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“We Do a Lot of Work to Make These Things Look Awful”

Andy Samberg, Murray Miller, and Jake Szymanski — the minds behind ‘7 Days in Hell’ — are back with the celeb-filled sports mockumentary ‘Tour de Pharmacy.’ It’s delightful.

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In the summer of 1996, wearing a tennis sweatband on his head for no real reason, Andy Samberg sat next to his buddy Murray Miller and warned a bunch of summer campers of their impending doom. In a video posted on YouTube and cataloged faithfully by the micro-niche blog, the two teenaged counselors-in-training can be seen grinning and shouting and generally celebrating the thing they most enjoyed — in this case, a staff performance at Skylake Yosemite Camp, located in California’s Sierra National Forest — by relentlessly lampooning it. “We definitely already had our tone down,” Samberg says, and even on the phone I can hear the goofy, labrador-retriever grin spreading across his face.

“We were like, 17-year-old shitty junior counselors,” says Miller, a former Girls writer and executive producer, in another phone conversation. “And we thought it would be funny, like on a talent-show night, to sing a song — the idea was that it would start really sweet and summer camp-y, and then quickly evolve into telling all these little kids that ‘You’re gonna die, and you’re gonna die, you’re all gonna die someday.’”

As Miller answers my questions about the bit, Jake Szymanski, a former Funny or Die director who also worked with Samberg on SNL and is on the line as well, mutters, “I have to see this,” and navigates his browser to the Summer Camp Culture site. “Oh, it’s like, wonderfully nerdy, this site,” he tells Miller, with genuine appreciation. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, somebody referenced a summer camp joke on this TV episode.’ This is really like, in the summer camp world. It’s incredible.” (Samberg, who once mentioned Capture the Flag on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is among the featured people on this site.)

A little over two decades since that 1996 performance, Samberg, Miller, and Szymanski are now the minds behind Tour de Pharmacy, the sports mockumentary about a druggy, dongy 1982 Tour de France that features actors ranging from SNL’s Samberg to the WWE’s John Cena, from Tony and Grammy winner Daveed Diggs to Emmy winner Julia Ormond. Written by Miller and directed by Szymanski, Tour de Pharmacy is the second in the trio’s “Legends of Sport” series that began in 2015 with 7 Days in Hell, a 45-minute HBO satire about a marathon Wimbledon match that pitted a distinctively coiffed Samberg against Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington as England’s great daft hope.

Like that one, Tour de Pharmacy features wigs and wangs; booming voice-overs; old-timey footage shot on actual aged camera equipment; and satisfying celebrity cameos. It is a mocking, loving tribute to the genre of sports documentaries on ESPN and HBO that the three have long relished watching. And it’s a sign that, indeed, the group has its tone down, a tone that Miller and Samberg agree has distinct roots back at Skylake. “That sort of like, absurdist, like, carefree man-child sensibility,” Miller says, “I think it does come from summer camp. It’s just like — you’re not mature all the way, or something. I don’t know. You just stay kind of a smart-ass kid your whole life, because it’s so much fun at summer camp.”

Like all camp love stories, the one between Samberg and Miller involves mundane, insidery logistical asides. “There were different sessions,” Miller says. “First second and second session. He went first and I was second.”

“First and second,” Samberg echoes. “Murray and I were both in separate sessions, and his older brother, Judah, became a counselor before Murray did. He was older, and I used to annoy the crap out of Judah. And he’d be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so annoying. You’re gonna get along great with my brother, Murray.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah right, Judah! Like I’d ever be friends with your brother!’ … We met and were friends within five minutes, and were inseparable.”

“We just realized we had very similar dumb senses of humor,” Miller says. The two remained close throughout college and beyond, each of them delighting in the other’s professional successes, from Samberg’s digital video shorts at Saturday Night Live to Miller’s stand-up comedy and burgeoning writing career. (Samberg calls Miller “like a guardian angel friend to me” who persuaded him to, among other things, leave Santa Cruz for NYU; do his first open mic night; and eventually move to L.A.)

