Andy Samberg on '7 Days in Hell,' Mockumentaries and Threeways

"It was definitely the most daring thing I've done on camera, and that's saying quite a bit," the comedian says

Andy Samberg in '7 Days in Hell.' Credit: John P. Fleenor/HBO

The two men on the tennis court look exhausted, hitting the ball weakly over the net; one of them, the guy with the glorious mane of Andre Agassi hair, barely has enough energy to throw his racquet and yell obscenities at the judges. (His opponent, a young prodigy from the United Kingdom, merely slumps there with the same dimwitted expression on his face as he always does — think Andy Murray if he'd been dropped on his head as a baby.) For Aaron Williams, the former bad boy with the long flowing locks, this is his last chance for a comeback and a Wimbledon win. But as this legend nears the end of a week-long marathon of pain — what John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Serena Williams claim was the greatest grudge match the sport had ever seen — the only thing that awaits is tragedy. "Well, it would be tragic if he was a football player or a basketball player," veteran sportscaster Jim Lampley says to the camera. "But he was a tennis player. Who cares?"

It's tempting to think that some viewers might accidentally tune in to 7 Days in Hell and think they've stumbled on to a genuine HBO sports doc, only to realize that they're watching a hilarious, raunchy goof. In fact, nothing would make co-executive producer, star and self-proclaimed tennis superfan Andy Samberg happier; he and his collaborators went through great pains to make this mockumentary look as much like the real thing as possible, all the better to shock with ridiculous scenes involving snorting coke off of Wimbledon court lines and bisexual streaker threeways. (Don't even ask about the scrotum shorts.) The longer you watch Samberg's well-coiffed superstar and his opponent (played by Game of Thrones' Kit Harington) volley champion-athlete clichés back and forth with straight faces, the funnier this parody gets.

Calling in from Los Angeles where he's overseeing postproduction on the Lonely Island movie, Samberg filled us in on the inspiration for his pet project, why this sports comedy is an extension of the digital shorts he created on SNL and what it's like to have group sex in front of 200 unsuspecting audience members.

So this idea goes back to your childhood?
[Screenwriter] Murray Miller and I have been buddies since we were kids at summer camp…we were talking about doing something kind of like this back then. Then after the Inser-Mahut match at Wimbledon in 2010, which lasted three days, it was: "Hey, remember that idea we had?" The original thought was to write it as a movie, but then Murray got a deal at HBO — he's a writer on Girls — and I said, "So what if we did this as a mock HBO Sports doc or a type of 30 for 30 thing?" I'm a huge fan of those things — this was actually inspired a lot by Fire and Ice, the doc on McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

Are you a decent tennis player? Did you have to practice throwing those rackets in anger across the court?
[Laughs] My mom is actually quite good at tennis, and I took a few lessons when I was a kid; Murray is a much better player than me. But I was decent enough to have the cameras capture a few hits over the net and back again…let's leave it at that. And the throwing a racket in anger came quite naturally to me, thank you.

The real challenge was that we were shooting the match sequences in Palm Desert, and it 122 degrees all three days we were there — even for professional players who are used to extreme environments, it would have been a rough ride.

How did you and Kit not drop dead?!
We had a tent set up on the side of the court with those mist-sprayers and buckets full of ice-soaked towels, so we'd play a point and then run off the court, drink our weight in Gatorade and then go back it. The middle five hours of the day was excruciating, though it helped in the scenes where we had to be totally spent and seem like we'd have been playing for an eternity. It actually was hell — not seven days of it, but still.

That seems a little extreme in terms of getting into character, don't you think?
We always go Method. Always.

Does that Agassi wig you wore have it's own development deal with a network yet?
It's currently shooting its own pilot for HBO, yes [laughs]. It will be making a cameo on Game of Thrones early next year.

Speaking of which, I'd heard you cast Kit Harington by Googling his name?
Very close: We Googled "young British actors between the ages of 25 to 35," and when he is name came up, we thought, Oh, he'd be perfect. We knew we wanted the other player to be British, because Murray had sort of envisioned his character, Charles Poole as being this Andy Murray-type player — someone who had the pressure of winning Wimbledon for England. I'm a huge Game of Thrones fan, however, and the mere idea of "We could get Jon Snow to be in this!" was, of course, incredibly appealing to me. And I think he was happy not to be shooting some place that wasn't 20 degrees below zero, but not so psyched about the extreme heat; he kept joking about his inability to pick projects that require nice weather. But I think this was less grueling for him than Thrones — all he has to do is say "indubitably" a lot and endure sexual advances from Michael Sheen.

