Three Easy Steps to Comedy Stardom

Photo: Andrew Eccles

Andy Samberg is sitting in a tall director’s chair on a soundstage in Hollywood, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, hair askew, smiling that Samberg smile. He’s seated next to three of the co-stars from his new comedy movie, Hot Rod—Bill Hader, Danny McBride, and Samberg’s old high-school friend and collaborator, Jorma Taccone—all of whom have gathered to perform a relatively straightforward bit of movie marketing: record a bunch of interstitial interview clips to run on Comedy Central during an upcoming Sunday movie marathon. This seems like a good idea. The channel’s young-dude-sitting-around-on-Sunday-watching-Fletch demographic is exactly the kind of person who’s most likely to recognize Samberg from Saturday Night Live, or from the “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” sketches that zipped from in-box to in-box last year like some viral-video superflu. So this would seem, for Samberg, to be an ideal synergistic marketing opportunity, were he the kind of person who’s prone to string together words like synergistic, marketing, and opportunity.

Andy Samberg is not that kind of person. He’s more likely to string together words like super, lame, and balls, as when he describes to me a comedy video he made in junior high. “It was about one-armed boxers,” he says, then laughs. “Man, it was super-lame balls.”

You know what else is apparently super-lame balls? Recording interstitial promos. Because when the director lobs an easy question from off-camera like, “Tell me the plot of your movie,” Samberg replies, “Hot Rod is about a sex offender.” (It’s not.) “He does stunts to raise money to sex-offend.” (He does not.) Then he, Taccone, and Hader crack a few jokes about how lame the movies are during Comedy Central marathons. (“Stay tuned for Teen Wolf Too!”) A lot of this is the usual comedian joshing—Hader keeps doing an entirely counterproductive bit about how, on the day Hot Rod opens, you should go out and see Transformers for the seventh time—but the implied joke in each of Samberg’s responses is, Hey, America! Can you believe they’re making me do this marketing bullshit?

Which is, in part, playing right to Comedy Central’s audience, employing the slacker jujitsu of marketing by making fun of how super-lame balls marketing is. But it also seems, in part, to be a visceral, almost involuntary response by Samberg to the obligations that come with starring in a major studio comedy—namely, convincing as many people as possible that they’re going to find you funny. This is a guy, remember, who got his start just six years ago making video shorts on the cheap with two childhood buddies (Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who directed Hot Rod) and posting them on the Web. Next thing you know, Samberg and friends were hired to work on SNL, a gig they’d dreamed about for years. Then their digital short “Lazy Sunday”—which starred Samberg and Chris Parnell as two nerdy New Yorkers rapping about cupcakes, Red Vines, and The Chronicles of Narnia—blew up on YouTube, at which point an executive at Paramount decided Samberg might just be the next Adam Sandler, or Will Ferrell, or Insert Hot Comedy Star Here, and enticed him to star in Hot Rod.

Which is to say that, not long ago, Samberg only had to worry about making himself and his buddies laugh. Then he had to worry about making Lorne Michaels laugh. Now he has to worry about making you—by which I mean most of America—laugh. And he’s not quite sure he knows what America finds funny. “I certainly know how to make my friends laugh,” he tells me. “And that’s what we’ve always lived by: If you think it’s funny, go for it. But then you get into, like, testing. And marketing. And posters. And a trailer. And you’re suddenly like, God. Maybe I don’t know what people will like.

Make no mistake: Andy Samberg wants to make you laugh. And up to this point, he’s had a pretty good track record. Both “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” were huge, unexpected hits. (If for some reason you are not familiar with “Dick in a Box,” put down this magazine, go to a computer, and Google “Dick in a Box.” I know it doesn’t sound promising, but I beseech you: It is by far the most hilarious Justin Timberlake–starring, Kwanzaa-referencing, Color Me Badd–parodying, “put your junk in that box”–instructing short video you will ever see.)

Taken as a whole, the digital shorts Samberg has made for SNL, nearly all of which were directed by Schaffer and co-written with Taccone, have been the highlights of the past two seasons. Another short featured Natalie Portman doing an angry rap with lines like, “All the kids looking up to me can suck my dick/It’s Portman, motherfucker, and I drink till I’m sick.” (Samberg cameos in the video dressed as a Viking. Why? Because he thinks Vikings are funny. Also monkeys. He’s a big fan of monkeys.) In “Roy Rules,” Samberg sings a homoerotic heavy-metal love song to his brother-in-law. “Roy rules! / He loves wearing T-shirts! / But in my dreams he’s dressed like a pirate and my dong is his peg-leg!”

