Andy Popping Into Fame
Berkeley-born Andy Samberg is causing a comic commotion on YouTube and Saturday Night Live, and in a theater near you.
Chris Buck/ Corbis Outline
Turn on Saturday Night Live this weekend, and you’re likely
to see Andy Samberg at the center of the action. If 11:30 p.m. is past
your bedtime, don’t worry: You can find Samberg in any multiplex in
America this month. The Berkeley-raised comedy star is making the leap
from Not Ready for Prime Time Player to Hollywood Leading Man.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Samberg’s movie debut, Hot Rod, will appeal to fans of goofball comedies like Caddyshack and Wayne’s World: Samberg’s character is an accident-prone daredevil who does stunts on a moped. Lorne Michaels—the man behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live
since before Samberg was born—is executive producing. The film was
directed by Akiva Schaffer and co-stars Jorma Taccone, Samberg’s
friends since junior high. Not a bad gig for three buddies, who, just
three years ago, were making their own movies with “borrowed digital
cameras and hacked editing programs,” and hoping to get noticed.
If the movie is a hit, Hollywood has a new comic leading man to appeal to a generation whose parents grew up guffawing during Bill Murray movies. At the very least, Paramount Pictures’ worldwide release of Hot Rod puts an exclamation point on Samberg’s remarkable rise to fame—which started right here in the East Bay.
The Berkeley High alum—Samberg was voted Class Clown during his senior year in 1996—was raised in a creative household. His father, Joe, was a longtime staff photographer for the Oakland Museum and shot an acclaimed series of photographs of drug-addled adolescents on Telegraph Avenue in the early 1970s. Growing up in a city known for its politics didn’t make Samberg want to follow the tradition of groundbreaking humorists like Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, or even the original cast of Saturday Night Live.
“An interesting byproduct of growing up in such a political place as Berkeley, where everyone has an opinion on everything, is that I was never that interested in politics,” Samberg told Diablo just after being cast on SNL in 2005. Instead, Samberg gets laughs from a tapestry of pop cultural references and icons, often with plenty of adolescent male appeal (famed 1970s stuntman Evel Knievel is an obvious inspiration for Hot Rod, and Samberg portrayed “Young Chuck Norris” on SNL). Samberg, who turns 29 this month, first came across Saturday Night Live as a tween while “flipping around channels after watching the World Wrestling Federation.”
After a brief stint at UC Santa Cruz, Samberg went to New York University to study film, during which time his roommate was Alamo-raised Murray Miller. Although both roommates were funny, neither realized the kind of success that comedy would bring. “We both made these crappy little short films for class and did stand-up in comedy clubs around New York,” says Miller, now a writer for the animated sitcom King of the Hill. “At the time, neither of us had bigger ambitions than making $30 from a stand-up gig.”
After NYU, Samberg reunited with Schaffer and Taccone, his friends since their days at Berkeley’s Willard Junior High. The trio decided to take a shot at Hollywood.
“After we graduated, we reconvened and realized we still shared this sense of humor,” he says. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone (or “the Dudes,” as they refer to themselves on their website, TheLonelyIsland.com), found apartments in Los Angeles and started making short films, which ran on their website as well as on Channel 101, a Los Angeles television station that airs five-minute tapes from aspiring filmmakers.
“We’re hoping to let the audience agree with our sense of humor, to laugh at the things that we think are funny,” Samberg says. “A lot of stuff we do spoofs popular culture that we like. There are a lot of jokes in the editing and the music. The jokes are there for you to discover.”
The films included The ‘Bu, a spoof of primetime soaps such as The O.C., and Beverly Hills 90210, and White Power, a harrowing tale of tooth whitener addiction. While The Lonely Island developed a cult following, a bigger break came when fellow comic Miller helped get Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone a writing gig on the MTV Movie Awards Special in the summer of 2005. Host Jimmy Fallon clicked with the Dudes and mentioned them to his boss at Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels, who invited the trio to audition for the legendary comedy show. In September 2005, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone were hired as writers, and Samberg was also cast a performer.
It didn’t take long for the trio’s brand of comedy to become Saturday Night Live’s hottest commodity. During the 2005 Christmas show, the now legendary “Lazy Sunday” rap video, featuring Samberg and cast member Chris Parnell, became one of SNL’s most popular segments ever. Many a web user’s first impression of the online phenomenon YouTube came from the video, which was watched more than a million times within three days of the original broadcast. Two weeks after airing, a New York Times article stated that the video had “burrowed its way into the national consciousness.” Countless homages appeared on YouTube, filmed by everyone from elementary school students to U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.
