The three best buds that make up The Lonely Island—Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer–have risen to comedy prominence over the past fifteen years by spreading their irreverent, in-jokey brand of humor via their groundbreaking series of SNL digital shorts, singable tunes that spoofed whatever musical trend the trio found funny at the time.
Millennials will likely never stop quoting dorm-room classics like “I’m On a Boat,” “Dick in a Box” and “Lazy Sunday,” and now fans of the trio can find them goofing around on the big screen. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping strings together the group’s signature parody-pop tunes into a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that mimics the slick aesthetics of the lionizing, puff-piece “popumentaries” so often made about today’s young music icons.
Samberg stars as Conner4Real, a pop-rap superstar whose celebrity has long outgrown the boy band he originally broke onto the scene with, The Style Boyz. Schaffer and Taccone play Conner’s former bandmates in addition to handling co-directing duties.
At a roundtable interview, we sat down with the three Lonely Island members to talk about the movie, which hits theaters this weekend.
You guys have said that the movie took seven months to edit.
Jorma Taccone: “Seven and a half, yeah.”
What kinds of things come and go through the editing process?
Akiva Schaffer: “Any time we did a talking head interview, like when we sit down with Usher, we’d talk for, like, 30 minutes to an hour and go over everything that happens in the movie and kind of get what Usher’s take would be on it. We’d feed [him] jokes and say, ‘At this point in the movie, Conner’s album isn’t doing good and you don’t like his album,’ and then Usher would improvise and say in his own words, ‘Man, I really feel like Conner’s not doing well,’ or something like that. So there’s hours of that stuff to go through, and we had to choose what to go in.”
Andy Samberg: “Also, full musical performances that we didn’t use that are going to end up on the extras and the songs are on the soundtrack. And full chunks of storylines. You’ll see it when the DVD comes out if you care enough to check it out. [laughs] There were, like, whole sequences that we lifted that we really loved.”
Jorma Taccone: “We had to cut out some really great performances from people that we love, too, like Dave Franco, our friend Ryan Phillippe…we had to cut out Ed Sheeran. Akon’s not in the movie, and he’s on a whole song. We had to make some hard decisions.”
Andy Samberg: “From the beginning, we were looking at movies ‘in the genre,’ and they all seem to keep it tight, the successful ones. The Christopher Guest company ones, the Sacha Baron Cohen ones or eve Jackass, stuff like that. We were bent on keeping it under 90 minutes, and the cost of that was cutting some babies that we love.”
Test screenings are a huge part of that, right?
Jorma Taccone: “Yeah. It’s really helpful. You could look at that cynically or in a corporate way, but it’s just watching it with an audience and learning what works, what doesn’t work, what’s slow, what feels boring. You want it to be as entertaining as possible while still telling a good story.”
Through your work, we’ve discovered that Justin Timberlake kind of has a knack for…
Jorma Taccone: “…singing!” [laughs]
Andy Samberg: “It’s almost like he’s a great singer!”
Who’s a celebrity who was unexpectedly really funny?
Jorma Taccone: “I would say, for this movie, Mariah Carey really surprised me for how much she got the joke and how funny she was on camera.”
Akiva Schaffer: “Nas was another one just because he’s such a respected MC, forever. Seal!”
Andy Samberg: “Seal killed it. We talked about doing a crazy, public proposal scene. [Akiva] just jotted it down and I was like, ‘Oh, so Seal is in it.'” [laughs]
Jorma Taccone: “He just picked it out of nowhere. And then it had to be him.”
Andy Samberg: “I was like, ‘We gotta get Seal on the phone,’ and we did. He was in the studio recording his album and I was like, ‘Did you see the pages?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just so focused on my record…’ I was like, ‘Just come do it! We love you!’ and he just showed up and nailed it. It was fun hanging out with him.”
Were there any challenges in expanding from TV to film?
Andy Samberg: “You get to play with character arcs a lot more. You can tell a much more nuanced story. In a digital short, you’re basically trying to get as many laughs as possible, as fast as possible. It generally has a…classic sketch structure, whereas with the movie, we were able to be like, what is the actual mentality of these characters? What’s their history? You have time to actually explore that stuff, which in a lot of ways is really helpful for comedy. When an audience keys into the characters and what they’re thinking, it allows you to get jokes. It’s the same in a TV show when you start getting multiple laughs because the audience just knows the characters really well.”
