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Andy Samberg Breaks Caricature


Halfway through writing one of his lauded digital shorts at the Saturday Night Live studio at 30 Rock the Thursday before it's supposed to air, Andy Samberg is ruffled in his raffish, lackadaisical way. It's already 9 p.m. and he's got all night to go. His hair is mussed, but that's to be expected. His style is slacker-cool (plaid work shirt, corduroys) except for a pair of new brown-and-pink argyle Gravis skate shoes.

'I'm the number 1 dandy-preppy-skate poseur,' he says happily, breaking into his million-dollar grin and settling in for an interview. Samberg has a lot to smile about. As the crown jewel of the strongest SNL cast in years, Samberg, 30, has an ardent and large following, a future of guaranteed-profitable films (see Ferrell, Will), and his good looks. But the thing he's got most -- and what makes you love him -- is laughter, huge skeins of it that unspool and fill up a room. And more than his laughter even, he's got the ability to make others -- me, you, the rest of the world -- laugh.

'Apropos to your magazine,' Samberg explains, 'he's gay.' And not just any type of gay, but a het hunter.I Love You, Man, Samberg's second live-action feature (after Hot Rod), is, in his words, 'a dude-on-dude romantic story that straight guys can feel comfortable watching.' Written by John Hamburg (Meet the Parents), it stars Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, a man on the verge of marriage. Concerned about her soon-to-be-husband's lack of male friends, his fianc'e, Zooey (The Office's Rashida Jones), encourages him to find some. Inexplicably bereft of the programmatic behavioral quirks that bring men together -- a love of football and talking about pussy -- Peter turns to his younger brother Robbie, played by Samberg, for advice. Robbie is a classic bro. He works at a gym, likes to give pounds (terrorist fist jabs!), and refers to men as dudes and stuff as shit, as in 'Dudes like shit like that.'

'My character knows men really well, and knows straight men really well, because he only fucks them,' says Samberg. As a scholar and lover of men, Robbie doles out advice on how to catch one. The word man-date is used a lot, and Peter goes on a number of them. Hilarity and high jinks promptly ensue. Many end in disaster, but one ends in a friendship with Sydney Fife, a bro-ish investor played by Jason Segel, which forms the crucible of the narrative.

I Love You, Man is one of those funny, good-hearted bromance movies ushered in by 2007's Superbad. It's not going to win any Oscars -- it's like The Break-up but in reverse and for men. There's little revelatory in I Love You, Man, either in concept or execution. It will, perhaps, be called a 'tender, modest story' by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and he'll be right. But beneath the modesty and tendresse, there is a daring notion at play: Samberg's character is an unlisping, unfey, unqueeny gay man in a non-gay film. Groundbreaking, right? Sadly, in the conventional cineplex, it is. Samberg goes where no man has gone in mainstream comedy: He plays gay...straight.

'The reason I liked the character is because I know people like that,' says Samberg. 'There is this guy I know who for all appearances is pretty aggressively straight but who is actually gay. When we do an impression of him it's always like [slipping into the bro voice], 'Fucking pounded some beers, fucking kick-ass game on the television, I'm going to go suck a dude's dick. See you later!'

Samberg might be an unlikely banner-waver for a sophisticated and subtle take on homosexuality. His tenure at Saturday Night Live -- and SNL in general for that matter -- has been marked by accusations of insensitive depictions of gays. More accurately, for the past 34 years, Saturday Night Live has ghettoized gayness, making it nothing more than a punch line in sketch after sketch. It's not unfair or completely inaccurate to say it's a small step from punch line to punching bag. Of all the cast members in the history of SNL only one -- Terry Sweeney, 1985''1986 -- was openly gay. Does this have to do with Christopher Hitchens's fallacious and phallocentric thesis (published in Vanity Fair) that a dick and a hunger for vagina is a prerequisite for funniness or is it just run-of-the-mill situational segregation? Samberg himself has taken a lot of the heat for the November 15, 2008, show, hosted by Paul Rudd, which was derided as a 'gay minstrel show' by the blog Defamer. Proposition 8 had just passed and gayness was in the ether, but it doesn't explain this:
Kissing Family: College student Rudd brings his roommate, Samberg, home for a family dinner. His family is very affectionate. The favorite mode of affection: a profusion of kisses on the lips. Father-on-son, brother-on-brother, but strangely little mother-on-son or father-on-mother. Samberg is shocked but, in the end, confronts his fear with a slobbery, open-mouthed kiss with the father. 'That wasn't so bad,' he concludes.

