It’s hard to talk about what happened on February 5, 2012. The day feels like a confusing dream, the kind you wake from in happiness and then sadly realize never occurred. The only difference is that it did.
I’m writing this nearly two months later—the first break I’ve gotten from the crush of work and responsibility that awaited me when I returned from Indianapolis. I didn’t have time to adjust after that staggering week, or to savor its taste. Sometimes I doubt it happened. I’ve had lots of happiness in my life, but it’s mostly been the flavor of calm satisfaction. Loss, failure, and grief are the only feelings I’ve had before with much actual intensity, and so the feelings of Superbowl night, and the recollections of it, take on a strange tinge of sadness, as one might wince when flexing a healthy joint that you remember once injuring as a child.
“It is in our idleness…in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” —Virginia Woolf
I’ll try to walk you through the day…
Ah, the joy of handing a gigantic NFL ticket to an usher, of having her scan it and smile… We were hooting “Superbowl” here and there as we walked into the cavernous, glass-enclosed ground level, staring around, patting each other on the back some more. I was glad to be here with these people. Still, we were, in a way, competitors here, and this was our arena.
“I didn’t know men could build such things.” —Jubi, Gladiator
We took a detour past the great columns and kiosks and mini-restaurant, and entered some glass doors and then an elevator. In my pockets were flash drives containing copies of my rough cut of the digital short I made for the Lonely Island guys. (I fedexed one to SNL a week before, but I figured there was no way it got to them.) I missed my chance to hand one to Akiva the night before; this time I was stocked and ready.
We crowded into the elevator. I was scrunched in the back. A sexy-looking couple appeared by the open doors and stopped, obviously waiting for the next one. The woman had hypnotizing dark eyes, the man a dashing chin scruff, a scarf, and big black sunglasses—and he bore a suspicious resemblance to Jorma from the Lonely Island. It was a good thing he was under so much stylish gear, because if it hadn’t been for that bit of doubt I might have shouted “We Like Sportz!” at him right over five people’s heads as the elevator doors shut.
Separated from one of my three heroes, I herded onward with the group, hustling my way to the front so I could lay early eyes on this mythical Superbowl suite I’d been fantasizing about for two months. I knew it would have food, which is, like, my FAVORITE. But I didn’t know that we would be sitting ten feet behind the end zone. I’ve seen skyboxes, and the reason they’re called skyboxes is that they are way up high in the stadium. What I walked into was not a skybox.
Warriors, Welcome to Valhalla
I turned the corner and gazed through the open door of the suite. The first three things I saw were a gorgeous buffet of hors d’ouvres (yes, I know I mention food a lot), a beautiful NFL football field right in front of me, and… Will Forte.
For those of you who don’t watch all the SNL’s like I do, Will Forte is MacGruber. I saw the first MacGruber episode when it aired live in 2007 and have been a Forte fan ever since. He did brilliant, wordless a capella duets with Fred Armisen during Weekend Update, the crazy dancing-coach inspirational-locker-room skit, The Falconer, and the hysterically hopeless perpetual political candidate Tim Calhoun. I made a beeline and introduced myself. I told him what I miss from SNL most of all since he left is his clueless-ESPN-commenter sketch, and how psyched I was when he showed up to do it again out of the blue earlier in the season. My brother, as usual, didn’t recognize him, and I had to lean in and whisper his name in his ear just like with Akiva and Jorma. (In his defense, on Saturday nights Jonathan’s usually out playing gigs.)
Will had no idea whose suite he was in; Akiva was there too and had apparently invited Will down to see his choice seats. Akiva had his agent Jay with him (if I remember his name right) and his cute little nephew. He was still tired from traveling (I quickly reintroduced myself like a tool) and didn’t seem to be feeling very social, but Will Forte was as friendly as a puppy. He was glad to talk to us, chatted up the TV cameraman Steve, and said he missed the SNL group because they were like family to him. I asked if he did theater in high school, because theater is like that too, and mentioned how I saw Tina Fey starring in Cabaret my second year at UVA, and he said no and told me about how he came up through the Groundlings improv troupe. He was also the first guy to sign my miniature football helmet I was planning to give to Derek (the co-star of our commercial). I had to explain to him why we were all there, how we were finalists in the Doritos contest, and that he was standing on the hottest real estate of the Superbowl.
