I have watched the trailer for The Lonely Island’s latest movie POPSTAR: Never Stop Never Stopping every single day since it came out. The day it was released, I watched the trailer five or six times. Honestly it could be more than that; I don’t really remember. I found out a close friend hadn’t seen the trailer this past week and I panicked. “Oh, you gotta see it, I’ll show you immediately,” I said, thus making myself late for dinner plans.
For the uninitiated and/or nine year olds, The Lonely Island is a three man comedy/music group consisting of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone. The three were middle school friends—Schaffer and Taccone a year older than Samberg—from Berkeley, California. Following college, they moved to Los Angeles where they began filming sketches and fake music videos. They worked Hollywood odd jobs while writing and producing, and eventually filmed a pilot for Fox called Awesometown (a vehicle for one of their best known early sketches, “Just 2 Guyz”). While the show wasn’t picked up, it did eventually land them jobs writing for the MTV Movie Awards, conveniently hosted that year by Jimmy Fallon.
Word of mouth got back to Lorne Michaels, and soon all three were working on Saturday Night Live, with Samberg as a cast member and Schaffer and Taccone as writers, shepherding SNL into the internet video age. Their first digital short “Lazy Sunday” aired in the winter of 2005, and it became one of, if not the, first video from SNL to ever really go viral. A sheepish, young Andy Samberg appeared on David Letterman a few weeks later, and despite the overnight fame, describes the sketch as something he and “two of [his] friends [...] who grew up together and got hired on the show together” wanted to do. At this point, their friendship was about fifteen years old. “Lazy Sunday” wasn’t a handful of sketch writers coming together to make a song in a week; it was the mark of an established group with a certain voice and playfulness and it was really fucking funny.
A decade after “Lazy Sunday,” POPSTAR is the group’s take on the rise of musician concert-documentaries in the past few years, the title itself a clear spoof of Justin Bieber’s infamous 2011 concert-doc Never Say Never.
Samberg, the most recognizable member of the group, plays the titular pop star––Connor4Real (sure, okay)––with co-directors Taccone and Schaffer playing Connor’s DJ and lyricist, respectively. For any longtime fan of The Lonely Island on SNL, the trailer is a who’s who of favorites. There’s Bill Hader, of course, in a ridiculous wig, and there’s Will Forte with set of bagpipes. And sure, I’ll take Will Arnett as a TMZ-esque Harvey Levin type. The whole thing brings me a profound amount of joy. I can’t tell you what it is about the way Samberg stares at Forte playing bagpipes, but I can tell you I laugh out loud at it every time.
I love The Lonely Island. I love them. I have loved them from the night that “Lazy Sunday” aired in the winter of 2005. I remember it vividly. I watched SNL cross-legged on the floor of my parents’ family room and watched, mouth agape. It was like nothing I had seen before, but in fairness, I was 14. From there on out, I was committed to the idea of the digital short. The early digital shorts are marvels, really, of stupid and borderline absurdist humor. Have you seen “Laser Cats?” (There are seven of them now!) Have you seen “Space Olympics?” I know you’ve seen “Dear Sister,” but it’s never not the time to rewatch it.
Here is an antiquated sentence: the spring of my sophomore year of college, I bought The Lonely Island’s second album Turtleneck & Chain on CD. It is, as a matter of fact, the last physical CD I bought for myself. This album had the recordings of very popular digital shorts “I Just Had Sex” (featuring Akon), “Jack Sparrow” (featuring Michael Bolton), and “Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde” (featuring Rihanna, in what I would personally argue is one of Rihanna’s best songs).
My college friends and I would drive around southwest Michigan––to parties, to Target, to the beach––blasting the album on full volume. Over time and with more money and more featured artists, their songs are better produced and better sounding. I remember one of my roommates turning to me in the car and saying, “This is like an actual album.” When I went home for the holidays this past year, I found the CD while driving around doing errands. Guess what? It still bangs.