One recurring idea cooked up by the two friends all those years earlier was a comedy based on tennis — the absurdities of the sport always seemed ripe with potential — and they continued to discuss it years later at NYU. “We were imagining it more like a big-box-y Sandler, Ferrell sports-comedy thing,” Samberg says. A three-day fever dream of a match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 gave the subject matter new life, and after Miller began working on the HBO show Girls and signed an overall deal with the network in 2013, the idea came up again: What if they pitched it as a faux-documentary to air on HBO?

Like Samberg, whose digital videos with the group Lonely Island were rocketed into a more populated orbit with the advent of YouTube in the mid-aughts, Szymanski benefited from the rise of easily shareable online video. When he first moved to Los Angeles after college, Szymanski says, it was with “what in retrospect was a really dumb idea. I was like, I’m just gonna keep making video shorts, which I really liked doing, and it was like six months before YouTube was a website. I was like trying to encode my own QuickTimes and host them on places. It was very foolish. When YouTube happened it got a little easier.”

As Szymanski told the Chicago Tribune in 2012, he was enough of a comedy nerd to know that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell would be launching the web-video site Funny or Die in 2007. He uploaded one of his own films, Friday Night Nights — “pretty silly,” he described it to the Tribune, “not amazing” — and then benefited from a serendipitous server crash.

When the Will Ferrell video The Landlord caused so much traffic that engineers were forced to disable the upload feature, Szymanski’s video was one of a few that were featured for quite some time on the main page, he told the Tribune. One thing led to another, and he became a main director for all of Funny or Die. “They called me in, and we had a meeting which consisted of them doing comedy bits and testing whether I understood whether they were joking or not while they were interviewing me,” he says.

After directing a Volkswagen commercial in 2011 that featured SNL’s Bill Hader and John Mulaney, Szymanski wound up in an office with Samberg for his last two seasons on the show. “I left the same year that he left the show,” Szymanski says, “and we both wound up in L.A., and not too far after that 7 Days in Hell came up.”

Szymanski worked with cinematographer Craig Kief to create a look for 7 Days in Hell that would reflect not only the documentary style but also the optics of the era. Szymanski insisted on finding old equipment to shoot on; Kief often left the room to avoid hearing any direction, so that he could operate with “a more natural documentary cameraman reaction,” as he told Indiewire. “There’s definitely so much nostalgia — like, 7 Days in Hell felt vaguely ’90s,” Samberg says. “There’s a lot of, like, family-camcorder kind of looks to it, where you’ve got the time and date burn on it, that always give me feels about growing up. And Jake made a really cool choice with the sports footage — like shooting on actual Beta cameras.”

7 Days in Hell filled a fun niche when it aired, straddling the line between Chris Evert and Christopher Guest, honoring an art form while also poking fun at it. An over-the-top Samberg paired well with a hilariously understated Serena Williams; the presence of Jim Lampley tied the room together. “We were really happy about it, [HBO was] really happy about it, so we immediately said, what if we do another one, and they said great,” Samberg says. “Because it’s a documentary, it’s pretty low cost for them, and that frees them to say yes to us, and also frees us to be pretty creatively bananas, which is a huge part of the allure.”

If there was a downside, it was that 7 Days in Hell was a grueling exercise to film: For one thing, they were so constrained by the actors’ various schedules that the tennis scenes had to be banged out in the span of four days; for another, it was hot as balls on the grass court where they filmed in Palm Desert, California. “I think after our experience filming 7 Days in Hell in four days, Murray, you said you wanted to pick something that you thought would be easier to film,” recalls Szymanski. “And you were very wrong about that.”

“That’s right,” Miller says. “All we talked about was how hard it was to make Wimbledon. And I was like, ‘The next one is gonna be way easier.’ And then, somehow, [we did] the Tour de France. I don’t know why I picked the Tour de France. That was so dumb. The next one really will be easy. Andy and I are already talking about chess. We’re like, it’s gonna be two guys, sitting at a table.”

The Tour de France might have been a pain to film, but, considering its history of oddball characters and syringe-filled thrills, it was rich with material to mine. Once again, the group had only four days — also again, in stifling Southern California heat, this time made worse by wildfires nearby that cast an orange glow over what was supposed to be Paris, France — to film the movie’s action scenes, which include a mega-crash that begins with a horny grope; a scene in which Orlando Bloom, as the doped-up Italian cyclist Juju Pepe, messily pisses while riding his bike (“a thing that cyclists actually do!”); and footage of a deceptive competitor, played by Freddie Highmore, who tackles a smug journalist played by James Marsden in an attempt to keep an important secret under wraps.

