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How Lonely Island made the internet a funnier place.
In 2006, long before Natalie Portman was an Academy Award winner, she was known to the majority of the world as either Queen Amidala, the doe-eyed heroine of the blockbusting trilogy of Star Wars prequels, or as the precocious 12-year-old Mathilda in Léon. But not long after Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was released, she guest-hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live during which she stared in a rap video portraying her as, variously, drug-addicted, violent, sexually aggressive and horrible to young star wars fans. It was called Natalie’s Rap.
As well as containing couplets that would make Eminem blush (really blush), it was properly, outrageously funny, the sort of thing that should have given her agent an aneurysm. You immediately wanted to show your friends and, thanks to the internet, you could: millions of people saw her screaming taste-defying lines (“All the kids looking up to me can suck my d***!/ It’s Portman motherf*****, drink till I’m sick!), which is exactly what she wanted.
“She wanted to do the raunchiest rap possible,” remembers Jorma Taccone, who along with fellow comedians Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer, was responsible for Natalie’s Rap. “We were really surprised. That’s not what you expected from her. But that’s what makes it funny.” “It made us laugh anyway,” says Samberg. “So we thought, yeah, let’s do it.”
Nothing could have exorcised the spectre of Queen Amadala faster. And if Portman’s career has subsequently blossomed, then that of Samberg, 33, Taccone, 34, and Schaffer, 33, operating as the Lonely Island, has exploded. In the ten years since the three began producing their crude, catchy comedy music videos, they have developed into the kind of pop-cultural force that simply hadn’t existed before.
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If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the geeky king of online social networking, then the Lonely Island are his peers when it comes to the goofy viral videos we post on our Facebook walls and e-mail around the office. They have a deal with Universal Republic Records and have spawned a slew of imitators. They are probably responsible for the majority of rude songs being sung around the playgrounds of the Western world, but A-list celebrities queue up to work with them for free. Justin Timberlake is a regular collaborator. Norah Jones, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and rapper Akon have all sung on Lonely Island tracks. Rihanna recently filmed a duet with a character, played by Samberg, who ends up wetting himself. Their videos have included cameos by Jessica Alba, Susan Sarandon, Will Ferrell, Blake Lively, Elijah Wood, John Waters and, for some reason, briefly, John McEnroe.
Attracting such names is not difficult. If, like Portman, they want to show people they have a sense of humour, then working with the Lonely Island is a guaranteed means of reaching the world. Consider these stats: if you visit their official YouTube channel, you will see that the Lonely Island’s music videosm with such wilfully juvenile titles as Jizz in my Pants and I Just Had Sex, have been viewed more than 450 million times - several million more views than, say, Beyoncé’s YouTube videos. Rap superstar Kanye West’s numbers are a good 100 million lower. Madonna flounders at only 190 million total views. Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone may now quite be the most watched artists on the web (Rihanna’s YouTube channel recently topped a billion views), but for three blokes who “sort of stumbled into doing music” by “getting drunk and messing around” with some recording equipment and deciding it would be “sort of fun to shoot a video”, it’s not bad going.
“Being in a successful online video is now the equivalent, for a celebrity, of going on a talk show,” explains Samberg, who, when we meet, sits with Schaffer and Taccone at a long table in a dimly lit room in Manhattan just south of Central Park. “And it’s possibly even more powerful, because it’s a piece of created work rather than just fluff. More and more celebrities are seeing what it does for other celebrities. We’re not going to take credit for those sorts of things. But if you look at people like Justin Timberlake or Natalie Portman, doing a video with us has helped them in terms of their careers. It gave them a chance to be seen in a different way, and let the public understand that they are smart people who know how to take the p*** out of themselves. It’s a chance to show the world they have a sense of humour.”
Around their record label’s offices, the wall are covered with posters of multimillion selling acts: Taylor Swift and Florence and the Machine peer down in artful pop-siren poses. In contrast, Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone are loitering, with their hands in their pockets, all in jeans, hi-top basketball sneakers and checkered shirts. They are here to promote their second album, Turtleneck & Chain - essentially a compelation of songs from their videos, plus new material and celebrity cameos, the follow-up to 2009’s Incredibad.
Celebrities sending themselves up is nothing new: Morecambe and Wise were masters of placing stars in unlikely contexts, and more recently, the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras have the likes of Kate Winslet the opportunity to poke fun at themselves. What hadn’t existed before is a place where they could be unapologetically puerile: thousands may watch celebrities being admirably self-aware, but millions will watch them make willy jokes.
The Lonely Island acknowledge that convincing Justin Timberlake to sing and star in the video for D*** in a Box (in which he shows men how to gift-wrap their genitals and present them to women as a token of love) kick-started the celeb-cameo trend that others followed. Timberlake had enjoyed an early spoof rap song they produced for Saturday Night Live, and when they approached him with the idea and a sheet of lyrics (including crooned lines such as “A gift real special, so take off the top/Take a look inside it’s my d*** in a box”), they were surprised to find that he was more confident than anyone that it would be a success.
The song ended up winning the 2007 Creative Arts Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. This was not a fluke: last year, they were nominated for a Grammy for thier song I’m on a Boat, which poked fun at the excess of videos featuring rappers aboard giant yachts.
