Seth Rogen’s sour pickle

by Brian on August 30, 2020

in In the News,Reviews

Unlike many of the pundits who have commented on Seth Rogen’s controversial interview earlier this summer on Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast, in which the producer and star of the new movie An American Pickle speaks apparently disparagingly about Israel, I actually listened to the recording – the entire nearly hour and a half podcast. I wanted to understand for myself whether Rogen’s negative quotes had been purposely plucked out of a longer, more balanced interview, as Rogen himself has since insisted.

The bad news first: Rogen was unequivocally critical as he repeatedly repudiated the need for a homeland for the Jews. Whether that was a result of a well-thought-out point of view or an ill-conceived attempt at yuks, Rogen really did say he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” from his Israeli camp counselors who he described as “psychopaths.” 

Rogen’s joke that it would be better to put Jews in a worldwide “blender” in order to preserve our people was particularly inappropriate.

After a few minutes of listening, I was ready to boycott Rogen. No American Pickle for us. Canceled.

But if you stay tuned and listen more carefully, between the lines, there is a more nuanced conversation between two publicly identified, self-defined proud American Jews.

Once he’s gotten past his provocative Israel “doesn’t make sense” shtick, it would have been easy for Rogen to fall back on Jewish stereotypes, the kind that that comedians like fictional TV funny woman Miriam Maisel rely on for their 1950s-era comedy club cellars routines.

Rogen does, too, at times. 

When Maron suggests, for example, that “the Orthodox gene pool is so tight they’re producing Jews who don’t even look like Jews,” Rogen quips, “They’ve mutated beyond Jews.”

But Rogen also stands up for our traumatic past – at least the American version.

“My grandmother was born in a caravan fleeing the pogroms in 1919,” Rogen tells Maron. “A lot of people don’t realize, if you meet a Jewish person America, it’s probably because someone tried to kill their grandparents not that long ago. This is why my grandparents were so tough. They had to fight.”

That might seem a trivial point, but it’s an important one these days with antisemitism on the rise in the West and where many, in the U.S. in particular, feel compelled to clarify that, no, Jewish history does not equal white supremacy.

On the Israel question, I was happy when Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog spoke to Rogen by Zoom afterward and reported that Rogen told him that, “of course Israel must exist” and that his words on the podcast “were meant as a joke.” 

Rogen was more circumspect in an interview with Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer. 

“I think that it’s a tricky conversation to have in jest,” he explained. “My pride in being Jewish and how deeply I identify as a Jewish person perhaps made me feel like I was able to say things without as much context as perhaps I should give them.”

I wish I could give him as much credit for An American Pickle.

Rogen certainly isn’t hiding his Jewish background – this may be the most Jew-y Hollywood movie since Yentl.

The film starts off promising enough – a witty fantasy about a Yiddish-speaking Jew from the imaginary village of Schlupsk somewhere in turn of the century Eastern Europe who accidentally falls into a barrel of brine and wakes up 100 years later in present day Brooklyn. 

There he meets his great grandson; both are played by Rogen who puts his many years of Jewish day school and summer camp to use by not messing up too badly the details of his simplified version of Jewish tradition. (His Yiddish is pretty good, too.)

The early scenes where 1919 Herschel encounters today’s technology, from Twitter to electric scooters, and becomes a social media phenomenon for marketing “artisanal pickles,” had me smiling, but the film runs out of juice pretty quickly. 

Really, how many times can you joke about Cossacks coming to kill us – in Brooklyn? Rogen can’t seem to decide if he wants to seriously critique the forces that are shaping modern political culture or if he wants to make a slapstick trifle between long estranged family members.

The movie was based on a short story by Simon Rich and, despite its brief 90-minute running time, might have been better if it had been made into a Saturday Night Live skit.

If you watch even a few minutes of the film, which debuted on HBO earlier this month, you’ll quickly get why Rogen doubled down in Maron’s podcast on his regard for the grandparents’ take-no-guff generation – it’s the setup for the film, making Rogen’s jokes basically a bit of not particularly well disguised PR.

By the end, though, there’s simply not that much depth in An American Pickle. The time travel conceit allows Rogen to skip right over sensitive subjects such as the Holocaust, Israel, socialism and, as The New York Times’ AO Scott puts it, “the drama of Jewish male selfhood that preoccupied so many in the middle generations — the whole Phillip Roth-Woody Allen megillah.”

Rogen has made a career of playing slacker characters, from Freaks and Geeks to Superbad and Knocked Up, so I’m not sure why I expected something more. 

Still, the controversy from the podcast worked – it got me to watch Rogen’s movie. Too bad it was not much more than a sour pickle.

I first reviewed Seth Rogen’s controversial pickle for The Jerusalem Post.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: