As soon as all three members of The Lonely Island join the phone call, the riffing begins. The question is a basic warm up, meant to jog their memories about Hot Rod, a movie they made over a decade ago and released 10 years ago today.
Akiva Schaffer, who directed the movie, reflects that spending the summer making the movie was a lot like going to sleepaway camp, because it was shot in Vancouver, far from both the group’s California home and Saturday Night Live’s home base in New York. Then Jorma Taccone, who co-starred in the movie, chimes in: “We, of course, immediately started calling it Vancougar, which spread like wildfire. Now everyone calls it that.”
And then Andy Samberg, who starred as Rod, the titular wannabe stuntman, advances the conversation: “Vancougar Mellencamp, right?” he asks. Everyone laughs, which is really the only confirmation he needs. It also gives us a quick glimpse into what the Hot Rod writing process must have been like: three dudes, friends since junior high, yes-anding and gleefully one-upping each other until the dumbest — and strangely genius — idea emerges.
Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer were in their late 20s and had only been on SNL for one year when Hot Rod came about. Lorne Michaels, their boss, went to bat for them despite their inexperience, lobbying for them to read, re-write, and produce an old script about a man-child who dreams of becoming a famous daredevil. The premise was already a twisted one: Rod decides to perform a crazy motorcycle stunt to raise the money necessary to get his asshole step-dad a heart transplant … just so he can finally kick the step-dad’s ass during their weekly brawl.
Rod’s wonderfully idiotic crew featured what is now an A-list of comedy stars, including Taccone, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, and Isla Fisher; Will Arnett and Chris Parnell also have small but crucial parts. Sissy Spacek plays Rod’s mom, and Ian McShane agreed to be the foul-mouthed step-dad. The movie is a festival of ridiculousness, with non-sequiturs and movie spoofs, and above all else, incredibly sincere characters doing remarkably stupid things.
And yet despite the cast and rising stardom of The Lonely Island, the movie got mixed reviews from critics and fell short at the box office. It didn’t hurt their careers, of course; they put out viral video after viral video at SNL, and now they have a growing empire of their own TV shows and movies. Just last month, Samberg — a Golden Globe winner for Brooklyn Nine-Nine — starred in the HBO comedy special Tour de Pharmacy, which The Lonely Island produced. And a decade later, Hot Rod is now a veritable cult classic, worthy of its own oral history.
Writing the Movie
The first task was tailoring the script they inherited, which was initially written by Pam Brady, for their own comedic sensibilities.
Taccone: I remember the writing process, because it was the three of us in a room in Lorne’s office at the Paramount lot. And we had a couple days where Seth Meyers would come in to write with us. And I distinctly remember him writing scenes furiously and sending them to me and Andy when we really weren’t up yet. We’d get these little “ring!” alerts of like, Seth just sent another scene. And I remember Seth was getting a little frustrated with us, and there was a moment where he wrote— was the stuntman sandwich thing in the movie?
Schaffer: “Hey stuntman, eat this sandwich!” and he throws a sandwich at him.
Samberg: It is, yeah.
Taccone: I remember Seth getting frustrated and suggesting that as a joke, being like, “I suppose you just want somebody to come by and say, ‘Hey stuntman, eat this sandwich!’ and throw a sandwich at him.” And we were like, “That’s exactly the tone we’re looking for!” It was originally a sarcastic pitch.
Samberg: We have a long history of people fake-pitching things, and then we say, “Yes, we’re definitely doing that.” Akiva does it a lot. Like, we get a lazy pitch, and we say, “Oh yeah, that’s perfect, put it in.”
Did that happen elsewhere in the movie?
Samberg: Our friend Josh was hanging out with us one day when we were doing re-writing, and he drew a giant taco and a giant grilled cheese sandwich as weird cartoon characters, and we ended up making that part of the knocked-out dream.
Taccone: Josh was obsessed with drawing food items fighting at that time. He was doing a series.
Samberg: It was a fluid process.
