A comedy about cancer: Seth Rogens Jew crew attempts it in 50/50

In a back booth at Canter’s deli in Los Angeles, Seth Rogen is digging into his matzah ball soup with gusto as his close friend, screenwriter Will Reiser, sips a glass of club soda. In person, Rogen — who has emerged as one of the leading comic actors, writers and producers of his generation — offers up the same rumbling laugh (think a Jewish Santa Claus) and humorous banter as the stoner-slacker characters he plays in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.”

Rogen and Reiser are part of Rogen’s so-called “Jew Tang Clan” entertainment posse — which also includes director and co-writer Jonathan Levine and producer Evan Goldberg.

All of them have teamed up on the new movie “50/50,” which is loosely based on how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005. The film opens nationwide on Sept. 30.

Writer Will Reiser (left) and actor Seth Rogen on the set of “50/50.” photo/summit entertainment/chris helcermanas-benge

In “50/50,” which could be labeled a poignant comedy, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something writer for public radio who has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a pothead-jokester best friend, Kyle (Rogen).

But Adam then finds out he has a tumor snaking alongside his spine, and his MRI — actually based on Reiser’s own MRI — indicates he has only a 50 percent chance of survival. A life-threatening surgery is his only option.

Kyle, after an initial freakout, wants to use Adam’s sympathy card to score chicks, and Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is supportive but smothering. As Adam’s health deteriorates, help arrives in the form of a novice oncology psychotherapist (Anna Kendrick) assigned to him by the hospital.

There is levity amid the drama, much of it akin to the raunch-fests-with-heart for which Rogen and his comedy mentor, Judd Apatow, are known.

Online, some individuals have critiqued Rogen for attempting to make a comedy about cancer, stating (some with expletives) that  their experience with dying loved ones was anything but funny.

“I’m used to people hating all my s— before they watch it,” Rogen said. “But I think we did the movie honestly and respectfully and based it on our own experiences.”

Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31, met when they were the two youngest staff members on the U.S. version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.”

At the time, Rogen shared an office with his current writing and producing partner Goldberg (“Superbad”), a friend since they were in the same bar mitzvah class at their Reform synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Reiser, who had his bar mitzvah at a Jewish community center in White Plains, N.Y., remembers being envious of Rogen and Goldberg, who were staff writers while he was an associate producer.

“Our office was divided by just a window, so we could see each other all day long,” Reiser said. “In their office, they’d be joking, imitating Sacha’s accents … running back and forth, and I would be on the phone, really stressed out, on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, trying to book guests.”

Reiser, who at 24 was already a workaholic and always the first person in the office at 7:30 a.m., initially dismissed his early cancer symptoms as stress-related. Finally he went to the doctor for tests.

“I was first diagnosed with low-grade lymphoma, which is terminal,” he said. “So there was a 10-day period when I thought I was definitely going to die.”

A correct identification of Reiser’s spinal tumor meant a dangerous surgery was his only chance of survival.

“Will was in much worse shape than [the] character in the film,” Rogen said. But like the fictional Kyle, Rogen was the one who helped Reiser curb his pain by procuring medical marijuana.

“I think I had a prescription, and Will didn’t,” Rogen said with his rumbling, stoner laugh.

“It got very confusing, just how [friends and acquaintances] would talk to me,” Reiser said. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.

“While you look unhealthy on the outside, on the inside, there’s all this anxiety — you have this tumor growing inside you — and you feel completely disconnected from yourself,” he added, “and then you have all these people who want to touch you. It’s weird.”

In reality, Rogen said, Reiser’s cancer helped Rogen get lucky — in more ways than one. As they began discussions about what would become “50/50,” Reiser introduced Rogen to his fiancée, Lauren Miller. Reiser will be honored at their upcoming Jewish wedding.

“We’ll have a rabbi, the chuppah, the broken glass,” Rogen said.

In “50/50,” however, there will be no religion. Reiser said he did not find religion as a result of his cancer ordeal, and when he and Rogen were coming up with the movie, God was never part of the equation.

“People may find religion in foxholes, but cynical comedy writers don’t,” Rogen said.

The filmmakers even nixed a scene in which Adam visits a rabbi. “It just felt like a scene from a Woody Allen movie,” Rogen said.

Still, the experience seems to have turned Reiser into something of an optimist. “I have felt pain every day since the surgery,” he said. “But every day it gets better.”

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal