The Lonely Island, practitioners of musical comedy, practically invented the notion of “viral video” with “Lazy Sunday.” And more than five years later, the group has Internet popularity down to a science: The trio’s “Jizz In My Pants” has topped 100,000,000 YouTube views, while the more recent “I Just Had Sex” is close behind. It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Lonely Island’s comic songs, and the accompanying videos, usually debut on Saturday Night Live and feature guests like Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, and Michael Bolton. The group is comprised of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer—Samberg is an SNL cast member, and the others write, direct, and occasionally pop up onscreen. What started as three friends fooling around with a camera has turned into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon, and the group’s latest album, Turtleneck & Chain—the follow-up to 2009’s Incredibad—cements The Lonely Island members’ place as humorists who are in the game for the long haul. Just after Turtleneck’s release, The A.V. Club spoke to Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone about their recording process, the definition of a “real” band, and their sexual prowess.
The A.V. Club: This time around, you guys are much busier than when you wrote your first album. Was the process any different?
Andy Samberg: It was slightly slower once we were done with the initial recording phase, ’cause we had other stuff going on during the SNL season, but generally, it was the same process.
Akiva Schaffer: We actually went out of our way to make it the same process, which was—and this goes for both of the albums—renting a big house in L.A. Literally the same house. We were able to get it again. And each taking a different wing of the house for our bedroom, and then taking this little room off to the side and turning it into our makeshift studio, recording all summer.
AVC: Have you written songs for SNL and thought, “We can use this for Lonely Island later on”?
Schaffer: Yes. Although for the album, we only took three songs preexisting from SNL: “Motherlover,” “Throw It On The Ground,” and “Shy Ronnie.”
Samberg: We definitely wrote songs in the summer that we then aired on the show. Both times. Like “Space Olympics,” “Ras Trent,” “Jizz In My Pants,” “I’m On A Boat,” and “Like A Boss” all were written for the first album and all aired on SNL the following season, and this time around, “I Just Had Sex,” “The Creep,” and “Jack Sparrow” all were written this past summer, and have all now aired on the show.
Schaffer: It’s mutually beneficial, is the real short answer for all of it. It helps both ways.
AVC: If you have a song that you’ve already done that you want to make into a video, do you then pitch it to SNL as you would any other sketch?
Schaffer: We don’t have to pitch to Lorne anymore. And we haven’t for, like, four years.
Samberg: But sometimes he’ll just not air something.
Schaffer: Yeah, exactly. It just means we don’t have to take the time to, like, tell him about it. With the very first ones, “Lazy Sunday” and stuff, we just went off and made them on our own and then turned them in. We made them for no money, just as a side project.
Jorma Taccone: Also, if you pitch the ideas of the songs and videos we make, they’re kind of terrible. [Laughter.] And he understood that.
Samberg: We pitched to him a few times, and he’s like, “Uh, okay…” and when it turned out that people liked them, he’s like, “You know what? Just don’t tell me, ’cause I’d rather just see it in action.”
JT: “Dick In A Box” is one of those.
AVC: He was apprehensive about that?
JT: His comment at the time was, “Oh, just make sure you know that kids will be watching.”
Schaffer: It’s a Christmas show, kids are home from school.
AVC: Do all three of you still work for Saturday Night Live?
JT: No. I quit this last year. But having said that, I’ve worked on, like, five shorts this year.
Schaffer: He’s telling you that from his desk at the SNL office. [Laughter.] We’re all, right now, in our office.
JT: I’m doing a very bad job not working for SNL.
AVC: Where did the name of the album come from?
JT: It’s really based on our look from junior high, and even earlier. Sixth grade, even. We definitely wore turtlenecks and super-thin chains… I think it might specifically be Bay Area.
Samberg: It was big in the Bay.
JT: And we’re bringing it back.
AVC: Where did the look come from?
JT: I don’t know where it came from. Where did any look come from? But it surely became popular.
Samberg: It was definitely a hip-hop and R&B—
Schaffer: Yeah, it was an R&B look. I don’t have proof on it, but maybe the Boyz II Men stuff.
Samberg: Boyz II Men, Jodeci I bet had it.
AVC: You mentioned in another interview that the look in “The Creep” was inspired by John Waters, who you got to introduce the song in the video. Was he aware that he was the butt of the joke?
Samberg: Well, I would argue that we’ve never had any guest be the butt of the joke. I think, much like SNL, people are invited to come in and play with their image, but that’s definitely on their terms. Like, no one’s ever done anything they were uncomfortable with, and I don’t think we’ve ever tricked anyone into doing anything.
Schaffer: John Waters certainly isn’t being made fun of in that.
JT: He’s being celebrated. It’s an ode to him.
Samberg: [Laughs.] But certainly, getting him was a huge thing for us. We’re huge fans of his from forever. Kiv had the idea for the dance and the name of the dance, and then when we were deciding on the look, it was pretty easy to be like, “Oh man, it would be so great if it was that kind of John Waters thing.”
AVC: How often do the celebrities drive the idea? Or do you have the ideas fleshed out when you talk to them? I’m thinking specifically of Michael Bolton on “Jack Sparrow.”
Samberg: We actually had the premise for that one first, and then we were trying to think who the perfect person would be. Again, it was Akiva who said “Michael Bolton,” and our eyes all widened. We decided, in that moment, that we wouldn’t rest until we got him to do it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Only one song on the new album breaks the three-minute mark. Did you intentionally keep all the songs short?
JT: More and more, we realized comedy songs shouldn’t be over two and a half or three minutes. That’s basically your attention span for something that is humorous in song form.
Samberg: We like to adhere to the rule that if something is making us bored, we should probably keep it shorter.
JT: And oftentimes, we’ll actually make something a little bit longer than that, then cut it down. Either when it’s at the show in video form, or when we’ve actually listened to it. We constantly see songs that are on our album, after we’ve made them, and realize they were, like, four hours too long.
Samberg: We’ve laughed a few times because, very sweetly, people online will do spoofs of our joke songs, and they’ll be longer than our originals.
JT: It tends to be that the dumber the joke is, the faster we’re going to tell it to you.
AVC: Even before the album was out, a lot of the singles were available as videos. How much thought do you give the album format as a whole, especially when it segments so quickly on the Internet?
Samberg: Well, there’s little things here and there that tie them together. Like, for example, the theme of Turtleneck & Chain this time around. It’s referenced in “I Just Had Sex” and the video for “We’ll Kill U,” which is on the DVD with the record, and obviously, the song. The title track. So, in that sense, yes, we have these stupid little skits on it that are themed, if you will. The classy skits. [Laughs.]
JT: Yeah, not stupid little skits, classy skits.
Samberg: Yeah. But you know, the majority of the record was recorded in one long stint, so there’s definitely a vibe to it, similar to Incredibad. And we were like, “Oh, we have a lot that sounds like this, let’s do one that sounds like that, and try to create variety,” just like a real band.
JT: You can put “real” in quotes.
AVC: Do you not feel like a real band?
Samberg: No. We’re a comedy band, I guess. We’re in the comedy section at record stores and on iTunes. It’s not music, it’s comedy. It’s comedy music. [Laughs.] There’s a reason that the word “comedy” comes first.
AVC: But how is that any less real? You have production and songwriters and all that.
JT: Maybe it’s because we feel, regardless of the genre of music we’re making music in, we know real rappers, and we’ve grown up listening to hip-hop and rap, so we acknowledge it as a distinct difference. We do not consider ourselves real rappers, and therefore it’s not real music.
Samberg: The music that we are doing it to is real. I don’t want to take anything away from those producers. They’re really talented, and that’s a huge part of what makes the joke work—that we’re trying to go for a sound that is very legitimate and akin to that of modern-day music, but our intent is comedy, and we don’t consider ourselves actual rappers.
Schaffer: Not serious music, I guess, is another way you could say it.
JT: Yeah, sure. Even more, ultimately, self-deprecating.
AVC: Your most popular YouTube video is “Jizz In My Pants.” What do you think that says about YouTube?
Samberg: I would attribute it to the fact that there are a lot of young men going through changes on YouTube. They just relate to the storyline.
Schaffer: It’s a universal storyline that happens to every single person.
JT: Yeah. Absolutely. And every day. In every country around the world.
AVC: The guys in your songs have bum penises, prematurely ejaculate, are really bad at sex, and much more. Is there any truth to all that?
Schaffer: For the record, we’re great at sex, and we do it all the time.
JT: Oh, yeah. Kiv’s got proof, he has a baby now.
JT: So he definitely had sex once.
Schaffer: Yeah, and it was really good, too. Obviously.
Samberg: I’m a very skilled lover.
JT: Yeah, me too, also.
Schaffer: And my stuff works super-good.
Samberg: Yeah, all our stuff works good. And it’s not small.
JT: No. Yeah, that was just for a song. That was not based in reality.
Schaffer: It’s big stuff. We’re all big stuff.
AVC: It’s just that penises come up a lot in your songs.
Samberg: Well, we’re all psychology majors. [Laughter.] So let’s get to the heart of this thing. What’s it all about? Like, what’s anyone really saying, really?
AVC: When you were promoting Incredibad, you guys said you weren’t very strong singers. Have you improved?
Schaffer: I think we’ve recognized our strengths and our weaknesses, so that we can maybe play to them better this time around? You’ll notice that there’s even less of us singing on this record.
JT: That’s how we play to our weaknesses. By removing them.