Was the joke, when he asks her who would win between a grilled cheese and a taco, already in the script? Or was he just doing it for fun?
Taccone: He was just messing around in the office for some reason.
Schaffer: I think we reverse-engineered that moment.
Samberg: We wrote backward from his drawing.
So you went to the first act just so you could put it in the pinnacle in the movie?
Schaffer: In the original draft, when he enters the nether state, where maybe he’s going to die and is in the infinite white, he meets Evel Knievel. And we were like, we have to replace that, because that makes too much sense.
How much did you keep from Pam Brady’s initial script?
Schaffer: It’s easier to talk about what was in there that we loved and remains in there to this day. It’s the main conceit of the movie. Him, his brother, and his step-dad, and the idea that his step-dad has the heart problem and he needs to get the money to beat him up. All of that, the main thread of the main plot, never changed.
Part of the reason we had to change so much of it, other than that, wasn’t because there was anything wrong with it, it was that it was written so specifically in Will Ferrell’s voice, because it was written for Will Ferrell. You’d have to do a Will Ferrell impression to pull off the lines. It would be like almost doing Anchorman. It had to all be rewritten to not do that voice. And they also cannibalized a lot of the jokes for other movies since the project had been dead for so long.
There’s a little bit of a Napoleon Dynamite vibe to the mid-2000s humor that may not totally exist anymore — small town, lack of self-awareness, no real gross moments or expletives.
Samberg: I do remember a lot of the reviews compared it to Napoleon Dynamite, and I remember us at the time being really surprised. Because the small town and look of it all was pretty much based on [Akiva] and Jorma’s love of the movie Rad, and we were trying to recapture that look and feel. Because Napoleon Dynamite was more recent, it felt like a contemporary thing to compare it to, but the vibe and tone was a lot further back.
Taccone: We actually put in several references to the movie Rad. Their shirts at the very end, the Team Rod shirts, are actually mimicked off the Rad race shirts that the crew is wearing at the end. There’s a reference in MacGruber to Rad — we’re pretty obsessed.
Do you think a lot of people recognized them?
Schaffer: I’m sure not a ton. It’s not important that they get it. Tony Hawk just told me how psyched he was when Bill Hader’s character is wearing an Animal Chin Bones Brigade shirt, and how he showed everyone and was so excited that he was wearing it.
Taccone: The original script ended in Vegas. He goes to Vegas and does a big stunt in Vegas.
Schaffer: It was based on the actual Evel Knievel Snake River jump, which is in Nevada. That was cut for budget reasons. In our script, we actually had it for a long time, and they even location scouted — I went to various dams and places in Vancouver where we could potentially try to stage the jump. So I saw a lot of beautiful scenery.
Taccone: Did you take any pictures in front of them?
Schaffer: I’m sure there are pictures in front of all of them. Let’s dig them up for this article. Or you could just google all sorts of pictures of rivers and dams and put them around the text, give people something nice to look at. Potential sites that you could just look at or jump over if you wanted to plan a picturesque death.
Making a Family-Friendly Movie
Schaffer notes that when Hot Rod came out, the tide had just begun turning towards R-rated studio comedies; it was the year of Superbad and Knocked Up, and both blazed a trail for foul-mouthed humor. Hot Rod, on the other hand, largely avoids curse words or a lot of scatological humor — not that the guys shy away from those things in general.
Taccone: It’s actually interesting now that you’ll see movies that the trailers will look like they should be PG-13 but are R-rated comedies now. It looks like it should be for the whole family, but then you’re like, “Oh they’re cursing up a storm.”
Schaffer: That’s why all of our comedy is clean. I don’t know how familiar you are with our albums or our other work, but we’re all clean.
Was making it PG-13 a tussle of sorts?
Taccone: There’s one joke that we had to take out that we were pretty bummed by that we couldn’t get in there. Andy, take it away!
