Ten years after Seth Rogen appeared in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) as a stoner schlemiel, Seth Rogen has made this character into his biggest selling point. Here is a list of movies where we see the schlemiel-stoner character: Superbad (2007), Pineapple Express (2008), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), Funny People (2009), This is the End (2013), The Interview (2014), Neighbors (2014), and Neighbors II (2016). In addition to movies, he has made several appearances in different TV series – ranging from Workaholics to Arrested Development – and TV shows as the stoner schlemiel. For Rogen, it is the gift that doesn’t stop giving.
I have many reservations about what he is doing with the Stoner Schlemiel since it takes the classical character and lowers its IQ a few points. One need only compare the schlemiel he puts out there to that of Woody Allen, Jason Alexander, or Larry David to see what I mean. They may not be the most intelligent schlemiels, but they are sharp enough and urban enough to give the schlemiel a degree of respectability. What Rogen does is make the schlemiel into an everyman in ways that his predecessors – like Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller – did not do. He has made the stoner schlemiel into the main image America has of this character. When we see his schlemiel we automatically ask if he is stoned or going to be stoned in this or the next scene. The foibles that the stoner schlemiel has are adorable – since Rogen’s demeanor (and body, see below) has a certain charm to it – but these skits are not intelligent and they offer no kind of gesture that goes beyond mere entertainment or lifestyle advertising (or marketing, if you will).
The stoner, oftentimes, has nothing to say. He just drops things, makes mistakes, laughs, smokes more pot, and then smokes more pot. The celebration of marijuana is the schlemiel’s only political and cultural statement. We are far away from the schlemiels of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Mendel Mocher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, Kafka, and I.B. Singer who all had something powerful to offer readers in Yiddish and in translation. For them, something more than getting high was at stake.
Let me take a 2013 appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show – in which the two do a skit that involves the stoner schlemiel – as an example.
Fallon starts off by recalling how they both acted in a “Canadian Soap Opera” called “Jacob’s Weed Shop.” Fallon says that “it was interesting,” while shaking his head. Rogen responds with the stoner schlemiel’s joy over getting high: “it was fun.”
The stoner schlemiel’s prop for the skit – which guarantees that there will be laughs – are two prosthetic arms (which he calls “but cheeks with hands”). Rogen justifies using them because his arms don’t look good on camera. They are big and pale. Rogen’s turn to his body as a schlemiel prop is something he does all the time. The stoner’s body, the “dad-bod,” is a staple in many of his films. Especially in his film Neighbors where he puts his body in juxtaposition to Zac Efron’s throughout that film (and its sequel). (Also take a look at his guest appearance on Wokaholics with Erfon, which I have written on over here.)
In the skit with Fallon, the prosthetic arms prevent Rogen and Fallon from getting high. Because of them, he can’t properly roll or light a joint; he can’t make edibles. The last scene has him putting a mess in the oven that will, apparently, turn into pot brownies. Even so, the main plot of this skit is guided by the stoner schlemiel.
Millions of Americans smoke or consume pot. As a schlemiel theorist, I have no problem with that. My problem is with what Rogen has done with the schlemiel. It’s main role, for him, seems to be the promotion of a lifestyle.
And, in truth, that’s no different from any ad on TV or the internet. On this note, The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott goes the farthest in denouncing Rogen and others like him who, to Scott’s mind, are promoting what he calls the “end of adulthood” and “perpetual adolescence.” For Scott, it seems, this is more than just a lifestyle. Its not good for humanity, in general, and America, in particular.
Thankfully, writers like Gary Shteyngart or Shalom Auslander and comedians like Marc Maron or Larry David, or shows like Transparent or Louie, are doing much more with this character. For them it doesn’t simply represent a lifestyle that is based on being perpetually high. They have a different project that can help us better to understand our modern problems and their complexity.