As before, the meat of the production turned out to be in the long editing process, during which Samberg, Miller, and Szymanski spent weeks splicing together the warped, old-looking footage, interspersed with talking heads, as if they were an actual 30 for 30 documentary team assembling a documentary on, say, Michigan’s Fab Five (which gets a nod in the film). “We do a lot of work,” Miller says, “to make these things look awful.” And once again, hilarious casting as well as inspired, deadpan cameos from industry veterans elevated the material in a memorable way. Jon Hamm’s voice-over booms as if it were one of John Facenda’s. Nathan Fielder appears as an anti-doping official with a yen for urophiliac art. Mike Tyson delivers a lisping personal history of his cycling enthusiasm. Miller’s script featured two actors for each major role: one to play the athletes in the 1982-era “found footage,” and the other to represent them as talking heads in the present day.

“So Daveed Diggs in 1982 is Danny Glover in the present day,” Samberg says. “And then Dolph Lundgren” — here Samberg begins to giggle — “is [a present-day] John Cena.” Since Miller knew he’d be making reference to cycling’s PED situation, Samberg figured, “It would be funny to get somebody really jacked. And I believe John Cena was, and with good cause, our first choice. And then Dolph Lundgren came up, and we all just started laughing so hard. We just got lucky that they were both into it.”

Jeff Goldblum was cast as a latter-day Marty Hass — the young Nigerian cyclist played with dumb spoiled bratitude by Samberg. “Dude, I wish,” Samberg says, asked if he’d always envisioned himself aging into the form of Goldblum. “I could only wish and pray. Because he is so fit, it’s crazy. You know, when he was changing into his awesome African garb, I couldn’t help but peek at his bod, and it was tip-top.”

Between Szymanski’s work at Funny or Die, where he frequently collaborated with big celebrities as they played wacky, offbeat roles, and Samberg’s established reputation as the godfather of such A-list driven hits as “Dick in the Box,” Miller says that the group had a surprisingly decent success rate in getting big actors and actresses to agree to be a part of Tour de Pharmacy. (An easy way to weed people out was to tell them to just watch 7 Days in Hell — they’d know quickly whether someone was interested or not at all.) Samberg helped by making a bunch of calls. And from Phylicia Rashad’s all-too-brief appearance as a rogue Sesame Street animator to Kevin Bacon’s turn as a corrupt drug tester trying to bribe his way out of many millions of dollars of Finnish credit card debt, it’s these weird and inspired bits of casting (and the oddball tangents from the mind of Miller) that earn Tour de Pharmacy its yellow jersey.

“I’ve done enough stuff now where I’ve convinced super-famous people to do crazy shit, that people know what I’m calling for,” Samberg says. “I’m not trying to like, make fun of them, and I’m not trying to pull one over on them. I’m trying to make something super silly, and I’m inviting them to take part. … I’m like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m up to, it’d be awesome if you want to do it. If not, no biggie, it’s definitely gonna happen either way.’”

So he didn’t even get nervous when he got ahold of Lance Armstrong, cycling’s most interesting character and most inspirational cheater. “He was surprisingly mellow about it,” says Samberg, who met Armstrong when he hosted SNL. Armstrong’s role dovetails nicely with the real-talk cycling blogging and daily podcasting that he’s been doing during the real-life Tour de France. “We were like … ‘Great!’”

Armstrong’s inclusion, as well as the performances turned in by the rest of the cast, work because they all seem to understand the cardinal rule of a campfire performance: The more you’re willing to humiliate yourself, the more you actually won’t. Tour de Pharmacy is what you’d get if you gave a bunch of counselors-in-training — those folks who possess a specific swagger that comes from being a wacky teenaged performer operating in the friendly confines of a beloved summer camp — a moderate amount of money, a major label, and a whole lot of room to maneuver.

“Andy, when he got famous,” Miller says, “the first thing he said to me was, ‘It feels like summer camp! Because everywhere I go now, people are really nice, and like, wave to me!’ It made all of America into a summer camp. And that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.