Samberg: Right before Kevin screens his movie of all of Rod’s exploits, Rod runs up to him — and the scene is in the movie, but we had to cut the joke out — he says, “There are so many people here, it’s so exciting!” And Kevin is like, “Yeah, it’s looking really good.” And Rod is like, “Yeah, I’m so excited, bro! Why don’t you whip out that little baby weiner of yours and let me suck it!” And Kevin is like, “What?” And Rod goes, “I’m joking around, I’m just so excited!” And Kevin says, “I don’t know Rod, that’s a little bit of a weird joke.” And Rod says, “Yeah I know, don’t tell anyone.” And the lights go down.
Taccone: And for some reason, the MPAA said no to incest and dick sucking!
Schaffer: I don’t know that audiences loved it either at the test screenings.
How did people react overall at the test screenings?
Taccone: We got pretty solid laughs throughout. That’s always the confusing part. Going through the test screenings and feeling like the audience is really on board with you and then maybe the numbers not coming as high as you want. It’s not like it tested badly or anything, and it’s not too surprising, because it’s a little more niche in its humor.
Samberg: The “Cool Beans” sequence kept dying because we hadn’t made it musical yet, and then at the 11th hour we took it into a separate room to retool it to try and save it. We made it into that weird beat that Jorm made. And then it played much, much better, and we kept it.
What Didn’t Make the Movie
Given their background as improvisers and prolific joke-writing ability, there were a lot of scenes shot with a number of different jokes inserted throughout.
I imagine you had a lot of alt-jokes and alt-lines that didn’t make it into the movie.
Schaffer: We were always doing them in tops and tails of scenes. We’d say that’s where you could put in something that really doesn’t make sense. Danny McBride doing a bunch of high fives and saying, “That’s how it’s done!” or other times when he’s telling a weird story. They were all planned, but they had lots of different alts on them.
Taccone: And then Danny and Bill did a bunch of improv, because their characters were so kind of off the rails and guys who would tell stories. So they improved a little bit more.
Taccone: The reason Ebenezer Scrooge came out at the end, originally when the number hits $50,000 and it’s like, hooray they did it, they won the day, church bells were going to start ringing, and it was going to start snowing and become Christmas because it was such a joyful moment. But we just left Ebenezer Scrooge in, because we couldn’t afford the rest.
Were there any full scenes cut?
Taccone: Another one that I loved and was so bummed we couldn’t do. I don’t know we took it out. It’s this “eat my shorts scene.”
Schaffer: It was the apology, which is why it wasn’t needed, because we did the other apology scene. But it was Danny saying, “Eat my shorts” to Andy and then taking it literally, and Danny McBride taking off his shorts, and putting them on a grill, and grilling them up … and then plating them, but then as it goes on, they go, “Well, if you’re going to eat them, you should have some ketchup.”
And then they say, “Well that makes sense, might as well get a bun,” and then, “OK yeah, a bun would be smart, but what about relish?” And then, “Well, yeah, you could eat them with relish and tomatoes and onions,” and slowly it’d get to, “Well, if you got all these great ingredients out here, you might as well get a burger on here.” And then, “Sure, and the shorts are kind of in the way, anyways,” and it would really slowly, line by line, disintegrated until he was just cooking the burger, and then making Rod eat that burger as repayment, and then they were cool again.
Taccone: It became a really nice barbecue. It was so great, it was one of my favorites.
Important question: Where does the name Douglas Bubbletrousers — as in Rod yelling at Kevin, “You’re the next Douglas Bubbletrousers!” when watching the video he cut together — come from?
Taccone: I think that was another Akiva spitting out the first thing that came to his head and Andy being like, Yes!
Schaffer: These guys exist in some sort of alternate universe, and they’re their heroes. They love The Whoopee Boys, and that guy is clearly a big deal to them, Douglas Bubbletrousers. A kid watching might just think they don’t know the reference and there really is a Douglas Bubbletrousers out there.
