INTERVIEW: The boys behind ‘SNL’ shorts are moving on up

EVANSTON, Ill. – It’s 11:30 p.m. on a balmy April night in Manhattan, and I’m drinking a beer with “Saturday Night Live” cast member Andy Samberg at Pre:Post, a relatively young restaurant on West 27th Street in the heart of the Chelsea nightclub district. Normally I avoid this area – known for its density of famous (and infamous?) bars and clubs like Bungalow 8, Guest House and Home – at the risk of seeing every spoiled, obnoxious Long Island kid with whom I went to high school, but tonight is a special exception. It’s been a long journey, including a lovely three-hour delay at O’Hare (of course), but I finally arrived here a couple of hours ago, coming from a press screening of Samberg’s upcoming film “Hot Rod,” opening in wide release Aug. 3.

The movie tells the story of a self-made stuntman named Rod Kimble. He spends most of his days doing stunts on his moped around his neighborhood, whether it is attempting to jump swimming pools or milk trucks. The only catch is that he is horrible at these stunts — but, Kimble is blind to this fact. So when his stepfather (Ian McShane) falls ill and needs a $50,000 heart transplant to live, Rod decides he will raise the money by doing a stunt that would top even Evel Knievel’s biggest – to jump 15 school buses.

Up until now, the shy girl in me has been hesitant to walk up to Samberg – not to mention I don’t want to intrude on the conversations he’s having with my fellow journalists who are also on this college press junket – but what the hell.

I had nothing to worry about. “Do you have a girlfriend?” one of the student journalists asks Samberg as she steadies herself against an exposed brick wall (thanks, open bar!). Samberg and I exchange a look conveying mutual annoyance before he tells her he’s not seeing anyone at the moment. We chat for a few more minutes before heading out. “See you tomorrow,” Samberg says – tomorrow morning is packed with roundtable interviews with Samberg and others involved with the production.

Samberg, wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses, into a conference room in the W in Union Square the next morning wearing an OP hoodie. “How are you doing?” one student asks. “Super awesome,” he replies in a low, tired voice. Like the rest of us, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was wishing these interviews had been pushed back an hour or two – after all, last night was a Friday in New York City. He sits down and motions to a glass on the table that is filled with ice water. “Is this Akiva (Schaffer’s)?” he asks. When a student says yes, Samberg says, “Oh, sweet,” and promptly takes a sip.

Schaffer – who is directing “Hot Rod “and is an “SNL” writer – and Samberg agree there is nothing difficult about working with each other. “It’s shockingly pleasant, actually … but we’ve known each other forever,” Schaffer says in a separate interview of working with his friends. They grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and, along with co-star and “SNL” writer Jorma Taccone, have been best friends since junior high school. The three went their separate ways for a few years (Samberg went to NYU, Taccone went to UCLA and Schaffer went to UCSC), but met up after graduation and decided to move to L.A. to work on their comedy. The trio dubbed themselves “The Lonely Island,” named after the apartment in which they lived.

“It’s mostly just a big plus, because now I’ve actually gotten to work with people that I don’t know that well,” Schaffer says of the work dynamic between them. “It’s always fine, but you don’t know where you stand. Obviously you don’t want to be rude, so you’re tiptoeing, you’re not giving line readings … whereas when it’s your real friends … you can be like, ‘Dude, you’re messing up right now.'”

Samberg agrees. “The worst it gets is, ‘I think that’s really funny.’ ‘Well I think it hurts the story.’ ‘I think it’s worth it!’ ‘I don’t think it’s worth it!’ ‘Well let’s screen it!’ … ‘OK, it wasn’t worth it,’ and then you’re like, ‘OK let’s get a beer,'” he says in a separate interview. “I fear the day I have to work with anyone else.”

