The irritations of promoting a film, like the irritations of high school, may be minor in the grand scheme of human misery, but they can still wear a person down. Barnstorming for the past two weeks through Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and San Diego, doing endless interviews with radio DJs, college students, newspaper reporters, and local TV stations, the stars of the raunchy teen comedy Superbad — Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse — have faced their share of small indignities and annoyances. Since their arrival yesterday in San Francisco, there’s been the sports-radio DJ who introduced Cera on air as ”Michael Cena” (”Actually, it’s pronounced Chena,” Cera deadpans); questions both irrelevant (”Are any of you guys friends with Lindsay Lohan?”) and inane (”Michael, you’re from Toronto — you a Rush fan?”); and that 60ish newspaper photographer who told them, ”I haven’t seen your movie, but I know it’s about children.” If you’re selling a comedy and your last name isn’t Ferrell, Murphy, Carrey, or Stiller, you need to venture out among the people and beat the drum. Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are clearly enjoying the absurdity of it all, but at the same time, there’s a physical toll. ”This tour has made me realize how people in rock bands are cool and I’m lame,” Hill tells the morning DJs of a modern-rock station. ”I’m tired.”
Still, all the effort hasn’t been for nothing. The buzz around Superbad, which opens Aug. 17, has been building over the past few months. In each city that Hill, 23, Cera, 19, and Mintz-Plasse, 18, visit, screenings of the film have been met with wild enthusiasm. Just two days ago, during a Superbad panel Q&A at Comic-Con in San Diego, two women separately stepped up to the microphone and propositioned Cera. Granted, that was at a convention where people walk around dressed as stormtroopers and Ferengi. But for the actor previously known for playing the gawky George Michael Bluth in the late cult TV comedy Arrested Development, it’s strange new territory. ”That’s never happened to me before,” Cera says a little sheepishly. ”It’s just because it was Comic-Con.”
Then again, maybe not. Every summer around this time, a fluky little movie — a Napoleon Dynamite, say, or a Little Miss Sunshine — sneaks up on moviegoers and shakes them from their blockbuster-induced stupor. This year’s leading contender is Superbad. On paper, it sounds like an unlikely candidate: a raucous, very R-rated teen comedy about two best friends — the explosively foulmouthed Seth (Hill) and the mild-mannered Evan (Cera) — who, assisted by their dorky friend Fogell (Mintz-Plasse), make a desperate attempt to procure beer so that they can impress (read: have sex with) a couple of girls. But Superbad comes out of the most successful comedy factory operating in Hollywood: The film is produced by Judd Apatow, director of Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin and producer of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and was co-written by Knocked Up‘s star, Seth Rogen, who costars as a buffoonish cop. With its likable underdogs and vulgar-yet-sweet humor, Superbad, which is directed by Greg Mottola (whose 1997 debut, The Daytrippers, was itself a cult indie comedy), is already drawing comparisons to classic teen romps like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused. ”It’s funny and filthy, but it’s also a beautiful movie about friendship,”says Apatow.
For all the advance buzz, Superbad is still a tricky movie to market. Its stars are the baby-faced kid from a canceled TV show and the curly-haired Knocked Up sidekick best known for saying ”shmashmortion.” And many of its most outrageous comedic moments are so far over the line, they can hardly be described in a magazine, let alone put in a TV ad. It’s no wonder that in interviews the actors are highlighting the Apatow connection: ”They should’ve called the movie Super-Knocked-Up-Virgin-Bad,” Cera jokes.
If not for Apatow’s clout in the comedy world, the movie probably wouldn’t exist at all. The screenplay for Superbadhas actually been kicking around for over a decade. Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg, childhood friends from Vancouver, began writing it when they were barely teenagers themselves, inspired by their loathing of the usual teen-flick fare. ”It was written out of a hateful place,” says Rogen. ”It was, These movies suck. Let’s try to write one about guys like us.” The 1999 smash American Pie, which reinvigorated the teen-comedy genre, only spurred them to push further. ”That was the funniest cartoony high school movie anyone had seen in years,” says Goldberg. ”But we were shooting for realness.”
In 2001, while Rogen was starring in the Fox series Undeclared, the series’ creator Apatow, who’d launched Rogen’s career in NBC’s critically lauded but short-lived high school comedy series Freaks and Geeks, took an interest in the script. Under his guidance, the story shifted in a more emotional direction, with the characters Seth and Evan — named after the two co-writers, though the story is not explicitly autobiographical — facing their fears of women and of going off to different colleges. For years, however, no one would agree to make Superbad until, in 2006, Sony, buoyed by its success working with Apatow on Talladega Nights, finally greenlit it. With a modest $18 million budget, the studio was happy to think small in terms of casting: ”Obviously, studios like to have a big star we can put on a poster,” says production head Matt Tolmach, ”but Judd has branded himself as a guy who can make these movies work with newcomers.”
Mottola, who’d worked on Arrested Development, believed Cera, a gifted comic miniaturist with a special knack for the awkward pause, would fit the role of Evan: ”He can be so subtle and dry. He’s like Bob Newhart in a 19-year-old’s body.” Apatow, Rogen, and Goldberg, however, took a little convincing. ”The first time I met Evan, he said, ‘I actually stopped watching that show because I didn’t like you,”’ says Cera. He smiles. ”And then I ended up playing him.”
With Rogen, at 25, now looking too old to play Seth, the Superbad team brought in more than a hundred actors to audition for the role, but ended up finding him under their noses. Hill remembers, ”One day on Knocked Up, Judd came back from an auditioning session, all defeated, and said, ‘How old can you look?’ I said, ’17 or 18.’ He said to me and Seth, ‘Go make a tape.’ That day I found out I was doing it.” Fogell — a.k.a. McLovin, the alter ego he assumes on his fake ID — turned up in an open casting call. ”I had Seth and Evan sign my script, because I didn’t think I was going to get the part,” Mintz-Plasse remembers.
During shooting, the cast was encouraged to push the R rating. ”The whole point was that it was honest and real,” says Rogen. ”Once you’re saying fudge instead of f–, it leaves that world.” But no one was sure how the finished product would be greeted by audiences, and at the first test screening this spring the filmmakers were racked with tension. To their amazement, the movie simply killed. ”I thought we’d start an ongoing debate about how dirty the movie should be,” says Apatow. ”And there was nothing.”
Just weeks before Superbad‘s release, another screening — this one in a theater in Berkeley, Calif. — is ending in applause and hooting. The three costars stride down the aisle to answer questions. Hugs are requested and given. Posters, scraps of paper, and even the odd body part are offered to be signed.
A couple of months earlier, before the tour began, Hill and Cera sat in a café in Los Angeles and scoffed at the notion that they’d ever draw such attention from young women. ”Yeah, I’m a real conquest,” Hill said with heavy sarcasm. ”It’s me and Adrian Grenier.” Now, surrounded by a throng of fans, Hill shakes his head. ”It’s not something you get used to,” he says.
”Can you sign here?” one woman asks Mintz-Plasse, pointing to her upper chest. ”My fiancé’s here, and he’s cool with it.” Mintz-Plasse politely demurs. ”This is a permanent marker,” he points out. ”I probably shouldn’t.”