Taccone: We requested The Whoopee Boys as one of the old Paramount movies. Kevin was supposed to be a filmmaker, so we requested a bunch of posters, and they showed us what our potentials were. We said, “Ooh that one for sure,” and then obviously as soon as we got the poster, we were enamored with The Whoopee Boys and actually did a screening of it while we were up there. Stuff like that got written in.
Schaffer: We hadn’t even seen The Whoopee Boys at the time we were making those jokes, though.
So you really went all-in on the in-jokes. Do you look back at it and say, “Wow, we were so young?”
Samberg: For me personally, it’s more like I’m impressed, like we had the balls to do things that were so stupid. Less that I would change them and more that I miss doing things that crazy. Not that we’ve stepped up a ton, but it’s pure silliness, and I like that. It makes me happy with our life choices at the time.
Taccone: I would say the only thing that I would legitimately change is that we took out two shots of Rod falling down the hill, and I would put those back in and make it even longer.
That’s a good 30 seconds or more already.
Taccone: But it could have been longer.
Samberg: In the script, we had it written, “Rod trips and falls, and then we proceed to begin the longest fall in movie history.”
Taccone: That’s literally what we wrote.
So you threw a dummy down a hill for like a full day.
Schaffer: It’s not a dummy. It’s a stuntman. There are no dummies in the whole movie. There are wires sometimes because people are getting cranked and pulled around, but it’s all real dudes.
Taccone: So much so that that first mail truck jump, he broke his femur on it. Which made him look like a rag doll dummy, but it’s a real live human being breaking their leg.
Schaffer: Lorne even visited him in the hospital, so that’s nice. And I do remember, right after he did the stunt and we filmed it, he was on the stretcher to be taken to the hospital. They called me over to it, and I’m like, “Is he alright?” And through gritted teeth he was looking at me going, “Is it usable? Can we use it?” And I said, “Yes, yes, of course!” And he was like, “Alllllright!” That was really what he cared about. He didn’t want to have done it and not have it be usable.
The stunt was supposed to go wrong, but it was supposed to go wrong in a different way. He wasn’t supposed to break his leg, clearly. It went wrong slightly in a different way. It’s one of the only movies where you can have a stunt go wrong, and the footage is just as usable, if not better.
Ahead of Its Time
Hot Rod was greeted, at least initially, with unkind words from critics and indifference by moviegoers. It made just $14 million at the worldwide box office on a $25 million budget.
How did you feel about the way the movie was being sold in the marketing?
Schaffer: We didn’t want it to make any money. We were super jazzed, just real psyched about it, real happy.
Samberg: I’m shocked to hear that, Akiva. I never knew you felt that way. That’s great.
Schaffer: I was just really happy, and I’ve just been really happy ever since.
Samberg: Wow, I wasted so much energy being sad.
Schaffer: Yeah, we were bummed. I don’t know, we were bummed about it, and it took a lot of years to not be. We were just disappointed.
Now these movies exist on their own, without worrying box office, so it exists as a cult favorite.
Schaffer: Our favorite movies growing up were the ones where if you found another kid at your school who knew the same reference, like a Monty Python or Top Secret! or a Mel Brooks movie, you immediately knew that maybe you would become friends just based on that one reference. It was something that actually became part of your identity as a kid. And that applied all the way through college. And making this, we would talk about that a lot.
Our dream for the movie was that it would be on a Sunday afternoon with commercial breaks, and you’d have to watch it in that 4:3 pan and scan on your TV, where it just becomes a little part of your life. And I think for some people, especially after it got on Netflix, it became that. And that’s what makes us happy about it now.
Any other memories come to mind?
Samberg: We shot on my birthday, and I asked if they would change my name on the call sheet to Bonerman 5000. And they did, and everyone on set all day called me Bonerman 5000, and every time I got in the van or something, I’d hear them get on their walkies and say, “Bonerman 5000 is on the move. Bonerman 5000 is headed to set. Bonerman 5000 has landed,” and stuff like that. It was one of the best birthdays I ever had.