Everyone's a Critic: Samberg asks Rudd, who's highlighting his lines in his dressing room, 'This is going to sound kind of weird but [pregnant pause] may I paint you?' Cut to: candles, sensual music, Paul Rudd naked, Samberg behind an easel. Think Titanic with Rudd as a very hirsute Winslet. 'It's cold in here,' says Rudd. 'Could've fooled me,' says Samberg. The two switch positions. Later they attempt to auction off Rudd's painting but are unsuccessful as the bidders gouge their eyes out at first sight of it.

Guys in a Car: A seemingly straight man tells a car full of his bros about the last time he had sex. The coitus occurred in the backseat of a cab with the cab's male driver.

Backup Dancers: Samberg, Justin Timberlake, and Bobby Moynihan, dolled up in unitards and pumps, play backup dancers in Beyonc's 'Single Ladies' video.

Update: Snagglepuss: In the infamous 'Weekend Update' in which Seth Meyers shushes audience members booing at the mention of Prop. 8 with a terse 'Vote's over,' Moynihan, dressed as the pink and seemingly gay mountain lion Snagglepuss, mourns the passage of Prop. 8 while becoming increasingly agitated at Meyers's insinuation of his homosexuality.

This from a show with only three gay writers out of 21 and no gay cast members. But Samberg poo-poos the episode's gayness. 'It wasn't on purpose. Sometimes you have a really dirty show. Sometimes you have a really gay show. As much as I'd like to say we made the [painting sketch] in response to Prop. 8, we didn't.' Furthermore, he says it's inaccurate to think that the sketches mock gays. The source of the humor, he claims, isn't in homosexuality itself but in the fraught relationship straight men have with it. 'It's bro-gay,' says Samberg, 'which I love just because dudes that are bros and super antigay are the ones who need to get it the worst. They're the ones we have the most fun fucking with.'

And if you think about it, he's right. The kissing family is, by all indications, a heteronormative nuclear family. The guys in the car are simply 'dudes.' Despite the candles and the soft sex music, Rudd and Samberg are nothing more than painter and painted. The humor is in the notion -- which makes many people very uncomfortable -- that beneath the thin veneer of heterosexuality is a current of homosexuality yearning to breathe free. On SNL, ambiguously gay duality is played for laughs and no one -- at least no one with a working sense of humor -- can deny it's funny. As Samberg says, 'It's a slippery slope, but sometimes that shit is just funny.'

But to justify the gay jokes as merely an act of provocation is to leave the door open for insidious stereotyping. The mincing foppery of Beyonc's backup dancers may well be a role-playing game meant to rattle homophobes, but it is an imprecise weapon of indeterminate range. Samberg et al, lisping in unitards and pumps, look a lot like gay stereotyping. This problem could be solved, or at least ameliorated, if Samberg were gay or if SNL's cast and writers were gayer. But Samberg is too damn good a comedian to make lapsing into vulgar caricature -- be it gay, white, or Mark Wahlberg talking to animals -- a habit.

The best illustration of Samberg's talent and the embodiment of his agent provocateur philosophy is his impeccably timed, heat-seeking missive to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. At a speech at Columbia University on September 24, 2007, Ahmadinejad claimed, 'In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country.' By that Saturday, the 27th, Samberg and his writing partners had written, recorded, and shot a surprisingly catchy love song to Mr. Ahmadinejad called 'Iran So Far.' The joke of the song wasn't -- or wasn't merely -- that one man could care so deeply about another as to pen him a ballad; nor was it merely Fred Armisen's eerily realistic Ahmadinejad that rendered that scary despot cuddly and adorable. The work was in the words. 'Talk smooth to me, without a tie,' Samberg raps, 'Your pants high-waisted, damn, so fly / We can take a trip to the animal zoo / And laugh at all the funny things that animals do.'

'The rap,' says Samberg, 'is the vessel for the jokes we are thinking of.' At one point, Samberg, playing the piano atop a double-decker bus as it rolls through Times Square, raps, 'I know you say there's no gays in Iran / But you're in New York now, baby / It's time to stop hiding / And start living.' Like the bus, the line has a number of levels. In two unrhymed couplets, Samberg deflates a bigot, supports a city, condones a way of life, and makes you laugh.

Similarly, says Samberg, 'no one is going to look at my character in I Love You, Man and say 'It's funny because you're a straight guy playing a gay guy.' It's funny because the character is funny.' That's one small step for Samberg but one giant leap for comedy.

I Love You, Man opens March 20. Incredibad, the new album from Samberg's band, the Lonely Islands, is available now.

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