The year was 1982, an insane and little-known blip in sports history when so many riders got caught doping in the Tour de France that only five out of 170 were allowed to continue the race — all of whom almost definitely were also on drugs. That’s the delightful premise of HBO’s Tour de Pharmacy, the newest documentary-style sports comedy from the team behind HBO’s 7 Days in Hell, about a fictional seven-day tennis match between Andy Samberg in a peroxide-blonde mullet and Kit Harington in short-shorts.
This time around, Samberg, who executive-produced the 39-minute special, out on Saturday, July 8, is back in green spandex as the first African rider in the Tour (as Adewale Akinnuoye-Abaje points out, this dude is a guy who would put Bob Marley on the jukebox and shout out “African music!”). He’s joined in the fab five by John Cena, who cheerily claims he got this big naturally; Daveed Diggs, as Jackie Robinson’s nephew trying to break the color barrier in another sport; Freddie Highmore, secretly breaking another barrier and played by Julia Ormond in present-day interviews; and Orlando Bloom as doomed banned-substance lover JuJu Pepe. The packed cast includes Jon Hamm as the narrator, Jeff Goldblum, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Glover, Kevin Bacon, James Marsden, Maya Rudolph, Mike Tyson, J.J. Abrams, and, shockingly, Lance Armstrong, playing a not-so-secret informant.
We talked to Samberg about his bike-riding skills, how he got Armstrong to spoof himself, and what’s next for him with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Bonus: He told us how he wants Game of Thrones to end.
Andy, I’m so glad you made this. I grew up watching the Tour de France with my dad and I think you captured the ethos pretty accurately.
So, why do you love sports comedy so much?
It’s sort of a combination of two things. The first one is I actually am a sports fan. I grew up playing sports and watching sports and I really have a genuine love for sports, so I also have watched a lot of sports documentaries — I enjoy the language of them. And the second one is I love doing comedy about machismo and male aggression and competitiveness, and I might also have an affinity for it, and those things together make for a rich tapestry of laughter. I hope!
What makes cycling so ripe for comedy?
After the first one of these, 7 Days in Hell, which was about tennis, we were just trying to choose a sport that a) had a lot of comedic potential and b) was something that we could actually, physically shoot for not a crazy budget. And it turns out you can get a group of people together on bicycles in the mountains for less money than say, putting together a giant football stadium. [Laughs.] So that helps. But honestly, the look of cycling we felt was funny if you got the right people doing it. John Cena in spandex on a tiny bicycle is a funny image, and that was one of places we started. Murray Miller, who wrote this and produces it with me, that was one of the first things he thought of that made us laugh.
And then on top of all that, there’s so much strange behavior surrounding the sport and we felt like it was a funny thing to really exaggerate and blow up for comedic purposes, all the stuff with PEDs and that. But when we started researching back even further, it turns out there was a really long history of crazy cheating behavior from the very beginning of the Tour and the beginning of cycling, because it was created to be impossible, physically.
Well, they’re doing 200 kilometers a day for three weeks up mountains.
I should say, I have tremendous respect for cyclists. I know that this is a big goof on sort of the negative side of it, but having tried to cycle myself, which was really tough physically, especially in uphill mountains in the heat, you’re like, “Wow, this is fucking crazy!” The dedication that it takes to be in that good of a shape, it’s like marathon runners and cyclists — those are the people that really have that grinding long-distance mentality that’s hard to fathom for someone like me.
Were you doing a lot of your own cycling? Did you train?
I didn’t train. I definitely should have trained. Yeah, the first one, I actually played a bit of tennis, so that was much easier. Luckily we had people like Orlando Bloom and James Marsden who are actually really confident and accomplished cyclists, so we leaned more on them in the action sports footage. [Laughs.] My story line, not coincidentally, is all kind of lazily cruising through the countryside. It’s not a ton of hard-grinding cycling.
Well, there’s some hard-grinding off the bike for your character [who has an affair with another rider].
Yes, indeed. As is my norm.
Did you pick people for this special who actually knew about cycling so they could riff off of it better? I kept wondering the whole time if everyone was a true cycling fan and it made me so happy.
It was a total coincidence with Orlando and Marsden. We wanted them just because we thought they would be awesome for the parts, and then we found out that they were avid cyclists and fans and knew a ton about it, and it really helped because they looked so pro. And then John Cena is just athletic, obviously, and in incredible shape, and Daveed Diggs is in incredible shape. Freddie Highmore had a balanced approach to cycling, and I was … not as good. [Laughs.]
What would happen to you in the action sequences?
I was winded a lot. Murray and our director Jake Szymanski were laughing at me the whole time we were editing, because when you go through footage you’re like, “Okay, here we are, we come through and here are all the cyclists. And then let’s wait ten seconds and … there’s Andy.” Like, sucking wind and looking down the lens super grumpy, just like, “It’s 120 degrees! Didn’t we get the shot?”
