The Lonely Island is a trio of former “Saturday Night Live” staffers — Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — who sometimes have been called comedy’s answer to the Beastie Boys. The Lonely Island’s comedy/rap videos have become huge hits on YouTube and other websites. And the Lonely Island’s albums have also been well-received by the public, by debuting in the Top 40 of several countries, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
“The Wack Album” (released by Universal Music’s Republic Records on June 11, 2013) is the Lonely Island’s third album. The songs on “The Wack Album” include several guest artists, such as Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5 lead singer, Adam Levine, Hugh Jackman, Kristin Wiig, Kendrick Lamar, Robyn, T-Pain, Too Short, Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and Pharrell Williams. When I sat down with the Lonely Island for this roundtable interview at Universal Music headquarters in New York City, the members of the group gave this no-holds-barred interview about their creative process and what went into making “The Wack Album.”
When you work with famous musical collaborators who are known for writing their own lyrics, how much leeway do you give them on The Lonely Island songs? Can you name any specific examples?
Samberg: I can tell you who wrote their own lyrics. Generally when we work with a rapper, we give them talking points of what we think would be funny and then let them write it, because it’s so much more specific to do a verse of rapping than it is to sing a hook. Generally, when we have a singing part, like for Adam Levine, there’s a version of me doing a temp singing part much worse than him. And then we say, “These are the words and this is the general melody.” And then he makes it much better.
Taccone: Any time there’s a singer, there’s a version of Andy doing temp singing.
Samberg: Yeah, it’s humiliating. For example, on the song we did with Pharrell, we wrote all of the choruses that he’d sing the hooks on, but then there was like a bridge, sort of rap section, and we gave him talking points and he wrote that section himself. Or Kendrick Lamar, on “YOLO” …
Taccone: Yeah, he wrote all that.
Samberg: He came into the studio and we were like, “Something like this, and maybe like this,” and he sat there and wrote a verse really quickly on his iPhone and then went and dropped it.
We didn’t know what he was going to do until he was recording. So there’s always this moment of like, “I hope it’s funny!” But we’ve been really lucky that the people that have wanted to work with us have a good sense of humor and come up with good stuff.
What was it like to work with Hugh Jackman on “You’ve Got the Look”?
Samberg: He’s a delight to work with! He’s the nicest dude in show business. I had met him a few times like at Knicks games and stuff, and I played him on “SNL.”
Schaffer: Oh, Knicks games!
Samberg: Yeah, I met him once at a Knicks game.
Taccone: Way deep, I mean, like you have nosebleeds.
Samberg: No, no, I have good seats, you guys! I was on TV for, like, seven years! But I played him on “SNL.” I did a terrible impression of him, but it was this thing called “The Hugh Jackman Show,” and it was just all Australian stuff and my accent was terrible.
Taccone: Don’t sell yourself short. It was a great impression, man.
Samberg: No, the impression sucked, the sketch was good. But it was all about how he plays two sides in his career, where he’s like Broadway guy and then he’s also this action guy. And he loved it, so he came on “SNL” and did it one time, and I think he played Daniel Radcliff or something, and I was him.
It was that classic “SNL” thing where you’re playing the person next to them. So we knew him a little from that, and then we had this song written— again, with me doing all the temp vocals — and we were just brainstorming who would be incredible to have, and I think Kiv [Schaffer] was like, “What about Hugh?” I don’t remember who thought of it, but regardless, we were like, “I kind of know him!” so we just sent it out and asked and he was like, “Yeah absolutely.”
Taccone: But it is obviously always exciting to have somebody who you wouldn’t expect to be saying something that they’re singing about. Obviously, Michael Bolton is a prime example of that.
Does anyone ever turn you down?
Samberg: People have, but it’s usually like, “I’m on tour, I’m too busy,” that kind of thing. It’s never like, “I hate it and I won’t do it and I hate you guys.”
Taccone: It’s usually very respectful.
How do you want “The Wack Album” to be a development from “Turtleneck and Chain,” your previous album?
