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Dick Jokes, Drunk Takes, and Best Friends: How ‘Superbad’ Was Born

The 2007 teen comedy still resonates. Ten years later, the cast and crew explain how it all came together.

Characters from the movie Superbad Mario Zucca

Believe it or not, there was a time when the phrase “down to fuck” was not a part of the vernacular. Until Superbad was released in August 2007, it was just a phrase that a few of Jonah Hill’s high school friends said. “I didn’t come up with it — these kids I knew were taggers and their crew was called DTF, ‘Down to Fuck,’” Hill remembers. “I just said it in a scene and they left it in.” For those random friends, that name drop — in the middle of a speech by Hill’s character, Seth, who is trying to convince his best friend, Evan, that a couple of popular girls might actually want to hook up with them — was a big deal. “They were hyped it was in the movie.”

But then a funny thing happened: DTF entered the pop culture lexicon — first because of Superbad, and later because it was a catchphrase used by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, the one with the abs in Jersey Shore. “They were really pissed off,” Hill recalls with a laugh. “The Situation … made T-shirts and made a lot of money off it. I just thought it was so interesting — you say this thing that comes across your mind in a moment and then it’s just there forever.”

DTF isn’t the only thing from Superbad that’s lived on. Bill Hader says cops still approach him to brag about fucking around on the job; Hill has seen people “boop” each other on the nose; and Steven Glanzberg, a family law attorney, still has colleagues come up to him and mention Superbad because his childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg used his name for a throwaway line. Ten years later, Superbad stands up as a defining movie of an era — the millennial generation’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High — not only because it’s unbelievably, consistently funny, or because it launched a generation of stars, from Hill to Michael Cera to Emma Stone, but because it also speaks to the group of people it’s about. Cloaked in dick jokes and drawings, binge drinking, and period blood, Superbad captures that universal moment when two people are wrested apart by the facts of growing up, and forced to fully acknowledge how much they love each other. Superbad holds up even a decade later because it feels like a real portrait of young friendship — and that’s because so much of it actually is.

Rogen and Goldberg used to write together in their underwear. Not as some odd ritual; just because their early apartments in Los Angeles didn’t have air conditioning. “We weren’t, like, tapping into our chi — we were just both Canadians living in L.A., where it’s fucking hot all the time,” says Rogen.

By the time Rogen and Goldberg both lived in L.A., the script for Superbad was already seven years old. The two childhood friends started working on it at the age of 13, when they mutually decided that they could make a movie better than the ones they were seeing on TV. “It was some dog-shit movie and we were just like, ‘We could fucking write a better fucking movie than this,’” Goldberg remembers. “And 30 minutes later, we were pretty bored, and said, ‘We should write a better movie than this.’ So we went upstairs to my parents’ desk area and just started writing a script.” Though neither labels it as such, the script was a point of obsession for both Rogen and Goldberg, something that they’d write and rewrite constantly. Even as Rogen’s acting career picked up — he was cast as a minor character in Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks in 1999 — and he moved from their hometown of Vancouver, the two worked on Superbad nonstop. “We would literally just be on the phone with each other all the time,” he says. “I was supposed to be doing high school, but instead of that I was writing Superbad.”

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Evan Goldberg
Via IMDb

Specifically, Rogen and Goldberg wanted to make a movie about high school that actually felt and sounded like high school. “There were no movies that were really capturing what we were experiencing,” says Rogen. No teenagers talking about drinking and getting laid, in the foulest terms possible. “So we wrote one, basically.”

“Seth and Evan had an incredibly unique way of writing dialogue in the way high school people spoke, and that’s what was magical about the script,” Judd Apatow says. “I knew they were doing something no one had done before. And in the first draft I saw, it had the penis drawings, it had the period blood sequence — a lot of the big set pieces never changed.”

It helped that the writing partners were still in high school when they laid Superbad’s foundation. “It wasn’t like slowly but surely things from our lives leaked into the script — we were like, ‘We’re gonna rip shit out of our lives and put it in here.’ We were waiting for things to happen [so we could put it in the movie],” Goldberg says. He and Rogen simply … wrote what was happening to them. The panic of having to sit alone at lunch (“like I’m fucking Steven Glanzberg”), the way kids in high school zero in on a peer’s most embarrassing moment (“People don’t forget,” Seth tells a classmate still known for peeing his pants in fourth grade), the desperate hunt for booze. Even Superbad’s most daring scene — in which Seth’s pants are stained by a girl who’s on her period — was something that happened to a friend of theirs. “We knew that if it felt true to us, by default it would feel authentic,” Rogen explains.

The irony is that everything that made Superbad so good and so true-to-life — its unrepentant, authentic profanity — was the exact reason why no studio would touch it. “R-rated comedies were not en vogue,” says Amy Pascal, who, as the cochair of Sony Pictures Entertainment from 2006 to 2015, oversaw the development and distribution of Superbad. “Things weren’t that dirty at the time,” Apatow adds. “People thought it was too extreme to have high school kids behave this way.” Several studios — such as Dreamworks, for one — considered making Superbad, but only if Rogen and Goldberg agreed to clean up the script enough for a PG-13 rating; the general concern was that the people Superbad was aimed toward couldn’t even legally see it.

