1375 SkyTrain, sex shows, $50 jokes
by Seth Rogen
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Viking), 2021
$35.00 / 9780735237995
Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb
So the editor asks me to review Seth Rogen’s book. Seth who? Do you mean Joe Rogan? No, Seth Rogen, the comedian, actor, voicer of Vancouver’s SkyTrain announcements. Oh, that Seth Rogen. And he’s the one who just got in trouble à la Whoopi Goldberg for things he said about Israel. Hmm. Clearly, I am the wrong person to review this book. For one thing I’m a hundred years too old, for another I hated the SkyTrain announcements: it was like listening to your mother (if your mother was an annoying comedian): Don’t put your feet on the seats, don’t block the doors, stand on the right, walk on the left. Please.
But some people love Seth Rogen, and I must say that when I checked out a preview of the book online, it made me laugh. It made me cringe that he could say such bad things about his grandparents and it was incredibly potty-mouthed. But it made me laugh. So I said yes. Then I found out that he’s made a bazillion movies, none of which I’ve actually seen, except An American Pickle, which was not bad but which as far as I can tell is not typical of his oeuvre.
But anyway, did you hear the one about the mohel who gets so involved in his work (as a ritual circumciser) that he finds himself reciting the prayer service when he slices carrots for his salad? Seth wrote that joke — when he was 14, and for a mohel who wanted jokes to tell when he was performing — ah, no, I mean, well, performing the circumcisions. Do you want your mohel telling jokes, Seth wonders? Shouldn’t he be concentrating on his job? But the mohel was going to pay him $50 a joke, and when he tried to back out of the deal, Seth held firm, negotiating like a veteran. Perhaps that’s one of the “life-changingly amazing” moments in the book (Seth’s words).
I call him Seth because even though he’s 39 now, it really threw me when he began a sentence, “As a thirty-nine-year-old-man …” — who, Seth? Anyway, usually he begins his sentences, “Me and Evan,” and I think, Grammar? But everyone talks that way now. And the book is sprinkled, no, inundated, with a sh–load of f’s and m-f’s and whatever, so be warned, if that bothers you. Also drugs, which even bothers his mother (read her blurb on the back of the book: “Why does he need all that!”), but then, if you’re into drugs, and four-letter words come naturally to you, well, you’ll feel right at home.
I actually felt at home in the early parts of the book, about Seth growing up in Vancouver, going to Arts County Fair at UBC (even though he never went to university, but Arts County Fair, a festival of music and, yes, substances, was largely for high school students). Then there’s his hilarious trip to clothing-optional Wreck Beach (to buy drugs, of course). He and his friends discuss it: Will we have to get naked? How would they force us? With a sign?
Anyway, he successfully buys drugs then and many other times, without getting naked, though there is the time in Amsterdam when he got dragooned into taking part in a sex show, and he even becomes a small-time drug dealer in his high school, so much so that when his fellow students sign his yearbook they comment on this, and then he leaves his yearbook out where his parents can find it, and they call the cops! But the cops are understanding, and his parents are mostly cool, though there was the time his mother pretended not to know his father when he, the father, decided to heckle Bill Vander Zalm. Just ignore him, his mother tells Seth and his sister, and while everyone else gawks at Seth’s father, and the whole thing gets on the local news, the newscaster says, There was one family that didn’t seem fazed at all; they just ignored the ranting. Another funny moment, and maybe life-changingly amazing too.
Oh, and then there’s the time he rescues some soaked porn magazine and has to preserve it like a fragile old document. He has had strange reactions ever since when someone mentions old documents: “The Indiana Jones franchise is very stimulating to me. Don’t even mention the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Okay, we won’t. Not the sort of thing he mentions usually. His references are all to rap music and movies I’ve never seen, though did you know Seth was involved in The Interview? The movie that provoked the ire of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un? That almost puts Seth up with Graham Greene, who got a bad review from Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier, but that was before Seth was born. Anyway, The Interview got people really scared, thinking they’d die if they just downloaded it, and it made Seth worry that his career would be ruined, but as he says, “What I really learned … was how f– ing fast people forget sh– and move on.”
Which is true, though that was way back in 2014, so come on.
The Interview involved a tiger, and there’s a hilarious scene with the tiger wrangler about what could go wrong on set (but then for some reason Seth makes it his business to ruin the wrangler’s business; feeling sorry for the tiger, he says, but it feels wrong — and is it wise to let the wrangler know in this book???).
Other odd choices: The target audience, besides not being me, is not Canadians, apparently, since Seth finds it necessary to explain loonies and toonies and premiers (they’re like governors, he says). But if he’s aiming at Americans, why slag them by saying they love to persecute minorities and fill up their prisons? Oh, well, maybe he’s just joking, and there are actually a lot of Americans who love slagging themselves, so that may be okay.
Overall, the book is at its best in the early going when we can follow the coming of age of young Seth as a somewhat scared little Jewish boy in Vancouver, who yet has the nerve to embark on a standup career and then somehow makes it to LA and gets into the movie business. The part in LA is not up to the earlier stuff: how exactly did he make it in LA? Inquiring minds want to know. Maybe we want to become big-time moviemakers too so we can meet Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, and George Lucas (all of whom come across as very weird here: is that another bad decision of Seth’s?).
But the first half holds your attention and even gives those amazingly life-changing moments, like use your angst (but not too much). It worked for Kafka (sorry, Seth doesn’t actually mention Kafka). And I have no ending, but then neither does Seth: he just trails off with an eyebrow-raising story about almost getting killed on a camping expedition at Jewish summer camp, but it’s really a funny story, he tells a friend later, and the friend says, Nope.
POSTSCRIPT: As I was reading this book on the bus, a fellow passenger leaned over and said, “It’s a really great book.” So there you go.
Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed here by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed here by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb has recently reviewed books by Julia Levy, Peter Quartermain, Katherine Bowers & Kate Holland, P.W. Bridgman, George Bowering, Jaime Smith, and Jesse Donaldson.
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