Between Man and Man-Child: On the Recent Rolling Stone Magazine Feature on Seth Rogen

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America has a love/hate relationship with the schlemiel or (as many critics and actors who play schlemiels – such as Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler – call him) the “man-child.”   But, in truth, this America is not one; it is two. When it comes to the schlemiel or “man child,” there are two Americas: the America that watches and demands more films with the man-child and the other America (a much smaller one that consists of film critics, journalists, and occasional scholars who lament the popularity of the “man child”).   For instance, most recently, A.O. Scott, in an article entitled “The End of Adulthood,” lamented about the popularity of films where the man-child (what he calls the “perpetual adolescent”) is the main attraction.   Scott yearns for a time when America will return to adulthood but laments that, because of the feminist movement, the protest movement, cultural upheaval, etc, norms have been effaced and American men don’t know how to relate to women or be adults.   And, the same week Scott wrote his article, another essay called “The Awkward Age,” popped up in The New Yorker. Like Scott’s essay, it suggests that America doesn’t know how to (or want to) grow up.   Both suggest different historical precedents for this failure and suggest a new trend that casts the awkward man-child as a cultural icon.

Just this week Rolling Stone put out a feature article that is also pestered by the existence of the ultimate man, child: Seth Rogen. (The cover image of Rogen with a fly on his nose clearly suggests the man-child itch.) However, the piece, which addresses his latest film, The Interview, doesn’t lament the “end of adulthood.”   Rather, it suggests, in its title and in the article itself, that Rogen is “at a crossroads” between the man-child and the man. Unlike A.O. Scott it suggests that Rogen, “the Stoner King of Hollywood”(see the front of the magazine), may be becoming more mature.   This possibility alone is the fuel that fires this article and it suggests that the author, Josh Eells and the editor saw it as a powerful enough possibility to sell magazines. They are tapping into one of the biggest questions today for Americans who are moving into the workforce or who, like the main characters of just about every Judd Apatow film, would rather smoke bongs with the bros than work. Will we remain schlemiels or become adults? The public doesn’t seem to be pressed by this question, but the Rolling Stone journalist is.

Before we read the first words of the article, we read the author’s question which is framed in terms of becoming a “responsible adult”:

Can a man be a responsible adult and still make a living telling dick jokes?

The first paragraph frames the paradox that plagues the journalist’s mind. He doesn’t know who he is dealing with: responsible adults or stoner man-childs.

It’s not every day you get to sit down with the guys who might be responsible for starting World War III. And it’s definitely not every day that they’re getting backed when you do.

During the interview, we learn that Rogen “absent-mindedly” rolls a tight joint while his partner-in-film making Evan Goldberg smokes bongs. The author, throughout the piece, notes their ages (both 32) to suggest that it is about time for them to put the bongs down and start becoming responsible.

Rogen is, right off the bat, thought of as the man-child who really doesn’t know how to deal with reality:

The loveable man-child who makes dopey movies with his friends…the one who’s probably too stoned to play a video game about a nuclear war, much less incite a real one.

Eells notes how, during a screening of the “special effects,” they played with laser pointers and told jokes while looking at effects. They are what Scott would call “perpetual adolescents.”

“This is where we get to play with lasers,” Rogen says excitedly. “It’s fun to put them in people’s eyes,” says Goldberg, aiming his at the face of Franco on the big screen. He moves southward. “And on their dicks.” “Sometimes me and Evan team up, adds Rogen, their twin lasers dancing around Franco’s balls.”

The antics go on, and Eells records it all. He points how, in real life, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen are bros and merge into each other. They have, since high school, been bros:

Hang around with Rogen and Goldberg long enough and they almost start to blur – one exceedingly funny dude named Sethandevan. They laugh at the same obscure references, their wives are friends, and they literally finish each other’s sentences. Apatow describes that as soul mates.

In other words, the man-child needs company; just like a schlemiel needs a schlimazel and vice versa.   At this point, it doesn’t seem like Rogen is at the crossroads and moving from “man-child to man.”

It isn’t until the end of the article that Eells suggests that Rogen is thinking about or becoming “responsible.” Even though Rogen introduced himself as a “man-child” at the senate hearings, he shows that he is motivated by a moral cause: raising awareness of Alzheimer’s:

“The situation is so dire that it caused me – a lazy, self-involved, generally self-medicated man-child – to start an entire charity.”

Eells also suggests that his parents and sister, who are hard-working and responsible, are, to some extent, getting fed up with his stoner persona. This pressure, apparently, came out in his interview with Eells when he proudly noted that he didn’t smoke pot once in The Interview. But, more importantly, he confesses to the Rolling Stone reporter that in this film he is actually playing a character with a “real job”:

“I think in some ways I relate to this character (in The Interview) more than any other character I have ever played…Because he has a real job! It’s not until you get your shit together that you can step back and say, “I have a career; what am I going to do with it?”

Eells finishes the article by describing Rogen’s life after marriage.  He now seems to be settling down in his home in LA:

At home in L.A. he likes to garden and trim bonsai trees. He smokes brisket in the backyard every now and then, he drives a $24,000 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. As his character in Neighbors puts it: “I think I like old-people shit better than young-people shit now.”

These last lines suggest that, for the author, Rogen is becoming a man, an adult. His adulthood, in contrast to what A.O. Scott might suggest, has just begun. However, as I noted above, there are two Americas. The critic may see Rogen as becoming an adult but it may be the case that his public wants him to remain a “perpetual adolescent.”   The film, Neighbors, suggests that he doesn’t cross over actually so much as remain “in the crossroads.” In addition, Eells neglects to mention that in the film he and Franco remain, to the very end, schlemiels. The problem perhaps is with the terminology. The man vs. man-child contrast is not fitting for Rogen. Framing his work in terms of the schlemiel would be a lot more fruitful.

In a world that is cynical and filled with malice, schlemiels are naïve in their pursuit of the good. (Because of their existential blindness, they cannot see the corrupt world the way most of us “realists” do.)  But they are not naïve because they fail to be adults.  This is the diagnostic mistake.  Something else, something more important to humanity is at stake than maturity. Rogen, hopefully, is figuring this out for himself. (One thing he could do, to this end, is to stop calling himself a man-child.)  If he is going to revise the man-child, he needs to turn to the schlemiel.  The comic character we see in Aleichem’s Motl or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel must be read in terms of what Gimpel or Motl gives the world.  The same goes for his reading of another actor whose schlemiel had a major impact on American society: Charlie Chaplin.  Without these precursors Rogen will be stuck with the man-child option.

The schlemiel’s gift to the world – given by way of comedy – is not “perpetual adolescence.” It is the gift of goodness. And one need not give up the schlemiel to give it; after all, that’s the point.  Once we move away from the old man-child frame of reference used by many cultural critics, including Scott and Eells, perhaps we can better understand why someone like Rogen is so popular in America.   We don’t simply (or only) identify with “the stoner king of Hollywood” or the guy without a “real job.” We identify with something else, something more fundamental to humanity which, ultimately, can pose the greatest threat to war.

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