“And we were just like, ‘No,’” Rogen laughs. “We had nothing other to say than, ‘I don’t know, it could still work.’ We just kept saying, if this came out, we would go crazy for it.”

So Superbad languished without a home for years — which essentially gave Rogen and Goldberg time to continue making the script even better. The Apatow crew did numerous table reads; Jake Kasdan, a director Rogen had worked with as a writer on the TV show Undeclared, went over the script with a fine-toothed comb, helping to add structure and a sharper tone — “we knew nothing about writing movies,” says Rogen — and most importantly, authentic emotion. “We were definitely pushed to delve deeper and deeper into the friendship,” Rogen remembers. “It was something that we ourselves were afraid of embracing because we were at the age when it was not something we wanted to talk about much.”

“We didn’t quite realize what we’d done at first,” Goldberg adds. “We used to end the movie after the party, with them just walking away. And Judd was like, you didn’t follow through on the emotional story. So that slowly came out. We composed the sleeping bag sequence and the shopping mall sequence, and those were key. They were the finish on that story.”

By the time Sony was ready to take a chance on Superbad — thanks in part to the foul-mouthed shift in comedy made by successful movies like Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Will Ferrell’s films — the screenplay was bulletproof. “I cannot stress how good the writing was by the time I got to read it,” says Hill. “It was just insanely funny. And quite moving.”

“John Hughes movies were R-rated, and we were just waiting for everyone to discover that again,” says Pascal. “And the thing about John Hughes’s movies — and Superbad — they were much more truthful and varied and complicated than other movies about teenagers. Boys do like to talk about [their anatomy] — in fact, they’re quite obsessed with it. The trick is, the movie is really all about friendship.”

Michael Cera fell out of a tree on one of the first days of filming Superbad. He busted his lip right open. There he was, hanging out, in a tree, with Jonah Hill and some of the crew in between takes and “I just fell,” he remembers. “And on the way down, I took a branch down with me and it hit me in the face. Everyone was making fun of me, and I had this cut lip and I could hardly smile. I just remember Jonah laughing at me and how stupid I was. We were just having the best time.”

Ask anyone who was on the Superbad set what they remember, and they’ll likely tell you how easygoing and remarkably comfortable it was. “I look back and think about how lucky I was,” says Rogen. “I didn’t appreciate how fortunate I was to be working with people who allowed that to happen.”

Bill Hader and Seth Rogen
Bill Hader and Seth Rogen

The cast for Superbad was assembled almost solely on instinct. “I think [Judd] read that book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, where it’s all about how your first instinct is usually right,” says Bill Hader. “Or something like that? I don’t know. I didn’t read Blink.”

Hader himself landed the role of Officer Slater, the partner to Rogen’s Officer Michaels, because the two got along during the filming of the Owen Wilson–Kate Hudson movie You, Me and Dupree. Rogen floated Hader’s name to Apatow, and that was all it took. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. You go to meetings and they just give you parts in movies,’” says Hader.

Cera’s casting was a similar snap decision. “Me and Evan had never seen Arrested Development,” Rogen recalls, “and I was working with Jay Baruchel on this movie Fanboys. We were in fucking Las Vegas, New Mexico, sitting in a hotel room, smoking weed, and he was like, ‘Michael Cera — you should put him in your movie.’ And I was like, ‘Great! Sounds good!’” Cera took it from there: “No one was as funny as Cera,” Apatow says about the audition process.

Finding the right actors to play Seth and Fogell (a.k.a. McLovin) took a little longer; the trouble in casting for Seth was finding someone who could say the most absurd, graphically disgusting things in the movie and still be sympathetic. They didn’t find someone who could embody both sides of the character (“and Shia LaBeouf was offer-only,” Rogen notes) until they looked in their backyard.

“We were on the set of Knocked Up,” Apatow says, “and everyone was there and we were talking about how nobody could play this part, and I looked over at Jonah and said, ‘All right Jonah, I think you’re gonna play it. Go in a trailer and read into a camera.’”

“We were literally standing outside Seth’s trailer,” Hill remembers. “We went in, made a tape, and they literally ran it upstairs to Amy Pascal’s office.” Says Rogen: “It was one of those things where within five seconds of him starting we were all like, he can totally do this.”

“The whole thing happened within an hour,” Hill says.

Christopher Mintz-Plass, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera

Even though they weren’t huge stars, both Hill and Cera had been in movies and on TV before. The same was not the case for the actor who became McLovin. Looking for an unknown to play the dorky but incongruently confident third wheel, casting director Allison Jones — who had worked with Apatow on everything from Freaks and Geeks to The 40-Year-Old Virgin — posted flyers around various Los Angeles high schools. When she received a headshot that appeared to have been taken using a camera phone, she knew that Christopher Mintz-Plasse was her man. “You could tell he was a kid who had probably seen the inside of a locker,” Jones told The New Yorker in a 2015 interview.

“I just laughed [when I saw him],” Pascal says. “Because you just couldn’t make that up. You knew exactly who that kid was — he was in everybody’s class.”

