Andy Samberg's rise seems to prove both negative and positive preconceptions of show business in the 21st century. In less than two years, he's has gone from a complete unknown to the leading man in Hot Rod, largely due to the Internet. When Samberg debuted on Saturday Night Live as a featured player in September 2005, he was known only to a web-savvy minority as one-third of The Lonely Island, a web-video troupe he formed with friends Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Buzz around the trio landed them a gig writing for the MTV Movie Awards, which eventually led to SNL. (Schaffer and Taccone joined as writers.) There, they brought their video sensibilities to SNL Digital Shorts, creating a silly musical short called "Lazy Sunday" in December of 2005.
It was an instant Internet sensation, which caught SNL and NBC off-guard. Cease-and-desist orders followed, but the genie was out of the bottle. Filming for Hot Rod—an old, inactive script under the control of SNL Svengali Lorne Michaels—began seven months later, with Schaffer directing and Taccone co-starring. When SNL opened its 32nd season last fall, Samberg was promoted to repertory status, and lightning struck again with his digital short "Dick In A Box," a faux R&B song featuring Justin Timberlake. (This time, NBC made the video freely available.) "Dick In A Box" helped sustain the buzz around Samberg, which Paramount is undoubtedly counting on when Hot Rod opens Aug. 3. The question lingers, though: Does the film represent a heartwarming, come-from-nowhere success, or is Samberg a glorified Internet sensation whose new fame is being exploited via a poor man's Talladega Nights? Does it even matter? Samberg talked about it with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: How did Hot Rod come together?
Andy Samberg: Well, basically, when you get SNL, everyone wants to take a meeting, just in case you end up being good. So I had meetings with studios, and Paramount was one of them. They mentioned that they had this script, and they sent it to me. I read it and thought it was super funny. It was in Lorne's stable, so it was his choice. Then "Lazy Sunday" happened, and they were like, "Oh, we should definitely do it." Which was great, because it opened the door for Akiva and Jorma to also do it, which was, for me, the perfect situation for my first movie, because I've done everything with them so far.
AVC: Did this feel like a bigger, more expensive Lonely Island short?
AS: It definitely has that feeling to me, anyway. It certainly has a lot of the story and the comedy of Pam Brady's original script, but it's tough to put something through the three-of-us strainer and not have it come out a little Lonely. I think it's equal parts Paramount and Pam Brady—those are two separate things. As it is, we definitely have our stamp on it.
AVC: Akiva directed some of the SNL Digital Shorts, but never a film, and neither you nor Jorma had starred in one. How freaked out were you by the process of doing a big studio movie?
AS: Yeah, we were freaked out. It was definitely a huge step up. Obviously, SNL has a lot of viewers, but the potential for a movie is through the roof. If it tanks in any way… like I said, the potential is big. There's a lot of money involved, and the stakes are very high. There's going to be all this marketing and stuff like that. It's definitely a different sort of pressure. But I will say, the fact that we got to do it together really eased a lot of that. Walking on the set that first day and being like, "And here are my two best friends that I've been working with for the last 10 years," it wasn't that different from what we had actually been doing before. Because we were always shooting similar camera-style stuff, even when we were living off canned chili in L.A. It was always getting the camera and being like "Let's get coverage on this shot, and now let's do the reverse." We were familiar with the process and the way we worked with each other in that process, so we came in with a sure hand. I think that was really helpful. It was also nice, because I think for other people, seeing us have that ease with each other put them at ease, instead of being like, "Who are these first-timers that look really young?"
AVC: How did you get Sissy Spacek and Ian McShane for the film? Getting Deadwood's Al Swearengen to play your step-dad is pretty huge.
AS: Yeah, it was awesome. They lend a real legitimate weight to the movie, and the movie is ridiculous. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were they tough to get?
