At the beginning of our interview, grasping for a way to describe the latest weirdo star-studden comedy sports special airing on HBO, IndieWire referred to “Tour De Pharmacy” as “the latest installment in the ‘Legends of Sports’ franchise.”
“I love that you said that,” star/executive producer Andy Samberg said.
“Are we allowed to say we have a franchise? I mean, I’ll take it,” writer Murray Miller said.
By “franchise,” we meant the ongoing “30 for 30”-inspired sports mockumentary series that began in the summer of 2015 with “7 Days in Hell,” a star-studded comedy special that chronicled a fictional tennis match that reached absurd heights. Starring Samberg and Kit Harrington, the cast also included Mary Steenburgen, Karen Gillan, Lena Dunham, Will Forte, June Squibb, Michael Sheen, Fred Armisen and more, including narration by Jon Hamm.
“Tour De Pharmacy,” the follow-up also premiering on HBO, tells the story of an alternate universe 1982 Tour De France, and associated chronicles of performance-enhancing drug abuse. Featuring even more stars, including Jeff Goldblum, Orlando Bloom, Freddie Highmore, Julia Ormond, Daveed Diggs, Danny Glover, John Cena, Dolph Lundgren, James Marsden, Maya Rudolph, Kevin Bacon and a pretty remarkable cameo by Lance Armstrong, “Pharmacy” also features the same unconventional runtime of approximately 40 minutes.
“It ended up finding its length in the end,” Samberg said. “It’s almost like a no man’s land between a half hour show and a movie. And we looked at each other and collectively decided, ‘Fuck it, let’s just have it be this length. It feels right.’ And I think that was a good call, because a lot of times there are feature length comedies that are really silly, and it is difficult to hold some attention and story lines for that long. So this has actually been kind of a fun experiment for us in terms of the overall running time.”
All three gave credit to HBO as being incredibly supportive of the project, even when it came to using the official HBO Sports logo at the beginning of each special. “You can see how crazy this is — what we tried to push for and make,” Miller said. “To get this script on your desk, for anyone to make this, I think is a bit nuts. And I think the fact that HBO’s letting us make this shows how awesome they are to work with.”
Added Samberg, “They were really excited about the idea that ‘7 Days in Hell’ would start and the casual viewer would think they were actually about to see a ‘Real Sports’ documentary. And then slowly, or not so slowly, you realize that it was something much crazier.”
However, they didn’t tell the actual HBO Sports department in advance. “HBO Sports is a slightly different entity than the HBO scripted department,” Miller said. “And I think they were also excited about surprising sports with it — when ‘7 Days’ came out, the Sports department was like, ‘What is this?'”
“It was a bit of a prank,” Miller said.
“HBO, the George Clooney of networks,” Samberg chimed in.
For “Pharmacy,” director Jake Szymanski used Betamax cameras to capture an early ’80s feel for the “actual” race, while filming sideline footage with VHS cameras. “We were actually running around with the old Beta-cams on the back of golf carts trying to film all these guys riding around on bikes,” he added.
All of that — in only four days, the shooting schedule for the race portions of the project. Meanwhile, the interview portions were spread out over a longer period of time — which was complicated for the production, but did ensure that they were able to get the level of talent they were hoping for.
“After those four days, we filmed more mainly with other talking head pieces, which was kind of based on the different celebrities’ schedules. Getting Phylicia [Rashad] and Kevin Bacon and Jeff Goldblum to say yes were all big wins. But they had slightly different schedules,” Szymanski said.
“I will say that doing it that way is aggravating from a production standpoint,” he added. “But it does allow us to get the cast really to be incredible people. Because if you tell someone, ‘Do you have two hours sometime in the next six months?,’ your odds of getting them go way up. So we did it that way for a lot of them, and it definitely served us well.”
“Tour de Pharmacy’s” most notable cameo was, of course, an individual all too familiar with the controversy at the heart of this fictional story. Miller confessed that when they sent him the script, “We really didn’t know what Lance Armstrong would say. But we were obviously delighted when he read it and went, ‘Yeah! I get it. I get the joke. I’m in!'”
Not only that, but he didn’t ask for any changes to the script. “He was very cool about everything we had written for him. I think the only changes we made were on the day trying to get through lines that we were trying to push a little farther. He was actually very open and into everything,” Miller said.
Another notable aspect of both specials is their unflinching use of male nudity, not exactly a given in the comedy world. “It really came up just because we wrote the streaker bit in ‘7 Days in Hell,'” Samberg said. “There had been actual instances of streakers at Wimbledon that Murray had researched, so we wanted to put that in. And I remember Murray and I talking about it, saying, ‘Well, if we’re going to have a girl run across naked, we have to have a guy, too.’ I can’t look my wife in the eye and tell her that it’s for comedy if we’re just doing a girl. We agreed that that was probably funnier anyway, and then once we did that, it sort of piled on.”
“It is both important and funny to have equal opportunity nudity,” Samberg added. “I really like that when the HBO little rating comes up and says, ‘This program contains nudity,’ everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I think I know what’s coming.’ And we get to go, ‘Oh, no, not quite. Not quite now.'”
The male streaker in that “7 Days” scene was actor/producer Chris Romano, who also appears in “Pharmacy” — both him, and his genitalia. According to Samberg, the “Legends of Sport” universe will likely always feature “a cameo from Chris Romano’s dick,” like Stan Lee in the Marvel films.
And Romano might want to brace himself for future such appearances, because Miller declared that he wants to keep making new installments “for the rest of our lives. I’m up for it. I want see one where Andy’s like 85.”
That said, don’t expect to get much prior notice. “Part of the fun of doing this so far, the first two, has been when they are finally announced, for people to not know a ton about it going in and then being like, ‘Holy shit! That person’s in it? All these people are in it? What is this thing?'” Samberg said. “I feel like that often gets spoiled nowadays, because there’s so much stuff that people just hammer social media and stuff with all the information about everything, so that by the time something comes out, you already kind of know it front to back.”
“Tour De Pharmacy” is available for streaming now on HBO Go and HBO NOW.