Mintz-Plasse clinched the role when he auditioned. The other kids who had read with the cast couldn’t keep up with the improvising, or capture the dichotomy of the character — the essence of a high school loser with supreme, indignant confidence. But Mintz-Plasse got it right away — so much so that he left Hill incensed. “Jonah could not blow him over at all,” says Cera, “and that really frustrated Jonah. When [Chris] left, I remember Jonah being shaken up.”

Mintz-Plasse had understood the volatility of Seth and Fogell’s friendship; how their closeness and tug of war over Evan manifested itself in snark and simmering hatred. “Chris just immediately shut me down,” says Hill. “So combative. I was really annoyed because this guy wouldn’t let me say anything. And I told Seth and Evan that and they were like, ‘He’s perfect.’”

“Jonah fucking hated him,” says Rogen. “He was all over Jonah’s lines, completely disrespectful of the process, probably due to a lack of experience. I remember he walked out of the room and Jonah was like, ‘Not that guy.’ And we were just like, ‘Oh my god, you don’t understand how much more that makes us want him.”

Apatow adds, “I looked at [director Greg Mottola] and said, ‘We have to hire him.’”

Even though it had taken a decade to get Superbad green-lit, Rogen and Goldberg were still just 23 years old when the movie went into production, and as two youthful EPs, they shepherded their first script with a rare kind of exuberance and inclusivity. “It was everyone’s big break,” Goldberg points out. “Superbad had this unique vibe because everybody knew that this mattered. When everyone’s on the same page like that, it creates a great environment.”

“It was a really easy set to be on,” Cera remembers. “It felt like Greg and Evan and Seth and Judd really wanted to encourage everyone to contribute in any way that we wanted. There was no judgment. And I felt really part of a team. It’s not always like that, to feel like you have a kind of joint ownership over what you’re doing.”

Emma Stone and Jonah Hill

In the style of Apatow’s movies, takes on the Superbad set were highly improvisational. “We would improvise forever,” Hader remembers. That sort of freewheeling sometimes caused some issues — “I improvised singing ‘Panama’ and then Judd got mad at me: ‘Do you know how much ‘Panama’ costs?!’” — but more often than not it led to moments of iconic brilliance. The “DTF” line, parts of the drunk, fumbled sex scene between Michael Cera’s and Martha MacIsaac’s characters (which, if you’re wondering, the actors were drunk for), and the “boop” that Seth gives Evan on his nose toward the end of the movie were all improvised. Rogen, Goldberg, and Mottola gave their actors free reign and time to find the perfect moment for each scene, which they could always do without fear — because if they didn’t have a good line off the cuff, the 10-year-old screenplay was always there as a backstop.

“It didn’t even matter [if we improvised],” says Hill. “I maybe got some jokes in there, but the script was just so good.”

It also helped that everyone on the set got along. For a movie that was being made by 23-year-olds, by all accounts the production was remarkably smooth. The love and respect that Rogen and Goldberg had for each other as friends permeated the set, to the point that when Seth and Evan are exclaiming “I love my best friend!” from separate sleeping bags, that’s hardly acting from Hill and Cera. “I loved him immediately,” Hill admits about Cera, who adds: “We would just spend time together, eating and talking shit, just trying to make one another laugh.”

It sounds a little saccharine, but that’s what the cast and crew of Superbad remember most. Michael Cera can recall slamming orange-flavored vodka with MacIsaac more than his own audition. “We were pretty drunk for that,” Cera says. “At eight in the morning we were like, ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s not totally recommended, but I really do think that scene is better for that.” (Apatow later adds: “Martha seemed way more comfortable than Michael.”)

Bill Hader’s favorite Superbad memory is going to see the movie on opening weekend with Emma Stone and her mother. “It was Emma’s first time seeing herself in a movie; it was very sweet. We sat in the back of this theater in Westwood, and it blew the roof off the place. People were going crazy, and we were just like, ‘Whoa.’”

And Hill talks with sharp nostalgia about the slog of a nationwide press tour that he, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse went on. “I remember the tour being the most fun — just Michael and Chris and I getting to travel for the first time,” he says. “We were really young, no one knew who we were, and it was extremely fun.”

Those real bonds built behind the scenes are why the bonds on screen are so convincing — and furthermore, why Superbad is still one of the most compelling teen comedies. “All you want to do is become one of those movies,” Rogen says, sounding more than a little wistful (and bashfully proud). “It’s amazing — you hear people quoting it and see them wearing T-shirts with McLovin’s license on them. It wasn’t just a funny dirty movie, but something that [meant something] to younger people.” The movie is what it is not just for the endless string of genuinely funny boner jokes, but because it’s a reflection of life.

“James L. Brooks went to see it and brought his son and all his friends,” Apatow remembers, “and afterward he said to us, ‘It felt like that was the first time they realized they loved each other.’ To me, that’s what Superbad’s about.”

Additional reporting by Sam Schube.

Because of an editing error, a caption in an earlier version of this piece misidentified Seth Rogen as Jonah Goldberg.

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