In August, writing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg will release Sausage Party, their big-screen R-rated cartoon about one hot dog's quest to prevent his demise at the hands of grocery-store patrons. But that film – complete with its allusion to Saving Private Ryan's infamous battlefield scene, with gored infantrymen swapped for dinted cans of SpaghettiOs – is far from the pair's weirdest summer project. No, that honour belongs to Preacher, Rogen and Goldberg's television adaptation of a comic book so sacriligeous it would make Richard Dawkins blush.
When it debuted in 1995, Garth Ennis's series was immediately hailed as both profane and profound – a wildly violent tale focusing on disillusioned Texan preacher Jesse Custer, who finds himself imbued with, basically, the voice of God. Seeking answers, Custer journeys across the country in a quest to confront the Man Upstairs, who has cruelly abandoned Heaven, and encounters all sorts of unlikely characters along the way, including an Irish vampire, the Angel of Death and a young man whose failed suicide attempt earns him the colourful nickname "Arseface."
Hollywood immediately pounced, though as happens with any property where God Himself is the villain, adaptation proved difficult. Film rights bounced around for two decades, roping in filmmakers as varied as Kevin Smith (Clerks), Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil … the Ben Affleck version). At one point, James Marsden was going to play Custer for HBO. At another, Shia LaBeouf was set to endure innumerable butt-head jokes for director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye). Through it all, Rogen and Goldberg were pitching and plotting on the sidelines, waiting for their chance.
"It's always been in the hands of more successful and more talented people, but once they squandered their opportunities, we were there to pick it up," Rogen says over the phone, his trademark, deep-throated laugh punctuating every quip. "We were always the people losing out on the job to other people."
"That was our slow path to success," Goldberg chimes in, on the same line.
"We were the 'other' meetings everyone was taking, when they had already decided who they were going to go with," Rogen says.
"You would have had to be crazy to go with us over any of those people," Goldberg adds.
But as the years went by, Rogen and Goldberg stuck around until, they joke, "they were the only options left."
Of course, by this time they had also proven themselves legitimate industry power players. Together, the pair have written and produced such modern comedy classics as Superbad, Pineapple Express and This Is the End, not to mention inciting a legitimate international incident with their Pyongyang-baiting The Interview. By the time AMC was looking at Preacher, Rogen and Goldberg were no one's second or third choice.
"If there's one thing that defines us, it would be that we don't easily give up on things," says Rogen, who met Goldberg when they were comic-loving teens in Vancouver. "A lot of our favourite stuff that we've made, we heard for years and years that no one would ever want to make it. It never discouraged us."
More important than the pair's tenacity, though, is the fact that television is now a medium where almost nothing is off-limits. As AMC discovered with The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, previously unthinkable depictions of gore and immoral behaviour are perfectly welcome on the small screen. If television executives once had problems with a Preacher scene involving, say, a church, a chainsaw and enough blood to rival an Evil Dead film, they seem perfectly fine with it now.
"We grew up in a world where something like The Simpsons seemed crazy, revolutionary in what it would touch," Goldberg says. "Then it was South Park's insanity. And now the world is all Game of Thrones. I watched a man get a spear jammed in his forehead last night with no edits! But this freedom also allows things to get more interesting creatively. The world is a better place for these more interesting, more adult shows."
But while Preacher is certainly "adult," is it more interesting than the dozens of similarly mature-audiences-only series vying for attention and DVR space? Without a doubt, at least judging by the first four episodes. Although Rogen and Goldberg revel in Ennis's predilection for maximum carnage, the pair (along with day-to-day showrunner Sam Catlin) also quickly establish Preacher's surreal Western-from-Hell world, filled with antiheroes you can't help but root for and mysteries you can't stop obsessing over. It's a healthy balance of careful television world-building and outrageous comic-book mania, so far as anyone could call Preacher "healthy."
It's also just the latest step in Rogen and Goldberg's plan to stretch Hollywood's limits. In addition to Preacher, the aforementioned Sausage Party and a raunchy sequel to their 2014 surprise hit Neighbors, the pair are developing an adaptation of another Ennis comic, The Boys, for Cinemax. Even more extreme than Preacher, the series focuses on a CIA hit squad tasked with keeping superheroes in check, including a sociopathic Superman stand-in who delights in mass murder.
"That's why Cinemax seems like a good home for The Boys: you can really do anything," Rogen says.
"And that's what this property needs," Goldberg adds. "No one wants a watered-down version of these stories. The maturing nature of entertainment means that we used to live in a world where just saying 'shit' on TV could ruin you, where TV used to be a thing for just families. But people are catching on that everyone has their own screen now, everyone wants to watch what they want, and you can program for that."
"It's a much more antisocial activity now," Rogen says.
Thank god for that.
Preacher premieres May 22 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.