Seth Rogen is launching a podcast that isn't at all about Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen can't do anything casually.
The actor may have gotten his start in Hollywood by bringing his very particular brand of stoner comedy to the big screen, but in real life, he's become a prolific creator. Things that would be hobbies for most (throwing pottery, smoking weed, writing in a diary) are successful businesses for Rogen (Houseplant, his memoir Yearbook). His latest creative endeavor is a podcast, but, true to form, it's a highly stylized, highly realized podcast that's more audio documentary than celebrity interview show.
"This thing happens in my life and career where I tell people I have an idea and they assume I'm either not going to do it or that I'll get lazy and do a much less complex, more lo-fi version of what I set out to do," Rogen says with a laugh.
On Storytime, which debuts on SiriusXM's Stitcher today, Rogen brings in a guest (everyone from Paul Rudd to Quinta Brunson to his best friend's brother-in-law) to tell him one great story — but with accompanying clips and supplementary interviews to enhance the storytelling experience.
"I quickly found that very few podcast companies are set up to create a show like that, that it's outside their realm of resources," he says. "So [Stitcher] was like, may we suggest this guy Richard Parks III? And he turned out to be the absolute perfect person to accomplish what I had envisioned."
With Parks as editor and co-producer, they took interviews with guests including Ashley Ray, Ava DuVernay, David Crosby, Paul Scheer, Steve MacDonald, and Yassir Lester, and created a sort of newfangled Big Top Chatauqua — with Seth Rogen instead of Garrison Keillor and topics like surviving a grizzly bear attack and pooping your pants at Disney World. The first episode drops today, and the remaining episodes will release weekly.
Below, Rogen and Parks discuss the podcast (publicly) for the first time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Seth, you're a celebrity launching a podcast who isn't the star of your own podcast...
SETH ROGEN: I didn't want to be the main ingredient of this. Obviously, by nature, I'm a big part of the project, but I didn't want to be an overwhelming presence on the podcast. Richard has a way of editing and bringing in music and clips that helped. He made it very different from the typical podcast.
RICHARD PARKS III: We had older radio shows in mind, where there's an approach to sound that's very heightened. I think the power of this medium is that it forces people to bring their own imaginations to it. It forces the listener to be involved more so than in television or film.
How did you select the guests for each episode? Especially since it's not solely comprised of celebrities.
ROGEN: Some of the guests were me going out to interesting people I know being like: "Do you have a story?" Some of the guests came from stories that I already knew, but hadn't heard in a longer, fleshed-out format. Some of them, like my best friend's brother-in-law from Vancouver, I had heard he was attacked by a grizzly bear. So I thought, that sounds like a good story, let's bring him on. I didn't only want famous people because I find that a lot of famous people have an instinct to just talk about how they got famous and I didn't want that to be all the podcast was — just helping people recount how they became a celebrity.
Did you give any guidelines to the guests before they came on?
ROGEN: Not really, but part of the pitch to guests was, we'll help bring your story to life and we will honor it — we won't make it funny if it's not funny. What wound up happening is some turned out to be a lot less funny than I was expecting, and some were pitched [to me] as something that didn't sound that funny but became very funny throughout. We didn't want to guide the tone of the narrative in a way that wasn't in line with the teller's perspective.
PARKS: Going into these interviews, I knew nothing about what people were going to say. I think Seth probably knew next to nothing.
ROGEN: I had basically a one-sentence description.
PARKS: As a producer, that usually makes me very nervous. But also, what you get is Seth hearing this for the first time and reacting really authentically. And there's an energy in that type of interaction. The person telling the story has obviously chosen it and edited it to some extent, but then in my round of editing what I'm listening for is a way to find an interesting perspective and narrative.
You bring up an interesting point: Everyone self-edits, to some degree, when they talk about themselves or recount a story for which they're the protagonist. This isn't a journalistic endeavor, but did your participation involve questioning what happened at all?
ROGEN: I'm not going into these interviews trying to poke holes in their version of what happened. Although, sometimes it becomes clear that people don't remember things the same way as other people who were there. Different perspectives arise. Sometimes adding another voice to round out the story will take us in a whole new direction. We're able to glean a different meaning and that is a really fun exercise. Someone starts out thinking, "This is a story of how I got into comedy," but once we start talking about how something they did affects other people we see this ripple effect. Oftentimes comedians, their instinct is to tell just the funny parts of the story — but if I ask a question that makes us dig a little deeper we come up with something new. The way we wound up putting the episodes together was kind of like if you gave a mechanic a bunch of parts and said, "Build something out of this." Or a Top Chef challenge. We created something out of the ingredients the guest gave us.
Does any one episode stick out as a story that took a particularly surprising turn?
PARKS: The first episode, the Quinta Brunson episode. It has this structure that's almost like a triangle where the concept spreads out as it goes. Very early on we had a completely usable, cohesive story from Quinta, but then it went into a totally different direction for twice the amount of time. I think the thing that's most interesting to me about this whole podcast series is Seth deciding early on that it was going to be edited, when he didn't have to do that and I don't think anyone expected him to. It's like the Mark Twain quote: I could've written a shorter letter but I didn't have the time.
There are famous people on this podcast, and they're talking about potentially vulnerable topics in the story that they choose — do you think about the potential for their sound bites to devolve into clickbait?
ROGEN: I've been the subject of podcasts that become clickbait many, many times. And a lot of these podcasts, I feel like part of the goal is that it's controversial. They're getting you to talk about current events or subjects that will inevitably anger a large portion of the population. And part of me does not enjoy doing those podcasts, so I wanted to make this something that was documentary style and done with the permission and endorsement of the subject. It's not a gotcha show where I, as the host, am trying to take things you said and monetize them or bolster my own career in some way. This is the same mentality I had when making Superbad, or 50/50, stories based on real life — I'm collaborating with a team of people to bring something to life.
It's also more of a byproduct that some of the guests are famous. When I wrote my book, the whole time I was thinking: I'm not that special. And if I have a whole book of funny stories, then other people definitely do. And maybe they don't have the time to bring their stories to life in a book, but they do want to do it in this format. I mean, there are jokes in the podcast, and comedians make jokes that are crazy. The podcast is full of them, but it's not a current events-based subject matter. By that alone it doesn't have the effect of giving sound bites or headlines.
Now that you've done this, what's your takeaway on what makes a really good story?
ROGEN: It's helpful if it's something that had an impact on your life or your work. But that doesn't mean it can't be a story about sh---ing your pants at Disney World.
Is there really a story about someone s----ing their pants at Disney World?
ROGEN: There is! And I'm also really excited for everyone to hear the grizzly bear story. As soon as my friend told it to me, I thought, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard in my entire life. I've never met anybody who's experienced anything like it. I'm so grateful that he trusted us with the story. And it's funny! It's not the most serious episode by a long shot.