A studio comedy, however, has to make a lot of people laugh, starting with small, randomly selected groups of people sitting in test screenings. This is why studio executives tend to champion jokes that everyone’s seen before (think of every movie trailer where someone gets bonked in the head), while comedians tend to be drawn to jokes no one has ever seen before (one of Samberg’s favorite sketches is by a group called Stella and features Mrs. Santa Claus hanging out with three dudes, then saying, “Did you guys know that I have a cock?” before revealing a realistic dildo).
And between the Internet and the neighborhood cineplex, the calculus of just how many people have to find you funny changes dramatically. On YouTube, a million viewers is a phenomenon. On pay cable, a million viewers is a critical darling, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On a network, a million viewers is a disaster. With a movie, it might end your career. “Comedy’s weird, because it’s the only job where the definition is a matter of opinion,” says Samberg. “If you’re a plumber, and you show up and fix someone’s toilet, then that’s proof that you are a plumber. But if you make a comedy, and people don’t think it’s funny, then in their world, it’s disproving your existence. You’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m an entertainer.’ And they’re like, ‘Really? Because I’m not entertained.’ ”
Hot Rod, it should be said, is not some alienating comedy manifesto. No one suddenly pulls out a huge fake cock. (Not that Samberg wouldn’t have loved to include that joke.) And, as you might expect from a stuntman parody, Hot Rod does not underestimate the comedic value of watching a human being travel at high speed into an immovable object. The original script was written by Pam Brady, a former South Park writer, and it follows a formula that’s familiar to comedy fans: the faux heartwarming sports movie. Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a wannabe stuntman who plans one big jump to raise the money to save his ailing stepfather. Substitute “stuntman” with “ice dancer” and it could be Blades of Glory; substitute “NASCAR driver” and it could be Talladega Nights. (The list goes on: Dodgeball is essentially the same story except about dodgeball, and the forthcoming Balls of Fury focuses on ping-pong.)
The script had languished at Paramount for years. It was originally attached to Will Ferrell back when he was on SNL, but it never got off the ground. (Rumor has it the studio worried that Ferrell couldn’t carry a movie. Oops.) After “Lazy Sunday,” Lorne Michaels convinced Paramount to make it with Samberg, and Schaffer directing. “The amazing thing is they said okay,” says Michaels. “Akiva had never directed film, let alone a feature, and Andy had never really been in a movie, let alone starred in one. But I thought this could be a different generation’s comedy.” Then they brought in Taccone to play Samberg’s nerdy step-brother, who performs an excellent rendition of a George Michael love song for his stuffed animals.
Hot Rod might not be the movie Samberg and Schaffer would ideally make, but the hope is that if it’s a hit, it will give them the chance to make their ideal movie. “The studio knew that if they put someone in an Evel Knievel costume, whether it’s Will Ferrell or Dane Cook or Andy Samberg, then they’ve got a poster,” says Schaffer. “And they wanted a PG-13 movie, like a Dodgeball. I think within those confines, we did pretty well.”
Now that Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller are all in their forties—and have, to varying degrees, transitioned from their goofy comedy phase to the family-friendly-movie phase, or the take-me-seriously-as-an-actor phase—Hollywood is hungry for a young, dude-friendly comedy star. Hot Rod, which opens August 3, will be Samberg’s first litmus test, proving whether it’s his moment, or too much too soon. On the one hand, a Variety critic, in a middling review of Hot Rod, said of Samberg, “The up-and-coming comic boasts something unusual for an SNL regular: sex appeal.” On the other, when the Hot Rod trailer screened recently in New York, some guy in the crowd shouted, “They gave that dude a movie?”
As for Samberg, he seems genuinely confounded about Hot Rod’s prospects. He’s proud of the weird stuff that made it in, yet mourns the even weirder jokes that didn’t, like one in which he “jokingly” asks his younger brother to whip out his wiener. (As you can tell, he’s quite fond of the surprise appearance of dongs.) He says he’d love to make another movie after this one, with a smaller budget, that’s as weird as they want it to be. “My favorite movies, almost across the board, are not the biggest box-office hits,” he says, citing Wet Hot American Summer, a cult hit from the guys in Stella. “But if you’re not prepared for that kind of comedy, which by its nature is designed to fuck around with what’s expected from a movie, it’s off-putting. People are like, ‘I don’t get it, dude. What was it even about?’ And I’m like, ‘I know! It didn’t make any sense at all!’ ” When he and Taccone and Schaffer were storming the streets of L.A. with a camera, there was no one to pull them back. “But with a movie,” he says, “it’s definitely about figuring out that balance: between stuff that’s satisfying to your core weirdness and stuff that’s accessible. There’s validity to both sides.” Then he laughs. “But when it’s a Paramount movie, it’s more on one side.”