“Our rule is always comedy comes first, music second,” says Samberg. “But we do try to make the music as good as we know how.”
Andy Samberg is, more than anyone, the public face of the Lonely Island. He is also a cast member on SNL, a job which he was offered after work with Schaffer and Taccone was noticed by the producers (Schaffer and Taccone write for the influential show). He stars in almost every Lonely Island video and played the lead in the 2007 film Hot Rod, about a wannabe stuntman.
“In America, Andy is much more famous than us because he is actually on Saturday Night Live.” explains Taccone. “We might get recognised in the street, but Andy has to deal much more with the actual press.”
Schaffer, bespectacled and skinny, is the quietest of the three. He appears in their videos the least, in part because he directs most of them. He is the one who is forced to have the occasional “awkward conversation” with stars making cameos about what it is they have to do. In the video for Mortherlover, for instance, Samberg and Timberlake duet about what a good idea it would be to sleep with each other’s mothers, played by Susan Sarandon and Patricia Clarkson. “I didn’t get them on the phone till midnight, we needed them for 9am the next day, and I was trying to explain why it was a good idea. I mean it certainly didn’t sound like a good idea... it sounded like it could be very embarrassing and bad. We don’t want people to feel they’ve been tricked into doing something. But at least people might have an idea of who we are now. It would have been much harder to convince Susan Sarandon to be in a video if we were kids making them at home.”
The trio became friends at high school in Berkeley, California, just outside San Francisco. Schaffer says that the thing that impressed him most about Samberg and Taccone was their gift for sarcasm.
Being “three scrawny little white guys in a very urban high school” meant that the notion of comedy as a defense mechanism was at least party true. “It was a survival technique for years,” explains Samberg. “Not that we were bullied or anything per se, but school was very cut-throat. It was just the way you’d traverse things socially.”
Each member of the Lonely Island has parents who were from New York and relocated to San Francisco’s Bay Area in the Seventies, drawn to it’s artistic and liberal reputation.”I wouldn’t go as far as to say our parents were hippies, but you’d probably get it from our two names: Jorma and Akiva are not common names in America,” Schaffer explains. Taccone was named after a guitarist in the Sixties psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, while Samberg has a sister named Darrow after Clarence Darrow, the early-20th century American civil right lawyer.
Behind the knob gags, there remains a strong artsy pedigree. Samberg majored in experimental film at college, and is dating alternative-folk singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. Taccone studied theatre and is married to playwright and actress Marielle Heller. And despite their Average Joe appeal, they were ambitious from the start when it came to forging a career in comedy. “We all wanted that,” Taccone admits. “So we made a decision to move to LA together to try it.”
This was around 2002. They shared an isolated apartment (they dubbed it “the Lonely Island”) and filmed themselves “goofing off, trying to do music videos, and trying to turn it into a medium that could be sold”. The problem was, there was no appetite for what they were producing. Schaffer showed the tape to a friend.
“He was like, ‘Great, but how can you make it into showbusiness with that?’ And he wasn’t wrong, because YouTube didn’t exist then and the internet barely supported video. I was like ‘Oh... you’re right.’ Even as recently as that, there were only television shows and movies.”
They produced a pilot for a comedy show called Awesometown, a song and sketch revue that, while funny, lacked the short, sharp, sugar-rush effectiveness of their later videos. It was through a job writing scripts for the MTV Movie Awards that the trio secured work on SNL. In 2005, the show screened a short music video they had made called Lazy Sunday, which featured two friends sternly rapping about their plans to see The Chronicles of Narnia at a local cinema. The SNL viewers loved it. Thanks to the advent of YouTube, which had launched earlier that year, a viral hit was spawned, which allowed them to go on to dominate a medium they had inadvertently stumbled upon.
“Everytime I go home for the holidays, no matter what the function, almost every dinner you go to usually ends up becoming a YouTube fest,” says Taccone. “The kids all go off into a room and show each other their favourite videos. And if you haven’t seen someone in a while, too, it’s a way to communicate.”
It is funny that, having risen to fame by poking fun at showbiz excess, the Lonely Island are today having to do all the promo required of any “real” pop group, with a platoon of PR’s in tow. Similarly, when asked if there was anything they would go back and change, there is a cautious pause, and Samberg mutters, “Don’t say anything crazy” - when saying crazy things is how they got where they are in the first place. That they will film themselves rapping about what their penises look like, but not risk elaborating on “a few things on the business end...” doesn’t seem quite right.
Still, for all the A-list appearances and tasteless humour, there is at heart something wholesome about the Lonely Island; about the fact that three friends from school have got to where they are, in part, due to the simple fact that people will always enjoy showing their friends things that will make them laugh.
“It’s become part of our culture - something you do with people you care about or share the same sense of humour with,” says Samberg, before the trio are shepherded out of the room by their PR’s. “I’ll see something and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to see Jorma and show him this and watch him laugh at it.’ I’ll send him the link while we’re talking on the phone, and I’ll listen to him watch it because I know how much he’s going to enjoy it.”
It’s a sweet image. They all smile at each other a little bashfully before leaving to go and decide what, in the future, will be popping up in our inboxes and, let’s hope, making us laugh.
Thanks to Freya for typing this up and sending us the photos!
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