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Samberg stars as a cut-up cop in new Fox sitcom

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After spending seven years as a “Saturday Night Live” goofball, Andy Samberg is finally ready for prime time. The Berkeley, Calif., native headlines the new Fox sitcom, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and he'll be the first to tell you that the change in formats takes some getting used to.

“The main adjustment is waking up early. It's a huge pain,” he says during a conversation at a Beverly Hills hotel. “At ‘SNL,' I could show up to work at 5 p.m. That was my dream. Also, there are a lot more lines to memorize. I have to say a lot of things really fast.”

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is an odd-couple cop comedy from Michael Schur and Dan Goor, the creators of “Parks and Recreation.” Samberg plays Jake Peralta, a highly skilled yet immature detective prone to zany stunts such as wearing a Speedo to work or using a fire extinguisher to turn his office chair into a booster rocket.

However, Peralta's world is rocked when a new captain arrives at the Brooklyn precinct. He's Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), a stern, strait-laced boss determined to teach the young officer some law and order.

It's certainly shaping up to be an awesome year for Samberg, 35, who announced his engagement in February to Joanna Newsom, a singer-songwriter. Now comes his first starring role in a smart and irreverent sitcom that has generated plenty of advance buzz. If it sticks, it could do for Samberg what “Parks & Recreation” did for Amy Poehler: prove that the former “SNL” cast member can hold a TV audience's attention for more than a few minutes at a time in a sketch or digital short.

Samberg, who left “SNL” in June 2012, insists he wasn't looking to add a sitcom to his resume. He was content to continue doing an occasional movie and working on projects with Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, his comedic Lonely Island pals and fellow Berkeley High grads.

But he was immediately intrigued when Schur sent him a text message asking if he'd consider the role.

“If I was ever going to do a show, these were the people I would do it with,” Samberg said. “Their sense of humor is very much in line with mine. I'm a huge fan of ‘Parks,' and I'd seen what they did with Amy, whom I idolize. They offered a producer's credit and creative input. It also sounded new and interesting — something that hadn't been done before.”

At least not done very often. Although prime time is saturated with police dramas of every sort, the cop comedy is a real rarity, with “Barney Miller” (1975-82) reigning as the genre's standout effort. Schur and Goor, both big fans of that series, say “Brooklyn” is not intended to be a parody of cop shows.

“This is not like ‘Police Squad!,' ” Schur said during the TV critics summer press tour. “It's a workplace comedy that happens to be set in a police precinct. The idea is that they're real cops, and the crimes they are investigating are real crimes, and they're real human beings doing real things.”

As for Samberg's character, he was partially inspired by Hawkeye on “M.A.S.H,” a man who was great at his job, but a constant cutup on the side. Samberg also calls Peralta a “comedy McNulty,” referring to the self-destructive detective at the center of HBO's acclaimed crime drama “The Wire.”

“I loved ‘The Wire,' and I loved that character,” he says. “He was so good at his job, yet he's so flawed. You feel so much compassion for him, even though he's a philandering alcoholic. We're not taking it to that level, but, like McNulty, he goes rogue. He's kind of a lone wolf. He always thinks he knows the best way to do things. He circumvents procedure. He's jaded.”

The role represents a major career step along a showbiz path that had its start back at Berkeley High School, where Samberg pulled in good grades but also earned a reputation as a class clown who couldn't resist the urge to entertain his fellow students.

“I would yell jokes out during class, and I would get kicked out of class a lot. I was a doofus,” he says. “On my report cards, teachers always noted that I need to display more self-control. What that really meant is that ‘He needs to shut the (bleep) up while I'm giving a lecture.'

“But unless a subject really fascinated me, I just looked at it like, ‘Hey, there's a whole audience in this room.' So I would take my swings.”

Reflecting on a long personal journey that included a stop at UC Santa Cruz to study film, Samberg pointed out that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is being shot on the same CBS Studio Center lot where he once worked as a lowly production assistant for “Spin City.” That came two years before landing the “SNL” gig and during a time when he was sharing a cramped apartment with Schaffer, Taccone and another friend in a congested section of Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles.

“We basically lived on a highway,” he says. “It was like seven lanes of traffic right outside our door every day.”

Although Samberg has certainly experienced a lifestyle upgrade in L.A., in many ways he still considers Berkeley home. He gets back as often as he can to visit family and friends. He also carries on a certain annual tradition with old high school pals.

“We have a reunion at Chez Panisse once a year, and it's the greatest,” he says. “It's our way of declaring, ‘Hey, we're adults now. We made it, and we can go to the best restaurant in town.'”

Chuck Barney is a staff writer for the Contra Costa Times.

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