Q&A with Andy Samberg, Viral Video King
Thanks to Freya for the scoop! After you get past the interviewer's setup, this is an AWESOME interview! Andy talks shop about YouTube frustrations, Jay Pharoah, his SNL inspirations, how viral videos on the Web work, and more! Kudos go out to the interviewer, Chris Hardwick.
Pillow talk with Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg:
OK, sure, the Internet represents the largest paradigm shift since the Industrial Revolution. And it toppled totalitarian regimes, crippled the music business, and neutered the porn industry. But it has also completely changed the landscape of comedy.
The unceremonious pop that signified the end of the 1980s took with it dozens of televised stand-up shows, their brick backdrops crumbling into metaphoric rubble. In the ’90s, a comedian would tour, and if that person were lucky, he might get a deal for a sitcom that would either never get made or enjoy a swift cancellation.
And then: broadband. YouTube turned all of civilization into a reality show. I can barely remember a time before its voyeurism, nut shots, kitten yawns, and sad-larious shenanigans made the TV show I host, Web Soup, possible.
But it’s not just video. Like all comedians, I have a podcast. Mine is called the Nerdist, and starting it was my single best career decision ever. Doing a weekly show let me burrow into a niche and connect with like-minded nerds. Plus, it has done more to increase attendance at my live shows than all of my TV projects combined. Sketch comics, once constrained to Saturday Night Live, now have entire channels, entire sites, devoted to them. As a result, comedians, in addition to barely handling the pressures of being hilarious all the time, also have to understand marketing, delivery systems, and social media.
Few comics do this better than SNL’s Andy Samberg. His group, the Lonely Island (with Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone), has been making web videos since 2000—to the tune of 440 million YouTube views. If you’ve enjoyed the Chronic-WHAT-cles of Narnia, been On a Boat, or presented your Di$$ in a Box to a young lady, thank these guys.
Samberg and I sat down in New York for an in-depth discussion about comedy on the digital stage—and what it means when performers can become known commodities in a matter of hours. Get ready for serious talk about the business of web comedy (mainly because Wired made me cut out all the va$ina jokes).
Hardwick: You guys really were pioneers on the Internet. The stats on your YouTube channel are insane: 65 videos, 894,000 subscribers, 440 million views. [Man]!
Samberg: People like jokes about ji$$.
Lonely Islanders: (from left) Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone...
Hardwick: Clearly. But do you actually make money with the YouTube channel, or is it more about awareness?
Samberg: We’re trying to make it more the former. So far it’s been really good for awareness.
Hardwick: Why do you think it’s so hard to spin YouTube into cash?
Samberg: Well, we started through NBC and SNL, and weirdly, when the stakes and production value get higher, it is less profitable. If you want to make YouTube your sole place to make money, you have to strike a balance between spending less and producing more. Because the more you produce, the more followers you gain. It’s a more intimate relationship between the creator and the viewers than on TV.
Hardwick: When I started doing my podcast a year ago, I said it just has to be consistent every week. But that’s harder when you’re making videos.
Samberg: It’s especially hard because we’re already making videos every week at SNL. And we can’t put those on YouTube, because NBC Universal has their deal with Hulu and NBC.com. For us it started when we did “Lazy Sunday” with Chris Parnell. It was on YouTube immediately, because no one had really heard of YouTube yet. It became a big thing, but then it got yanked off. When we did the one with Natalie Portman, the same thing happened. We did “Di$$ in a Box,” and the same thing happened. It got really frustrating, because we knew there was an audience beyond the show. So for our songs and music videos, with the involvement of Lorne Michaels and NBC, we struck the record deal. That’s why videos like “Ji$$ in My Pants” and “I’m on a Boat” live on YouTube and have those gigantic view counts.
Hardwick: When did you first think, oh, comedy is a thing I would like to do?
Samberg: I was 8 years old. I would sneak into the TV room and watch SNL.
Hardwick: Which cast?
Samberg: Lovitz, Carvey, Hartman, Jan Hooks—that era. The only time it ever dropped off a little for me was the beginning of the Ferrell-Oteri-Shannon era. But then I got into that really hot as well. It was just that, you know, in your first two years of college you stop watching SNL a little bit, because you’re going out, and there was no TiVo then. Akiva and I were recording SNL on VHS until 2004.
Hardwick: Wait, are you saying you weren’t able to just consume media whenever you wanted?
Samberg: That was the case. When we met Ferrell and Fred Armisen and Will Forte, we were like, “We watched your sketches on VHS over and over till we memorized them.” They said, “That was like last week.” All I could say was, “I know, but they weren’t online.”
Hardwick: OK, that’s one way the Internet has changed comedy: access. What else do you think has changed?
Samberg: I don’t think that the actual quality or content has changed. It’s just that now there’s another way for you to find it. Like one of SNL’s new cast members, Jay Pharoah, is a killer impressionist. And he was basically found on the Internet. I mean, I know he did stand-up and stuff, but they told us, like, “Oh yeah, they’re considering this guy. Take a look at his YouTube video.” It was literally just him in his bedroom doing a bunch of impressions. And he was super-talented. You can get discovered a new way now is really my only point. You know, one of the common misconceptions about the Lonely Island is that we were discovered on the Internet. We actually weren’t. A hand-off of a VHS tape is how we got agents, and working on the MTV Movie Awards with Jimmy Fallon and producers Mike Shoemaker and Steve Higgins is how we got recommended to SNL.
