While they were making Neighbors, last spring, Zac Efron and Seth Rogen stopped by the Workoholics set and did a take with them hashtagged – with an obvious wink to Rogen’s film – #cubicleneighbors. Although the show, in itself, never caught my eye, the confluence of the Workaholics cast with Rogen and Efron made me think twice about the show and its potential vis-à-vis the comic character that I am most interested in understanding: the schlemiel. He is the odd one out. Rogen’s appeal to Jewishness in the episode – and his contrast with the hyper-masculine and sexy Zac Efron who also, in this episode, claims to be Jewish – seems to revive the schlemiel for modern audiences. But it does so in a way that contrasts the muscle Jew to the less potent schlemiel. What’s missing in this contrast, however, is the dichotomy between the Israeli and the American Jew. Now it is one American Jew versus another; one Jewish body versus another. But is this bodily difference just another caricature that speaks to a population that needs to laugh at someone who is worse off and laughable than themselves? Is Seth Rogen’s body, juxtaposed to Efron’s, the final, schlemiel frontier?
Workaholics, a show starring Adam Devine, Blake Anderson, and Anders Holm, has been on TV since its debut in 2011. The comedy speaks to our time insofar as it does what the office does: it gathers a group of recent college-graduate-slacker-types who, in search of work, find each other in a telemarketing job. Their work puts them in comic situations which show that, like many slackers, they don’t take their job seriously. There doesn’t seem to be any separation between their day-to-day lives and their work. And as in any Apatow or Seth Rogen film, we see how they, despite there petty, ridiculous spats, remain bros. But is this comedy worthy of our attention? Is it, as many scholarly film critics might say, too status quo and normative? Does it merely reaffirm white, male heterosexist stereotypes and norms? Is it, like American Pie or Knocked Up, simply juvenile, or what film critic A.O. Scott would consider to be an example of how Hollywood is more interested in “perpetual adolescence?” Or is something else going on?
In a 2012 article for the Huffington Post, Joe Winkler argues that it is the “funniest show on TV.” But it is all intelligent; albeit in the most tricky manner. Bringing the two together, Winkler claims that what makes it special is the fact that it “retains the highest laugh per minute ratio, all in a deceptively genius manner.”
Initially, people dismissed Workaholics as wholly derivative, not expecting it to last for more than half a season. Now, in the middle of season three, the show not only does well in the ratings departments, but monopolizes that time slot for the 18-34 male demographic. Here goes the stereotype about this show: “Dudes/Bros” love it, most people don’t care, and others see it as puerile, eroding the quality of TV, or a testament to the morally reprehensible world of TV. I feel like I need to defend the first of these assertions not because of its presumptuousness, but because we can’t fathom that a “dirty” show deserves to be spoken about in the same category as “intelligent” comedies, especially in the Golden Age of TV. In a way, the onslaught of intelligence has spoiled us to different forms of intelligent humor. Workaholics is hands down the funniest, least predictable, most exciting comedy on TV right now. Not the most important, or the wittiest or the most politically relevant, but it retains the highest laugh per minute ratio, all in a deceptively genius manner.
Watching the show, one can obviously see how it could be criticized as “dirty” or unintelligent. But, on the other hand, I can see where the “deceptively genius manner” might fit in. But I didn’t see it until I saw Seth Rogen and Zak Efron with them on set for an episode hashtagged #cubicleneighbors.
As it progresses, we see that Rogen is the odd one out. In comparison to Zac Efron, he is deemed to be older, less attractive, and less sexy by Adam, Blake, and Anders. After telling him his age, they all huddle and consider his case. Rogen can see that they are not in any way interested in sharing a cubicle with him.
When they make their “mid-point assessment,” Rogen’s humiliation is almost at its breaking point. Efron takes it to the edge when he looks at and gives detailed compliments to Adam, Blake, and Anders making them all feel unique and beloved. Rogen, trailing behind, says “I also think you’re cool” and so forth, but is hushed up several times.
When we see that he is downcast and on the verge of crying, Rogen calls Efron names such as “kiss ass.” But Efron keeps on going and all of them nod in agreement when he says that he thinks they can all “work well together.”
