Seth Rogen was in his early 20s and sitting on the toilet when his good friend Will Reiser called to say he’d been diagnosed with cancer. (“I never should’ve picked up the phone while I was taking a shit,” Rogen says.) At the time these two were co-workers on Sacha Baron Cohen’s already-legendary Da Ali G Show, but since then Reiser’s treatment and recovery became the basis for 50/50, a semi-autobiographical collaboration between the two longtime pals and one of this fall’s funniest, most unexpectedly moving comedies.
PW: First of all, I don’t think a lot of us were aware that Da Ali G Show even employed writers.
Will Reiser: Well, I think we had two completely different experiences there … Seth was a writer.
Seth Rogen: And Will booked the guests. So he had to lie to James Lipton, and I just had to think up questions making fun of him.
WR: I would find who we could interview. So I had to become these people’s best friends, and basically get as much background information out of them as I could. Then I would give all that to Seth and Evan [Goldberg, Rogen’s longtime writing partner] and they’d come up with jokes.
SR: Me and Evan would sit in a room and think of 10,000 questions you would ask, if you were a gay Austrian journalist. We worked crazy hours. It was—to this day—the hardest job I’ve ever had. And Will was sick during that time. We didn’t know it was cancer but you could tell there was something physically wrong with him. Obviously we thought it was the job. Sacha Baron Cohen worried: “We’re working this guy too hard; he’s deteriorating before our eyes!” I think Sacha was a little relieved when he found out Will had cancer; he’d thought it was his fault.
PW: Seth, this is the second movie you’ve made in the past few years in which you take care of somebody with cancer, but this particular character’s upward trajectory is pretty much the opposite of Funny People …
SR: When the guy comes out worse? I never thought of it quite like that, but it’s kind of true! Will, your original title for the movie was How I Learned Nothing From Cancer . Which was bullshit, because you’re so much less annoying now than you were before you had cancer. At the time you wrote the first draft, you didn’t have the perspective to see that you are much different than the way you were before.
WR: I’m much more attractive.
SR: He’s much less neurotic. Look, we were good friends before, so it’s not like he was ever a fucking terrible person to be around … but at least now he doesn’t get into destructive relationships and bitch about them to me all the time. This is nice.
WR: It’s probably true. When I found out I had cancer, that was the last thing I thought I had. I looked at my symptoms on WebMD.com and thought I was diabetic and hypoglycemic. But I was more worried about girls and work and other things in my life. I was an incredibly neurotic person.
SR: I think he caught cancer because he worried so much.
PW: Any lessons learned by revisiting your younger selves on screen?
SR: It’s not always good to cover up what you’re feeling by making horrible dick jokes.
WR: It’s OK to talk about your feelings sometimes.
SR: Which we didn’t do. But we were young, and I think if it were to happen now I would probably be more upfront about the actual emotional element. But … maybe not?
WR: Given where we were at that time, I just don’t think we were capable of dealing with it in that way.
SR: It would have been weird. It would not have felt genuine.
WR: If we had just hugged all the time?