Photo: Andrew Eccles

As a result, Samberg is currently hovering at a curious place in his renown. If you say, “Andy Samberg,” many people will stare back at you blankly. But if you say, “The guy in the ‘Dick in a Box’ video who wasn’t Justin Timberlake,” almost everyone will nod and say, “Oh, yeah, that guy,” then chuckle.

This will change, of course, if Hot Rod is a hit. Already, Samberg’s face is all over movie posters and popcorn bags across the country. At times, though, he still doesn’t quite believe he’s starring in a real movie. “The first preview we went to was the craziest thing,” he says. “People were watching … us.” In part, his disbelief has to do with the speed of his ascent. Lots of SNLers wind up getting cast in comedies, but not many have it happen after their first season. Thanks to “Lazy Sunday,” Samberg was being written up in the New York Times just months after he’d joined the show. (Though the paper misidentified his photo as “Adam Samberg.”)

During a brunch in L.A., Samberg mentions that Schaffer had spotted a taxi with a Hot Rod poster on the roof and snapped a souvenir shot. “I haven’t seen one of those yet,” Samberg says, pausing over an enormous platter of creamed beef over eggs and toast.

I ask him what would happen if he saw a huge Hot Rod billboard looming over Sunset Boulevard.

“I’ll probably shit in my pants,” he says. Then he looks at his breakfast. “This is not going to help.”

Samberg, in person, is exactly as he appears on TV. He’s got that grin that recalls the gleeful slash across the jaw of a Muppet. He’s got that hair, too—a wild tangle of grown-out bedhead that sort of loiters in a cloud around his skull. He has an affable, Berkeley-bred quality that suggests he would probably be the awesomest camp counselor ever. (He served as such for several summers at Sky Lake Yosemite.) His childhood was, it seems, untroubled by exceptional trauma, corrosive unpopularity, or other psychic scars that might have warped him into a jester. Instead, he simply developed an early taste for absurd nonsense. “When I was growing up, I was into movies like Ace Ventura and Billy Madison and Airplane,” he says. “You know, movies where it’s like, ‘Welcome to Crazy World!’ That to me was so refreshing and freeing—that people actually made a whole movie about bullshit.” He likes to call himself, his friends, and his fellow young SNL castmates (Samberg is 28) part of “the Muppet Generation,” by which he means they’re happy-go-lucky and goofy. He illustrates this on an L.A. sidewalk by breaking into a loose-limbed, arm-waggling Grover dance.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he’s some whatever-dude slacker who’s drifted into success. For starters, he exhibits an encyclopedic memory for every network or studio that ever turned him down. Of Awesometown, a pilot he and Taccone and Schaffer developed, Samberg says, “Fox passed. We took it to Comedy Central. They passed. MTV? Passed. MTV2? Passed,” as though each “no” was a personal slight that’s only now being avenged.

Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer started hanging out in high school, “just taking a camera to parties and filming ourselves doing silly shit,” Samberg says. After college—Taccone and Schaffer went to school in California, Samberg at NYU—the trio reunited. “We figured we could either work together,” says Samberg, “or be competing with each other.” Inspired by stories of other comics who’d made short-film calling cards and landed deals, such as the South Park guys who’d turned an animated Christmas card into a hit series, they decided to move to L.A. They shot films and lived in a cheap apartment and worked various low-rung jobs during what Samberg now calls “the hell year.” At the time, pre-YouTube, no one was really posting funny films online, let alone seeking them out there. They started their Website mostly so friends back in Berkeley could see their sketches. They called the site Lonely Island after the nickname they’d given their apartment.

Photo: Andrew Eccles

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.

From left, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg on the set of Hot Rod.Photo: James Dittiger/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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.”

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.

“Lazy Sunday” “I told you that I’m crazy for these cupcakes, cousin.”

“Deserted Moon”“I have both male and female genitalia. Just something to think about.”

“Dick in a Box” “A gift real special, so take off the top/ Take a look inside. It’s my dick in a box.”

“Andy Popping Into Frame”(Pop!)

Hot Rod “All great men have mustaches.”

Photos: Dana Edelson/Courtesy of NBC (Dick in a Box, Deserted Moon); James Dittiger/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures (Hot Rod)

Three Easy Steps to Comedy Stardom