Mr. Samberg, bring him his dream

Up-and-coming comedian, ‘Saturday Night Live’ member and soon-to-be movie star Andy Samberg would like to thank Jimmy Fallon, YouTube and, box office pending, everyone

by Sara Nicole Miller

Andy Samberg strolls out into the open-air courtyard at the Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, bypassing the Angus Fairhurst sculpture of a giant gorilla staring at its lopped-off arm on the ground before it. He smiles and introduces himself. After exchanging a few pleasantries and chuckles, he turns his eyes toward the gorilla and a coy, jester’s grin forms across his face.

“Hot Rod”

STARRING: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Isla Fisher
DIRECTED BY: Akiva Schaffer

“I think he’s lost his arm,” he says with a giggle as he flings a head nod in the gorilla’s direction.

That’s kind of Samberg’s act these days, a charming, unassuming (and seemingly unaware) goofball. And it works well. His newfound fame is indebted to that very thing: kooky ad-libs and pop-culture-in-a-bedpan humor, something like a gorilla with a misplaced limb.

There is, however, another 800-pound gorilla in the courtyard: Samberg’s debut movie, “Hot Rod,” due in theaters Aug. 3.

“I laugh when I watch the movie, and I’ve seen it A LOT,” he says of “Hot Rod,” which had just come through Minneapolis the night before on the first leg of a 10-city preview screening.

For a chap who got famous off penis rhapsodies, Samberg is damn lucky. He joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 2005, but has already received widespread Internet shout-outs for his YouTube-circulated “SNL” digital shorts – quirky cut-and-paste movies he co-creates with childhood friends Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone that feature “O.C.” parodies and alien hermaphrodites. But what Samberg and friends are waiting to see is whether their signature comedic flavors will translate on the big screen.

“You hope the best for everything you put a lot of time and energy into,” he says disarmingly.

“Hot Rod,” at first glance, can be summed up in main-character Rod Kimble’s own egoistic rouser: “Who wants to see me do a BIG-ASS STUNT?!” It has all the canned comedic structuring of a Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller athleti-comedy.

Samberg plays Kimble, a wannabe stuntman constantly pursuing the respect of his stepfather through repeated ninja fights and basement roughhousing that flirt with homoeroticism. When his stepfather’s heart goes bad, Kimble devises a plan to raise money for a transplant – a big-ass jump over 15 school buses on his dirt bike. It would be touching, except the only reason he wants his stepfather to recover is so he can “kick his ass” with dignity.

“He’s sort of immature and naïvely optimistic and an idiot,” Samberg says, listing Kimble’s qualities. And the choice to cast Samberg for the part requires about as much thought as a matching quiz. One is A, and two is B.

Part of Samberg’s appeal on “SNL” comes from an air of “cutie-pie” naïvety he can’t help but exude. His floppy brown hair juts in curls and waves like a “Sesame Street” puppet and combines with his clownish facial expressions into something of an “aw-shucks” dummy with a hefty dollop of sex appeal. He’s dopey, almost buffoonish, yet brilliantly so.

But in spite of his quickly rising wave of success, Samberg remains grateful – at times a bit shocked – for his good fortune. He’s still smitten by the fact that he landed the “SNL” gig (“It’s a pretty rad job”), has fond memories of growing up in Berkeley, Calif. (“We drank a lot of Olde English 800 40s and stuff like that”) and jokingly recalls his worst-ever stand-up act, performed at a youth hostel in L.A. (“I was just shitfaced.”)

And when he speaks of his career and the colleagues it has brought his way, he assumes the wide-eyed passion and frivolity of that California boy in front of a Handycam with his friends.

“Jack Black is obviously a kick-ass dude,” he says when asked about comedians he’s met.

And when referring to his notorious, Color-Me-Badd-ish “Dick in a Box” brethren Justin Timberlake, his nonchalant grin breaks to near-befuddled awe: “The dude’s just, like, bursting with talent. It’s kind of annoying.”

Sure, Samberg’s no Ferrell just yet, but watching some of his finer moments (relatively speaking) gives an idea of how delectably intuitive, versatile and hilarious this guy can be. In the overnight celebrity “SNL” skit “Lazy Sunday,” he and actor Chris Parnell turn an afternoon trip to the see “The Chronicles of Narnia” into a cupcake-ingesting rap montage. Another of those “finer” moments sees him as a brain-fried Neanderthal co-host in the techno-culture parody sketch “Deep House Dish.”

Samberg’s comedic journey, he claims, began as modestly as his skits are produced. He would try to make his sisters laugh in their living room, and with Taccone and Schaffer, would dink around (with or without a camera) while at house parties or loitering in public parks.

After college at New York University, Samberg joined Taccone and Schaffer in L.A. where they formed The Lonely Island comedy group, creating a Web site and whipping together comedy shorts and parodies on the fly and on the cheap. The trio would later go on to get a gig writing for the MTV Movie Awards (thanks to Jimmy Fallon), and since, have all landed jobs with “Saturday Night Live.”

But modesty, if anything, is only another redeeming quality the still burgeoning comedian has retained.

“I figured there was just no way it was going to happen,” Samberg says, recalling his audition for “SNL.” “I had wanted to do it for so long.”

It wasn’t until they called him back for a second audition a few weeks later that he realized how close he was to scoring his dream job.

“I nailed it!” Samberg says confidently of the second audition, then pauses and reconsiders. “Well, first I threw up. And then I nailed it!”

Soon after joining the “SNL” crew, Paramount and the producer of “SNL,” Lorne Michaels, gave Samberg the “Hot Rod” script to browse over.

“I read it and really liked it, and then ‘Lazy Sunday’ happened and they were like, ‘we should make (‘Hot Rod’),’ ” Samberg explains. And the story so far is all over the billboards, taxi cabs and cable television stations of insert-large-American-city-here: Samberg’s Rod Kimble complete with stick-on moustache and a pose and facial expression screaming phallocentric hubris.

For a studio shark like “Hot Rod,” it’s refreshing, if surprising, to see how much of Lonely Island’s style permeates the movie. In one scene, Samberg and Taccone take part in alternately saying “cool beans,” and then the exchange breaks into a record-scratching rap seemingly (and probably) created with no-budget, out-of-the-box video editing software.

Samberg and the unique Lonely Island flavoring have all the verve to usher in, or at least officially herald, a new era of comedy. It’s one that both makes fun of and salutes their comedic and cinematic heritage, using current DIY technologies to aid and abet their surly, spoofy humor.

“With occasional interventions from the studio and Lorne, we pretty much had carte blanche in terms of creative control,” Samberg explains. “Nobody gets that on their first movie.” Then his eyes change and a grin overcomes a moment of reflection. “For better or for worse, we’re going to find out if that was a good idea!”

Regardless of “Hot Rod’s” success, Samberg now stands on the verge of comedic stardom. He has the charisma and familiar Everyman quality that both Middle America and bigwig movie producers are all apt to gush over, even when (or especially when) Kimble vomits after failing a not-so-big-ass stunt at the beginning of “Hot Rod.”

But if that indelible boyish grin turns out to be as charming on the big screen as it is on “SNL” (and YouTube shortly after) – if he, Taccone and Schaffer can keep making movies in their own scrappy, at times bizarre, but always endearing way – well, this might turn out to be the one big-ass stunt that launches Samberg into comedy’s upper ranks. And we’ll all be here to see him do it.