Is there a secret to doing a good parody?
You have to know your subject. That's always been our standard with the Lonely Island stuff, to be honest; we really don't take on a genre that we don't love or have a somewhat deep knowledge of. And with Murray and me, we both genuine tennis fans and were more than happy to do a lot of deep research, so that helped. There are jokes here that are pulled from a lot of different players over the years and from a lot of different eras, which was part of the fun. Nobody has really done a huge tennis comedy, surprisingly, so there was a lot of ground to cover.

The "love" aspect, if you'll pardon the pun, is a huge part of any parody, you'd think. If you've never heard a Nineties R&B song, a song about putting your dick in a box would still be funny. But if you know the genre…
[Laughs]…then it's a lot funnier, right. When we first did "Dick in a Box," everyone said oh, you guys are supposed to be Color Me Badd, because Justin [Timberlake] and I are white. But really, we were drawing a lot more from R. Kelly and H-Town, because that was what we had been listening to. The detail work of it, getting as close to possible to the real thing, is what we're most proud of.

Aaron Williams is a great player in the same way that Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Jake Peralta is a great cop — you seem to have cornered the market on people who are great at one thing and suck at everything else.
Yeah, although they are different. Jake is highly intelligent in one specific way — being a detective — whereas Aaron is a borderline psychopath and a lunatic who happens to be good at tennis [laughs]. But yeah, I find characters who operate on blind ego really funny. You know, the kind of people who are blessed with one talent and then are able to get away with a lot because of that. It's a very Sweet and Lowdown kind of situation. [Pause] Not that we are nearly as high art as Woody Allen here.

You're within spitting distance of Woody Allen with this.
We are within vomiting distance, maybe.

You got Chris Evert, John McEnroe and Serena Williams to be in this…I'm guessing Andre Agassi said no because of the wig?
[Laughs] You know, everyone is bringing this up, and I really feel stupid that we didn't ask Agassi. We should have just gone straight to him. I love Agassi — I really followed him a lot when i was a teenager and remember when guys like him and Michael Chang were just unstoppable. He was really inspiring. Every match was so dramatic and exciting. The guy played with a lot of heart.

Let's talk about the streaker three-way on the court for a second.
You mean "What was it like to film yourself having sex with two naked people in front of 200 hundred background extras who had no idea what was happening"?

Wait, the crowd had no idea that was going to happen?
No, we didn't tell them because we wanted to get an honest reaction. Which we, ah, did [laughs]. It was definitely the most daring thing I've ever done on camera, and that's saying quite a bit. It was fun, though. As it was happening, I remember thinking, this feels like it's funny. I hope this works. We definitely cashed our HBO chip in on that one. "Oh, all those filthy things I couldn't do on SNL…I can do them on HBO? Okay then!" Murray had mentioned at one point that a streaker had made his way on the court at Wimbledon several years back, and then we just started coming up with ridiculous scenarios to make each other laugh really hard. It became a game of "How far can we take this?"

As far as possible, it would seem.
We're pretty happy with where we took the idea, yeah. [Laughs] If Aaron believes in nothing else, he believes in equal opportunities for streakers of all genders to have sex with him before a large crowd. That's how he communicates with the world. He's a toucher.

The movie clocks in at a lean, mean 42 minutes — less than a feature film but longer than, say, an SNL digital short.
The great thing was that the length was never set in stone. If we'd made this as a movie, we might have had to stretch it to 90 minutes — which can be dangerous, because you run the risk of just adding a lot of filler in. In fact, it was originally 8 Days in Hell and we thought: We can stand to lose a day, let's just cut all that stuff out [laughs]. HBO literally said to us, "If you want to make this a 15-minute thing, then make it a 15-minute thing. If you want to do this at an hour and half, we can work with that too." So Murray and I just went by instinct and when we got it to having just the best stuff left in, it ended up being 42 minutes. Everyone who's seen it doesn't seem to think that it wears out its welcome or that it's so insubstantial that it's not funny, so I think we hit the sweet spot.

I will say, in terms of connecting it to working at SNL, that was one of the reasons we loved doing the digital shorts. Until recently, a lot of sketches had to be a certain length. But when we started making shorts, we could do them at whatever length we wanted. Lorne [Michaels] generally asked that we keep them over two minutes, so he had enough time to change sets between sketches. But by the end, we were turning them in at a minute and 50 seconds, right on the edge. We got to make them as tight as possible, which is what you want. If we got bored of an idea, we could just end it.

"We have thrown enough things on the ground, now roll credits."
[Laughs] "We have put enough dicks in boxes; now the building explodes." That's one of the reasons the songs worked so well. You have an intro, set up your premise, do three escalations and then you're done. It was the perfect Lonely Island format.

So what can you tell us about the upcoming Lonely Island movie?
We just finished shooting it. There was a synopsis that was going around the Internet that was only about half accurate; what I can tell you is that it's in the format of these modern pop-concert films that's mixed with a Spinal Tap feel. And no one has sex on a tennis court. [Pause]. Maybe.