Speaking of which: we were in the Caesar seats. The suite itself was nicely appointed, with 3 TVs, a kitchenette, a little lounge area, with one end opening out into the stadium like a condo patio. This patio area had two rows of slightly elevated seats. As long as the people in them stayed seated, the folks mingling in the suite area could see over them decently to the game beyond. What made the site so spectacular was that the green of the field came right up to the railing of our booth.
No kidding. This is the best shot I have of this phenomenon:
As you can see, the endzone is actually less than ten feet away. Less! These photos are not zoomed in:
NFL Films was in a teeny box right in front of us. They still shoot on actual film, and kept running back to get new reels while the guys in the box hunched over and labeled everything as it showed up while prepping new film stock like machine gun ammunition.
This is Steve, who Will was chatting with. He was on a platform right next to us. The brilliant closeup shots you got of all the touchdowns and field goals? That was this guy.
Super nice guy, too. (When our commercial aired, I went up to him and told him the good news, and he congratulated me.)
A Crowd Gathers
We arrived over three hours before gametime, so there was a lot of drinking, munching, and mingling. The Doritos team was split; some of them were in the suite with us, some scattered up in various stadium seats. By now, we had been socializing together for three days, and I’d come to really admire them and enjoyed their company. A few words about these people.
Jane is a stunningly sweet woman who radiated welcoming kindness like a lighthouse. I don’t know if there was a man in Indianapolis who wouldn’t quit his job, life, or wife to marry her. She was one of the first I met at the hotel, along with Carlye, who was always jumping into action and rounding everyone up cheerfully and probably doing a lot more than anybody realized. Above it all, Lori seemed to float like a kind of Superbowl Galadriel (played in the Lord of the Rings movies by Cate Blanchett)—a wise, youthful, beautiful queen who didn’t say much but emanated calm grace. Chris and Jared and Jeff were always around keeping keen eyes out for trouble and fixing things before they went wrong—Chris with a steely cool that only a top PR guy or samurai can master, Jared with a weirdly disarming casual attitude, and Jeff with a kind of crazy charm that there’s nothing to call but “Jeffness.” Jennifer was always around, keeping everybody happy and everything in the right place like a chaperone, and then becoming wild and funny whenever a party started. A buff, fresh-faced guy named Tom was apparently running a huge chunk of the whole show despite being in his early 20’s; obviously because of his whip smarts, gigantically warm personality—and obviously well-hidden ability to knock shit over when he needed to, all while smiling. The others I didn’t see quite as much of: CJ would appear to steer us around various events like a monk who knows his mountain; Alisa seemed to always be in a strategic huddle doing something important I wasn’t allowed to know about; Alexia was wise and dashing and seemed to be solving troubling problems in her head so nobody else had to deal with them; Maura seemed friendly & reserved but I didn’t get to talk to her much at all; Janel and Ashley were constantly popping in and loads of fun to joke around with—Janel with drop-dead knockout onyx eyes and a shocking white smile, Ashley who was easy to goof around with but had a secret thoughtful seriousness that reminded me favorably of many of the women I met in Sweden. Since I didn’t see nearly as much of them, I’ll spare you the descriptions of bigwigs like Tony and Ann and ad-agency folks like Rick—but I didn’t meet a single executive or team member all week who wasn’t friendly and interesting, or who didn’t seem enriched by their work.
More Guests Arrive
After I mooned over Will Forte for a while, Andy Samberg showed up. He was with the Lonely Island publicist Carrie, and was nice but a little detached; he’d just done Saturday Night Live the previous night and, like Akiva, the poor guy probably hadn’t gotten any sleep in over a day.
I managed to say hi, blah blah blah “we made the commercial with the dog” etc., and handed him a flash drive. “I made you a digital short.” He looked at me funny; “You mean, to air?” I was confused; “To air?” He said, “Were you hoping it would air on SNL or something?” I didn’t know what he was talking about; this was getting weird and I think he thought I was pitching him something. “No, this is for you. For you guys. I made it for you. For fun. As a tribute.” I think he finally realized I wasn’t some idiot handing him a script to read. “Oh, cool, thanks.” That definitely coulda gone better. Then Jorma showed up.