Hardwick: What was your audition for SNL like?
Samberg: It was very silly. You’re supposed to do impressions and characters, and I basically had none. So I did a lot of stand-up and tried to show how I was a dumbass.
Hardwick: Did you have music?
Samberg: I recorded a song and played it before I did one character, and it did not work. It was a perfect way of describing how I’ve managed to work at the show, which is like, well, let me just show you what I mean by doing this video with my friends.
Hardwick: So who came up with the idea of framing you guys as the makers of viral videos? Because digital shorts are essentially the smart way to hybridize Internet and television.
Samberg: The producers, Higgins and Shoemaker, told us they were always looking for pretape material to change over the sets and costumes. We went out with Will Forte and did the first digital short, which was “Lettuce,” basically a very dramatic conversation conducted while really vigorously eating giant heads of lettuce. We brought it in, showed it to them, and they said, “Yeah, maybe.” They put it in dress, it got laughs. Then they put it on air. For them, it was incredibly cost-effective, and it filled that gap. So then we did the second one, “Peyote,” which didn’t air that week because it was too similar to “Lettuce” but aired toward the end of the season. And then the third one was “Lazy Sunday.” After that, they were like, “Yeah, keep making them.”
Hardwick: “Lazy Sunday” is so much fun to watch, but something you don’t get on the Internet is the experience of listening to the SNL audience go fu$$ing berserk.
Samberg: It’s crazy, man. Watching the shorts in the studio when they work is the most exhilarating feeling I think I’ve ever had in comedy. I’ve had some really good nights of stand-up, and I’ve had some really great moments live at SNL. But I still haven’t had a feeling comparable to right after “Di$$ in a Box” ended.
Hardwick: It crushed. And you won an Emmy. The only problem that you may have is dudes running up with their di$$s in boxes, saying, “Hey, remember when you did this thing?”
Samberg: I’ve had one, but it was not his actual di$$. One Halloween a guy saw me in a bar and was like, “Dude, check it out!” He lifted up the box and there was a giant dildo in it. And I was like, “Yeah, you’re not showing this to people, right? You’re going to get arrested.”
Hardwick: Which is worse: something that doesn’t work online or doesn’t work on television?
Samberg: It hurts more for me when it doesn’t work on SNL, just because you can hear it not working. On YouTube it’s a low view count, but you know that it’s still finding people who like it. I mean, there’s certainly the thing with SNL that our favorite sketches are always the last two of the night, the ones that were super-crazy-balls, that the audience was silent through. I think it’s important to do whatever’s making you laugh that week, you know, instead of always trying to make the biggest thing ever.
Hardwick: Between that and the time constraints, I wonder whether SNL is the most Internet-like show on television.
Samberg: It’s certainly geared naturally to the Internet, because it’s so modular. The things that work on the show are allowed to have this great afterlife online. Like, there’s this Nintendo Wii sketch that they did a few seasons ago with Alec Baldwin, where it looked like they were jerking off. It was really late in the show. We all loved it, the crowd really went for it, but it was an end-of-the-show kind of a sketch. And that was one of the most viewed sketches on Hulu.
Hardwick: Does the fact that the sum total of human comedy is available at all times force you to be a little more competitive?
Samberg: There are a lot of people trying to do comedy. People are going to have the same ideas. But there’s so much content being produced that even if something is really popular, there’s only so much of a cycle that an Internet video can have. I think it gets shorter and shorter because there’s more and more content. Even things that people love—when something reaches a certain level of success online, everyone turns on it.
Hardwick: Do you think that the trappings of traditional media make online comedy less funny?
Samberg: When we do the music videos now, it’s the most we spend. Which is kind of ironic, because in the beginning it was like, look how cool we can make it for cheap. But you know, we have a record deal, so we’re trying to compete with the biggest videos. Such a huge part of our joke is having it feel like modern pop or modern rap or modern whatever genre. But a huge part of that is mimicking the style of the videos, the excitement and glossiness. We learned that on “Ji$$” and “Boat” especially.
Hardwick: We got so Charlie Rose there for a second. “When you were working on ‘Ji$$’—”
Samberg: Oh, man, that was like the episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with Dave Chappelle, when James Lipton plays a clip from Half Baked and says, “That was a remarkable piece of acting.” Chappelle just dies laughing. That was my favorite thing ever. There’s no way to talk about comedy seriously without sounding like a di$$head.
Once again thanks go out to Freya and Juliette for the scoop!
Well, in the beginning, the interviewer failed to mention one important thing... Andy Samberg & TLI were so successful on YouTube BECAUSE of television and SNL, not the other way around. Both are important, but YouTube is not a replacement, and TV offers a lot more money and "stability". Fortunately, that became clearer when Andy told him in the actual interview. Either the interviewer wrote the intro before he interviewed Andy, or he simply wasn't listening to Andy or care about what Andy said. Weird.
This was a GREAT interview.
Learn anything new in this interview?