“They’re doing a dead body,” says Andy Samberg.
“Oh yeah,” I respond. “Do you see that nasty mangled leg?”
“Well, that would track for Bones.”
“Wait, are they performing fake CPR?”
We’re standing on a rise above a small reservoir in Franklin Canyon Park, a 600-plus-acre, semi-wild preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, more or less in the geographical center of Los Angeles, using binoculars to scope out the set of the Fox crime-drama series Bones. We were supposed to be bird watching, but it’s midday and approximately 85 degrees out, so the avian activity is practically nonexistent. Plus, to our surprise and annoyance, the Bones production crew has overtaken most of the shoreline of the reservoir for the day, preventing access to what would likely be the most productive bird habitat. There’s not much to do but watch the creation of a TV show.
So it goes in L.A. I’d hoped to give Samberg, 37, a respite from the entertainment industry for even just a couple of hours, something he desperately needs. After a seven-year run as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, during which he and two high school buddies, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, pushed the show into the YouTube era with the creation of SNL Digital Shorts (remember “Lazy Sunday”?), Samberg has spent the past four years trying to follow the uphill path of fellow SNL alums like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler to broad comedic stardom. His newest film, Popstar, which opens on June 3 and stars Samberg as a rapper in crisis after his second album flops, may prove to be his strongest effort to date. Produced by comedy mastermind Judd Apatow, it features an ensemble cast that includes Sarah Silverman, Martin Sheen, Joan Cusack, and Samberg’s SNL castmates Will Forte and Bill Hader, plus cameos by real–life pop stars Adam Levine, Usher, Pink, and Seal.
Making the movie demanded months of almost zero “chill time,” Samberg says—he was either working or with family. Now he’s grinding out the obligatory round of pre-release press interviews. “I forgot how much doing press consumed your life,” he said when he arrived, 45 minutes late. “They really know how to pack it in. But when they said bird watching, I was like, Fuck yeah.”
As it turns out, Samberg’s wife, the indie-music singer and harpist Joanna Newsom, grew up birding with her parents in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Her 2016 album, Divers, is reportedly named after the flight patterns of birds. She dispatched Samberg to meet me with a list of the species they see around their home in the Hollywood Hills. He tells me he’s hopeful that we can find some hummingbirds. When he was growing up in Berkeley, California, his mom started a preschool in their house called the Hummingbird School, in part because so many of them visited their backyard. So we head out toward a zone of flowering bushes I spotted earlier on our hike.
“Is that poison oak?” Samberg asks, pointing at a frighteningly large and shiny trailside patch of the stuff.
He grimaces and backs away, telling me a story about a hellacious rash he contracted while at summer camp near Yosemite when he was 12 or 13. “I had it in my eye, on my junk—I was miserable,” he says. “I’m very allergic. It gets me bad.” Otherwise, the camp was one of his favorite childhood experiences. He went for five years and later joined the staff as the campfire coordinator—“a job they invented for me because it was my only skill set,” he says.
We move on and stop under a telephone wire, where a small songbird is twittering away, and raise our binoculars.
“Oh, uh, I think that’s a finch,” he says. “It’s super dinky.”
“Actually, look closer. That’s not a seed-eating beak.”
“Ah, I’m mostly getting just a silhouette.”
“Yeah, it’s tough. That’s a swallow.”
He lowers his binocs and stares at the ground: “You bird-shamed me.”
We walk on in the heat, stepping into shadows whenever we can. Samberg confesses he only rarely gets outside to play these days, taking hikes in the L.A. area with his wife and friends or in the Berkeley hills when he visits his parents. As a kid he was into a lot of different things—music, comedy, science fiction. He played a ton of soccer and little league, and loved catching waves at Stinson Beach on a classic Morey boogie board. The one real adventure he’s had time for in the past few years was a rafting trip with his family down the Rogue River, in Oregon. At one point during the five-day outing, Samberg was on a boat that flipped over in one of the river’s big rapids. “There was a moment when I actually thought we might die,” he says.
His work has also afforded him the occasional moments of wild exposure. In 2011, the Discovery Channel tapped him to be the host of Shark Week. The gig had him introducing segments and cracking jokes. They filmed in the Bahamas, and Samberg was encouraged to jump in the water for takes.
“It was dangerous!” he insists. “They told me, ‘You’re going to get in and we’ll see how many sharks are around, then we might put a little chum in the water. It’s perfectly safe.’ I was wearing a wetsuit with chain mail over it and a helmet. So I was like, ‘OK, if you guys say so.’ I jumped in and did a few intros and said, ‘OK, those all seem pretty good, should we chum the water?’ And everyone on the boat was just like, ‘Ummmm, we did that 15 minutes ago.’ And I looked around, because I had been reading cue cards, and I was surrounded by like 30 reef sharks. The producers were like, ‘You’re good, just keep going.’ So I read some more, then at a certain point this one shark came straight into my chest and hit me hard, then swam over my shoulder. And I went, ‘I’m getting out! That’s it, I’m done!’
“Afterward, this elder-statesmen shark-expert guy tells me, ‘The great thing about chain mail is, if a shark bit your arm or bit your leg, it would tear it off, but the chain mail would keep it in place, so we could have it stitched back on.’ And I was like, ‘You’re fucking telling me this after?!’”
I direct Samberg along another section of trail, telling him we might be able to find a flock of bushtits in the manzanita shrubs.
“There’s really a bird called a bushtit?”
“I thought you might ask that. Yes.”
“That’s amazing. What does it look like?”
“Tiny little gray bird. They hang out in groups. Very common.”
“B-u-s-h-t-i-t? That’s awesome. It sounds like something they’d make up on South Park.”
But we don’t see or hear any. Instead we come upon a cement mixer and other work trucks improving a section of road in the park. Conditions could not get worse.
“Birds love that!” Samberg says. “They all want to get gargoyled.”
The trail swings past the off-limits reservoir, and Samberg happily gives in to the only choice we have left. “Let’s just look at the cast of Bones with our binoculars,” he says. We spot the team prepping the faux corpse on a dock on the far side of the water.
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s L.A. wildlife.”