But first, here’s the digital short if you’re interested. It has closed captions if you can’t understand my mumbling. I am obviously not a rapper. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to show this when I first wrote this post, but a year and a half later I finally got the okay so here it is:
Okay, back to Jorma. He and his lovely wife found a home next to his bros in the front row, and there were some man hugs and “dude we’re at the Superbowl”s as they all got settled in. They were actually waving up at Will Forte (who’d returned to his actual seat) and Adam Sandler, who were higher up in the stadium, and gesticulating like “look at these phat-ass seats, bitch.” And texting. Lots of texting.
Eventually Jorm (which is the short form of “Jorma”—remove the “a” at the end if you don’t believe me, and then watch how it becomes “Jorm” instead; it really works!) and I were lingering around the food at the same time and got to talking. Or, more accurately, I finally got an excuse to execute a fanboy attack.
I don’t know whether he’d had more sleep than the other guys, but tired or not, Jorm was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. He was the only one who asked us questions instead of just the other way around. He complimented our commercial and remembered it well even though it hadn’t aired yet and might never. Jonathan showed up and we were chatting with him for a while, and even though there was no reason for him to be embracing and kind, he was. He smiled nonstop, and not one of those bullshit smiles like at a tollbooth. (Dude, fuck tollbooths.) I asked him about “I Just Had Sex” and how they got that beautiful rooftop shot (answer: it was a pain in the ass; small crane, platform, lighting, everything lugged up to the roof). He asked what we shot our commercial with, and when Jonathan said twenty bucks and a Canon, he laughed and said, “That’s pretty much how we shot ‘Lazy Sunday.’ We borrowed a camera and called up Chris Parnell and kinda went out and did it.”
(Side note: for those of you who aren’t as familiar with The Lonely Island or SNL Digital Shorts, “Lazy Sunday” was the gigantic breakthrough that made them household names and turned the SNL Digital Short from an underappreciated oddity to a viral phenomenon. The first Digital Short I remember was with Steve Martin and Will Forte where they kept talking close together and then far apart. I popped an eyeball out laughing and became an instant fan, and couldn’t figure out why everybody wasn’t talking about these “digital shorts.” Albert Brooks used to make non-digital shorts for the original SNL season, and it seemed like they were reviving a great old tradition. Then “Lazy Sunday” dropped and it was clear these dudes were taking the idea up into outer space. Sometimes literally. For the record, my favorite is Threw it on the Ground.)
Jorm directed the movie adaptation of MacGruber, which I was one of the first people to see in the theater. You have no idea how gracious this guy is, and I hope you all get to meet him because he’s fucking tops.
I got the rest of the Lonely Island guys to sign my football helmet (“Hey, will you sign my little helmet” ha. ha. ha.) and the next thing you know, everybody was borrowing my Sharpie and getting them to do the same. Apparently I’m the only one who thought ahead and brought a Sharpie. I’m also the only one who brought a football helmet, which turned into a facepalm as we walked into the suite and I discovered that they’d littered the place with identical helmets to the one I had been carrying around all day. Plus some full-sized ones! Which I never got.
I took a second, though, to say something to poor Andy and Akiva, who were relaxing in the front row, probably wishing we’d all go away and let them take a nap before the game. “I want you to know that we’ve all been looking forward to meeting you for a long time. We’ve been singing your songs on the bus, and seriously psyched to get to hang out with you for a little while. I know you guys must be exhausted, and you must do badass stuff like this all the time, but for us it means a lot that you took the time to be here with us. I just wanted to say thanks.”
They seemed to appreciate that, and both of ’em just reached right up and shook my hand again and said thanks to me too. They also said “we’re definitely gonna watch your digital short.” Didn’t expect that.
Then the coolest thing happened. I was lingering around the food again (yes, I have a problem) and introduced myself to Jorm’s wife (the one with the showstopping eyes), asking her what sorts of things she did, and she said she was a screenwriter! In my mind a suggested sentence popped in: “You should apply to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.” But I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want to be a tool. But then the next thing she said was, “I actually just got back from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.”
