It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

Smokin’ with Jason Segel.

Posted on | September 24, 2009 | 2 Comments

The strangest in the Apatow universe is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, womanizing Everydude who turns each of his humiliating missteps into comedy gold.

THIS IS HOW it so often works out for Jason Segel. He’s at the recent Critics’ Choice Awards show, looking dapper in his black suit and skinny tie, part of the hullabaloo for the first time in his life, as a Best Comedy Movie nominee for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He wrote the movie, starred in it, wept in it, wiggled his penis at the world in it, became the latest Judd Apatow protégé to break out in a big way because of it. It’s a stellar night, a culmination. And then Brad Pitt taps him on the shoulder.

Segel turns around. Angelina’s there too. He feels faint.

“Hey,” Brad says as only Brad can. “The dick slap heard ’round the world, huh?”

A response begins to formulate itself inside Segel’s brain. He’s never met Pitt before. He wants to make a good impression. And truly, right then, it could go either way. It could go the way of his character in his latest movie, I Love You, Man, a guy so cool he has his own living-room jerk-off station and doesn’t care who sees it. Or it could go some other way.

Tonight, it goes some other way. “Oh, my God,” he says to Pitt. “It’s you!” And that’s all he says.

He’s told the story to everybody. So what if it’s at his expense? It’s funny. Plus, he’s used to this kind of thing. There’s tons of historical precedent. He was a big, tall boy even in elementary school, for instance, so the other kids would clamor onto his back and shout, “Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!” Or else the kids would draw swastikas into his desk. Why these things happen, he doesn’t know. OK, with regard to the swastikas, it’s probably because he was the only Jew in a class full of Christians. But for the most part, these things come at him willy-nilly, spinning his way like the night terrors that tormented him as a child. Back then, he screamed, yelled and had to be taken to the hospital. These days, at the age of 29, he just laughs. And it’s not like, What else can he do but laugh? No. He just laughs.

HERE HE COMES, ON SUNSET Boulevard, in L.A., the big guy himself, well over six feet tall, puttering along on a wee scooter, a cigarette in his mouth, smoke vanishing in his wake. He pulls up and says, in his amiable way, “It’s how I get around town: Vespa and a cigarette. It’s a jaunty combination. The ride of death. My Vespa. My lady.”

He shambles into a nearby restaurant, heads to a table in the sun. It’s 1 p.m., and he’s been awake for only 30 minutes. He needs breakfast. He needs a beer. He needs another cigarette. He didn’t get enough sleep. He’s got so much going on. He’s got his TV show, How I Met Your Mother, to shoot, 12 hours a day, five days a week, in which he plays Marshall (after playing Nick in Freaks and Geeks and Eric in Undeclared, his previous TV outings). He’s got to go to London soon to shoot Gulliver’s Travels, with Jack Black as Gulliver and him as Gulliver’s Lilliputian ally. And then he’s got I Love You, Man coming out, and he must prepare for what that will entail.

Last time around, for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it entailed telling and retelling the story of how the naked breakup scene in the movie mirrored a naked breakup scene in his own life. This time, Segel is bracing for a lot of questions about male bonding – in a word, “bromance.” That is to say, in I Love You, Man, the character played by Paul Rudd needs a best man for his wedding, he doesn’t have any male friends, he embarks on a quest for one, he stumbles upon supercool guy Segel. Numerous man dates and a great night at a Rush concert follow. And although it’s not an Apatow film, it might as well be: It is filthy funny and neatly inverts the conventions of the romantic comedy, turning it from boy-girl to (platonic) boy-boy. So, very shortly, Segel is going to be called upon to hypothesize about what the bromance inversion means today, about his own history as a bromantic, whether or not he’s bromantically inclined, and so on, and so forth, etc.

“Bromance,” he says, taking a happy swig of his beer. “I already hate that word.”

LIKE HIS FELLOW APATOW-IANS Jonah Hill, Rudd and Seth Rogen, Segel has got juice like never before. Recently he listened to some pitches from a few Disney execs, then pitched them his own idea, about bringing back the Muppet movie franchise, and walked out 20 minutes later with a deal. “Over the past year,” he says, “I’ve had five or six people in meetings say they discovered me. What I haven’t said back is ‘We had a meeting; I remember the meeting. But you didn’t give me a fucking job, asshole.'” But let’s say you are fortunate enough to hire Segel. What, exactly, do you get besides a guy with a huge amount of easygoing Everydude appeal?

