When the Berkeley-born SNL Digital Shorts auteur Akiva Schaffer calls from Los Angeles to discuss his new film, opening July 27 and formerly known as Neighborhood Watch, the conversation centers on the hallowed importance, to comedy, of timing. The early trailer, with stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill rolling through the Georgia burbs dispensing menacing looks, wasn’t so hilarious after suburban Florida neighborhood-watch coordinator George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin in February.
Well, now the movie is just called The Watch, and Schaffer’s call was preceded by a nervous communiqué from studio minders hoping we wouldn’t discuss Martin. The Watch is a raunchy bantering-dudes comedy from a script by Seth Rogen and three other writers, in which the guys, self-appointed custodians of provincial safety, end up grappling with trespassing extraterrestrials who plan to conquer the world. The director is coyly circumspect about the plot’s correlation to current events. “We made an alien-invasion comedy, and so far no aliens have invaded,” Schaffer says. “If there’s an alien invasion between now and July 27...well, I guess it depends. That could be good, or maybe bad for us.” Historically, Schaffer hasn’t had much cause to worry about the boundaries of good taste. For focusing America’s imagination on Justin Timberlake’s genitals, with the Saturday Night Live short “Dick in a Box,” his reward was an Emmy.
Schaffer is one of three nice Berkeley boys—the other two are Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone (son of Berkeley Rep director Tony)—all friends since junior high, who together formed a scrappy factory of silly music and videos, including, eventually, such insta-classics of the form as “Lazy Sunday,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and the aforementioned one about a contained penis. After separate college stints, the trio regrouped in Los Angeles in 2000, dubbed themselves the Lonely Island, and launched thelonelyisland.com. (Perhaps partly as penance for all the graffiti Schaffer says they left around Berkeley High, the Lonely Islanders recently donated $250,000 to the Berkeley Unified School District, to be used for theater programs.) Later, their writing for the MTV Movie Awards brought them to the attention of Jimmy Fallon, who brought them to the attention of SNL.
There, Schaffer reinforced his comedy maker’s work ethic—mostly a willingness to win some, lose some, and just keep going. When his short “The Shooting” (also known as “Dear Sister”) aired in April of 2007, its preposterous degree of gun violence was meant as a partly veiled send-up of the second-season finale of The O.C. Two days after the broadcast, the Virginia Tech massacre ruined the joke. What to do but promptly move on? As Schaffer puts it, “SNL is a really cool way of filtering topical stuff. But we can’t really count on things keeping well.”
This seems useful to remember while watching Schaffer’s other 2007 misadventure: the disjointed, slapstick-dense Hot Rod, his first foray into feature-film directing, in which Samberg and Taccone starred, respectively, as a goony wannabe stuntman and his geeky stepbrother. Not unaware of the hit-and-miss history of SNL veterans’ big-screen adventures, Schaffer proudly admits he’s a big fan of unhinged movies that prioritize “really absurd comedy above all else.” But he hastens to add that The Watch is something different, which means more might be at stake: “It’s grounded. These are very regular guys in a regular suburban community. It’s like how I grew up and most people grow up.” (Except, of course, for the part about the invading aliens.)
So what’ll he be up to when The Watch hits theaters? “I don’t know,” he says, after a pause long enough to imply that the question has not yet occurred to him. “I’ve always wanted to be a movie director, and it’s exciting to be able to do it.” Then another pause. “I also gotta find out what Andy and Jorma are doing.”