A Conversation with Andy Samberg: Cops, Cuckoos and Comedy

The former 'SNL' star returns to TV on Sept. 17 in Fox's 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'

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Beth Dubber / FOX

Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine

He left Saturday Night Live in 2012, after performing in nearly 150 episodes, but Andy Samberg, 35, is returning to TV. The actor—also part of the comedy-music trio The Lonely Island—stars in Fox’s new cop sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, premiering Sept. 17.

TIME: I guess the first thing I have to ask is whether you’ve ever been arrested.
Andy Samberg: I’ve never been officially arrested, no.

Officially?

I’ve been held, like drinking in a park or something, but they always go, ‘All right, get out of here, you knuckleheads.’

Does everyone ask you that now that you’re playing a cop?

You’re the first.

Wow, I thought that was going to be the obligatory thing everyone asks.

No, the obligatory thing I get asked is what’s it like working with Andre Braugher.

So what’s it like working with Andre Braugher?

It’s great!

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Did you have to do any research about police procedures and detective work?

We have two former police officers who are technical advisers on set. Before we started shooting the pilot, they ran us through some very basic stuff from how you would enter a room, how to hold a gun, you know, stuff like that. As we go and situations arise, they’ll advise us on what protocol would be in those situations. I’m definitely learning a bit here and there.

Anything surprising?

It’s been surprising hearing real-life stories about the mundane and mischievous hijinks of real cops. It’s funny because there are so many things in our show where it’s people pulling pranks, and they’re, like, ‘Oh yeah, we do stuff like that all the time.’ It’s not just because it’s a comedy show. It’s because that apparently is a legitimate part of precinct life.

You play a detective with authority-figure issues. How are you with authority figures in real life?

I wouldn’t say that I have a complex about authority figures. I more have a problem not goofing off.  Pretty much every report card in elementary school had the ‘needs to display self-control’ box checked.

Have you improved in that area?

Mildly. Oh so mildly.

Have you ever had a job where you needed to wear a uniform?

Yeah, I worked at a movie theater when I was in college. That was a very, very ugly uniform. It was the ‘90s standard-issue purple and black polo, black pants and the grease of popcorn butter. I never took it home and washed it.

How does doing a BBC sitcom like Cuckoo, which recently had its first season, compare to an American sitcom like Brooklyn Nine-Nine? The season is longer here but I imagine there are other differences.

In America it’s just a bigger production in general. Also in America, for the most part, if you’re on network, there’s a staff of writers. Whereas the show I did for the BBC was just two guys who wrote the whole thing, so it was more of a singular vision.  And tonally there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on that separates American comedy from British comedy.

There’s this stereotype that British humor is so different…

It’s certainly more dry, as their culture in general is. It’s been around longer so they’re more over it. I  will say Cuckoo had a lot of humor in it that I found pretty distinctly American. I’m playing an American in it, so I think that kind of gave them carte blanche to have some American-style humor, potty humor and that kind of stuff. It’s the reverse with shows like Parks & Rec and The Office  and Louie; there’s much more subtle comedy happening in the States as well.

And you get to wear some pretty good necklaces on Cuckoo.

I do. My wardrobe on Cuckoo is stellar.

Any items you wanted to take home and incorporate into your day-to-day wardrobe?

Absolutely not. But I know a ton of people I grew up with in Berkley who would be really into that stuff.

Was it a hard decision to go back into doing regular TV gigs so soon after SNL?

It wasn’t a hard decision to make creatively. The schedule was the only real question, and also the living in Los Angeles, but I’d lived in L.A. before and enjoyed it. It was more about making that adjustment. It was either this or wanting to do more movies, which I still want to do anyhow. So I knew that I would have to transition out of a late-night schedule one way or the other. And the opportunity was just too good to pass up. So far my instinct has felt very, very well served.

Will there be any breaking into song on Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

Not as of yet. I think we’d have to get pretty deep in to jump that shark. Make no mistake—that’s a shark I would love to jump.

Your jokes at the the recent James Franco roast, which were so un-roast-like, made me think a lot about the relationship between being funny and being mean. Do you have a larger comedic philosophy about being nice? 

I do have a philosophy about it, but it’s really more for myself. I love comedy in all its forms and I always have. I love mean comedy. There are people like Jeff Ross or even Chris Rock or Matt and Trey on South Park, people that, with brutal honesty, are incredibly mean—but it’s the funniest thing that there is. South Park, to me, is as funny as a thing can be in this world, and they’re incredibly mean, but most often with a point—and sometimes for no reason, which is funny because it’s clearly for no reason, which I also like. But, for myself, I don’t feel like my funniest stuff comes from that place of meanness. I feel like what I’m good at is lighthearted and much more being the butt of the joke. When I got asked to do the roast I knew I’d say yes because Franco was quite adamant about wanting me to participate, but I also was trying to find my way in without being mean. I didn’t feel like people would want to see that from me.

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Have you read any good books lately?

I recently reread Ender’s Game for the third time because I heard they were making the movie and I remembered how much I loved it when I was younger. Those are great. I’m very excited to see that movie. I hope it does for the book what the Lord of the Rings movies did for those books.

And what have you been watching?

I watched Mud on a plane, with Matthew McConaughey, and I thought that was really nice. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad of course. I’m constantly caught off guard by it. Every time I think we’re going to have to wait for something to happen it happens sooner than you think it’s going to happen. It’s been that way every season. It’s insane that it’s that good. I’ve been really loving Comedy Bang! Bang! That’s one of the shows I keep up with. It’s so strange and wonderful.

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