Taccone: It’s a natural evolution … We’re grown men, so some of our songs are now talking about really adult issues. And then a lot of them aren’t.
Samberg: Yeah, many of them are not.
Schaffer: But also, as pop music changes, we’re changing with it, and our references are referencing things that maybe didn’t exist two-and-a-half years ago when the last one came out.
Samberg: Yeah, new developments in tropes…
Did you want to push the envelope more, now that you’re established?
Samberg: I wouldn’t say “push the envelope” in terms of shock value or anything, but certainly try and be thinking of different jokes just so it doesn’t feel stale. Different ways to construct a comedy song if we can think of them and stuff like that.
What was the thinking behind releasing something every Wednesday in the run-up, because by the time the album comes out, it seems about half of the tracks are out in the world?
Taccone: We’re just taking a page out of Kanye West’s old notebook that he doesn’t use anymore.
Samberg: Yeah, we wanted to record a video of ourselves watching the projection of his video on a wall, and project the video of us watching it on a wall, and then video people watching it. Because he’s so good at marketing.
And for us, we’re not on “SNL” anymore, and we wanted to make sure that people know we have a record, so we figured if we had a time and a place that people could know that they could check in for new stuff and check it out, that would be helpful. But it’s been fun. It’s fun to be in our own mini-”SNL” cycle, where we’re posting things and feeling like we’re connecting with an audience.
How much pressure do you feel to make the videos as big as the songs?
Schaffer: When we’re writing the songs, even the smaller songs, we are always thinking, “Oh, if we do a video, this is what it will be.” I know what the video would be for every song on this record or any of the past ones, basically.
Taccone: Yeah, we’re always writing very visually. And obviously, it’s another great way to get the joke across too.
Schaffer: And we know how valuable they are for some people that have trouble picturing jokes when they just hear them, they kind of whiz by them. And then it’s just being like, “Here’s what the joke is!” Everybody gets it when it’s in a video, so in a perfect world, we’d make a video for every song, but that’s not very realistic.
Taccone: But we’re doing as many as we can.
Samberg: I would say in terms of feeling pressure about it though, we generally just go with whatever we think is funny and is making each other laugh.
Taccone: And there are songs that we kind of feel are bigger, either both in sound and joke, so there are ones that we’re more excited about doing, certainly. And it’s always a little frustrating when you aren’t able to get to them, whether it’s scheduling or whatever.
Have artists or actors approached you with their comedy-song ideas?
Samberg: A couple times.
Taccone: When we were at “SNL,” it happened a little more. We won’t say who, but they were all great ideas. We couldn’t get to them, but they were all great ideas.
Samberg: The very notion of rapping for comedy is a really fine line, and we try to be really careful about how we walk it, because when it’s not done right it’s like the thing we hate the most in the world.
Schaffer: By definition it’s a pretty lame thing, comedy rap.
Taccone: And can get very insulting to the genre that we actually love so much.
Samberg: Yeah, a lot of times, it’s a little weird because there are some people I’m sure who see what we do and lump it in with a bunch of other stuff that we would be insulted that it’s compared to, but at the same time, we always try to be careful about not doing ideas that we feel the joke is that “We’re white nerds rapping!” You know, like, there’s got to be a joke, and then rap or R&B or pop is the vessel with which we deliver the joke.
Schaffer: Yes, I would argue that you could switch us out for other people in any of our songs, and hopefully the song would still be funny.
Samberg: Right, or a different genre of music even.
Taccone: If any of us could sing or play instruments we would be doing songs of other genres.
Samberg: Yeah, there would be more variance.
Which rappers influenced you the most when you were growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Schaffer: We were growing up around The Hieroglyphics.
Taccone: We grew up with Too Short, and we listened to E-40 a lot in high school.
Schaffer: Too Short and E-40, but then it was also Del [the Funky Homosapien] and Souls of Mischief.
Taccone: And Digital Underground … We have B-Legit on the B-side track of this song from the movie “Hot Rod” — it was this “Cool Beans” remix that we got B-Legit on.