At this moment, when Rogen seems to have totally failed, he pulls a Jewish joke (three minutes in): “I think if you had a Jewish person, you could probably be more edgy because you have a minority in your group.” This works and they pause. But Efron steals Rogen’s Jewish wind when he says, “Here’s a bombshell, ‘I’m Jewish’.”
At this comment, they are all astonished. They are excited by this even more than Rogen’s proposal because here we have a Jew who is young and goodlooking (as opposed to Rogen). But Rogen retorts, playing on the Jewish stereotype that he, Seth Rogen, apparently, embodies: “You don’t look Jewish.”
Seeing that this isn’t working, Rogen demands to see if Efron is circumcised: “Let me see your dick…If you’re really Jewish, you will show me your dick”(4min in). Adam, Blake, and Anders echo the request and the Jewish test by saying, together, while clapping, “we’ve got…to see that dick.” In this moment, we slip into homoeroticism, which Rogen appeals to a lot in his latest film, The Interview. As in that film, homoeroticism is the thin line between being a “bro” (and getting into the cubicle with Adam, Blake, and Anders) and being “gay.”
When Efron pulls it out, they all marvel at how big it is and that it is also circumcised. Rogen joins in and says that its “gorgeous” and asks if “Leonardo DeVinci circumcised” Efron. Following this rhetorical question, Rogen exclaims, “it’s beautiful.”
This gets everyone excited; but, at a certain point during the excitement, Rogen realizes he has lost and yells at Efron to put it away. He then realizes that what just went down was wrong. In a last ditch attempt to beat Efron, he pleas with Adam, Blake, and Anders: “you don’t want his dick overshadowing yours.”
To finish his argument, he courageously (?) tells them that his dick, not Efron’s, is the one they should want in their cubicle. The response to seeing Rogen’s member is shock and fear (by Efron) and some of them which then turns in to jokes one would say to a “little baby.” It is “cute, cool, and funny.” Which “dick do you want to share the cubicle with,” asks Rogen.
But, in the end, they argue that Rogen fails because his “personality is still dogshit.” Rogen is clearly humiliated and saddened. He is now, officially, the odd one out. They want the “Jew” with the “good vibe” and the “big dick” not Rogen.
Efron is not the Israeli but the stereotype that is being drawn on – of the muscle Jew – is. (Although there is a tumblr page that suggests he is in its title.) Rogen seems to be playing with the idea that the anxiety about being or not being a good looking and attractive male now internal to being a Jewish-American. However, even though the idea itself, as in the film Neighbors (with Zack Efron), is shown to be silly, there is a utopian kind of wish that lingers in all of Rogen’s films. It is the desire to be and remain a bro regardless of differences in age, body type, and personality. But can we say that these differences, in being caricatured, are diffused? Or is it, rather, the case that the sexual schlemiel, as depicted by Rogen, will always be the odd one out…even in a space which is occupied by slackers? Rogen, as schlemiel, isn’t desired; the other Jew is.
Rogen is not alone in using this strategy. It was also recently used by Gary Shteyngart in a clip he did with James Franco to advance his memoir. And, it seems, it will be used again when Ben Stiller turns Shteyngart’s book, Super Sad True Love Story into a TV series for Netflix.
But, in an episode of Naked and Afraid, starring Rogen and Franco, Rogen jokingly says that although he is afraid of being naked on camera, he wants to overcome this fear. He believes that being comfortable with his nakedness on camera will enable him to be more comfortable with himself…and his schlemiel body.
This, I would argue, is a half-truth and not just a joke. To be sure, Rogen, in countless TV and film appearances, puts himself out naked or half naked in front of a camera. This suggests that his main comic task is to come to terms with his body in distinction to people like Zac Efron and James Franco. This is at once ridiculous and serious. Could this really be Rogen’s main comedic interest? And does it have anything to teach us about the schlemiel’s future vocation? Or is this just a ridiculous issue? Will the schlemiel, regardless of his relationship with his body or age, always be, as Shteyngart would say, a “little failure?” Will he always still be the guy, as Rogen suggests in his Workaholic’s episode, the “little dick?” And will he, as Shteyngart and Rogen both seem to suggest, always be caught up between being a bro and being gay?