‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ Changed On-Screen Male Nudity 15 Years Ago

JASON SEGEL’S penis, like season tickets to your favorite team’s home games or a Beer Drop subscription, is the gift that keeps on giving—or at least the one people keep talking about.

Segel dropped trou on the big screen 15 years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and his humdinger has made the news several times since. In 2012, for instance, the world bemoaned the loss of a new Segel nude scene in The Five-Year Engagement; in 2014, Segel told Vanity Fair his own sainted mother cried when she saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and her baby boy’s bare banana, for herself. Even Harrison Ford, Segel’s co-star on the Apple TV+ series Shrinking, described Segel’s dong as “nice.” Now that’s high praise.

More recently, Segel made a guest appearance on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, mostly to promote Shrinking, but also to talk about himself, his career, his mental health journey, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and, yes, his penis, but only under direct questioning. Such is the price of exhibitionism. The conversation turns up nothing new about the film or his full frontal therein, per se; Segel rehashes the naked scene’s origins, and how he based the bit on a real-life naked break-up of his own. Like Peter, his character in the film, Segel decided to surprise his girlfriend with a bold, unexpected display of the flesh. Also like Peter, Segel’s unexpected display met the unexpected response of an abrupt dumping. If there’s a worse way for a significant other to kick a man to the curb, it hasn’t been invented yet.

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The details about the scene discussed on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend are known, but O’Brien, simply by being O’Brien, gives us all a new way of thinking about them. “I like seeing you naked,” O’Brien dryly quips to Segel about a half an hour into the episode. He’s making a gag, of course. Not that he dislikes seeing Segel naked, but seeing Segel naked isn’t core to what O’Brien says he likes about Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “I think it is such a perfect comedy,” says O’Brien. “Many comedies come close, or they get halfway there.” He calls it “sweet,” “nice,” and “funny.” But Segel explains that he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was trying to be honest.

Centering a scene in a studio comedy around a man’s dangling participle can be both an act of sincerity and a punchline, though, and O’Brien and Segel’s exchange gets at what makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall such an enduring piece of work. Peter gets naked for a reason. He exposes himself by choice, thinking, if somewhat naively, that slinging his meat in plain sight is all it’ll take to rev up his girlfriend, Sarah’s (Kristen Bell), engines. If you’ve seen the movie, or even if you haven’t but you’re good at picking up on context clues in 3-word movie titles, then you know Sarah doesn’t reciprocate. She tells Peter that they need to talk. No one in the history of humanity has ever said so and meant that they need to have sex; it’s about as brutal a way of letting Peter down as can be dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy.

That’s the sad side of the scene. The sunny side is Segel’s penis, because even a “nice penis” is innately funny. And because Segel used his own breakup as a blueprint for Peter’s in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the scene takes on metatextual significance: It’s about Segel being willing to make himself the butt of a joke written around Peter, while also being willing to make himself vulnerable. That takes guts. It takes chutzpah. It takes a level of comfort in one’s own manhood that even a decade and a half on, most male movie stars comparatively lack next to Segel.

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The post-Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2000s and 2010s saw an adequate share of male nudity, in movies ranging from “studio” to “independent” and from stars ranging to “big” to “small” (speaking to profile and not to girth, of course): Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, Michael Fassbender in Shame, Thomas Middleditch in Search Party, Ken Jeong in The Hangover, Chris Pine in Outlaw King, Linus Roache in Mandy, Steve Lemme in Super Troopers 2, and Jason Biggs in American Reunion.

Biggs, the exception to his contemporaries in dick swinging, cited Segel as a semi-influence on his decision to film his character’s nude scene in American Reunion himself, sans stand-in; Segel, he told Digital Spy in 2012, loves showing off his python, and besides, “soon people will become desensitized to it.”

“That takes guts. It takes chutzpah. It takes a level of comfort in one’s own manhood that even a decade and a half on, most male movie stars comparatively lack next to Segel.”

That’s the point we should take away from Segel’s conversation with O’Brien: Dick should be normalized in the movies, and not a phenomenon that inspires headlines. That would be a start toward equality; in a 2019 report, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, that women are far more likely to be naked, partially or fully, on screen than men. Bridging the screen nudity gap will take more than guys like Segel and Biggs discarding inhibited male notions of modesty, of course, so while that kind of gesture makes for a good start, it isn’t exactly revolutionary.

But the significance of Forgetting Sarah Marshall goes deeper than Segel’s flailing fire hose. Clearly any male movie star can get naked if they want to—a la Pine’s brief reveal in Outlaw King, which he considered important to the plot—and if the script gives them a good reason to. Very few of those stars, however, write their own movies, much less their own nude scenes, which means Segel is unique not just for choosing to get naked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall—and as the film’s screenwriter, the context for the breakup scene is indeed his choice—but for choosing a personal basis to justify unwrapping his package.

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By the time Forgetting Sarah Marshall opened in theaters, Segel had just under 3 seasons of How I Met Your Mother to his credit. He was practically a household name, and as a household name, he needed neither to salute his captain on screen nor to couch that moment in a painful memory. But he did, because he wanted to keep Forgetting Sarah Marshall honest. That’s progress. That takes pride. That takes confidence. That takes chutzpah.

Segel clearly doesn’t mind being naked; in addition to writing The Five-Year Engagement, he co-wrote 2014’s Sex Tape, where his protruding pecker makes a cameo. But maybe O’Brien told Segel the unabashed truth on the podcast: Maybe he really does like seeing Segel naked, too, and for that matter maybe we all do. Only O’Brien is man enough to admit it. But only Segel is man enough to actually do it.

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Boston-based freelancer Andy Crump is a contributor for Men’s Health, Paste Magazine, Polygon, Thrillist, The Hollywood Reporter, and Hop Culture., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru. He is composed of 65% craft beer.

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