Schaffer: And obviously, E-40’s on our first record [2009’s “Incredibad”], and Too Short is on this one [“The Wack Album”], so we’re very excited to work with those two guys.
You guys have known each other since middle school. Does that make it easier when you’re writing material? Do you hit creative bumps?
Taccone: We do on occasion, and it’s always funny when you’re yelling at your friend about, “No! We said dick in the last line, so you can’t put it in this line!” Like, you’re just having some very aggressive discussion.
Samberg: Usually it’s just two out of three wins. If two people think something doesn’t work, it’s gone. If two people think it does, it stays, until proven otherwise.
Do you find it easier to work with people you’ve been friends with a long time?
Samberg: Yeah, I mean it’s harder in some ways, because you can’t get away with anything, because we know everything about each other. There’s no, “OK, well I’m going to take off, you do that and I’ll come back.” We’re all there for all of it, because the second somebody leaves, it’s like, “F*ck you!”
Taccone: We’re dying here!
Samberg: It’s definitely more of a team effort in that regard.
Schaffer: We have all the same references; we know everything [about each other], so we can just start. There’s no learning period between us about what’s going to work. We always get to start and hit the ground running because we’re right there.
Taccone: And it’s always interesting working with new people, whether we’re making a music video or whatever, because the shorthand is so short that people often don’t even understand how we’re even having a conversation, because we can start a sentence and the other person will already know what we’re talking about. Like, we’re just moving at a much faster rate.
Samberg: The shorthand is so short it’s like a nub.
Taccone: Yeah, it’s like a little nubby hand.
Samberg: It’s like Jaime Lannister.
Taccone: He got it in! GOT [“Game of Thrones”] ref!
Samberg: Dude, just trying.
Taccone: The new season [of “Game of Thrones”] is great though, right? Oh, intense. Dragons! They’re growing up!
Samberg: I haven’t seen it.
What was the most fun video to shoot off of “The Wack Album”?
Schaffer: “Spring Break” was pretty fun.
Taccone: Yeah, “Spring Break” was fun.
Schaffer: Because we had to invite all these kids to come pretend it was spring break.
Taccone: Yeah, and having like 200 people all chanting, “Marry a man!” was a really great, proud moment. The one we just did with Robyn, there’s a new video for “Go Kindergarten” I’m very excited about.
Samberg: Yeah, it hasn’t come out yet, but that was fun.
Taccone: We haven’t edited it yet.
Do you guys miss the pace of “SNL”? Does being on that rapid-fire schedule help you or make it more difficult?
Taccone: We’re honestly still on that pace right now, because of our Wack Wednesdays things that we put together. And because we’re honestly a little control-freaky about how all of the product we release comes out, like, start to finish, we’re involved in the editing and the producing and directing and all that sort of stuff. So the pace hasn’t let up at all.
What’s the timeframe, from beginning to end, for a song or video?
Samberg: It varies.
Taccone: I mean, on “SNL”, many of them would happen in about 48 hours.
Samberg: Once we started making albums, things like, “Jizz My Pants” or “Just Had Sex” or “On a Boat” or “Jack Sparrow”— those were all written in the summertime for the record. And then the long process of doing “SNL” while mixing and mastering the album, then we would shoot videos on off-weeks sometimes.
With “I’m On a Boat,” we had an off week from “SNL” and we flew down to Miami and shot it, and then came back and then aired it, so it changed a lot. But then you’d still have things like Justin [Timberlake] shows up, and it’s time to do the follow-up to “Dick In a Box” and we write “Motherlover” on Wednesday o whatever and shoot it Thursday/Friday, and air it Saturday.
Have you guys ever seen people dressed up in “Dick in a Box” costumes?
Samberg: Yeah. I’ve been out on Halloween and had people come up to me dressed that way.
Taccone: We’ve had a bunch of different looks, like The Creep. It’s very easy if you’re a lazy dude to make that costume.
Samberg: Yeah, guys like doing the “Dick in a Box” costume because they all have that outfit in their closet from the ‘90s anyway. And then they’re trying to make girls think about their dicks, so they’re just like, “This is perfect!”