Let’s go through the insane cast. Freddie Highmore gives quite a performance, being both French and a woman pretending to be a man.
Yeah, he is a delightful guy. I had never met him before, but so lovely and so sweet and very game performance-wise. He really dove in 100 percent from the jump and was awesome.
And when I saw the promo, I was really ready to think you guys weren’t going to get things right because you had Daveed Diggs in there, and there are almost no black cyclists. But it was impressive, the story made sense!
Yeah, we were like, “How does this factor in?” Because we knew we didn’t want the cast to be just a big boring blob of white people. [Laughs.]
Well, there are a lot of Latino guys in cycling.
Yes, but, you know, just like all things, hopefully it’s diversifying a little. No? There are still no black people in cycling?
Almost none. Also, you’re releasing at the start of the second week of this year’s Tour de France.
Yeah, that’s very intentional. We did 7 Days in Hell around Wimbledon time as well. I think it’s a nice way to throw it in the mix.
You mentioned crazy cheating stories, and the one I know about is this really famous British cyclist Tom Simpson who had a heart attack going up Mont Ventoux in 1967 while on alcohol and amphetamines. Was that your basis for Orlando Bloom’s character?
As we did with 7 Days in Hell, too, all the characters are pulled from various places and smushed into other, singular characters. But I do think that was a reference to that one.
How did you feel about wearing spandex?
The cycling stuff I think we shot over four days. Spandex, in the beginning, it’s a little uncomfortable and you feel a little exposed and then you adjust. It’s like living in a nudist colony. It just becomes your life. [Laughs.]
Did any of you try the cyclist trick of peeing off your bike?
I don’t know if anyone actually did it. We were tempted a few times. Truthfully, it was so hot when we were shooting, I think we were all too dehydrated to even have pee in our bodies.
Were there spandex jokes you cut? Showing the nuts, showing the bolts?
We shied away from it because we leaned really heavy on it for Chris Romano’s character, Yabin Dolchey. So we wanted to maybe keep it a little more out of view for the rest of it so it didn’t feel like tonnage.
But it was important that you have that in there?
Oh yeah, we’ve got to show some male genitalia in everything we make. It came about sort of naturally in the first one, just in that we knew that we were going to do a scene with a streaker because that had happened at Wimbledon. And I talked to Murray and said, “If we do a scene with a naked girl we also have to also have a naked guy because we have to have equal-opportunity nudity,” and it made us laugh so much. And it’s our friend Chris Romano, who’s known for showing everyone his dick anyway, whether they want to see it or not. I should specify, he shows mostly dudes, so it’s not as offensive as it sounds. And we cast him and decided that we needed his dick to be a recurring character in all of these, and Murray wrote that part for him. And then we just kept piling onto it. There’s a fun scene with him and John Cena that we added on pretty much the day we shot it that was making us laugh pretty hard.
Tell me the story of getting Lance Armstrong for the movie.
It’s not that good of a story. Murray wrote it in and we were laughing just because I really think it’s a funny joke, and we were like, “I doubt he would do it, but let’s ask because you never know.” And I had met him before because he had hosted SNL when I worked there, and we sent it and he said he thought it was funny and we hopped on the phone and I said, “It’s really what it seems like in the script. It’s a bit, and we might try some alt lines.” And he said, “Yeah, seems funny!” And we were like, “Okay, great!”
So we were very pleasantly surprised he was up for it, and that was kind of it. We flew to Austin and shot with him and hung out for about an hour. He was very down to try stuff. We did a bunch of alts and all of that stuff wound up in it.
Were you basically like, “I guess we’ll keep going since he’s still doing it”?
Yeah! He was really not tripping. He was like, “Yup, that’s funny. Okay, I’ll try something like that. Yeah, seems funny.” It was really easy.
Do you think he’ll be surprised how much he’s in the movie?
I mean, he knows what we shot because he said it all. [Laughs.] But maybe he thought it wasn’t going to be expanded as much. By the way, the amount he was in it is way cut down. We had a lot more of him in it. It got to the point where people were like, “It’s all funny, but it’s distracting to the story at a certain point.”
How’s he doing? How’s Lance?
He seemed good. We didn’t go too deep. It was just like, “I can’t believe this is happening and it’s very pleasant.” [Laughs.] But yeah, we just sort of presented to him what we wanted to do and he was down. It was a very clinical shoot. We showed up, we shot his stuff, and we left.
How did you get the really random talking heads like J.J. Abrams and Mike Tyson, where you’re like, “Why are these guys in a cycling documentary”?
Mike Tyson, that was one of those where we just asked and he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we flew to Vegas and shot him. And I think he just really liked the material we wrote. There’s a whole Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out [video game] bit in it that was very nostalgic and fun for us. And J.J. Abrams I’m just sort of friendly with through various things. I asked him to be in a video I did for the Movie Awards for MTV when I hosted a ways back, and we’ve stayed in touch since then. We have this whole thing about French cinema and the French New Wave, and I was like, “It would be incredible to get J.J. to do this.” And I basically kept emailing him until he said yes.
