Between Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Lonely Island, Saturday Night Live reunions, and Oscars performances, Andy Samberg barely has time to eat—but when he does, he does it well. By Kyle Buchanan. Styled by Christine Baker
“Do you think it’s, like, a little starter mcdoodle?” Andy Samberg asks me, examining the trussed-up piece of tuna
on his plate. We’ve just sat down to dinner at the trendy Hollywood restaurant Lucques, where the chef has prepared a special tasting menu just for Samberg, a frequent customer and self-professed foodie. Still, this initial bit of tuna is a surprise addition to the scallops, braised short ribs, and campari-and-grapefruit coupe to come—and therefore warrants a name of Samberg’s own devising. “That’s the official French term,” he protests with mock import, before digging in. “Starter mcdoodle.”
He has a way of making the phrase sound both daffy and authoritative all at once, a talent that serves Samberg well on the acclaimed Fox cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where, as Detective Jake Peralta, he convincingly delivers a bunch of hard-boiled police lingo without dropping a single silly punch line. When I meet up with him on this late February night, he’s nearly finished shooting Brooklyn’s second season and has come straight from the set, which might explain why he’s shown up at fancy Lucques wearing a gray hoodie, the sole casual diner in a sea of sport coats. “I think I’m a little bit underdressed,” Samberg says finally, about a half-hour into our meal. “It’s a pretty nice restaurant! I forgot this was the order of things.”
You can forgive Samberg for going full-Zuckerberg this one time, since lately, he’s been stuffed into a tuxedo more often than not. A few days before our meal, he was at the Oscars performing “Everything Is Awesome,” the infectiously giddy anthem from The Lego Movie (in which he shares rapping duties with his crew from The Lonely Island, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer); the week before that, Samberg was back in New York, celebrating the momentous 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live. With his trademark boyish enthusiasm, Samberg recalls meeting his idol Eddie Murphy that night—“He shook my hand and gave me a nod, which meant the world to me”—and staying out super late at the star-packed after-party, an indulgence that the 36-year-old Samberg rarely affords himself now that he’s got a sitcom and a gluten-eschewing diet to attend to.
The SNL anniversary also gave the actor an opportunity for some full-circle introspection. When he was cast on the show in 2005, Samberg and his Lonely Island buddies quickly came to fame for digital shorts like “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box,” which established the tousled-haired twentysomething as one of comedy’s premier goofballs, able to leaven even his hardest faux-rap with a good-natured sunniness that felt inherent to his appeal. All of that viral-video output—as well as a brand-new short Samberg made with Adam Sandler, “That’s When You Break,” a paean to SNL cast members cracking up during sketches—was well-represented in the anniversary broadcast. “They put our stuff in a lot of the clip packages, and it was really flattering,” says Samberg. “There are people I consider to be legendary SNLers who didn’t have as much.”
Samberg doesn’t point that out in order to brag; if anything, he feels humble about his place in the Saturday Night Live pantheon, and uneasy when his legacy is compared to any of his co-stars, as it recently was in a notorious Rolling Stone list that ranked every SNLer ever. Samberg placed 22nd, just above Fred Armisen and below Chris Rock. “I fared pretty well, but it still made me angry that they did it,” he says. “For anyone who was a cast member who reads that and feels like shit, that’s not worth however good it makes the people feel who get put higher up. I can tell you, if I was ranking it, I’d put myself pretty fucking low!”
Samberg rarely works himself up into a state of agitation—affability is his main mode—but he does have one further tweak for the Academy members who nominated “Everything Is Awesome” but snubbed The Lego Movie in the best animated film category. “If you want to put your faith in what the Oscars think, you gotta live with that,” says Samberg, taking a bite of his citrus salad. Still, he was thrilled to perform during the broadcast and shared a significant moment with longtime friends Schaffer and Taccone just before their Oscar-nominated song began. “We kind of looked at each other and just started laughing,” says Samberg, “because it always feels like, ‘How is what we’re doing still continuing to ascend the ladder of bigness?’”
And they have further to go. This summer, Samberg hopes to shoot a Lonely Island movie that Schaffer and Taccone will co-direct, and the trio has been hard at work banging out a screenplay and writing songs for the big-screen effort. “That’s ours from the ground floor,” says Samberg, while noting that he’s still proud of what he and the other Lonely Islanders brought to their 2007 film Hot Rod, which died at the box office but has since found a college-cultivated afterlife. “Making a movie is super-fucking-hard work and no one wants to put out a movie and have it not make a gajillion dollars, but I genuinely feel like I’ve reached a point where, when I’m old and I’m going to die, I really made the shit that I personally thought was funny.”
Samberg is quick to heap praise on the famous friends who make him laugh—after watching The Skeleton Twins, a well-reviewed indie dramedy that starred his old SNL castmates Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, he joked, “Bill’s gonna win an Oscar soon, and I’ll have to be all jealous about it”—and he can go on at length about the contemporary comedies he loves. “I won’t miss a Key & Peele—that show is so fucking good,” he says. “[Amy] Schumer is incredible. [Nick] Kroll’s show I love, Comedy Bang Bang I love. Eric André, Portlandia.” Samberg recently watched a documentary that included Mel Brooks, and he found himself particularly taken with a moment when the revered filmmaker breaks up a serious anecdote with an improvised toot. “Seeing an 88-year-old make a fart sound, choosing to still think that’s the way to live his life...,” says Samberg, grinning widely. “I don’t know, I find it very heartening.”