Says Rudd, “A guy who’s like a big, floppy dog, where you love him, but then he’ll look at you a split second longer than he should, and you think, ‘Oh, yeah, he could kill me.'” Says Apatow, “A guy who does a lot of things that are dumbass stupid, like riding that Vespa on the streets of L.A.” Says British comic Russell Brand, Segel’s Sarah Marshall co-star, “I’ve seen his genitals, I’ve seen him act, I’ve listened to him improvise songs. He’s a very intoxicating man, and I know him to be a falcon among gulls when it comes to womanizing.”

A few other things also come with the package. He’s a chain smoker (“two packs a day”) and an avid drinker (“When I have a break from work – good night, Irene. I’m not going to lie to you. I like to drink, and I do”). A guy whose first sex dreams were about “a hot vampire woman biting my neck, and it felt really good.” A guy who owns a portrait of Peter Sellers and speaks to it before doing a scene. A man who once wrote an entire puppet Dracula musical and developed a love for puppets in his early teens (“I started making these little home films, and puppets were a really convenient solution to not knowing any actors”). A guy who isn’t the least bit offended by a bit of bromance-appropriate prying into his personal life (When was the last time you masturbated? “Today.” In the half-hour between when you woke up and arrived here? “It’s a shower routine.” Are you kidding? “Yes, I’m kidding that it’s a shower routine.” Are you kidding about today? “No”). A fellow with an inexhaustible supply of funny-sad stories featuring him as the lovable loser (“I was sitting at a bar, and a really hot girl walked up and whispered real close to my ear, all sexy-like, ‘I saw the movie – you have a great dick.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, wow. Really?’ She said, ‘No.’ Then she went back to her table, and her equally hot friends all laughed. It was a dare. She’d been dared to make me feel terrible”). A guy who is still adjusting to his status as a falcon among gulls (“Every time a pretty girl comes home with me, I’m shocked. I wasn’t that dude in high school. Although now, sometimes, I do feel like, ‘Yeah, I can see why you’d want to be with me – except for the puppets'”).

He’s also got nice friends, like Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, whom Segel spent last night with, recording songs for Get Him to the Greek, the Sarah Marshall spinoff starring Brand, due in the next year, and who now drops by to sit in the early-afternoon sun with his pal for a few minutes.

Segel says, “The only part that ever gets me is the part in every review of Sarah Marshall that talks about ‘the pudgy nude scene.’ I’m like, ‘Come on! I’m big-boned!’ And now Adam here wants me to give up my Vespa and ride a Harley Fat Boy.”

“Hey, I have a Fat Boy,” says Levine. “And you’re not fat. You’re a handsome, slender man.” Levine puts some spin on his words, but Segel’s face lights up anyway.

Segel says, “Thank you for noticing,” and then sits back, glowing in the unexpected and genuinely bromantic moment.

LOTS HAS GONE WRONG, Embarassingly, for Segel, and lots has gone right, amazingly – starting when he entered Harvard-Westlake School, one of the most elite private schools in the country, in the San Fernando Valley. He was on a championship basketball team. He had a girlfriend. His grades weren’t great, but he has a near-photographic memory and got a 1490 on his SATs, putting him in the 99th percentile. He took up drama his senior year and riveted everyone with a 25-minute monologue from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. This led to small parts in three movies while he was finishing up high school. He decided to forgo college in favor of acting, and in 1998, at the age of 18, he stood before Apatow to audition for the TV series Freaks and Geeks. “We had him do a scene about a guy bragging about how many pieces his drum kit had,” recalls Apatow. “It’s supposed to be really sweet and really sad, and he crushed it.”

Before long, Segel started dating costar Linda Cardellini and stayed with her for five years. After 13 episodes, the series got axed. The buzz on him was hot, but it quickly cooled. Apatow tried to get Segel cast as the lead in his next series, but the studio wouldn’t approve him. Same thing happened when Apatow wrote a part for him in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. So, he hunkered down. He drank. He smoked. He played with his puppets. He has dozens stashed away at his place. He broke them out and started making films again, just like when he was a kid. He had no backup plan. He worried that he had let down his attorney dad and his housewife morn. “It was a dark period,” he says. But then came How I Met Your Mother. And then, at a table in a Hollywood restaurant called Dominick’s, Segel sat down for six months, taking to heart what Apatow had once said to him (“You’re a weird guy. The only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material”) and wrote Sarah Marshall. And just like that, things changed.