When do you go back to shooting Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
Late July. So in a few weeks we start shooting again.
How long do you think you’ll keep doing it? Just in it for as long as it runs?
Yeah, I think that’s the idea. I mean, I don’t give it a ton of thought weirdly. Maybe I ought to think about it more. Brooklyn Nine-Nine from the jump has been something where I’ve just been like, “Yes!” Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor] came and pitched it to me and I was like, “Yes! I wasn’t looking to do this, but if it’s you guys, yes! Great!” And then it got picked up and I was like, “Yes! I like this!” [Laughs.] It’s all been very knee-jerk and just following my intuition on it because it’s just great people and I think it’s turned into something I really enjoy doing and creatively I’m very proud of and everyone who I work with there is super-nice. I know this sounds like a very political way of talking about it, but it’s very easy because it’s just real.
Like, I did one episode of Parks & Rec when they were doing that, and I remember after I’d wrapped that episode talking to Amy Poehler about it and being like, “Everyone’s so nice! This is such a good life!” [Laughs.] And she was like, “Yeah, it’s awesome. You have your own little work family and it’s a very pleasant way to do comedy.” So when it came up I was like, “Yes! Let’s do it!” So that’s a really long way of saying I am happy to do it for as long as we are allowed and as long as we feel creatively like we have things to do with it.
It just seems like you guys are having a ton of fun. Watching it you can tell.
Yes, right from the beginning there was this weird thing where the cast all just decided to be friends, like, right out of the gate. [Laughs.] I’d say I could describe every person in the cast where they were like, “Yeah, this is exactly what I want to be doing.” It was really good timing for everybody in that way, and everyone comedically does something different so everyone has their own land and can co-exist and everyone scores. It’s just — it’s a dream job.
Wasn’t it on the fence last year with the network?
They made us wait a long time before they announced it. I was never worried, but maybe I should’ve been. If they’d been like, “You guys are done,” it would’ve been shocking to me at that point, because the way the season ended, it would’ve been like, “Ew, that sucks.” But I wasn’t worried about it. Maybe moving forward I will be, but it feels like people seem to still enjoy the show and the way that people watch TV is changing so much and changing so fast. There are so many different places and ways people watch that I honestly have lost my gauge on whether we’re doing well or doing well enough to stay on, so we just keep making it and trying to make it good.
I’m pretty sure you’ll be employable should something happen. Do you have any summer TV recommendations for the rest of us?
I’m a little behind, to be honest, catching up on family stuff.
You didn’t lock yourself into a bunker to watch every single TV show?
I didn’t. But I’d love to right now. That sounds actually delightful. No, we were about halfway through Fargo this season and I was loving that. We actually hadn’t seen any of Fargo and my wife and I binged the whole first two seasons and got halfway through the new one before we got busy with family stuff, and that was obviously mind blowing. I can’t believe it took us that long to watch. It was so good.
Going biking after this?
Absolutely. Right after this. My butt is finally not sore anymore from shooting.
You’re traumatized. It’s over. Never biking again.
Yeah, it’s like that surfer who got attacked by the shark, it took him a long time to get back in the water. [Laughs.] I shouldn’t make fun of that. He was actually a super-inspirational story. But, yeah, it took me a while just physically in the butt area to get on a bike again.
But you have?
Oh yeah. I’ll do a pleasant, cushioned-seated bike ride. I’ll do like a Citi Bike.
They are great seats.
Exactly. Well, thank you for watching and writing about this. Hopefully your dad will like it, too.
I’ll have to give him my HBO log-in. Random fun fact about my dad: We live near Santa Fe and George R.R. Martin owns a local movie theater there …
Oh my god!
… and he’ll show Game of Thrones at the local theater and my dad will drive like an hour to get there and then wait two hours in line to see it, even though I have given him my HBO log-in.
Will George come??
Yeah, I think he introduces all of them and he’ll bring guests, like he brought Shae.
Well, that makes it worth it. It’s arguably the best show of all time.
Coming back July 16!
Coming back in a big way. [Starts chuckling to himself.] It would be amazing if after all this, the Game of Thrones finale was just the White Walkers being like, “Eh, forget it. We’re just gonna go back.” [Laughs.]
“We don’t really like it down South.”
“It’s too hot. Anyways, have fun.” People would be like, “No!”
I hope you write that in. I’m sure you know people.
I’ll pitch it to those guys.
You’re already in with HBO. You could make it happen.
I definitely could get it to them, the real question is what the reaction would be. I think it would probably be anger.
Like, “How did we not think of this yet? We were doing a comedy this whole time!”
[Laughs.] I’m imagining they’d be more like, “Yup, Samberg ruins another one!”