Samberg had another massive hit when singer Justin Timberlake hosted the 2006 Christmas show. The video “Dick in a Box” features Samberg and Timberlake crooning earnestly about offering their gift-wrapped genitals as the ultimate holiday present to a lover. The duo reunited on stage for a live performance during Timberlake’s sold-out Madison Square Garden concert in February, and the crowd went nuts.
Samberg’s presence on SNL quickly went from background player to featured star, and his digital shorts have been some of the most inspired SNL segments in years. (Many are available on the Saturday Night Live page at www.nbc.com , including shorts of Samberg stalking his brother-in-law and doing public service ads for lettuce. And peyote).
Michaels and Paramount green-lighted Hot Rod and cast Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek and Ian McShane (Deadwood) alongside Samberg’s Rod Kimble character. Australian actress Isla Fisher (whose real-life fiancé is Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame) plays Kimble’s love interest. The film was shot in Vancouver while Saturday Night Live was on its 2006 summer break.
Meanwhile, Samberg’s celebrity status skyrocketed. Internet sites and gossip tabloids have rumored him to be romantically intertwined with Spider-Man’s Kirsten Dunst and Star Wars’s Natalie Portman. Samberg even spoofed his image as a ladies man in February. On an ad for the Valentine’s show, Drew Barrymore begins, “I’ll be hosting Saturday Night Live, with musical guest Lily Allen. ...” Then Samberg steps into the shot and declares, “And I’ve been romantically linked to both of them!”
Murray Miller keeps in close touch with Samberg and says his former roommate has taken fame in stride. “He’s the same great guy,” says Miller. “I think he really hasn’t had time to take a step back, because everything has happened—and keeps happening—so fast. He was in the right place at the right time in so many ways.”
Miller refers to YouTube’s pervasive presence, which has hugely affected politics and entertainment in the past two years. Months after “Lazy Sunday” shot around the web, Newsweek selected YouTube, which was sold to Google for $1.5 billion, as 2006’s Invention of the Year. Meanwhile, the Dudes were honored by Wired magazine with a Rave Award for their advancement of technology. (Apple founder Steve Jobs and a geneticist who spent eight years researching the 1918 flu strain also received awards.) Another media titan, High Times magazine, bestowed its prestigious Stony Award on Samberg. Perhaps an Oscar is next?
OK, a Best Actor honor for Hot Rod isn’t going to happen. But Samberg could join the ranks of SNL-to-box-office megastars Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, and Will Ferrell if enough teenagers plunk down $10 at the multiplex when Hot Rod comes out. Of course, late-summer comedies aren’t slam-dunks with critics. SNL alum Adam Sandler took his share of smacks in his quest for cinematic stardom. When Happy Gilmore was released in 1996, Roger Ebert’s thumbs-down review called it “the latest in the dumb and dumbest sweepstakes.”
Ironically, Happy Gilmore provided Samberg with comic inspiration at an early age. “The movies that Sandler did that came out during my junior high and high school years were pivotal for me in letting me know I can do comedy,” he says.
Sandler, whose films have grossed more than $1 billion in the United States, seems genuinely flattered by the compliment. “That’s really awesome,” Sandler said prior to a Berkeley screening of his September 11 drama Reign Over Me. “I love that guy. As soon as he was on Saturday Night Live, I called him and told him what a great job he was doing.”
Asked if he has any career advice for Samberg, Sandler smiles, and says, “ I don’t think he needs my advice. He’s going to be great. Just watch.”
THE HIGH FIVE
Andy Samberg certainly isn’t the first SNL player to make the leap to the silver screen. (That would be Chevy Chase in Foul Play, followed by John Belushi in Animal House, both in 1978). Here are the top five SNL success stories.
The Heavy Hitters
Eddie Murphy: His first films (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop) were box office smashes. The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle, and Shrek introduced Murphy to younger audiences.
Bill Murray: Murray’s movie debut, Meatballs, was a silly summer comedy for teens. He went on to make blockbuster comedies (Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters) and critically adored art films (Rushmore, Lost in Translation).
Mike Myers: Myers is Saturday Night Live’s franchise king: Wayne’s World 1–2, Austin Powers 1–3, and Shrek 1–3 have grossed more than $2.5 billion worldwide. Even the critically reviled Cat in the Hat had some schwing at the box office.
Adam Sandler: Although his presence on SNL was not as memorable as the above stars, Sandler’s movie career has been touched by gold: Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, and Click were all huge hits. He’s also a big fan of Samberg (see page 169).
Will Ferrell: Like Murray and Murphy, Ferrell has mixed broad comedy (Elf, Old School, Talladega Nights) and quirkier roles (Stranger Than Fiction).
One To Watch
Will Forte: The Lafayette native, now in his fifth season on SNL, wrote and costars in the R-rated comedy The Brothers Solomon, which hits theaters next month.