor’s unique mixture of slob and sweetie made him a perfect onscreen surrogate for his comedic persona. He’d hoped to make him the star of his follow-up series “Undeclared,” but that idea was nixed by the network. Instead, Rogen was again relegated to supporting performer and member of the writing staff. For Apatow’s first feature, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” he stole scenes from star Steve Carell, and his largely improvised “Do you know how I know you’re gay?” run with Paul Rudd became one of the film’s highlights.
Apatow finally got Rogen front and center for his follow-up film, “Knocked Up,” where the actor plays Ben, an unemployed web designer who lives in a stoner paradise with his buddies. Ben doesn’t seem like ideal father material: he spends all day smoking weed and pretending to work on a website devoted to cataloging all the moments in films where the stars appear naked. A one-night-stand with an entertainment journalist (Katherine Heigl) leads to an unwanted pregnancy, which forces Ben into a moment of self-assessment similar to Ken’s dilemma on “Freaks and Geeks.” The question becomes: what sort of man am I? Eventually, Ben eases up on the getting high, finds a real job in IT, reads a couple baby books and learns, like Ken, to stop being stupid (i.e., like a guy) and to grow up.