In June 2016, comedy trio The Lonely Island released music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Playing fictional popstar Conner Friel, SNL cast member Andy Samberg used the film as a vehicle to satirise music documentaries, fan entitlement and the big old beast of celebrity culture. On the one hand, it was reviewed well: Uproxx called Popstar “the best mockumentary since Spinal Tap”. On the other hand, it sunk like a disappointing anvil into the bottom of the ocean, making just $9 million back of its $20 million budget and failing to bring in the huge audience the trio had hoped for.
That said, in a similar fashion to most of the work of The Lonely Island, the film went on to enjoy a cult afterlife. The trio, in which Samberg is joined by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, are best known as the people behind viral parodies like “I’m on a Boat” and “Dick in a Box” – the kind of videos you imagine university students watching while brushing Cheetos dust off their sweatpants –yet they’ve also been quietly reinventing comedy since they formed in 2001. They're creative polymaths – putting out music, TV, feature length films and viral videos that are consistently good. I mean, “I’m on a Boat” was nominated for an Grammy in 2010, and legitimate comedians, actors and musicians like Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, and Michael Bolton have worked with and praised the trio.Still, despite the co-signs from Gaga, audiences rarely turn out to actually pay for their work – perhaps because so much of it is released for free, perhaps because comedy often underperforms anyway, or perhaps because we just take them for granted. But with the group appearing for their first live concert at Clusterfest this June it’s perhaps time they get the recognition they deserve outside of comedy and cult circles – not for going viral every so often, but as consistent and important players in comedy, releasing work that stands alongside arguably more recognised comedic musicians like Weird Al and Rachel Bloom.
To make it clear why the group excel in their field, and to ram some of their lesser known material down your throat, here’s a little refresher on just some of the things that make The Lonely Island special:
In the early 2000's equivalent of your little brother's weird friend who is Huge on Snapchat, The Lonely Island started posting short films and absurd skits online in 2001. A few years later in 2005, and after pitching their own material independently, comedy giant Saturday Night Live took notice and brought them on board to lead a division called SNL Digital Shorts .Though they were primarily responsible for a number of many now-viral videos like “I Just Had Sex” – songs loved by every backwards cap wearing frat-boy from California to Cambridge – it’s their other, earlier work that is the funniest.The first short is 2005’s “Lettuce”, a two-minute video in which Andy Samberg and Will Forte sit on a stoop munching on entire heads of lettuce while Will comforts Andy about a bereavement. Sure, on paper that might sound dry, but in true Lonely Island fashion the short ends up being a fake ad for lettuce, promoting the vegetable as something to get you "through good times and bad". This absurd, slightly-stoned comedy is partly what makes The Lonely Island so good. Their second short, “Lazy Sunday”, subverts and mocks musical bragging in a video where Samberg and Chris Parnell rap about things like cupcakes, directions, and attending a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It went viral, and led to the trio getting more sketches on air, breathing fresh life into SNL and, according to NY Mag, “forcing NBC into the iPod age” – which, wow, feels like a lifetime ago.
Their humble beginnings
“Lazy Sunday” and other 2005-2009 sketches and songs, like “Dick in a Box”, sent The Lonely Island and SNL Digital Shorts viral in a niche way. But then came the juggernaut: 2008’s “Jizz in My Pants”, the first single from their debut album Incredibad, which blasted the group into living rooms across the globe. The song is far from their smartest – it's about jizzing in pants – but it received millions of views and went platinum, setting themselves up nicely for their crown jewel.How many of us, since 2009, have stepped foot on a sea vessel without uttering the words “I’m on a boat… motherfucker”? Even if you don’t love The Lonely Island and never did, there’s a high chance your brain compulsively follows every mention of boats with motherfucker, thanks to “I’m on a Boat” being unavoidable in 2009. Featuring T-Pain singing I fucked a mermaid, it played on excess in hip-hop, with ⅔ of the trio living their best lives on a motherfucking boat. As a result Incredibad bizarrely got nominated for a Grammy and became the eighth best-selling hip hop album of 2009, despite not actually being hip-hop.
Soon, other comedy bands rode the post-Incredibad wave. Most famously The Midnight Beast burst onto YouTube with a “Tik Tok” parody that had lyrics like “it sells to be a slut” and continued their careers with “jokes” about rape and sleeping with underage girls. Unlike those guys however, the Lonely Island’s comedy never punches down: “Jizz in my Pants”, and “We’re Back”, from Turtleneck and Chain, mocked the group's own impotence, with lyrics like “my dick looks like the fat that you cut off a steak”. Similarly, “We Like Sportz” mocks their own masculinity and that of men who are, well, bang into sports: “we're real men, and we like sports/if you say we're not then we'll see you in court” . Even in songs about women, The Lonely Island are the butt of the joke: in “I Just Had Sex”, they’re singing about “the best 30 seconds of my life”.
We have The O.C. to thank for bringing Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” into comedic canon, when Marissa Cooper (RIP, sweet babe) shot Ryan’s brother in slo-mo as it played. But (sorry OC fans) it’s The Lonely Island who cemented its place in comedy history. “The Shooting AKA Dear Sister” (watch above) aired in 2007 – an SNL digital short that spoofed the iconic season two finale.The short features Dave (Andy Samberg) interrupting Keith (Bill Hader) while he’s writing a letter to his sister. Dave suddenly shoots Keith, who collapses before shooting him back – both on the mmm whatcha say cue in “Hide and Seek”. The violence (and ridiculousness) then escalates – a key element of The Lonely Island’s comedy has been to carry things long past the point that they’re funny until they become funny again, kind of like how it feels when you're hanging out of your asshole with a bunch of friends. And so Shia LaBeouf enters looking for them both, before Dave shoots Eric in the stomach again to the same music. It goes on for a while, with Kristen Wiig and two more police officers coming in, and never really ends as they all just shoot each other to “Hide and Seek” ad infinitum, with the music cues overlapping. Naturally this led to hundreds of vines, parodies, and edits of our own, making “The Shooting” is an integral part of online culture.
Mmm, whatcha say
In 2007, the Lonely Island released Hot Rod, a film starring Andy Samberg as an amateur stuntman who wants to raise money for his ill stepfather so that he can beat the shit out of him. Directed by Schaffer, the film showcases The Lonely Island’s strengths: self-deprecating comedy that subverts stereotypes of masculinity in absurd, drawn-out scenes. It’s a cult hit now, but it was a failure, making only $14 million of its $25 million budget – a reception Samberg anticipated, saying in Entertainment Weekly in 2007 that it would “get bad reviews”. The Taccone-directed MacGruber, an action parody spoofing MacGyver , is also considered a Lonely Island film. It, too, was a failure, making $9.3 million of its $10 million budget back. But it has a huge cult following who want a sequel; something Taccone and star Will Forte are keen on making happen.All of The Lonely Island’s films have failed at the box office before being appreciated, but the biggest affront is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. After over a decade of service to comedy and music, after two films that their fans failed to go and see, The Lonely Island released Popstar, a send-up of popstar culture. Its songs were smart without betraying the inherent stupidity of its main character, and they parodied common pop clichés like pro-equality songs in “Equal Rights” and popstar arrogance in “Humble”. They took their absurdity to new heights in a scene that sees Seal get mauled to death by wolves. It was their most ambitious project, and their best received; it was well-reviewed, and yet, nobody went to see it. But they should have: The Lonely Island have been bringing us groundbreaking, subversive, and laugh-out-loud hilarious comedy for over 10 years, and it’s high time we appreciate them.You can find Marianne on Twitter.