Hunting Megafauna with Andy Samberg

The La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles, is the world’s only urban Ice Age excavation site, and scientists have been working there for more than a century to extract fossils from the jammy seeps. The other day, the comedian Andy Samberg paid a visit. “Digman!,” his new animated show, for adults—it’s on Comedy Central after “South Park”—is set in an alternate world, where archeologists are celebrities. “Our world is more like the world we were told was the world in ‘Indiana Jones,’ which is that archeologists are the coolest people on the planet,” he said. “I think being an archeologist is super cool—it’s in no way saying that’s not the case—it’s just most of them aren’t, like, running around with a whip and fighting Nazis.”

Samberg, who created the series with Neil Campbell, voices Rip Digman, an adventuring “arky.” Digman grew out of an impersonation of Nicolas Cage that Samberg used to do on “Saturday Night Live.” He and Campbell wrote the show together. “Most of the fun of it was Googling the weirdest museums on earth and finding inspiration from that,” he said. “It’s like finding a phallus museum, which actually exists. I’ve also been made aware that there’s Archeologist Twitter. So I’m hoping that we land O.K. there.”

Samberg is forty-four, and married to the musician Joanna Newsom; they are the parents of a five-year-old girl, who is into country music, and a one-year-old boy. At the tar pits, he moved gingerly and wore a brace on one knee. Several months ago, he tore his A.C.L., playing soccer: a bad foot plant, on grass, while visiting his parents in Berkeley. He met Mitra Jouhari, who plays Rip Digman’s assistant, Saltine, on the soccer pitch; Nick Kroll had brought her.

Samberg stopped to rest at Project 23: fourteen wooden crates containing blocks of earth packed with fossils that were discovered in 2006 when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, next door, dug a new garage. Under a tent, there were wooden tables and old metal lamps and a string of Edison bulbs, flickering. “I feel like Laura Dern’s gonna walk in,” he said.

In such a place, time can seem elastic. “If aliens or if a different species becomes the dominant species on earth, would you want to know that in a hundred thousand years or whatever, they would dig up your bones and put you back together into a skeleton?” he asked. “Does that idea make you feel uneasy or excited? Or indifferent, I guess. Those are your three choices.” He grinned. “For me, it’s a little of each.”

He ambled over to one of the crates. A fossil excavator named Karin Rice was peering over the side into a mass of compacted dirt, with bones jutting at odd angles, held together with tar. “There’s a lot of bison in there,” she said. “The big, slabby bones are ribs. There’s giant ground sloth, there’s dire wolf. Oh! There’s a big scapula.”

“It’s like the ultimate Cracker Jack box,” Samberg said. “Tastes worse.”

Another employee mentioned that some of the paleontologists who specialize in worms like to use them as straws. “They’ll dry out little polychaetes out in the field and then drink a soda out of the dried worms,” she said. “There’s some weird practices.”

Samberg thought this might be a fruitful story line for “Digman!” “Obviously, the show’s about archeologists, not paleontologists,” he said. “But we’ve been flirting with the idea of there being a really serious rivalry.”

Rice looked gratified. “Humans have been around for about this long,” she said, pinching off a centimetre of air. The dinosaurs, her colleague said, are treated as a failure, but they thrived on earth for a hundred and sixty-five million years. The Ice Age, which ended approximately twelve thousand years ago, was a time of megafauna. Rice was wearing a T-shirt showing the dimensions of the short-faced bear: eleven feet six inches tall, weighing a ton. Giant ground sloths were the size of baby elephants. Some of them lived in water. “So, like, aquasloths?” Samberg asked.

Leaving the tar pits, Samberg passed a sculpture of a giant sloth, which kids were climbing on. “How many people, ’cause this is in L.A., have brought their kids here, seen these, and then pitched a giant-sloths horror movie?” he said. “ ’Cause it’s the first thing I think of—‘Ah-h-h! The giant sloths are coming!’ But then they’re all super slow. So it’s, like, ‘They’re still coming. . . .’ ” He looked at his bum leg. Tar oozed through the grass in various spots. “Everyone has to get their foot stuck in something in every scene,” he said. ♦

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