The Lonely Island Knows 'Popstar' Won't Be as Good as 'This Is Spinal Tap'

We talked to the comedy trio about the inspiration for the mockumentary, Justin Bieber, and whether Taylor Swift would get away with murder.
June 1, 2016, 4:00am
Andy Samberg as Justin Bieber/Macklemore surrogate Conner4Real in 'Popstar.' Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

If the early days of funny videos on the internet is akin to a pitch-black Neolithic cave, then people who stumbled on the Lonely Island in 2002 must have felt like they'd discovered fire. Back then, if you knew about these guys—the comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—it was probably because someone in college sent you a link to one of their songs over a Hotmail account. By 2005, these three had not only revolutionized sketch-comedy in general, but through their influence (and the fact that they were hired by SNL) pushed comedy into the digital age.

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The group's biggest videos usually center on famous faces—Justin Timberlake in "Dick in a Box," T-Pain in "I'm on a Boat," Michael Bolton in "Captain Jack Sparrow"—but Lonely Island is more than the sum of its celebrity cameos. Its bread and butter is parodying hip-hop clichés and mocking the disconnect between glossy music videos and the everyday lives of the people watching them.

While the casual fan might know Lonely Island only for those SNL hits, its early material is far stranger. Under the guise of its first faux-rap ensemble "Incredibad," the group created the song "Stork Patrol," a ridiculous slow jam about guys who all apparently want to fuck and marry a paper-mache stork. Not only is it just as funny as the Lonely Island's more mainstream output, it's also proof of how intelligent and layered the guys have always been.

The group's latest project is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a transgressively hilarious feature film about a performer named Conner4Real (played by Samberg, with Taccone and Schaffer playing his original musical partners). It's a sort of update to This Is Spinal Tap (the inevitable comparison), with modern pop replacing metal, though the theme of celebrities living life in a weird ignorant bubble runs through both mockumentaries. (At one point, Conner4Real raps about meeting a girl who wants to be fucked the way "the US government fucked Bin Laden.")

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I recently sat down with Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone to figure out the motives behind the creation of their fictional pop star, how the film relates to their own biographies, and whether Taylor Swift could actually get away with murder.

VICE: Throughout all your work, from early stuff like "The Heist" to " Just 2 Guyz," to "I'm on a Boat," there's always been a thing where one dude seemingly gets excluded from what's going on with the other two. It happens in Popstar, too. What are you guys saying about male friendship?
Andy Samberg: In those songs, it's genuinely that one of us wasn't there.

Jorma Taccone: "I'm on a Boat" was that I was spending a weekend for my wedding anniversary, and I came back, and I was like, "What the fuck! It's like one of our best beats, and you made a hit!" And I was like, "Let me get on it." And they were like, "No."

Samberg: There wasn't room for you!

Akiva Schaffer: Also, you said you didn't think it was very funny.

Taccone: You're confused. I said it was a hit, right off the bat.

Samberg: Regardless, he wasn't there, and you snooze, you lose.

Schaffer: But sometimes you snooze, and you don't lose. Sometimes the two of us will write a song and leave space for the other one, and they come back, and it's like a gift. And they get to come back and be like, "Wow, you just wrote parts for me that I get to do without having done any of the work."

Taccone: Right. Avika and I started a song called "Perfect Saturday," and then Andy came back and we said,"We gave you like the best part."

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Schaffer: He got to come fart all over—

Samberg: Yep. I show up at a party and just fart.

That reminds me of another throwback, " Ardy Party."
Samberg: That was another I-wasn't-there-song. And we never released a song called "Jorm Left the Room." That was one we wrote in about forty minutes when Jorma left the room.

So, we're talking about this autobiographical stuff, which is fascinating to me because in the new movie Popstar, we've got one guy who was part of an ensemble, who breaks away from the other two. How much of the writing of this movie is autobiographical? Is Conner4Real the Lonely Island's version of Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight ? Did the Lonely Island have a falling out at some point?
Taccone: [Laughs] I hope that people can tell that we didn't [have a falling out] because we made a movie about this. That this is not our real lives.

