The funniest parts of Hot Rod, to my eye at least, are also the weirdest and most unexpected, like when Chris Parnell, as a straitlaced AM-radio announcer, reveals a hilariously profane tattoo on his stomach. Or when Samberg and Taccone repeat the phrase “cool beans” back and forth until it’s a bizarre pseudo-rap. Both of these gags barely made it into the film. Parnell’s joke was almost cut when the MPAA objected to the word semen. (It was later changed to residue.) As for the “cool beans” bit, at first it wasn’t quite working, so Schaffer decided to dump it. “You can only fight for things so many times,” he says, “before you have to move on to something else.” Then Samberg and Taccone went into the editing suite on their own and put together the scene that now exists. At the very last test-screening, Schaffer stuck the joke back in, telling a studio executive, “We’re trying out a bizarre scene. Don’t freak out.” On the audience’s response cards, the scene was the one most commonly cited as people’s least favorite. It was also the one most commonly cited as the favorite, and so it stayed in.
The open-air screening for Hot Rod is held on a gorgeous Los Angeles evening at the John Ford Amphitheatre under a darkening, cloudless sky. As premieres go, it’s pretty casual—no red carpet, no paparazzi, just 1,200 fans who are fond enough of “Dick in a Box” to pay eleven bucks to check out Samberg’s movie. There’s also a lot of industry folk in the crowd. “Everyone’s very curious,” says Samberg’s manager, Julie Darmody. As she watches a mix of twentysomethings stroll in from the parking lot, she says, “I like the look of this. It feels like a home crowd.”
Samberg and Schaffer arrive in a black SUV. (Taccone has left to prepare for his wedding, which Samberg and Schaffer will attend the next day.) Schaffer mentions he’s just come from his hotel, where he was looking over the final version of the film’s poster, which features a huge picture of Samberg’s face. I ask about the fate of an alternate poster I’d seen online, one that shows Samberg silhouetted on a hilltop, bowing in a martial-arts pose to honor his rinky-dink motorbike. “Yeah, that’s the one we liked,” says Schaffer. “But this is the one the studio wants.”
There’s a roped-off VIP section, but Samberg and his friends decide to duck into some empty seats in the last row. Dusk falls, and the movie begins. The opening scene is one featured prominently in every trailer: Samberg dons a fake mustache, revs his motorbike, then takes a calamitous face-plant off a ramp. The crowd laughs.
The first real test, though, comes about twenty minutes in, when the movie announces to the audience: Welcome to Crazy World. After yet another failed stunt, Samberg wails in mock angst that he’s got to go to his “quiet place.” Cut to: Samberg in a deeply wooded forest, doing a long sequence of cornball gyrations straight from an eighties dance movie. Cut to: Samberg doing elaborate pummel-horse gymnastics over a fallen tree trunk. Cut to: Samberg taking an extended tumble down an apparently endless hill, his floppy body bouncing and careering off every tree and rock.
Dude falls down: That’s funny. Dude falls down for a ludicrously, indulgently, gloriously silly long time: That’s Samberg funny.
At the end of the tumble, the audience cheers. The home crowd, at least, is entertained. And Samberg finally does something I haven’t seen him do since the movie started. Samberg laughs.