That comedic collision between the sophisticated and the infantile is also why Samberg has long been a devotee of all things related to the mid-’90s MTV sketch show The State, including the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, conceived by State alums David Wain and Michael Showalter. Back in their leaner Los Angeles years, Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer found themselves inspired to create their own videos after watching Stella, a series of online comedy shorts that Wain and Showalter made with fellow State alum Michael Ian Black, and even though those three men weren’t much older than the fledgling Lonely Island trio, they appeared more mature because of their insistence on wearing old-fashioned suits in every short. “It made them seem like adults, and it allowed them to play adult things that they could ruin by acting like children,” says Samberg. “We used to talk a lot about how powerful a thing that is, and how excited we were to get a little older so we could still act stupid.”
And make no mistake, Samberg is definitely getting older. “I take vitamins, I’ve got fucking orthotics in my sneakers,” he admits. “That’s some 36-year-old shit.” He declines a glass of wine at dinner, citing an early call time the next day and a reluctantly renewed focus on his own health: “I’m realizing that you have to watch what you eat and start drinking less, and that if you don’t exercise, you’re going to die sooner.” His Lonely Island colleague Akiva Schaffer confirms Samberg’s encroaching elderliness. “Sometimes he complains about his elbow hurting, in sort of a curmudgeonly way,” says Schaffer, adding with a laugh, “It’s turning him into a real square.”
Part of Samberg’s recent maturation has involved marriage. Almost two years ago, Samberg wed singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, and for most of last winter, he squired her around town as she promoted her movie debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which Newsom narrated and acted in. “I was very proud of her and not surprised in the slightest, because I’m convinced she can do just about anything,” says Samberg. He was a longtime fan of Newsom’s even before they met at one of her concerts—“I was prepared to be intimidated,” he says, “but she’s a fun, silly woman when she wants to be”—and when he talks about his wife, he’s positively beaming. “She’s just one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard,” he says. “Her songs do the thing that’s my favorite thing that art can do, which is be full of beauty and yet melancholy at the same time. ’Cause that’s what life is, really: beauty, and also melancholy.”
Perhaps that melancholy so intrigues Samberg because it’s not necessarily the wheelhouse within which he operates. “Comedians are natural pessimists, OK?” explains his Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star Terry Crews. “Their job is to find out what’s wrong with everything, and that’s how they find what’s funny. Now, this is where Andy is different. He sees the bad, he notices it and doesn’t ignore it, but then he finds the great thing about it. He goes the other way; he finds the positive, and the negative stuff never brings him down because he’s thinking about how blessed and thankful he is.”
Canvass his old colleagues, and that contagious good mood of Samberg’s comes up time and time again. “Oh my God, we’ve had so many laughs,” emails Amy Poehler. “We both have big, giant mouths that love to laugh.... He is a big-hearted warrior. A boy king. A hot piece and a stone-cold fox.”
I chat about Samberg with Fred Armisen, who suspends his Portlandia-honed deadpan to gush, “To this day, I love being around him.” Armisen recalls the late nights they spent together rehearsing Saturday Night Live, when Samberg would throw out a ribald, unexpected line that would re-energize his tired castmates: “There are things that he says under his breath while smiling, and just him doing that is enough to really shake up the scene.” Armisen pauses for a moment, lost in a swoony remembrance. “God, I love that guy a lot. I really do.”
A few days after our dinner, I meet up with Samberg on the set of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where he’s shooting the penultimate episode of his sitcom’s second season. The craft services table is overflowing with some seriously unhealthy snacks, yet Samberg refrains, choosing instead to nosh on some carrots and celery dipped in almond butter. “I had a weekend of bad eating,” he admits, blaming his temporary lapse in judgment on a few stray Sunday beers. “I’m glad to hear that you go off the wagon sometimes,” needles nearby Brooklyn co-executive producer Laura McCreary, “because every time I see you, you’re eating perfectly.”
Samberg is soon summoned for his big scene. His character, Jake Peralta, must endure a dressing-down from Sergeant Jeffords (Terry Crews) and Detective Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio): Though Jake had earlier injured himself in the line of duty, he continues to overdo it, and his colleagues are concerned for his well-being. Says Jeffords, “You put work above everything else, and it’s not healthy.”
The line reminds me of a candid moment from our dinner at Lucques a few nights ago, when Samberg was talking about just how packed his schedule has been as of late. “I hate it,” he admitted then. “I pretty much know what I’m doing every part of the day for the next year, and saying that out loud gives me the shits.”
On set, Crews points an in-character finger at Samberg. “If you don’t figure out how to balance things,” he tells the boy detective, “you’re gonna burn out.”
It’s easy to understand why Samberg himself might hit that wall. It would make sense to simply start going through the motions, conserving his energy for the next major demand on his overscheduled life instead of giving much thought to the fifth take in the eighth scene of the 22nd episode in this 23-episode season. With all the things he’s had on his plate recently, he should want to get in and out of that soundstage as soon as possible, right?
Instead, Samberg forfeits his next line and pulls up his shirt, seductively flashing his co-stars with a swath of his hairy belly. Lo Truglio cracks up. So does Crews. Samberg just grins, and the show goes on.