Samberg: It felt like a good story mechanism. And also, we worked with Judd Apatow on the movie and he really liked that; the way that fame and crossover success can splinter relationships. It became about friendships and how important it is for people who achieve a lot of success to maintain good relationships with people that they knew before that success.

Schaffer: It's us without self-awareness and the way things could have gone if we were different people. We're close enough to it in our experiences, being at SNL, seeing real pop stars come in every week. We're just big fans of it, watching all the docs and stuff, but also being in the world where you do press junkets like this. It's partially our real lives enough to give us a base of authority to write about it. And it's also not our real lives, because it's a character.

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Taccone: But there certainly are moments on a red carpet where people who are taking photos are like, "Now just one with Andy!" That does happen.

Samberg: To be fair, it's my dad. He's a photographer.

Taccone: He loves Andy.

Fundamentally, Popstar is a mockumentary about a delusional musician. I know you guys were influenced by a few contemporary documentaries, but while watching it, I was wondering what has happened between This Is Spinal Tap and Popstar to make this feel urgent?
Samberg: I mean, a huge thing that's changed is obviously social media and the media system and the access people have to pop stars—

Schaffer:—what they expect out of their celebrities… I wanted to say entitlement, but that's not it. It's like the amount of access that they expect out of their stars.

Samberg: And also fun, little things like corporate tie-ins being so normal.

That was a great line from the film: "If you don't sell out, people will assume no one ever asked you to!"
Taccone: You can logic your way into any kind of selling out. Like, why it might be appropriate to be fairly shallow.

Samberg: Also, there are so many things happening that it's really hard to cut through, and we're saying suddenly, "Well, it will be in every appliance," or "You'll be in a commercial that airs fifteen times during the NBA Playoffs." But you just have to have this product along with it or whatever, like the rules have definitely changed. And especially in music, because of streaming services artists are making so much less in record sales.

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Schaffer: Which has been happening for ten years.

Samberg: So, it's like all the sudden, well shit, if I just let them use my song…

Taccone: Like, now you'll hear a song in a Bud Light Commercial, and you'll be like, "Oh, good for them, they got paid." Because you know they're not going to get paid any other way.

But, back to your question: One of the biggest changes between something like Spinal Tap and this movie is that the amount of media there is has just sped up our lives so much and that is really reflected in the speed of the storytelling.

Schaffer: Or just the speed in general in which someone can get chewed up and spit out…

Taccone: Sure, but I mean, literally, in the editing of the film.

Schaffer: Let's be really clear. Spinal Tap is like the gold standard. We set out with the idea that "Well, we'll never get to that level, that's just always going to be over there. We'll just do our own thing." We'd actually been debating an idea like this for years and were worried that it would just get compared to Spinal Tap and nothing will ever be Spinal Tap. But there was something about this year and Judd being like, "Hey, I think that's a good idea," that made us think, Oh hey, maybe it has been long enough . And the world has changed enough that there is enough new stuff to mine.

Samberg: Also, the difference between a rock doc and a pop doc is that it feels and looks different and moves at a different pace. We felt like we could do something that differentiated it at least.

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Schaffer: Right. And ours is like propaganda, made by the camp. Which isn't new, but it is newly popular. The Beatles had stuff like this. But the Bieber documentary [ Never Say Never] is the most successful documentary of all time. So the pop documentary had gotten in the zeitgeist or whatever.

Samberg: And it's different because we rap in it. And there's a dick in it. [ Laughs]

Toward the end of the movie, Conner4Real is asked to perform on an awards show because Taylor Swift gets arrested for murder. In the alternate universe of Popstar, who did Taylor Swift murder? [All laugh]

Samberg: Great question! I mean, don't spoil it… but…

Taccone: I don't think we thought that a far…

Any candidates?
Samberg: You'd have to ask her! Let's just say this… someone who deserved it.

Schaffer: The public will rally behind her, because she did the right thing.

Taccone: Let's be honest, she beats the case.

Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can't Read and Other Geeky Truths and a staff writer for Inverse.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Popstar is out in theaters nationwide Friday, June 6.