Yeah. No, really.
So it turns out we had some of the same advisors and knew a few of the same people, and I was amazed and incredibly excited for her. (I had actually sent a cheerful email to the Sundance organizers before leaving for the Superbowl to tell them the neat news about being a finalist in the Doritos contest, joking about how I’d moved up from filmmaking to advertising, and that I hoped the Lab went well this year. I’d sent my email to the very same people she’d just met!) I also had the stupidity to give her a hard-won tip about how to capitalize on the attention now that the Lab was over. But mostly we just talked about what a life-changing creative experience it was for both of us. She had such a brilliant vibe to her, it’s easy to see how she and Jorm found their way to each other.
The funny thing is, she appears in a few of the very early Lonely Island videos and it’s awesome to think about their history together as a gang of friends stepping up into a tough industry; seeing those old videos is like seeing old Beatles photographs, complete with a smiling Linda and Paul McCartney in black and white before their marriage.
Isn’t There a Game?
Game time was creeping up. I was having fun palling around with some of the wives of the execs; Julie and Jan in particular were very sweet to me and even took a couple of the pictures I’m in.
The energy in the stadium was comparable to only one other event in my life: a U2 concert. The red, white, and blue masses, the buzzing in the stands, the flashbulbs, the security, the equipment tucked into the corners of the stadium ready to be wheeled into action. Pre-game video was blaring over the jumbotrons, player stats, season recaps. Groundskeepers had an eye on the field, trainers checked athletic equipment—there was even a sniper in a nest high above in case of terrorism, I shit you not.
Players began jogging out onto the field to warm up; kickers practiced their kicks, balls landed mere feet away from us; the crowd jittered and roared when a recognized number appeared. I was unbelievably lucky a couple of years ago and got to go to the Masters golf tournament, which exceeded the Superbowl in price and prestige, but whose quiet dignity drowns in the memory of this blazing, explosive event.
Inside our box, we were all skittering around each other like popcorn kernels fixing to burst. Drinks were flowing freely, appetizers were being replaced by main dishes on the buffet, pregame shows were cued up on the flatscreen TV, informal bets placed, and then at last, five tall chairs lined up in front of the TVs for the finalists to sit in.
Meanwhile, out on the field, the lights were dimming and the stands flashing. The teams ran out onto the field to loud introductions, with several players converging on our endzone to pray to God to stop causing earthquakes and allowing children to starve so as to please let them win at football. In the Doritos suite, they confiscated our cell phones so we couldn’t track the ad-meter or talk to anyone who had.
None of the finalists knew which two of the five ads were going to air. Nobody at all knew exactly when. Even the execs were somewhat in the dark; they’d bought “floating” time slots and knew only that the two ads were going to play sometime in the first half; it was up to the network to decide where they fit.
The finalists occasionally stood up and crept forward to watch the action but for the most part stuck in their chairs; there was no telling when the ads would come on, and there was no way the Doritos people were going to miss catching the big moment on video. I was a bit more reckless and ran right up to the railing between commercial breaks and watched the game front and center for the whole first quarter. Eventually Jared gave me a look that said “stay with your brother.” Plus he said “stay with your brother.” But up until then, at least two touchdowns and two field goals happened right in front of me. I watched Tom Brady line up for his first play twenty feet away, a towering sculpture of an athlete, and then promptly ground the ball for a safety. It was the most exciting football experience of my life, and I’ve seen UVa beat Florida State live, twice.
Yes, it was in every atom as grand and thrilling as you think it might be. Yes, it was even more so than that.
I love this game. In high school we played hard tackle neighborhood football, and that’s why two of my teeth are chipped when I smile. For years after, we reunited for the annual Turkey Bowl. Here’s a shot from 2005:
I love playing it, and when the teams matter to me I love watching it. These teams mattered. This was the rematch of the greatest Superbowl game of my life, and I was here for it. And not only that, but there was a two in five chance that things might get much, much better than even that.
To be concluded in Part 8…