Perhaps I’m so fond of The Lonely Island because they were sincere when I still loved things wholly and sincerely. They were stupid when I was stupid. The bulk of their material could be qualified as parody, I suppose, but there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek. There’s nothing snide. Long before I was sitting, arms crossed, at every sitcom or comedy film thinking, “Why is this funny? Why does this work? What is this saying?” I was thinking that “People Getting Punched In The Face Before Eating” was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
No piece of comedy today can go unanalyzed. Everything is something; we are all students of jokes and why they are working. In the days where Saturday Night Live is now Saturday Night DVRed, everything is worthy of discussion because we can watch it one thousand times. How many headlines did I read about Ariana Grande’s [epic/insane/spot on/pitch perfect] [impression/take down] of Jennifer Lawrence?
It’s not to say that the impression wasn’t good or funny—it was both!—but it was two beats in an otherwise six-minute sketch that was a conveyor belt of celebrity impressions. The Lonely Island’s early work existed in a pre-internet, content mill age. When it got big, it got big because it was really funny. I can’t imagine a headline that reads like, “Watch The Lonely Island’s Epic Imagining Of What Being On A Boat Must Feel Like” or, “Wow: The Lonely Island’s Take On The Space Olympics Will Make You Aware Of The Fact That Olympics In Space Are Definitely Impossible.” They’re essentially take-proof. It’s perfect.
I don’t want to write The Lonely Island off as never saying anything with their work—they’ve been occasionally political—but they were always fundamentally about jokes and gags and pranks. They’re middle schoolers in adult bodies. They’re the three friends from Berkley, just trying to make each other laugh. So much of their material is this male-oriented, dick-based, body fluid, people-getting-into-fist-fights-and-ugly-crying type of comedy. They know this. They don’t think they’re writing Louie or Veep. They think they’re writing their 100th digital short about sucking their own dicks.
In many ways, I think I should have outgrown The Lonely Island by now. In an age of so-much-content-all-the-damn-time-and-much-of-it-comedic, we have to pick and choose. There’s only so much time. Justification for liking something goes beyond saying, “Well, I like it”; you have to like something because it is good, and then you have to be able to justify why it is good with concrete evidence. There are countless comedies—especially male-oriented one—I’ve turned my nose up or rolled my eyes at. For all of the views I’ve given the POPSTAR trailer, I haven’t been remotely tempted to watch the Sausage Party one.
In anticipation of POPSTAR, I recently rewatched Hot Rod, The Lonely Island’s last feature film they worked on together. There’s a scene in the movie where Rod (the titular character played by Samberg) is having a conversation with his love interest, Denise (Isla Fisher), in the parking lot of a convenience store. Approximately 15 feet away, the three side characters—Kevin, Dave, and Rico, played by Jorma Taccone, Bill Hader, and Danny McBride, respectively—are quietly dancing to music coming from their van. Why are they dancing? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point.
As they dance, Rico occasionally shoves the much smaller Kevin into the side of the van. There’s always the loud thunk of a body hitting metal. This happens twice, before cutting to Rod and Denise for the rest of the scene. And yet, in the middle of their conversation, during a beat or a breath or a sigh, there’s that recognizable thunk heard from off-screen. And you know, you know because they’ve set the expectation up perfectly, that Kevin’s been shoved against the van again. There’s credit to be given all around: Schaffer’s brilliant direction of the scene, Samberg’s indifference to the three men dancing, the way Taccone’s body flails against the side of the van. I laugh every time. To me, it is a perfect joke.
I remember talking to an older comedy mentor about how the target audience for Saturday Night Live is often high school kids, and specifically, high school boys. It’s immature and stupid and silly, with just a little bit of satire, with the hope to hook an audience member when they’re young so they watch forever. I barely watch Saturday Night Live anymore, because it wasn’t really SNL that hooked me. It was The Lonely Island. They’re what made a mark on my comedy upbringing. It’s been over a decade, and I still know all of the words to “Lazy Sunday.” So I’ll keep watching the POPSTAR trailer—maybe I’ll cool down a bit and watch it every three days—and then I’ll see the movie in theaters. Once or twice with friends, and probably one more time, just by myself, to appreciate and laugh at what’s made me laugh for so many years. And then I’ll hang on for another decade.
Fran Hoepfner is a writer and comedian living and tweeting in Chicago. She is the editorial assistant at ClickHole.
Images via the Lonely Island, YouTube