Taccone: And there are the dudes who will be like, “I really did it! My dick’s in the box!” I’m like, “Didn’t you see the end of the video? They got arrested! Like, that’s not a good idea.”
Samberg: Yeah, a guy came up to me in a bar dressed like it and he and was like, “Dude, check it out!” And he lifted the lid up and it was a huge dildo. And I was like, “Don’t show that to anyone else. You can’t do that, like, just because it’s a sketch doesn’t mean that that’s not illegal.”
What is your initial writing process like, and how has it evolved over the years?
Samberg: It varies a lot.
Schaffer: I don’t think it’s evolved. It’s exactly the same.
Samberg: It’s basically the same. We have two main ways that we’ll make a song. The first one is, we’ll have an idea and then we sift through a bunch of beats until we find one that we think matches. The other one is we’ll sit in the studio and just listen to beats until the sound or genre of one inspires an idea, then start writing it.
Taccone: We’ll have a library of beats that have been given to us by real professional producers that are making real songs for real artists. Like, Frank E. did “I Just Had Sex,” and also did Enrique Iglesias’ “I’m F*cking You Tonight.” I don’t know what it’s called…
Samberg: “Tonight I’m Loving You.”
Taccone: ‘I’m Loving You,” yeah.
Samberg: It’s the radio version.
Taccone: I knew it had a more tame name. But, you know, they’re real producers, like DJ Nu-mark, who is from Jurassic 5, has done some beats on all of our albums. He’s a good friend of ours.
Samberg: The writing of the lyrics is that generally once we have that idea, we sit in a room with yellow notepads and listen to the beat over and over and over, and write things that we try to make each other laugh with, and then compile them all and start recording and sort of build it as we go.
Schaffer: But over the two years between records, we would come up with ideas, and had an email chain going with, like, kernels, so that we weren’t just going in like, “What are we going to do?” We went in and we were like, “Alright! Here’s a bunch of ideas.” And I’d say half the songs on the record are from that, and the other half are things that came up organically while we were actually doing the work.
How do you guys feel about performing live? Would you ever go on tour with a hip-hop act or a comedy act or even perform at a comedy festival?
Samberg: We’d love to do it. We’ve been about to do it, like, five times and then all three of us have had some scheduling conflict because we do so many other things.
And if you could pick your dream tour?
Taccone: It’d be a comedy tour, for sure. It feels inappropriate for us to be billed with a real hip-hop act.
Schaffer: I think you’d also be like, “Oh, these guys aren’t good at hip-hop!” if we were right next to them.
Samberg: “Their breath control is atrocious!”
How do you know the difference between funny and rude, and what the line is between what’s going to work and what’s really offensive?
Samberg: Generally we just play it, and if it’s making us laugh, we go with it. And occasionally, we’ll start down a road with something and then realize that when we show it to other people that are close to us, they’re like, “You can’t do that,” and we’re like, “Yup, totally right, can’t do that.”
Taccone: It usually doesn’t even come to that though, because one of the advantages of there being three of us is that there are checks and balances. We sort of check each other and say, “No, I don’t think we have the right to say that.”
Samberg: If it even remotely bums out one of us, it means there are a lot of people in the world that won’t like it.
There’s a song on “The Wack Album” called “I F*cked My Aunt.” So, for the record, none of you has f*cked your aunt?
Taccone: We’ll never tell!
Schaffer: But for the record, on that song specifically, I think people stop at the title, but that song is a joke about storytelling and a joke about joke structure. It’s not actually a joke about f*cking your aunt at all, it’s a joke about saying something as bombastic as that, but then [Jorma’s] whole verse is about going to a baseball game with his friend and has literally nothing to do with that. [Andy’s] is all about an ant farm. Mine is all about my aunt, but not having sex with her in any way, it’s just about having a very tame evening where she stops by the house.