Jorma Taccone: “With a feature, you have more opportunity to get rolling laughs that go from one scene to the next if you’re doing your job correctly. That was always enjoyable to me.”
The list of cameos in this movie is amazing. How easy or difficult was it to get some of these names?
Andy Samberg: “Some of them were easy because we’d worked with them before. For example, we just emailed Adam Levine. Some of them were trickier. We had to go through reps for some of them. We’d get on the phone with them, or Judd [Apatow] would. Judd was like, ‘Hey, Ringo’s going to come do it!’ and we were like, ‘Holy shit! That’s amazing! Thanks, Judd!’ It was varying degrees of that, and then there were things like Nas where it’s like, holy shit, he’s actually here. He’s like, a legendary dude we came up listening to. Generally, people don’t show up unless they’re into it, so we have a real luxury in that. It’s generally folks who want to be like, ‘I’m funny! I have a sense of humor! I want to fuck with my image and do interesting things! What jokes do you have for me? What can I add to it?’ That’s part of the reason why the shoot was really exciting. Almost every day there was somebody who’d come to set. The crew was like, ‘This movie’s awesome!'” [laughs]
You guys have said that a lot of the jokes in your songs started out as in-jokes between you three, and I imagine the joke isn’t as funny to you after you put it out there. I also imagine fans quote these jokes to you all the time in public. Is that awkward?
Andy Samberg: “It becomes a different relationship [with the joke]. They’re no longer jokes to us. The best feeling we could have as people who make comedy is when people tell us, ‘Me and my friends quote such and such song all the time,’ or ‘We quote Hot Rod all the time,’ because that was us. When we watch comedy we love…we were those dudes who memorized stuff, would quote In Living Color to each other, quote Billy Madison to each other. It’s kind of like, we find the joke funny when we’re writing it, like it when we’re performing it, are very satisfied when people laugh at it, and then we just sort of let them go.”
Jorma Taccone: “And occasionally, when we’re messing with each other, we’ll sarcastically say lines from our songs back to each other. Like, ‘I’m on a boat, right? So cool. So funny. You remember?'” [laughs]
Andy Samberg: “I think that’ll read in print.” [laughs]
Jorma Taccone: “Use a sarcastic font.”
Why not play yourselves in the movie and make it about The Lonely Island?
Andy Samberg: “Like a Curb Your Enthusiasm version or something?”
Jorma Taccone: “Because you want to play characters. We’re not playing ourselves–Andy’s not a dick in real life, or a dipshit.” [laughs]
Andy Samberg: “We could do a heightened version of ourselves like Larry David does, and we talked about it, but we ultimately decided that it was a bigger idea to do characters. It’s easier to convince an audience that Conner4Real is a big popstar than be like, fake-rapper comedy outfit The Lonely Island is super successful. It would be a smaller scale, and we wanted to go bigger.”
Why end Conner’s story on a happy note rather than follow his tragic descent?
Akiva Schaffer: “We don’t hate pop stars. We wouldn’t have taken joy in seeing a pop star totally destroyed in the end. We respect pop stars. I feel like the movie is sort of about that. It’s not just bashing pop culture and pop stars. We don’t feel so negative that we’d have them eat shit the whole way.”
Jorma Taccone: “What you get from watching those puff-piece documentaries is that these people are really talented.”
You guys have been traveling, getting a bunch of questions and sometimes the same kinds of questions. Is there one question you wish would go away?
Andy Samberg: “None of them are that annoying. The one thing I’ll say we didn’t anticipate was how much people would latch onto the Bieber of it all. When we went into making this, we weren’t like, ‘Let’s make a movie about Justin Bieber.’ We were like, ‘Let’s make a movie about pop music and pop culture that we can make songs for.’ We have a few direct references to Bieber…”
Jorma Taccone: “And some of those have made it to the trailer.”
Andy Samberg: “I think because of the trailer and the title, it has on the surface seemed more about him than we intended or wanted. We’ve been doing a lot of reassuring people that we like Justin Bieber. We didn’t do it gunning for him, or something.”
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