Five years ago, Andy Samberg made his final appearance as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. It was the end of a seven-year run in which he and his comedy partners, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, not only helped to save the show from cultural irrelevance but redefined popular culture for decades to come.
We gather today to remember their impact, their accomplishments and their dick jokes.
If you don’t know the names, or only recognise one, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone are the three members of The Lonely Island, the comedy group best known for their musical comedy, especially rap songs like “Jack Sparrow” and “I’m On A Boat”.
For seven years, they ran Saturday Night Live’s online division, SNL Digital Shorts, where they either wrote, directed or produced every video – they were given the division after the runaway success of their second short, “Lazy Sunday”, which aired just two days after the official launch of YouTube and became one of the first viral videos. The Digital Shorts were integral to the continued success of NBC’s thirty-year-old flagship sketch show as it transitioned from Tina Fey’s acclaimed reign as head writer – which saved it from the instability and later stagnation of the nineties – into the otherwise lacklustre tenure of Seth Meyers, when the show was often carried by just a handful of outstanding performers like Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.
Early in their time at Saturday Night Live, the show’s co-creator and producer Lorne Michaels let them take over a film originally written for Will Ferrell, the cult hit Hot Rod. Although the script, technically credited only to original writer Pam Brady, still bears many hallmarks of the mid-00s Will Ferrell vehicle it was intended to be, the film also contains some of the most idiosyncratic gags ever written by The Lonely Island and helped further establish their unique comedic voice. Last year, they released their masterpiece and one of the best comedy films ever made, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which approximately five people saw. Two of them run this blog, and one of the others is horror movie producer Keith Calder, who wisely noted that Popstar was utterly failed by the studio’s lack of advertising. In a time when original films like Popstar are made less and less as the major studios invest ever more resources in a handful of sequels, remakes, reboots and other adaptations (usually based on comic books, young adult novels, classic sci-fi and fantasy, or successful movies from the eighties) that they hope will be the next billion-dollar movie on the back of a successful release in China, it’s even more tragic than it would be anyway that Universal gave Popstar such a mediocre advertising push. After all, they’d already made the film – why not try to make a profit with it?
Many aspects of Popstar’s box office failure point to problems in both the film industry and society at large. Some of them are beyond our power to change – the studios can’t be forced to back every film with a good advertising campaign, or take more risks with original work instead of furiously regurgitating adaptations of pre-existing intellectual property. But we can all do a little more to let the name of our era’s great artists be known wide and far, especially those who aren’t given enough recognition. We can, for example, proclaim the legend of The Lonely Island from the highest hill we can find, so their next film (allegedly an unwittingly timely collaboration with Seth Rogen about a musical festival that goes horribly wrong) is such an event in popular culture it won’t even need an advertising budget, because people will hear of it in passing and think to themselves, or say to each other, “The Lonely Island have a new movie coming out!? I can’t wait! I LOVE The Lonely Island!” and sell out multiple screenings at their local cinema.
At the very least, we can write about them on our blogs.
But how to write about them? At the end of this article, I’ve prepared a programme of SNL Digital Shorts from The Lonely Island’s tenure at Saturday Night Live, and I want to persuade you to watch them, but writing about comedy, and especially explaining a joke, has an unfortunate tendency to drain the humour out of it.
Still, we all give it our best shot. Jesse David Fox at Vulture wrote an excellent history of The Lonely Island, and Fran Hoepfner wrote a more personal reflection for Jezebel, as well as a great review of Popstar for Bright Wall/Dark Room. Here’s my attempt at something that’s a little bit of both history and personal reflection, and a little bit of neither.
I’ve loved The Lonely Island for almost half my life, often without knowing just how much. The first video I can remember watching on the Internet, back when people in my family started to get wi-fi, was the SNL Digital Short “Business Meeting”. I didn’t know then what Saturday Night Live was, or recognise that other videos my cousin showed me around the same time, like this terrible Harry Potter sketch with Lindsay Lohan, were from the same show. Partially that’s a result of the poor branding of early YouTube videos, but mostly it’s because even as a thirteen-year-old, I could see that one was good and one was bad, that one hit all its beats perfectly and one was a slipshod mess full of crappy penis jokes. I don’t even think “Business Meeting” is a particularly standout Digital Short apart from one great bit (“Captain Pajama Shark?” “Present.”), but I’ve been thinking about that one great bit for ten years and it never gets any less funny.