Taccone: It would be one of the advantages of doing a music video because I think for people who couldn’t quite picture it, then they would be able to pick up on that. They’d be seeing these old nostalgic images of me growing up in the country, swimming at the swimming hole and catching a ball.
Samberg: Pitch me more of this video!
Doing comedic hip-hop probably lends itself to a lot of tomfoolery or shenanigans in the studio. Are there any good stories about funny things that happened with any of the guest stars? Did Justin Timberlake pee in his pants?
Samberg: I assume he does that constantly. He can do whatever he wants.
Taccone: it just makes it cool.
Samberg: Not that many stories about guests, per se, but I will say a funny development was that Akiva has two young children now. So when he would come to the studio, it was like, not work for him, it was like free time, because he’s working so hard raising kids.
So he’d show up at 11 a.m. and be like, “Tequila shots?” And we’d be like, “No! We’re trying to work!” And by the end of the day inevitably he would get us to drink. So he was kind of our…
Schaffer: Yeah, your wild card.
Samberg: Yeah, he was a real wild card on this one … on the mic.
What comedies inspired each of you when you were growing up?
Samberg: Oh, man! A lot. All of them.
Taccone: Mel Brooks, Monty Python.
Samberg: Steve Martin.
Schaffer: Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams, they’re like “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!”
Taccone: “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “UHF.”
Samberg: “SNL,” all “SNL.”
Taccone: Weird Al in general.
Samberg: “Strangers with Candy” was huge, Stella and “The State,” those guys. “Mr. Show”…
Taccone: And then later “South Park” too.
Schaffer: Later, like the early Jim Carrey/[Adam] Sandler movies.
Samberg: Those were huge. We like comedy a lot. Oh, all those Eddie Murphy stand-up specials. Those were huge.
Taccone: “Half-Baked”… All good comedy, hopefully. I like British comedy too though, it’s like besides Python, “Look Around You.” I mean, these are later things now. The Mighty Boosh. Should we just name every comedy? It starts to become unhelpful pretty quickly. “They like comedy!”
Are there any songs or shorts that you particularly love that never caught on the way you thought they would — or the reverse: rhat you didn’t expect to be as big as they were, like “Lazy Sunday?”
Samberg: Certainly, “Lazy Sunday” we didn’t expect because that was the first one.
Schaffer: We barely knew it was going to make it on air.
Samberg: I will say one that I was convinced wasn’t going to work was “Shy Ronnie.” Because we had this whole plan to shoot more for it, and time was just really tight so it ended up turning into more of like a singular location sketch. And I remember me and Kiv working really hard on it, and we were also crazy from sleep deprivation, but we were like, “Man, we blew it! We had Rihanna here, and we choked, and it’s going to suck.” And then it went up at dress and played really good.
Taccone: Oh, it was amazing, because I was off editing “MacGruber,” and I came in the next morning and you guys were so mad, it was like, “It’s just so bad, why are we even bothering doing this, why should it even air?” And I’m like, “This is pretty good…” But it is very hard to know sometimes.
Schaffer: When you haven’t slept for a whole week, you lose perspective sometimes.
Samberg: It is a really pleasant surprise. It’s always nice when people like something more than you’re expecting.
Do you have any favorites that didn’t really take off?
Schaffer: We had one: “Iran So Far” with Adam Levine, that people saw and liked when it came out, but because of various reasons, it didn’t get put on to one of our albums, so it gets kind of forgotten sometimes, because it’s in the past, but we’re really proud of it.
Taccone: I was particularly proud of that one too, just beat-wise, because that was a beat I made and sampled this Aphex Twin song that people hadn’t sampled up until that point. So musically, I was proud. Everything about the video was great.
Samberg: There’s a short that wasn’t music that I did after these guys left, with Jonah Hill, that I just love. It’s like this science show where he keeps getting hit in the balls with tennis balls really hard. And that is one that people do not talk about.
It makes me laugh so hard. I just like too-many-times jokes, when something happens way too many times and in way too many different incarnations. And that’s one that I’ll always hold near and dear even though it’s not huge.
For more info: The Lonely Island website
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