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Three Easy Steps to Comedy Stardom

While Samberg was working as an assistant on Spin City, he showed their reel to his boss, who introduced the group to an agent, who later got them a gig writing for the MTV Movie Awards, which happened to be hosted by Jimmy Fallon, who recommended them to Lorne Michaels. “I got a call from Jimmy and he said these guys were the real deal,” says Michaels. So he gave them an audition: Samberg and Taccone as performers, Schaffer as a writer. While waiting to hear about the tryouts, the three of them gathered one night to discuss what would happen if not all of them made the show. They decided that if only Samberg got it, he should go—SNL, after all, had been his dream since age 8. But if only one was rejected, they vowed that one of the other two would stay behind. As Samberg says, “leaving one guy alone would have been too fucked up.”

In the end, miraculously, they all got hired. “I really responded to Andy,” says Michaels. “And the hope with Akiva and Jorma was that as writers they would help Andy on the show.” At first, Samberg seemed to fit into the show’s well-established lineage of impish cutie-pies, which ran from Adam Sandler, a Samberg idol, through Jimmy Fallon, who sported his own famously untameable hair. But after Samberg debuted, it became clear that his strengths didn’t exactly jibe with SNL’s traditional menu of celebrity parodies and political satire. (Every comic has to impersonate three celebrities at their SNL tryout; Samberg, who’s not big on impressions, remembers doing Jimmy Fallon, The Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef, and one line of Alan Rickman’s from Die Hard.) The sketches written by him and Taccone and Schaffer are always easy to spot, such as “Deserted Moon” in which Samberg plays an alien who’s marooned on a planet with a human guy, to whom he casually reveals that he has both male and female genitalia, then spends the next decade trying to convince the guy to have sex with him. When Samberg’s stuck in more traditional sketches, he often seems extraneous, even lost—or at least barely able to restrain himself from breaking into some nonsensical tangent.

The digital shorts, though, became his trademark, and they are by far the weirdest things on the show. A short such as “Andy Popping Into Frame”—which consists of a series of static shots of exotic locales with goofy techno music and Samberg, yes, popping into the frame—will either make him your absolute favorite cast member ever or make you want to smack him with a rolled-up newspaper. But the best shorts hit that sweet spot where reliably crowd-pleasing gags intersect with bizarrely inspired touches. “Dick in a Box” was based on a gag that’s been around since the dawn of time—“There’s probably an Egyptian hieroglyphic of a guy holding a snake charmer’s basket in front of his crotch,” Samberg says—but then Schaffer suggested the sketch’s funniest bit: the three steps. (One: Cut a hole in a box. Two: Put your junk in that box. Three: Make her open the box.) “As soon as Kiv said that,” says Samberg, “I was like, ‘This just went somewhere really good.’ ” The week of “Dick in a Box,” the trio wasn’t even planning to do a short, but Michaels pushed them to do a musical parody because Justin Timberlake was hosting the show. (“I gave them a direct order,” Michaels says.) So they wrote, shot, and cut together the sketch between Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. A couple of months and over 10 million downloads later, Samberg found himself singing a surprise duet with Timberlake in front of 18,000 screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. “It was surreal. Everything happened so fast,” he says. He remembers looking out at the crowd, many of whom knew every word, and thinking, Oh my God. This is huge.

On a summer Sunday in New York, I met with Samberg and Taccone at a sound-mixing facility near Union Square. Schaffer was sequestered in the studio, tinkering with the film in preparation for Hot Rod’s quasi-official premiere, an outdoor screening at the L.A. Film Festival a couple of weeks away. When I asked why he and Samberg weren’t in the studio, Taccone said, “Too many opinions.” So they’d decided instead to chill out and watch The Prince of Egypt on the flat-screen TV. Earlier, Samberg had watched Dunston Checks In, a comedy that stars Jason Alexander and an orangutan. His enjoyment of it, he insists, was not ironic in any way. And, later, when a Dunston Checks In commercial comes on, Samberg lets out what I can testify to being an unqualified squeal of joy.

Samberg’s comic sensibility—a cross between goofy innocence (kick in the groin!) and oddball non sequiturs (kick a Viking in the groin!)—turns out to be tailor-made for popularity on the Internet. And Samberg has been held up as Exhibit A in every argument about the viral power of the Web. (In the weeks after “Lazy Sunday” hit, YouTube’s traffic increased by 83 percent.) In that sense, casting him in a major studio comedy right now makes perfect sense. He’s hot! He’s big on the Web! The kids love him! But in another sense, being big on the Internet and being big at the multiplex have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The beauty of producing comedy on the Web is that you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want. And you might find a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand people who share your weird obsession with monkeys or homoerotic pirates. But your jokes will find their audience, if there’s an audience out there to be found.