It’s not like he hasn’t suffered, though. He has suffered, plenty. Only, for the most part, he suffers from a kind of remove. It doesn’t get to him. No matter what it is, midsuffering, he’s already thinking, as he was during his naked breakup, “This is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me. I need to write this down immediately!”

“I don’t know if this makes sense, but I’m a little bit disconnected from reality,” he says. “I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been a bit of a strange dude.”

HE LIVES IN THE HILLS ABOVE the Chateau Marmont hotel, in a kind of Gothic manse that once was a speakeasy and brothel. It has hidden compartments and secret passageways, moody Moroccan overtones and, on an outdoor patio, a bed with a canopy. It’s cool and kind of twisted. A friend seeing it for the first time said to him, “Dude, I feel like we just walked into the inside of your brain.”

Just recently, he brought a girl here, and in the middle of the night, he sat up and said to her, furiously, “This fucking goat won’t leave me alone!”

He remembers none of this. The girl told him about it the next day. He was talking in his sleep. He figures it was a remnant of his old night terrors. “Every once in a while,” he says, “they creep back in.”

Segel has never really talked publicly about his night terrors. The dreams were always the same. A witch was eating his toes. He’d scream. His mom would run into the room. He’d look awake but wasn’t. He’d start scratching at her. His father had to wrap him up in his arms, to keep him still. Sometimes this was enough to bring him back. Sometimes it took a trip to the hospital. The terrors lasted until puberty.

“It was terrifying,” he says. “They said it would be a precursor to all sorts of mental problems. I am an insomniac. After the dreams stopped, I developed a pretty significant obsessive-compulsive disorder. I would stay up all night checking my bedroom doorknob to make sure it was shut. I couldn’t not check. I did it until I was 15, when a doctor told me I could either take pills for the rest of my life or I could stop doing what I was doing. I stopped.”

Segel can talk about so many things from this disconnected place of his. Those swastika-drawing elementary school kids, he says, “weren’t being overtly anti-Semitic. It was L.A., and I was the only Jewish kid in my class.” But when it comes to talking about the night terrors, he leans forward, his voice drops to a whisper. His eyes darken. And soon he’s lighting another cigarette. The only other time this happens is when those elementary school kids come up again. Darker eyes, deeper whisper.

“They beat me up a lot.” He pauses. “But then there was this one time, right after Communion, they took me out back of the church, and two guys held my arms, and they took turns punching me in the stomach until I couldn’t take it anymore.… It was so bad, and I was so young that some part of me disconnected from it.… Maybe that’s where being a little bit detached comes from.”

He says this like it’s the first time he’s thought it. Like the night terrors, the beating isn’t something he’s spoken about openly before. It’s all been kooky surface, the Vespa, the puppets and Dracula songs, the various embarrassing missteps and humiliating situations that he detaches from and sidesteps and turns to his advantage, like he couldn’t those gut punches and bad dreams.

“By disposition I am morose,” he says. “It’s just my body chemistry. I feel happy. But I’m not walking through life with butterflies and shining stars everywhere. I’m a little bit morose.” And when he says, “It’s what drives me,” you now kind of understand why.

Later, over steak and wine at Dominick’s, he’s carrying on merrily, smoking up a storm and saying stuff like “I like women, I like being around women, and a lot of times we end up being attracted to each other. My energy is ‘Let’s see what happens tonight.’ On the other hand, this girl and I were talking about why we’ve never been romantic, and she said, ‘You’re network, and I’m looking for HBO.’ And you know what? It just made me want her more.”

It’s just how the guy is.

Then, at the end of the evening, Segel puts on his helmet and putters up La Cienega on his Vespa, hooks a right onto Sunset, swings left near the Chateau Marmont, curves up the street to his great Gothic manse, with its hidden compartments and secret passageways, happy to be home and ready for bed. But maybe he’ll have another cigarette first. Maybe he’ll have another drink. Maybe he’ll text an old girlfriend and wish her well. Sleep is such a defeat, and those goats, sometimes they just won’t leave him alone.


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