At 28, Andy Samberg has been called the next Will Ferrell and compared to Adam Sandler, but the best description might be “Saturday Night Live’s” ambassador to the YouTube generation.
Writer/performer Samberg caught the producers’ attention with homemade material posted on the Web site of the Lonely Island, the comedy troupe he launched in 2001 with high school buds Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. The team’s loopy music video parodies starring Samberg inspired unprecedented Internet buzz for “SNL.”
“Lazy Sunday” (a rap tribute to such geeky white-guy treats as Mr. Pibb, Google Maps and “The Chronicles of Narnia”) and “Dick in a Box” (a cheerfully crass romantic duet with Justin Timberlake, which on July 19 earned Samberg an Emmy nomination) sparked the interest of a new cohort of fans.
Samberg makes his big-screen debut Friday as the star of “Hot Rod,” a onetime vehicle for Ferrell that the Islanders retooled with their own brand of absurdist inspiration. Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a small-town Evel Knievel planning a risky stunt to raise money for his stepfather’s heart operation - all so that he can challenge the old bully to a fistfight. On his mishap-filled quest, the klutzy stuntman endures more comic trauma than a “Jackass” marathon.
On a recent visit to Minneapolis, Samberg was as modest and friendly as if he were auditioning for the role of a ridiculously nice guy. He apologized for wearing sunglasses during an outdoor interview (“these are prescription, for the record”), admitted that he used his “Hot Rod” paycheck to move to his first apartment without roommates and said he hopes the film does well enough that he can continue working on “SNL” and in films.
“They don’t pay `Saturday Night Live’ writers very much. They don’t have to,” he said, adding, “I’m not exactly set for life.”
“Hot Rod” was written by Pam Brady (“South Park,” “Team America: World Police”), with inventive, uncredited additions by Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer, who also directed.
“It was a huge concern that the film was originally for Will Ferrell. There’s no filling those shoes,” Samberg said. “He’s the funniest dude in the world right now and one of my flat-out heroes of all time. We became more comfortable with it when they told us we could make adjustments.
“It was a very funny script to begin with, but we threw in everything we could think of to make it right for me,” he said. “I like things that are immature and offbeat and bizarre. Random jokes. Weird stuff. And stupid. Stupid is the highest compliment a person can pay me.”
The trio’s contributions pop up whenever the film takes a sharp left turn into surrealism, with a “Music Man”-style town parade turning into a riot and a “Footloose” parody set deep in the woods. “We wanted it to feel like an alternate universe where anything can happen,” Samberg said.
Although trained stuntmen handled the film’s toughest physical challenges, Samberg threw himself in whenever he could, including a sequence where Rod tumbles head-over-heels down a steep hillside for approximately a year.
He’s been taking hard knocks for a while. Beginning his standup career as a junior at New York University, he had his share of flop-sweat gigs.
“New Yorkers are not afraid to tell you to get off the stage. Anytime you’re trying to make people laugh and it isn’t working, it’s a bummer,” Samberg said. “This sounds kind of jerky, but it mostly went well for me. I didn’t have gangbusters material, but I always tried to have fun. Anytime you’re on a deadline and trying to make comedy, it’s stressful. When it’s working, it’s because you’re happy.
“Certainly the stuff I do with my friends is derived from the joy and silliness of friends hanging out. I consider myself insanely lucky that we got to do what we do the way we do it. Part of that is that we were able to go outside of the studio and just shoot stuff, which is what we were accustomed to doing before with shooting digital shorts and putting them on the Web.”
As a comedian who had never done any acting except trying to make his friends laugh, Samberg aimed for a performing style he describes as “bad, but you know it’s bad.” So working with Oscar winner Sissy Spacek and “Deadwood’s” formidable Ian McShane was “trippy,” he said.
“They were our first choices (to play his mother and evil stepfather). We didn’t think there was any way they were going to do it, and both of them were like, `Sure!’ And they were the loveliest, nicest people we’ve ever met,” Samberg said. “We’re really lucky that everyone has been that way. I feel like we’ve had a very un-Hollywood experience.”
Samberg shares a few affectionate scenes with co-star Isla Fisher (“The Wedding Crashers”), but is more attuned to goofiness and the funny side of embarrassment than romantic comedy.
“There’s a lot said about how this is the nerdy generation, and it’s Internet-driven. The comedy that’s influenced me has always been that,” he said. “From the Three Stooges through Steve Martin in `The Jerk,’ and `Ace Ventura’ and Chris Farley and `Billy Madison,’ they were village idiots. That’s definitely the tradition we’re trying to follow. My favorite comedy is self-effacing, where the person doing the joke is the butt of it. That’s always been the stuff I’ve gravitated towards.
“And also, I’m not that smooth, so that’s my only option.”