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Seth Rogen’s shamelessness

Obliviousness is a crucial component of comic license. And our pleasure in obliviousness is partly pleasure in witnessing and sympathetically participating in the avoidance of humiliation, a condition which we are acutely and continually preoccupied with evading. While a relish for resilience and recovery is at the core of our enjoyment of obliviousness, part of the indestructibility that is so frequently noticed about comic characters, it also offers a chance to relax the ceaseless self-consciousness and responsiveness required of us as social creatures.

Given the significance of obliviousness for successful comedy, Seth Rogen’s vulnerability seems anomalous. Despite the stoner shtick, he’s often palpably nervous in his roles, and this vulnerability seems somewhat at odds with an audience’s desire for the safety of invulnerability or obliviousness. What seems apparent in watching one of his recent films, the romcom Long Shot (2019), is the degree to which the film seeks to manage Rogen’s nervousness and self-consciousness in order for it to work as comic. In the first scene the film explicitly emphasises his indestructibility: he escapes danger by jumping through a window – several stories high – and picks himself up triumphantly. A few scenes later he falls down a flight of stairs and once again dusts himself off with no harm done. This physical carelessness is further developed by his slightly overweight physicality, and his discordant, slapdash clothes (baseball cap, 80s anorak, cargo pants: it’s almost ‘street’ but also just a mess), which imply a disregard for social conventions (thinness, tasteful clothes) in a way that demonstrates his exemption from the exhausting toll of conformity and thus underscores his invulnerability.

However, these assertions of resilience are actually fairly superficial signals, when what really powers Rogen’s appeal is a more subtle kind of obliviousness to social norms that we might call shamelessness, although the word implies a brazenness at odds with any obvious vulnerability. Like Woody Allen, Rogen’s nervousness is armoured by an acceptance of his own neuroses, and an embrace of traits that might commonly be understood as pathological or shameful. And that lack of internal struggle or unease, and the absence of shame, means he is largely protected from humiliation. It is often the shame or struggle about a trait that causes problems, rather than the trait itself, and the absence of shame or struggle can seem peculiarly radical, and deeply attractive.

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