Lonely Island goes pop: The trio weighs in on weed, Macklemore and why Andy Samberg says "we were woke baes early”

Salon talks to Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer about beefing with the Ninja Turtles, and more

Published May 25, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Andy Samberg in "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" (Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures)
Andy Samberg in "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" (Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures)

The Lonely Island—which is comprised of childhood friends Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer—exists somewhere at the meeting point between boy band, performance art, and sketch comedy. The trio first made it big on “Saturday Night Live,” where Samberg became a regular cast member and Taccone and Schaffer joined the writers’ room. The three ended up spearheading the late-night variety show’s fledgling digital shorts, producing ready-for-YouTube content before many other television shows were even thinking about it. Balancing with ease on the line between parody and sincerity, Lonely Island released three singles that went platinum and launched a silly little empire. “Lazy Sunday,” “Dick In A Box,” and “I’m On A Boat” are some of the ’00s most fungible pop-cultural currency, the type of references that ended up sinking in with audiences across the country.

Now Samberg is a regular on the just-renewed “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and Taccone and Schaffer, like Samberg, have left “Saturday Night Live.” But they’ve still found time to collaborate. Next weekend, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” brings the band back together to tell a story of a charismatic frontman who gets too big for his (leather, couture) britches and leaves his bandmates in the dust. Samberg plays Conner, a part-Bieber, part-Macklemore type with a lot of bro tattoos and very little talent; Taccone and Schaffer play the other Style Boyz, shunted to the side to make way for Conner’s solo career. The film, which opens nationwide Jun 3, has the endearing and frustrating qualities of a sketch idea expanded into a feature-length film; more interesting than the content is watching the band work together, both in-character and out of it.

I sat down with the Lonely Island to talk collaboration, “Popstar,” and how on earth they managed to get Mariah Carey into their film long enough to deliver, with biting insincerity, that she was “really humble.”

The three of you became famous working on television—and, specifically, in making shorts that went viral. There was also a film in the past, and another album. Why did you decide to return to film?

Andy Samberg: Well, we always wanted to do a movie that we really made from the ground up. “Hot Rod” we love, but it was sort of a project we inherited and put our mark on. But also, over the course of doing “SNL” and the albums, we feel like the general consensus is that when we make comedy, music, and videos for those songs, people enjoy that. So we wanted to combine that with our love of movies, and do one that we conceived.

Jorma Taccone: That was always our goal, from the moment we graduated college and decided that we were all gonna move to L.A. together: to make movies and TV. Obviously we’d love to make more of that as well. If we could make another 10 films I think we’d be pretty psyched on that.

Samberg: Ten. That’s the magic number.

Taccone: And then be out. Never again. Like, done. Done, done.

Akiva Schaffer: Like Tarantino.

Have Akiva and Jorma always been more the directors, and Andy been more the performer?

Samberg: Yeah, in the beginning Akiva was sort of the primary director, and then Jorm, at “SNL,” realized he was doing a lot of directing things anyway, so they started co-directing or each directing things.

Schaffer: Jorm started doing the MacGruber things.

Samberg: The MacGrubers, yeah. And Sloths!

Taccone: [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would describe that as directing.

Samberg: You directed images. On a screen.

Taccone: I did, yeah.

“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a story about three childhood friends who make it big with their band Style Boyz and then end up losing each other due to their own fame. How autobiographical is this story?

Samberg: It’s autobiographical in that the three of us have been friends since we were kids, and we have made songs together that are humorous. [Laughs.] The characters in the movie don’t realize that it’s humorous. A major distinction.

Schaffer: It’s just us minus self-awareness, I guess.

Samberg: That’s a good way of putting it.

Taccone: Nobody in our group has a monstrous ego that is ruining the group dynamic.

Samberg: [whispering to Taccone] Fuck you.

Are your personalities at all like the characters you’re playing?

Samberg: Kiv’s kinda the brainiac. Jorm’s kinda the emotional one. And I’m kinda just like a dweeb.

