Seth Rogen knew zilch about sitcoms when he was hired as a staff writer on Judd Apatow's wry new Fox college comedy, "Undeclared."
The 19-year-old actor-comic didn't know what a story arc was. He didn't realize he had to follow the notes Apatow scribbled on his scripts.
Plus, the closest he'd ever come to college life was a 1998 trip to Israel with Habonim Dror, the Labor Zionist youth group. "That was kind of like living in a dorm," says Rogen, who'll emcee the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring of Southern California luncheon banquet Oct. 21 at the Fairmont/Miramar Hotel. (His co-host will be "Undeclared" co-star Jason Segel.)
But Rogen, who's been a professional comic since age 13, had a secret weapon: "I've watched quite a bit of TV," he says. He eventually wrote or co-wrote a third of "Undeclared's" freshman season, labeled Television's "best new comedy" by The New York Times. He also snagged an on-camera role after Fox executives saw him reading lines with actors on an audition tape.
Critics have since raved about Rogen's performance as Ron, an acerbic business major who shares a dorm with fellow slacker-geeks at the fictional University of North Eastern California.
Ron's suitemate, Steven --"Undeclared's" gangly main character -- is Jewish, which viewers learn from a line Rogen wrote for the pilot episode. When Steven (Jay Baruchel) discovers another character, Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam) is British, he says, "I've been [to England] once, on this Jewish teen tour, 'Shalom, Europe,'" as if Lloyd might have ever heard of it.
Vancouver-bred Rogen never attended a program called 'Shalom, Europe,' though he did frequent Habonim camps and a Jewish day school.
"Even if Seth was going to ultimately reject Judaism, we wanted him to know what he was rejecting," says his father, Mark Rogen, assistant director of the local Workmen's Circle, which promotes Yiddish language and culture.
Seth Rogen's career began after he took a stand-up comedy workshop at age 12 and started working clubs around Vancouver. He wrote jokes about his grandparents and the Israeli Habonim counselors who allegedly made him march around while toting rocks. "Because I was underage, clubs would often kick me out right after my set was done," he says.
At age 16, Rogen's second TV audition landed him a role on Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks," a 1990s comedy about high school in the 1980s, where he befriended co-star Segel. Three years later, Apatow called on Rogen when he needed a young voice in the "Undeclared" writer's room. The comic, who's never been to college, promptly hung out with friends at a McGill University dorm as research.
He soon discovered that working on a sitcom was like attending a college course -- with a really tough professor. "Judd is a good friend, but he's extremely, brutally honest all the time," Rogen says. "He'll say, 'This sucks, it's not funny, rewrite it.'"
Yet Apatow allowed the budding writer to help shape the character of Ron -- who shares a trait or two with Rogen. "We're both bumbling and neurotic, except that I cover it up better than he does," the affable performer says. "We both get weird and awkward around big groups of people."
Rogen can imagine himself responding the way Ron does when Steven asks a good-looking frat guy to attend their dorm party. "You're supposed to ask ugly guys," Ron says. "He's gonna take all our women."
When Rogen's father recently asked him to emcee the Workmen's Circle banquet, the actor-writer prepared to research another subject he knew little about: Yiddish.
For help, he called on his close friend, Segel, who broke into show business after a casting director saw him in a Harvard-Westlake high school play several years ago. "We've been scouring the Internet for Yiddish jokes and information," reports Segel, 21, who plays a jealous boyfriend on "Undeclared."
But the two friends probably won't invite Apatow to the show. "We don't want any pressure," Segel says, joking. "We just want to entertain."
For information about the Workmen's Circle banquet, call (310) 552-2007. "Undeclared" airs at 8:30 p.m.on Tuesdays on Fox.