According to "Saturday Night Live" wunderkind and comedy cinephile Andy Samberg, the ideal length for a funny movie is approximately 90 minutes. Samberg knows this because he's done the research. When he and his partners in comedy, boyhood pals Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, found out that Paramount Pictures was going to give them millions of dollars to make their first feature film, they immediately went online to look up the running times of all the comedies they worshiped. "No stone unturned," Samberg says. "You only get one first shot, ya know?" Up to that point, he and his pals hadn't made anything over five minutes and they knew that "Hot Rod," the story of an aspiring stuntman who's not very good at stunts, would probably have to be longer than that. So they looked up "Billy Madison" and "The Jerk" and "Tommy Boy," among others, and they noticed a pattern. "I'd say about 80 to 90 percent of them were in that 90-minute range," Samberg says. "That's the sweet spot." But they also noticed something else: the majority of these films—the ones they rewatched repeatedly as kids, still quote to each other now and revere as undisputed classics—got lousy reviews at the time and made little money. "Hot Rod," which arrived in theaters last weekend, is 88 minutes long. Critics were not kind. It got crushed at the box office by "The Bourne Ultimatum." In other words, there's no stopping it now.
Comedies have a way of sneaking into the pantheon through a side door, so while it's easy to imagine many people, not just stuffy grown-ups, rolling their eyes at a movie like "Hot Rod," it's just as likely that the kid down the aisle is thinking, Best. Movie. Ever. There are moments of inspired silliness in "Hot Rod," such as the sequence when Rod (Samberg) goes into the woods and takes a nasty spill down what can only be described as the longest hill on earth. Often, the movie feels more like 44 two-minute shorts than a normal movie with a normal plot. That isn't so terrible; as Schaffer, who directed it, points out, "no one was watching 'Billy Madison' to see if he made it through school." But the idea-to-execution ratio—the sheer belly-laugh count—is too low. In other words, it's just your average movie starring an "SNL" veteran.
But Samberg is not your average "SNL" veteran. As a rookie cast member during the 2005-06 season, he became a star by sneaking through a few side doors of his own, using NBC's burgeoning Web presence to circumvent the usual pecking order for face time on the live broadcast. Even now, he's still basically known for only five minutes of work: a pair of mock music videos, the first of which, "Lazy Sunday," features him and fellow "SNL" star Chris Parnell rapping about an afternoon spent eating cupcakes and watching "The Chronicles of Narnia." The second, "D—k in a Box," costars Justin Timberlake in an R&B duet about two lotharios who pull the old "Diner" trick—remember Mickey Rourke and the popcorn?—on their dates. Together, the two videos have been viewed online millions of times, turning Samberg into a cross-platform celebrity and making "SNL" relevant again, even ahead of the curve.
As Samberg attempts the perilous leap from "SNL" celebrity to movie stardom, the breadth and loyalty of his Internet following was supposed to give him a boost. But has it? Forget last weekend's results for "Hot Rod." It'll be months before the audience decides whether that movie is another "Billy Madison" (good) or the next "Night at the Roxbury" (not good). Samberg is hoping for the best, but he won't be demoralized if "Hot Rod" winds up in the comedy dustbin. It doesn't mean the game's over for him. "Maybe I'm an unrealistically positive person, but I laughed my ass off at 'Night at the Roxbury'," he says. "It's not like that movie came and went and no one cared. Me and my friends cared." And lest we forget, "Roxbury" starred a former "SNL" regular named Will Ferrell. Gosh, remember him?