Taccone: It’s basically Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’m the Theodore. [Akiva’s] Simon, [Andy’s] Alvin.

Samberg: “Popstar” is actually an unofficial squeakquel. It’s like the Lil’ Wayne documentary of squeakquels.

Taccone: I’m embarrassed how accurate that analogy is, of Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s pretty accurate.

Samberg: It’s pretty spot-on.

Why do you feel like the Theodore?

Taccone: I’m, like, the little doughy guy.

Samberg: Little sweetie. Wants everyone to get along... in the movie.

Taccone: We’re like Alvin and the Chipmunks but we all have glasses.

Schaffer: It felt a lot more accurate before they both started wearing glasses.

Samberg: I’ve always worn glasses. I maybe had glasses before you. How old were you when you got glasses?

Akiva: 19.

Samberg: Yeah, I was in seventh grade. Boom, I’m the Simon.

Taccone: And I was 32.

Samberg: Jorm definitely tanked us.

Taccone: I know, I blew it.

What is it like collaborating with people you’ve known for most of your lives now?

Samberg: It’s wonderful.

Taccone: You can see, it sucks. [Laughs.] We know no other way.

Samberg: It feels weird to work with other people.

Schaffer: We all do it, too. We do work with other people, and they’re all lovely, but then we’re always like, “Well, that’s not as good.”

Samberg: I’ll definitely call these guys and be like, “What do you think of this?” Even if they’re not working on it. We’re, like, kind of married to each other, and it’s family-ish.

Taccone: Our shorthand is very, very short at this point.

So you never had the arc where one of you tried to break away? Or if you did, this is the unauthorized biography of it.

Schaffer: We all take turns doing it, but not in a dramatic way.

Taccone: And that’s part of the reason why it’s hard for us to organize touring. Because we would love to tour as a group and do music as a thing, but one of us has always had something else. It’s not like we broke away to do that sort of thing, but there’s always been some conflict.

A bunch of Lonely Island songs are so good at the “loser vocabulary”—I like to think of “I Just Had Sex” as the greatest example of this—but it’s interesting: Now you’re in this hotel and you have this view. How do you maintain that? How do you maintain being successful, but speaking to the loser in all of us?

Taccone: Well, because this is pretend.

This part is pretend?

Taccone: Yes.

Schaffer: And we don’t own this hotel. We’re visitors like you are.

Samberg: You get into comedy because you are insecure, and you communicate with the world through comedy to sort of alleviate the tension of those insecurities, and to find a way to make people like you other than the way you look, or how good you are at sports. I don’t think that really goes away. And also, if you’re ever feeling too good, you can read like three comments on YouTube and be like: “Right, there are some people out there who like what we do, and then there’s some people who literally would like us to be dead.”

Have you been reading the comments on YouTube?

Samberg: No. Only when I’m feeling really cocky. [Laughs.] But also, staying together and working with each other is something that keeps us all very grounded, because there’s not really room for acting high and mighty in a family.

Taccone: Self-deprecation is a staple of what we do. It tends to always go back to that.

Samberg: But she’s saying, what if that rings false?

Taccone: Oh god, I hope it doesn’t.

Samberg: But that’s the question!

Schaffer: We’re also really afraid of making other people upset. So out of that fear, we’ll just make fun of ourselves. Just because we’re the only people we aren’t worried about making mad.

In “Popstar,” we get a few glimpses of the Style Boyz’ creative process. Is getting stoned in the studio how you guys write, too?

Taccone: Not the getting stoned part.

Samberg: That has happened… twice.

Taccone: And we made good shit!

Samberg: We made good shit. When we were making our second album, we had made a lot of stuff we really loved, and then we kind of hit a writer’s block where we all didn’t want to in the studio and it was getting a little grindy. We all were in a Jack Johnson video, and those are some mellow-ass Hawaiian-hanging dudes. So someone from his camp, I don’t know if he even knew about it, sent me a little baggie as, like, a thank you.

