Andy Samberg is having trouble keeping his toothy grin in check.
There's no studio audience. Or the pressure of performing live. So it's a bit of relief when the "Saturday Night Live" graduate breaks a scene — more than once — on the set of his headlining Fox cop comedy, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." The episode finds his character, the competent-yet-juvenile Det. Jake Peralta, plotting revenge at a local bar against an archrival with the aid of his co-workers.
Each outlandish scheme proposed during the fun-run take, in which the actors ad-lib, has Samberg wound up and playing with what they've doled out (e.g., the script's mention of Tonya Harding becomes a one-liner about the ice skater turned tabloid staple that would make for a charming hand-stitched pillow: "Crazy in life, crazy in bed.")
"It'd be amazing if Kevin Reilly showed up," Samberg joked between takes, referring to the networks' chairman of entertainment. "He'd shut this down immediately."
The 35-year-old comedian is a year into the career seesaw that afflicts even the most promising alums of the comedy Ivy League. For six seasons, Samberg was "SNL's" go-to goober — elevating the anatomy-in-a-box industry, deep V-necks and Mark Wahlberg impressions to new heights — before announcing his departure.
Equilibrium was quickly tested. A movie career wobbled. In an atypical move, he starred as an American hippie in the BBC series "Cuckoo." With every teeter comes an upswing. Viral video superstars Lonely Island, the trio of "SNL" writer-rappers led by Samberg, has served as such; their January video, "Yolo," featuring Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar, has notched more than 50 million views on YouTube, and their third album entered the Billboard charts at No. 10.
But "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," premiering Sept. 17, from "Parks and Recreation" vets Mike Schur and Dan Goor, has the industry eager to pin down Samberg's place, like the Amy Poehlers and Adam Sandlers before him.
Samberg's Jake Peralta plays up the employee-boss dynamic against straight-faced Andre Braugher, who plays Capt. Holt. The pilot episode has Samberg in his wheelhouse: His character imitates Donnie Brasco alongside a Teddy Bear, wears a necktie around his belly, and, in a later scene, dons a brightly colored Speedo.
"The character of Jake is like me if I was actually smart," Samberg joked. "We have the writers to fill in all the smart blanks, and then I get to be silly and stupid, which is how I am in real life. So it's like the perfect blend of my dumbness and their smartness."
Still, his peers can't help but rib him about the uncertain fate the quirky comedy faces in the crazy-quilt TV landscape. At Comedy Central's recent "Roast of James Franco," MC Seth Rogen kindly noted: "Andy plays a cop on his new Fox show. His first case will be investigating the disappearance of his new Fox show."
Samberg has heard it all. "People love tracking 'SNL' stuff," he said during an interview on the L.A.-based, Brooklyn-wannabe set. "I feel like 'SNL' is a sports franchise at this point. America is the city and 'SNL' is the team, and everyone feels ownership. Everyone is a coach: They all think they know what's best for it, they all think it used to be better than it is now, they all think its retired players should stay at home."
So, appropriately, Schur and Goor visited Samberg at his home — an L.A. rental where the Lonely Island gang had been working on their album — to keep the funnyman from obsessing over more analogies and get him back on TV.
The pair developed the half-hour cop comedy as a sort of antidote to the fast-paced, high-stakes cop dramas overrunning the prime-time grid, settling on Brooklyn as a backdrop because "right now it's such an interesting slice of the world, with its hipsters and its old-school population and its Hasidic population — you have all of these groups that are bumping up against each other, and the cops are right in the middle of it," Goor said.
Schur had been a writer on "SNL" but left before Samberg joined the lineup. When the duo heard Samberg was leaving the veteran sketch comedy show, they knew they had found their goofy cop.
"We spent, like, eight minutes describing the character and the back story — how Jake aspires to be the best detective, how he's not great with rules, he's a bit of a ... up," Goor said. "And he just looked at us and was, like, "Oh, so comedy McNulty [referring to the famed police detective of HBO's 'The Wire'] ,' We both just bowed down and begged him to do the show."
The comedian's first thought: "I was, like, 'You think people will believe that I'm a cop?'"
Samberg, naturally, sought Poehler's advice on what to expect in headlining a network comedy. The actress, who on occasion has popped over to the neighboring set during breaks from "Parks and Recreation," predicted "it won't be long before [Samberg] is hosting the Golden Globes." But an endorsement from Zooey Deschanel, star of the network's hit comedy "New Girl," is what sold Samberg.
"I'm interested in stability" Samberg said, but "wanted some reassurance that I wouldn't feel caged in terms of what the schedule … entails in doing a show like this. So if this ends up killing my mojo, I'm going to blame her."
Meanwhile, the star is hoping for some cop perks.
"When we shot the pilot, I was driving home at the end of a long day, and I was going a little fast. All of a sudden I saw a cop car, and I was, like, 'Oh, no, it's the cops!' Then I started daydreaming of using this role to get out of speeding tickets and to score free doughnuts."