The feelings of unity extended even to when all three of them were, remarkably, faced with the possibility of getting jobs on “SNL” at the same time. They were flown out at the same time to audition – although Schaffer, who is not an actor, chose to have a meeting instead to discuss writing possibilities. Samberg was hired two days before Taccone and Schaffer. Then there was a two-day period when none of them knew if Andy would be the only one hired – it was unclear if the show would be able to hire both Schaffer and Taccone as writers.

So the three decided to make a pact. “Going into that, we knew there were only a few combinations of things that could happen … (Schaffer and Taccone knew ‘SNL’) was what I wanted,” Samberg says. “We kind of agreed if I got it and they didn’t, that I would have to do it, because you can’t say no to that. But then we also agreed that if two of us got it and one didn’t, that wasn’t cool. Because you can’t leave one dude behind. We really are a team … and we’re not gonna leave anyone hanging out to dry.” Fortunately for them, they didn’t have to make that choice – all three landed jobs on the show.

Even the other actors in “Hot Rod” felt close to the three. “It felt like leaving summer camp,” says actor Danny McBride in an interview, who played Rod’s tough-guy ramp builder Rico.

Samberg auditioned twice for “SNL.” He says he found out about first audition only a few days beforehand and he didn’t have any impressions or characters, so he threw together an act with Schaffer’s and Taccone’s help. He says he saw Will Ferrell’s and Chris Parnell’s auditions before his own and that it helped to calm some nerves. “I remember watching them and laughing really hard, and watching them again and realizing there was no audible laughter,” Samberg says. He realized he’d be giving his audition to a “dead room,” so he knew not to let that throw him off. But he did say he heard some laughter, and soon “SNL” was calling him again for another look.

Bill Hader, who co-stars as Rod’s friend Dave and is another cast member on “SNL,” expressed similar feelings about auditioning. “I thought I was going to pass out from nervousness,” he says. Wearing a brown Le Tigre zip-up sweatshirt, he gets many laughs from the college press sitting at the small table — and even does his well-known Al Pacino audition following the interview, at the request of a reporter.

The guys’ successes took off once they started with the show. They pioneered the now-infamous Digital Shorts, which included the”Lazy Sunday” starring Parnell and Samberg walking the streets of Manhattan rapping about eating cupcakes and going to see “The Chronicles of Narnia.” And, of course, December 2006 saw the craze of “Dick in a Box,” starring Justin Timberlake and Samberg. Many of these shorts are done at little or no cost at all. “Lazy Sunday,” according to Schaffer, was edited on his home iMac, and the music was created on Taccone’s laptop – which makes “Hot Rod” all that much bigger of a deal for everyone.

“It’s certainly huger than anything I’ve done in the past,” Schaffer says. This is the first full-length film he’s directing. “I thought I’d be very overwhelmed, because you look at the money … then you hear, like $20 million (budget) or whatever, and (you think), ‘I wouldn’t even know how to spend that money.’… I’m used to doing everything myself.”

“The movie was sort of more relaxing,” Taccone says of filming the movie compared to the rigorous demands of “SNL.” “You have this limited amount of time to do everything (on ‘SNL’).”

Although the film was made on a larger scale than the three were used to, they say they still wanted to keep their own voice and style in it, and that attaining that was not an issue. “It was really nice and cool to go in somewhere where there were just all these people doing their jobs toward your one goal,” Schaffer says. “I still will look at footage from the movie and notice a detail in the set I had never noticed, because I wasn’t there when they were making the set. I’d just show up and go ‘Oh, move that, move that, move that. OK it’s good enough, let’s shoot it.’ “

Certain scenes in the film, including one where Taccone and Samberg argue over the pronunciation of words which begin with the “wh” sound, were also uniquely their own. That particular scene was based mainly on a conversation Taccone and Samberg actually had, and it was worked into the final product.

But the film is not just about getting laughs. “We also are very interested in telling a story, and I’m hoping we’re able to do that,” Taccone says. “You are hopefully rooting for Rod at the end … we’re huge fans of that classic ’80s triumph of the underdog.”