Anyone who has been affected by Alzheimer’s disease will tell you it is no laughing matter. So when people heard that funnyman Seth Rogen spoke about the disease before Congress, some were confused and shocked. Rogen, a comedian, actor, screenwriter, producer and director, has starred in such knee-slappers as Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet and his most recent comedy hit, Neighbors. Known for his slacker roles, one-liners and crude humor, “serious” is not a word many would use to describe Rogen. However, one issue to which he’s made a serious commitment is Alzheimer’s awareness. And like any good comedian, he’s using humor while doing so.
A Mother-in-Law’s Diagnosis
When Rogen met his then-girlfriend Lauren Miller’s parents for the first time, his goal was to impress them (and as a result, his girlfriend). He likely accomplished his mission (after all, she later became his wife), but the time spent with her parents made Miller admit something to herself and later to Rogen: Things didn’t seem right with her mom. Miller may have noticed the small subtleties so easily because her grandparents—her mother’s mom and dad—had Alzheimer’s. Her grandfather died after a long battle with the disease when Miller was 12, and her grandmother passed from dementia when Miller was 18. In 2006, at the age of 55, Miller’s mom, Adele, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Initially, Rogen knew very little about the disease. “At this point, my impression of Alzheimer’s was probably what I assume most people’s impression is,” he told senators as he testified. “I thought it was something only really, really old people got, and I thought the way the disease primarily showed itself was in the form of forgotten keys, wearing mismatched shoes and being asked the same question over and over.” That’s the only way Rogen had seen Alzheimer’s in movies and on television. However, he saw “the real, ugly truth of the disease” a few years later. “After forgetting who she and her loved ones were, my mother-in-law, a teacher for 35 years, then forgot how to speak, feed herself, dress herself and go to the bathroom herself—all by the age of 60,” he said.
Myths and Misconceptions
Watching Adele’s slow decline was difficult for Miller and Rogen. “[Alzheimer’s is] a 100 percent life-altering, family dynamic-changing diagnosis,” Miller has said. “Most of my friends who are still lucky enough to have their mothers, spent their 20s becoming best friends with their moms, whereas I spent mine watching my mom slowly slip away from us and herself,” she told NBC News last year.
Just as Rogen learned that Alzheimer’s is much worse than what’s shown on the TV screen, the couple realized that they, along with many other people, had many other misconceptions about the disease. One of those is that Alzheimer’s only affects “old” people. “For years, Alzheimer’s had the nickname of ‘Old Timer’s,’ however, my mom is not old,” Miller said in an interview with Los Angeles Confidential magazine. “She was still teaching and was an active part of her community and involved in a lot of things, and [Alzheimer’s] stopped it all. What I’ve realized is this disease stops for no one.”
Rogen added that thinking the disease only affects older people makes it easy for younger people to overlook. “It’s the type of thing that’s kind of easy to emotionally disconnect from because you feel like when people get old, they’re just more susceptible to diseases in general,” he said. “But it’s not something that just old people are getting—it’s not something that your grandparents get; it’s something your parents get and that someday you might get.”
Hilarity for Charity
The couple knew they had to act. In 2011, they, along with some friends, founded Hilarity for Charity. The charity’s goal is to raise money to help families struggling with Alzheimer’s, support research, and raise awareness about the disease, especially among young people.
It seems to be doing a good job. Hilarity for Charity hosts fundraising events that bring out huge crowds. Guests are treated to food, drinks, music and lots of humor. Rogen and actors Ty Burrell (Modern Family), David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), and Paul Rudd (Role Models) hosted its first event, held in Los Angeles in 2012. Performers included singer Bruno Mars, Patton Oswalt (The Goldbergs), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), Judd Apatow (writer and director of Knocked Up), Pauly D (Jersey Shore) and many others.
The second annual fundraiser featured comedian Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling (The Office), and Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street), among others. There was even a surprise appearance. Mega movie star Samuel L. Jackson, whose mother and aunt had Alzheimer’s, talked about his family’s experience with the disease and commended the guests for their contributions. “I have the potential to be one of the people you’re raising money for. It’s a pretty devastating disease … but (those who have it) can also be very funny,” he said and then told the crowd about the time his mom and aunt would hide their purses from the maid and then forget where they hid the purses. “I enjoyed her life and I’m glad I had her,” he said. “You’re all here and you’re all going to be able to do something for a lot of people.”
The evening closed with Rogen dancing along with the Backstreet Boys as they performed some of their most popular hits.
Hilarity for Charity’s most recent event, a benefit held in April, had performances by Demetri Martin (writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Natasha Leggero (He’s Just Not That Into You), Hannibal Buress (Saturday Night Live) and Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation).
The fundraisers have raised more than $850,000 for Alzheimer’s research and support. The charity will host a variety show in Los Angeles on October 14.
Speaking to the Younger Generation
Though their fundraising events were making more people aware of Alzheimer’s, Rogen and Miller still wanted to do more to reach out to the younger crowd. They started Hilarity for Charity U (HFC U), a nationwide program that challenges and encourages college groups to throw their own Hilarity for Charity events to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s. Participants had a chance to win an advanced screening to Rogen’s movie Neighbors and hang out with the actor.
The good news for HFC U participants is they could host the event their own way, whether that meant putting on a variety show, scavenger hunt, danceathon, rap show, water polo tournament or whatever. Getting teens and young adults involved in a way of their choosing is important, Miller says. “The preconceived notion with [fundraising events] is that they can’t be fun, and that drives a lot of young people away from getting involved because they think it’s going to be a depressing experience,” she said in the Los Angeles Confidential interview. “I hope this shows people that just because you’re doing something that is helpful to the world, it doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, funny, and edgy.”
More than 270 student organizations and college campuses participated in the inaugural semester of the program, raising a total of $128,000. However, it was the University of Vermont’s Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity that took home the top prize, raising $27,000. “We are psyched to see the overwhelming dedication of all of the college students involved,” Rogen told MTV News. Miller added, “This just further proves that Alzheimer’s affects all generations, and that young people are ready to get involved in making a difference.”
HFC U plans to hold another project for the fall semester.
The Accidental “Expert”
He may not be an expert who studies the disease or treats patients, however, on February 26, 2014, as he testified before Congress, Rogen was considered an expert, which he admitted he thought was “cool.”
In addition to sharing his mother-in-law’s story, he talked a bit about his charity and spoke of the financial hardships families face when a loved one has Alzheimer’s. “I’ve personally seen the massive amount of financial strain this disease causes … Therefore, I can’t begin to imagine how people with more limited incomes are dealing with this,” he said.
Though supporters filled the room, only two senators were present. Rogen had no problem expressing his disappointment. On his Twitter account, he posted, “All those empty seats are senators who are not prioritizing Alzheimer’s. Unless more noise is made, it won’t change.”
And make noise, he did. His testimony went viral and more than 6 million people viewed the video on C-SPAN’s YouTube page.
So although the government presence wasn’t as great as he’d hoped, Rogen definitely got more people thinking and talking about Alzheimer’s, which is a step in the right direction.
As he stated near the end of his testimony, “Americans whisper the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ because their government whispers the word ‘Alzheimer’s,’ and although a whisper is better than [the] silence that the Alzheimer’s community has been facing for decades, it’s still not enough. It needs to be yelled and screamed to the point that it finally gets the attention and the funding that it deserves and needs.” ■