Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
If we could single out any SNL cast member for changing the game in terms of the show’s format, impact, and internet-age revolution, Andy Samberg would be the one. With his Lonely Island team Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, Samberg brought SNL into the digital age with “Lazy Sunday” and made 100 more Digital Shorts before leaving for primetime television. Beyond their many other contributions, The Lonely Island paved the way for the rise of internet comedy groups and led to SNL execs scouting YouTube in addition to cherry-picking talent from institutions like The Groundlings and Second City. Beyond that, many would argue that 2005’s “Lazy Sunday” essentially transformed YouTube into what it is today.
Like Schaffer and Taccone, Samberg grew up in Berkeley and was an avid rap and hip-hop fan from a young age. He attended UC Santa Cruz before transferring to NYU to study film. Having become a diehard SNL fan during his childhood thanks to his shared time slot love for WWF Saturday Night’s Main Event, Samberg reunited with Schaffer and Taccone back in their hometown after graduating from NYU in 2000, and by September of that year they moved to Los Angeles, where they shared an apartment and created The Lonely Island named after their shared apartment/workspace. The guys also worked day jobs to sustain their comedy career, with Samberg and Taccone briefly working as production assistants on ABC’s Spin City to pay the bills. Between 2001-2005 they posted original sketches, two full-length pilots (“White Power!” and “Regarding Andy”) and a handful of recorded songs. (Click here for a more in-depth look at The Lonely Island’s pre-SNL years.)
Following the rising success they found through their website, The Lonely Island had a short-lived Comedy Central script order that didn’t work out, but they went on to contribute to Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s monthly short film festival Channel 101, most notably with their O.C. parody series “The ‘Bu,” which ran for a total of 11 episodes. The guys didn’t appear in the final three episodes; they were busy working on a $70K development deal with Fox after the network caught wind of their quickly rising online fame. While their Fox sketch show pilot Awesometown didn’t move forward, the trio’s work writing jokes and bits for 2005 MTV Movie Awards host Jimmy Fallon led to their meeting and eventual SNL hiring by Lorne Michaels. Schaffer and Taccone were brought on as writers, while Samberg – along with newcomers Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and in November, Kristen Wiig – as a featured player.
Unlike Jimmy Fallon or Bill Hader, Samberg isn’t known for nuanced celebrity impersonations or objectively accurate portrayals of news figures. Instead, his sensibility – west coast hip-hop brah meets New York film school artiste – shined through all his roles like magic. That’s not to say that his over 50 impersonations – from Nicolas “Get in the Cage” Cage to Mark “Say hi to your mother for me” Wahlberg to Jack “Mellow Show” Johnson to Princes William and Harry – weren’t believable portrayals. To the contrary, Samberg’s flippant and almost sarcastic approach to his characters helped make them not only funny but likable. Recurring character-wise, Samberg swayed between skewering his childhood love for hip hop and club music (see Blizzard Man and T’Shane), bringing chutzpah to a range of aging Jewish elders (see Mort Mort Feingold or Moishe Samberg), and heading bravely into inane ballsy nonsense (see the “Out of Breath Jogger from 1982” or “Liam the Teenager Who Just Woke Up”), though he saved his most unforgettable performances for the Digital Short format he pioneered with the Lonely Island guys AKA “The Dudes,” making their debut with the Samberg/Will Forte short “Lettuce” in December 2005. Later that month, Samberg appeared with Chris Parnell in “Lazy Sunday,” which redefined YouTube comedy when the uncensored version was posted online and garnered millions of views, effectively kick-starting the online comedy boom for the years to come.
Samberg went on to star and co-produce over 100 Digital Shorts, enlisting some of pop culture’s biggest stars to appear in the shorts – both SNL hosts and musical guests (Natalie Portman in “Natalie’s Rap,” Justin Timberlake in “Dick in a Box”) and seemingly random cameo picks (Michael Bolton in “Jack Sparrow,” Steven Spielberg in “Laser Cats 7”). They all seemed to get the joke no matter how absurd or outlandish, but Samberg’s faux-dopey momentum was the driving force behind the trademark Digital Short style, bringing a deceivingly slacker-esque charm to the smooth-talking unnamed “Dick in a Box” singer to the socially awkward bracefaced rapper Shy Ronnie to the wannabe-Rasta Ras Trent, Dennis the cocaine-addicted businessman, Laser Cats’ Admiral Spaceship, and a host of catchy musical performances like “I’m on a Boat,” “I Just Had Sex,” and the Shaft-esque but progressively more and more insulting theme song for John C. Reilly’s “Harpoon Man.” Explaining the musical inspirations behind The Lonely Island’s SNL Digital Shorts, Samberg told NPR last year that growing up, the trio were just “tiny little white dudes. We weren’t living the rap life at all. We just loved the music. … that’s where our comedy comes from. It comes from a love for what that music is and what it represents, but also always drawing a clear line to let everyone know that we don’t believe that we’re a part of it.”
Aside from Samberg’s almost endless Digital Short-related contributions, he managed to juggle SNL with other onscreen jobs in the late 2000s, beginning with 2007’s Hot Rod, a misfire shaggy underdog he wrote with Schaffer and Taccone where he played an idealistic would-be daredevil. TV-wise he showed up on Shutterbugs, Human Giant, The Sarah Silverman Program, Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, and 30 Rock, and he also appeared in films with Adam Sandler (That’s My Boy, Hotel Transylvania, Grown Ups 2) as well as offbeat indie flicks (Celeste and Jesse Forever, The To Do List). He shared his final SNL episode with fellow veteran Kristen Wiig at the end of the 2011-2012 season and celebrated (through a vow to “suck their own dicks”) with Schaffer, Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell, and a handful of past cameos and characters in the 100th Digital Short, and only a little over a year later – and after briefly starring as the titular American hippy in the BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo – Samberg made his starring network sitcom debut in the U.S. on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which earned him an Emmy win this past January, although not his first – he won one for “Dick in a Box” in 2007 as well as a Grammy nom for “I’m on a Boat” in 2009.
Now that Samberg has found his post-SNL grounding on television and his fellow Lonely Islanders are grown and married men, it’ll be interesting to see what evolution the often sophomoric humor of The Lonely Island takes on in the coming years and how frequently they will collaborate now that Samberg is an award-winning TV star and both Schaffer and Taccone are established writers and directors. Together they’ve released three albums – Incredibad, Turtleneck & Chain, and most recently The Wack Album – and considering the three share a friendship that goes back to grade school, it’s probably safe to say that the trio will always find time to make more funny content together. Meanwhile, there’s a scrappy new crew of video makers at SNL helmed by former YouTube star Kyle Mooney, and thanks to the trailblazing of Samberg and his two similarly wild and crazy lifelong friends from the west coast, SNL will consistently carve out time for another potentially viral and always absurd pre-taped sketch from the new guys.