AS: No. We were shocked how easy it was, which I think is a testament to the script. It was just a hilarious script. They were both our first choice by far. McShane was the first one we actually thought of, because the Frank role is such a big role. We just thought, "Oh my God, what if we got Swearengen? That dude's terrifying!" [Laughs.] We thought we'd probably have to talk him into it, but they sent him the script, and he was just like, "Yeah, sounds good." We were like, "Are you kidding me? Oh my God!" [Laughs.] Sissy, we never even thought of, because we thought there'd be no way she would do it. One of our producers thought she'd be great, and we were like, "Yeah, ask her. It can't hurt." She was into it; she was in the mood for something fun. They were both so nice and so laid-back. You'd be like, "Wow, these guys are normal just like us." Then it'd be like "action" and start acting, and you'd be like, "Oh, they're not normal like us. They're amazing actors."
AVC: You mentioned "Lazy Sunday" taking off. How quickly did you notice a change after it aired?
AS: The next morning. I walked out of my building and got recognized [by] the first person that walked by me. I mean, it wasn't everybody for the rest of the day, but I had only really been recognized for Lonely Island stuff up until that point, for the most part. Then that Sunday, I get up and walk out of the building, and some guy was like, "Hey, I love your Narnia rap!" I was on my stoop; I hadn't even gotten to the street yet. That and "Dick In A Box" are the two things that people always say to me. I can go anywhere still, and I don't get mobbed or anything, but there's a person in every group of people that knows one of those two things. Going from being totally anonymous to even sort of famous is a big adjustment. It was definitely weird being like, "Hey, people know who I am." The world gets a little smaller; it feels a little like everywhere is your home town, like you're always bumping into someone who knows you.
AVC: Especially on the Internet. There are at least two fan blogs devoted to you, and 12 MySpace pages.
AS: I don't have a MySpace page. Is it posing as me?
AVC: They seemed to be.
AS: [Laughs.] That is a strange phenomenon, people pretending to be other people. I can say officially that I do not have a MySpace page.
AVC: When we interviewed you last year, you said you were trying to cut back on reading stuff about yourself online. Have you been successful?
AS: For the most part. It's tough. We started out on the Internet, so I've been reading what people had to say about stuff since we were getting mean comments on iFilm, before we even had our site going. People are really, really rough on the web—that's their right, that's the whole point of it—but sometimes it can be a little bit brutal. [Laughs.] I try not to put too much stock in it. No matter how much it's growing, the Internet still is a pretty specific demographic. It doesn't necessarily represent the general populace. There is stuff that is blown up on the Internet that isn't hugely successful with the entire world, and vice versa. I don't put a tremendous amount of stock in it, but at the same time, you always want people to like what you're doing. Certainly, to have come from an Internet background, we want to stay faithful and have people be supportive and happy with what we're doing. But, yeah, I'm trying to look at it less. [Laughs.]
AVC: You have an Internet background, but the success of "Lazy Sunday" really caught SNL and NBC off-guard, and they didn't know how to deal with viral video. Have they gotten a better sense of that now?
AS: I think so. I think the fact that the media was into it was all it really took for them. There's phases in everything, and I think right now, TV and movies are really realizing that the Internet is a force. Obviously with music, that's been happening for a little longer. YouTube is kind of the Napster of TV and movies—I understand where the apprehension comes from, because it's so out of control, and there's so much money to be lost there. Ultimately, that's what it's all about. Up at the top, it's not some guy who's like, "I just want to create art." They're like, "We're making millions!" I think they're making adjustments on the fly, which is good, and I certainly feel like they did the right thing on "Dick In A Box." It was great, and it was great for the show as well, the fact that it caught on like that. We were so lucky to have something be sought after again. "Lazy Sunday" was cool because we got a lot of attention; the press was about why people weren't allowed to see it. With "Dick In A Box," everyone was just allowed to see it. That was a story in itself, that they adjusted. But it's all new. You never know where it's going to land. You don't want to ruin everything by putting too much stock in any one thing. I'm glad I don't have to deal with it. [Laughs.] I just make goofy stuff and give it to them and see if they like it.