I didn’t realise back then I’d had my first exposure to The Lonely Island. While I later became a fan of their music videos, I always watched them on the group’s YouTube channel, without the SNL Digital Short branding or studio audience laughter from the versions on Saturday Night Live’s YouTube channel, and though I was vaguely aware Andy Samberg was part of the show’s cast, part of me assumed without much reason that The Lonely Island was something Andy did on the off-season, so I never connected my occasional encounters with SNL Digital Shorts with The Lonely Island, even when Jorma or Akiva had cameos. It wasn’t until college, when I became more interested in television and also started thinking more seriously about videos on the Internet as a legitimate art form that I read about the group’s history, made all the connections I’d somehow missed for seven years and realised I’d been more exposed to The Lonely Island than I knew, both through SNL Digital Shorts, and through their influence on an entire generation of artists who learned how to make online video from the form’s original masters.
The Lonely Island are often referred to as masters of stupid comedy, and while that’s not inaccurate, it obscures both the brilliance of the deeper structure of their humour and the cleverness of their commentary on culture. Jesse David Fox talked about the rhythm of their editing in the piece I mentioned earlier, but it’s more than that, it’s the rhythm of the camera, how it pans and zooms, the rhythms of the actors’ movement within each shot, the rhythm and pitch of their speech. The fact that they’re primarily visual artists is what makes their music videos so much better than those of earlier musical comedians like Weird Al. You can see their influence in the best work of their successors, from Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” to “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” to “Shatner of the Mount”, and it’s given them a lasting and visible legacy that will only grow with time.
But I don’t think it goes far enough to say how much The Lonely Island have influenced online video, because their comedy is the basic vernacular of online humour for those of us who grew up with The Lonely Island, and I don’t just mean artists. What is “Daiquiri Girl” if not the original shitpost? What is “Jizz In My Pants” if not the template for our love of “repeating the same joke over and over, with increasing intensity” (as one horribly misjudged and inaccurate ranking of SNL Digital Shorts put it)? What is the “cool beans” scene from Hot Rod if not a precursor to the Neo-Dadaism of millennial humour? I don’t just see The Lonely Island in the generation of YouTubers that followed them. I see them in Weird Twitter and strangely specific tumblr subcultures and communist Facebook groups. I see them in joke bots like Nora Reed’s endless screaming or Casey Kolderup’s Unconventional Desires or the classic Horse ebooks. I see them in this website that just plays a sea shanty called “Chicken on a Raft” on an infinite loop.
None of this is intended to ignore the contributions of the group’s collaborators, many of whom are comedic artists I respect enormously. In fact, while rewatching every SNL Digital Short recently, I was struck by how The Lonely Island and their collaborators always worked to create something that neither could have made alone, but never hid each other’s personal touch. “Virgania Horsen’s Pony Express” is an essential Kristen Wiig performance that echoes in her later role as Alice in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me. “The Date” is an obvious prototype for the kind of sincere, absurd and juvenile humour that Will Forte and John Solomon would later pursue with The Last Man on Earth. Years before Baskets debuted, “Booty Call” was an early example of how Jonathan Krisel’s direction could combine cringe comedy with visual beauty.
Nor is it meant to ignore those who influenced The Lonely Island, like Monty Python, the pioneers of both musical comedy and dragged-out repetitive jokes that are funny because they’re dragged-out and repetitive.
But when you watch SNL Digital Shorts in 2017, it’s like opening a blueprint for the evolution of Internet humour over the past decade. That’s what made the box office failure of Popstar such a kick in the teeth – it wasn’t just that no one went to see their movie, it’s that no one even realised they should. The Lonely Island are among the most important and influential artists alive and their masterpiece was a commercial flop.
Here’s my contribution to making sure that never happens again. I’ve prepared a program of SNL Digital Shorts, one for each day of May, that I think captures both their creative essence and the scope of their influence. Where possible, I’ve used versions without audience laughter. Watch them, repeatedly if possible. I think a lot of the work, like “Space Olympics”, only gets stronger with further viewings, as you grow more familiar with the surface material and start to appreciate the deeper structure even more. By the end of the month, I hope more people will understand and appreciate The Lonely Island.
We’ll be living in their world for a long time to come.
31 Days of SNL Digital Shorts
Day 22 – “Flags of the World”
Day 23 – “Close Talkers”
Day 24 – “United Way”
Day 25 – “Best Friends”
Day 26 – “Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde”
Day 27 – “People Getting Punched Right Before Eating”
Day 28 – “3-Way (The Golden Rule)”