When Andy Samberg first strode into Ryan Auditorium, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, tight jeans and white Reeboks he later said were given to him for free, he looked “like such a baller,” as an event worker put it.
Samberg, a writer and performer best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, talked with students at a Hillel-sponsored event Tuesday night. The sold-out show took the form of a “fireside chat,” as Samberg called it, monitored by Northwestern junior Shauna Perlman.
Northwestern group Mee-Ow opened for Samberg. Introducing themselves as “five gentiles,” and making several jokes directed at Judaism, they set the mood for the rest of the night. The conversation portion of the show opened with Samberg’s best-known digital short, “Dick in a Box” featuring Justin Timberlake, on the projector screen. Various clips of Samberg’s sketches were interspersed throughout the talk, accompanied by his artful commentary.
The general atmosphere was informal and personal, as students got to listen to Perlman’s question-and-answer portion, then participate in their own open interview session. Samberg freely made jokes on virtually every subject, from his Passover plans (he shared his scheme to steal the Declaration of Independence) to his relationship status (in which he linked himself to Hillary Clinton, the entire Las Vegas cast of Cirque du Soleil, Ryan Seacrest and Snoopy).
The strong fan base Samberg has at Northwestern was evident when several fans showed their dedication. During a question about the crazy things fans had done, a girl ran on stage and gave Samberg a gift — a mix CD and a note — that he proceeded to open and pretend to read out loud, to her embarrassment.
“This isn’t how you pictured it last night?” Samberg asked.
Before the evening officially began, Samberg sat down to talk with us about stand-up, Internet stardom and the ideas he gets in the shower.
It’s hard for me to really gauge. I don’t do a lot of comedy about Judaism, but obviously a lot of my heroes were Jewish. You have Mel Brooks and your Marx Brothers and your Larry David. So it’s affected it enormously and really not at all. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything comedically where the joke of it had to do with Judaism and Jewishness, but there’s definitely a proud tradition of comedy in the Jews.
How did your sketch group, The Lonely Island, begin?
Akiva [Schaffer] and Jorma [Taccone], I’ve known them since the seventh grade. And they were better friends with each other in junior high, and then we all started hanging out together in high school, at Berkeley High. We were all kind of just goofballs. After we graduated college, we all three kind of just, well I don’t know how it even happened, we just sort of happened to start talking, and all three of us were kind of interested in doing the same thing.
So the three of us moved to L.A. and rented an apartment and had a couple of pretty low-rank years, eating canned food and working temp jobs. Then we started shooting around stuff, just borrowing friends’ digital cameras and just shooting stuff. Then Akiva, with his brother’s help, started putting it onto a Web site and that started to grow. And then just on from there. We kept shooting, got involved in other stuff, started meeting more people, did a few pilots and I was doing stand-up the whole time.
How did you get offered the opportunity to write for the MTV Movie Awards?
My friend Murray, who also helped me get my first job in L.A., recommended us. He’d been working there as a sitcom writer, and we were at the same agency, so it was easy. But we worked on the MTV Movie Awards both years basically for free. ‘Cause they were paying us one writer’s salary — it’s MTV so it’s cheap to begin with — so we were splitting it three ways. We were probably paying as much taxes on the money as we were making.
But we did it, and it’s so weird how right we were to do it. We did it [thinking], “Oh yeah, it’s a good experience, it’ll hone our skills, and we’ll make connections.” Then the second year we did it, it was 100 percent how we got SNL. Jimmy Fallon was hosting [the awards show], and he brought some SNL producers with him and a bunch of writers. We really just hit it off and were all just hanging out, and Jimmy liked us and recommended us to Lorne [Michaels, SNL's producer].
You started off doing sketch comedy on the Internet, but now you’re featured on TV shows and in films. What have you made of the whole transition, and was it something that caught you by surprise?
It’s been crazy. It’s been super-duper crazy, but awesome. And always kind of what we wanted. I would always act like I expected it, but you never really expect it, you know what I mean? I knew that I thought the three of us were funny. I knew that I found us very funny, and that we had friends who found us funny. And I would do stand-up, and there’d always be those 15 people in the crowd out of 100 who thought I was really funny. But I also knew that the other 85 could kind of care less, so it’s always hard to know where you’re actually going to fall in the bigger scheme.
We’re still kind of figuring that out. I think we’ve gotten a lot of attention because of those two things: “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box.” They both crossed over in a really big way for sketches, and the media latched on to them, but I mean, there are still people that find us obnoxious. That’s always how it’s going to be when you’re trying to do something funny.
You’ve done a lot of work in different mediums already. Do you see yourself trying anything else in the future?
I want to go back to stand-up at some point; I just haven’t had time to write. I haven’t done that pretty much since I got SNL. The three of us want to make an album; we’re seriously talking about doing that finally, which would be more of the same songs and stuff. That would be kickass.
How do you come up with the ideas for some of your sketches, particularly the digital shorts?
All kinds of ways. Sometimes I’ll think of something in the shower three weeks before the show. Well, it’s not always me, someone else might come up with an idea in the shower. Sometimes it’s literally Friday afternoon, and we have to have a digital short the next day. So we’ll have to get together: we sit down and we just have to do it.
Some people say SNL was better years ago. What do you have to say to that as a writer and a performer on the show?
They always say it. If you ask the original cast of SNL what people said about the second season of SNL, they said it was better last season. It’s the same people that everyone says now will never be topped. I remember growing up watching, it was Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz, and I would hear people say it then: “Oh, it’s okay, but it’s not as good as it used to be.” Then it was Sandler, Farley and Spade, and everyone would be like, “Oh, it sucks, it’s not as good anymore.”
But now people look at that stuff as pure, classic SNL stuff. Then it was [Will] Ferrell and Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer and [Chris] Kattan, and they were like, “Ugh, who are these guys?” And now Will Ferrell, everyone agrees, is the hugest and awesome-est dude in the world.
So I think I love it. I love that people say that, ’cause it makes me know that we’re just like everyone else. And when a show’s been going on for 32, 33 years or whatever it’s been, there’s no way it can live up to everyone’s expectations. At that point, three generations are watching it.
What is your favorite bit you’ve done?
I really like “Roy Rules,” the digital short we did. Randomly, just on a personal note, because it was about my real life brother-in-law and how I wanted to have sex with him. And I showed his actual picture at the end.
That was a “holy shit” moment for me, like SNL is my playground. I’m pulling a prank on my brother-in-law on national television. That was pretty kickass. And he’s cool, but he was not thrilled about the gay stuff. Which only made it so much sweeter.
There’s a rumor that there’s a clause in your SNL contract that you’re not allowed to cut your hair because it’s part of your image. True or false?
It’s absolutely not true, but I love that that’s out there. I kind of don’t want to deny it ’cause I think that’s such a kickass rumor. I think there’s even such a thing for me with Lorne, that my hair is getting a little too long. Lorne doesn’t like any of the cast members getting too shaggy. He wants us to look presentable.
Do you have advice for aspiring writers or performers?
Just write and shoot and perform. I’d say the first 50 things I did were terrible — not that everything I do now is great, but looking back, there were definitely some bad things. You have to figure out what your moves are, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and develop your own style.