Taccone: Of pakalolo.

Samberg: Of that pakalolo.

Is that a thing?

Taccone: That’s what they call it. I’m just trying to make this more Hawaiian.

Schaffer: I think it was banana kush.

What a Simon thing to say.

Taccone: He’s very detail-oriented.

Samberg: It was banana kush, naturally. And me and Jorm were just like, we don’t need to work tonight, let’s just, like, have a little mellow night. And then sure enough, we were right back in the studio, just giggling like lunatics, writing “I Just Had Sex.”

Taccone: “I Just Had Sex” and also “Turtleneck & Chain,” because we were stomping around the room. [Laughs.]

Samberg: And then we woke up the next morning, and Kiv helped us actually write it. [Laughs.]

Schaffer: The first part of it was there!

Samberg: The inspiration came out. But that’s the only time I can think of. Generally, we’re very sober workers.

Taccone: Most people think that that’s how we get our ideas, like, You guys must smoke so much weed! And we’re like, No! We just hang out a lot together. We just never stop working.

There doesn’t seem to be any drama in your band. Or you’re pretending very well.

Samberg: We’ve been saying the whole time, if anything went south with us before the movie came out, it would be a really bad look for the movie. The whole point of the movie is how good of buds we are.

Or it would draw a lot of attention to it!

Samberg: [turning to his costars] FUCK YOU GUYS!

Schaffer: That’d be better, maybe.

As we know, starting some beef is a great way to get publicity.

Taccone: We’re trying to start it with the Ninja Turtles. The behemoth that we’re gonna take down, David and Goliath-style. F.U. Michael Bay! Just kidding, we love your movies.

Samberg: We haven’t brought this up in press yet, but Will Arnett is in that movie and our movie. And he told me in confidence he much prefers ours.

Jorma: And be sure to not print that? Question mark?

Samberg: Up to you? [sotto voce] Leave a hundred on the table.

Were you intentionally making fun of Macklemore with Conner’s song about marriage equality?

Samberg: That was inspired by his song, but obviously his is a lot more thoughtful than ours. That song is funny to us because of a new complaint, which is commenting on the way someone is supportive of gay marriage, or of LGB… LGB… my brain is melting.

Taccone: LGBT. But there’s more now.


Samberg: Yes. Can you say it fast?

LGBTQ. But I went to Brown.

Samberg: We grew up in Berkeley! When we went there they didn’t call it that yet. We grew up just saying “the gay community.” It’s changed now. But anyhow, we were conscious first. We were woke baes early. [Laughs.]

Schaffer: We just called them people, you know. But you guys have fun.

Samberg: I honestly didn’t know it was even a thing until high school. I was just like, yeah, some people are like that, some people aren’t.

Taccone: But it’s such a particular criticism to be even able to have now.

Samberg: Exactly, someone’s like, “I support gay marriage,” but you could say it wrong. That’s how much people want everyone to support gay marriage, which is such a beautiful thing. So we were like, oh, that’s actually a new shade of a joke about this issue, sort of calling that into question. That was fun for us.

Taccone: And it is funny, in his song, that [Conner] has to mention at the beginning that he’s not gay. He only mentions it once, however, to be fair. [Note: He mentions it dozens of times.]

This was the part of the movie that made me laugh the hardest, so I have to ask: How on earth did you get Mariah Carey to say that she was “really humble?”

Taccone: Oh man, it was right off the bat, and then it plateaued for you?

Mariah just surprised me completely. I didn’t know that she would be cool with doing that.

Schaffer: We didn’t either, but we would just write for people, and they would come in and we’d be like: “Wanna say this one?”

Samberg: I was shocked when I saw her do it. That was so great.

Taccone: It’s also that, she delivers it so well that I almost got concerned. Like, are people gonna think that somehow this isn't a joke for her? It’s a joke. It’s a joke that she executed very well.

By Sonia Saraiya

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