How does Michaela Owens love the Lonely Island? Let her count the ways in this ode to the sublime silliness of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Shaffer’s comedy trio.
The Lonely Island is not a comedy group I should like. Their jokes can push the boundaries of vulgarity and good taste, with gags that almost seem to go on for too long and premises that quickly become surreal. Their characters can be conceited idiots who annoy those around them. And, of course, they’re three white guys who rap.
In short, they’re like the immature boys in high school who made you roll your eyes and dream of the day you’d be free of these morons.
Despite all of that, though, I deeply adore the Lonely Island. Part of my love, I’m sure, is because their arrival at Saturday Night Live in 2005 coincided with my 11-year-old brain discovering what my comedic sensibilities were. Their antics were weird and not at all what I was used to seeing. They made absolutely filthy references that I was definitely too young to hear, but that just made me feel more mature. Their music was so catchy, I ripped the songs of theirs I could find on YouTube using LimeWire and downloaded them to my MP3 player (wow, did I just date myself), giggling quietly on the school bus as I memorized the lyrics to “Punch You in the Jeans” and “Boombox.” I can still remember the excitement I felt every time that black title card appeared on my TV with the words “An SNL Digital Short,” heralding the arrival of a new piece of absurdity like “Great Day,” “People Getting Punched Just Before Eating,” “Like a Boss,” “Threw It on the Ground,” and the one that truly broke me, “Motherlover.”
Nostalgia is an important aspect of the Lonely Island. As people who have been friends since junior high, their closeness is baked into everything they do because, as they’ve said, they just want to make each other laugh and pay their respects to the things that they were obsessed with growing up, hence the coziness of Hot Rod — which they hoped would be reminiscent of the kind of comedies you sit down and watch on TV, even if there are commercials — and the creation of their incredible “visual poem” about Oakland A’s players Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. Seeing these three goofballs together, you’re reminded of your own childhood friends and the dumb jokes and shared experiences that became the molecules of your relationships.
This explains why their magnum opus, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, has a surprising sweetness to it. A “pockumentary” (the Island’s term for “pop-music mockumentary”) that satirizes celebrity and the music industry, the film follows longtime friends Conner (Samberg), Owen (Taccone), and Lawrence (Schaffer), who shot to fame as the hip-hop group the Style Boyz before being torn apart by Conner’s ego. Now a solo star, Conner keeps Owen around as his DJ, but he no longer speaks to Lawrence after refusing to give him credit for writing the rap verse that was Conner’s breakthrough. While Popstar follows the turmoil Conner goes through when his sophomore album flops and his new tour’s terrible numbers necessitate an opening act (Chris Redd) whose popularity soon rivals Conner’s own, the film also focuses on the fracturing of the relationship that has always meant the most to Conner. With a mother who is more interested in partying than being there for her son — which he excuses by saying that being a single mom hasn’t been easy for her — and mindless sycophants telling him what he wants to hear, Conner doesn’t know how to handle the spotlight without the anchor, and the talents, of Lawrence and Owen. Once he can reckon with this and apologize, the friends’ reunion (or, if you ask Owen, his successful “parent trap”) is completely satisfying and unexpectedly wholesome.
Some have pointed out that Popstar is like a bizarro version of the Lonely Island’s own story since Samberg has emerged as the “star” of the trio, with Schaffer even remarking, “These characters are us if we weren’t self-aware.” And that is another key element to the group: they are wholly conscious of what they are doing and how they are presented. While many of their characters are brash braggarts who try to project a cultured, confident, and cool persona, they crumble when confronted with resistance or rejection, their insecurities laid bare for all to see. If I wanted to be annoying and put my academic’s hat on, it could be said that what the Lonely Island parodies the most consistently is the idea of male exceptionalism. They mock traditional markers of masculinity and reveal the mediocrity that is at the core of their characters, men who, for example, boast about how good they are in bed or what great athletes they are when the truth couldn’t be more different. When you step back and notice that many of these characters are also in positions of power, either by virtue of their careers — famous musicians, business executives, TV hosts, police officers, etc. — or just by the fact that they’re white heterosexual cisgender men, you have to wonder if the trio’s skewering extends to the patriarchy itself, which, it could be argued, they imply is upheld by dummies with daddy issues.
What keeps these characters from being unwatchable is their cartoonish behavior, which makes them less threatening, and the consequences that behavior usually brings them. For some characters, there is also the realization that they’re simply benevolent fools. Their actions may offend you, but they themselves aren’t cruel or snide. When two women turn down Samberg and Schaffer in the Bash Brothers Experience, instead of becoming angry or forceful, they reply in all sincerity, “Thank you for your consideration,” and leave it at that. While Maya Rudolph and Chris Redd’s characters will say the n-word in Popstar, Conner pointedly does not repeat it back to them. Amidst the slapstick violence, crude language, and dirty jokes, there is an odd gentleness to the group’s comedy.
There is also an intangibility to the Lonely Island that I can’t quite explain, a secret ingredient that you can’t entirely figure out but find delicious anyway. I mean, why does the “cool beans” scene in Hot Rod work? Why is Samberg and Tim Meadows’s exchange about looking for an opening act (“I have an idea, but you are going to like it.” “Wait, ‘are’ or ‘aren’t’?”) one of the moments I anticipate the most when watching Popstar? How can something like “Laser Cats” still be hilarious when it has seven iterations that follow the same beats every time? Logically, I know it is a mixture of editing, vocal inflections, and the actors’ committed performances, but there is something else there. Something that makes me laugh, loudly and unashamedly, even though I couldn’t tell you precisely why I’m laughing.
I guess that’s what my devotion to the Lonely Island boils down to: I just think they’re really f—king funny. There is brilliance in their stupidity, and although I can try to intellectualize it, at the end of the day, that is what will keep me in love with their work. It doesn’t beg to be examined or explained. It just is. And it is perfect.