AVC: A lot of the reaction to "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick In A Box" showed how polarizing SNL remains. No matter what, people will argue SNL is either enduring its worst season ever, or it's on the comeback trail. How do you deal with that?
AS: It's been interesting. I didn't realize how much people liked to bash SNL until I was on. I've always just liked it, and I've always watched it and been into it. But I try to make comedy, so I think I'm more sensitive to that. If I watch an episode of SNL, and there's one thing that I liked, then that's a good episode. It's been on 31 years; it's an institution. It's not always going to feel like the freshest thing you've ever seen, but if you take any episode of SNL ever made, there's something great in every one of them. That's the definition of a variety show, especially if there's 30 years of fans of the show. That's such a wide spectrum of tastes that you're trying to appeal to. That's why you can have "Roy Rules" and a really smart Jim Downey piece about politics in the same show. The odds of there being one person who's really into both things is not super high. I mean, I am, but I love comedy. [Laughs.] The average viewer is tuning in for what they like. Personally, that's what I think is awesome about the show.
AVC: There will always be people who hate it.
AS: I've always felt that if something is polarizing, that's usually the stuff I like the most. If something is taking a chance and is willing to be weird, that's my favorite thing. I know there's somebody out there who hates it. So, on the one hand, you'd love everybody to just love it, but on the other hand, given the history of the way I've liked things in the past, it's almost a good sign if they hate it. I guess I'm worth talking about. [Laughs.]
AVC: As a current cast member, have you thought which SNL alum's career you'd like to emulate?
AS: I don't know. I'm hoping we figure it out our own way. Certainly people like [Will] Ferrell and [Adam] Sandler, I think, are doing it right. They're making their style of comedy, they're doing it consistently, and they've developed a really faithful fan base. They've really earned it. They've also taken time to do interesting, experimental things, like Stranger Than Fiction and Punch Drunk Love and stuff like that. If I had half the career of either of those dudes, it'd be out of control. [Laughs.] They're definitely people to look up to. Everyone on SNL is doing great—even people who didn't do technically well on the show have been amazing people. People like Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman and Jay Mohr are all hilarious, brilliant comedians that have been through there. You don't think about them as much because they didn't have T-shirt sketches, but they're all amazing people. There are so many. You walk down the hall at SNL and look at everyone that's been there, and you're just like, "Gilbert Gottfried was in the cast? That dude's hilarious. I didn't even know that." It's so crazy how many people have been through there.
AVC: Including Bob Odenkirk, who influenced you.
AS: Bob and David, that show was amazing. Mr. Show, Stella, and the Tenacious D episodes were the three things that were my college and young-adult inspirations. Those were the things were I was like, "Oh my God. Those guys are doing it."
AVC: Stella—there's another polarizing thing, especially when it became a series.
AS: We were obsessed. I've met those guys since, which was super cool for me, because I watched The State too, and Wet Hot American Summer is one of my favorite movies ever. I have no qualms about telling them how much they've inspired us.
AVC: A lot of the more adventurous stuff that you talk about just doesn't make it, like Stella. Pilots you've worked on have failed. Is there something to learn from all that?
AS: I don't know. I feel like I'd be more confident speaking to that if we had a show that was actually successful. We were a part of three or four pilots, and none of them went. I think they all suffered from the same thing as those other things you mentioned—they were maybe a little too specific. The SNL situation has really worked out for us, in that we were carving out a niche for ourselves within this thing that is more accepting of writing. It's a platform that is already so revered that you get the benefit of the doubt just showing up. Just the fact that Lorne Michaels says, "These guys are good enough. Listen to what they have to say." Everyone just perks up and is like, "Oh, I'll check this out if Lorne thinks it's funny." He's been right so many times before; people would be foolish to not just check it out. I certainly have my whole life.