The Lonely Island’s Lessons on How To Go Viral

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On December 3, 2005, SNL, in an episode hosted by Dane Cook, aired a video sketch called “Lettuce.” In the video, then-newcomer Andy Samberg has a heart-wrenching conversation with Will Forte about a lost loved one, during which each of them casually take big bites from heads of lettuce. The video, based on an idea by Forte and directed by Akiva Schaffer (of sketch trio The Lonely Island with Samberg and writer Jorma Taccone), received a lukewarm reaction at the time but introduced a groundbreaking new ingredient to the dusty SNL formula: the digital short.

Two weeks later, when Samberg teamed up with Chris Parnell for a rap music video titled “Lazy Sunday,” SNL and the Lonely Island boys had their first true viral hit.

Over five years later, Samberg and co.’s revitalization of SNL has seemingly given them free reign to do whatever they want with their weekly digital shorts, from catchy, high-production music videos with A-list talent (“Dick in a Box,” “I’m on a Boat,” “Iran So Far”) to more absurd, off-beat pieces (“Laser Cats,” “Dear Sister,” “Cherry Battle”).

The digital short is now typically the most popular part of any SNL episode. In years past, studio audiences cheered with glee whenever Eddie Murphy or Chris Farley walked onto the set. Now, all SNL has to do is flash the words “An SNL Digital Short” on the screens. It says a lot about the nature of comedy these days when the star of SNL is a three-minute video segment.

Many of these digital shorts do not follow the popular “introduce premise, escalate premise” formula that arose from the improv-sketch traditions of The Second City, and more recently, the Upright Citizens Brigade. There are some exceptions (“Cubicle Fight,” “Party Guys,” “Doppleganger”), but the majority of the digital shorts from over the years feel like they were originally pitched as attempts to make a really popular video. To “go viral.”

To have officially “gone viral,” there’s really only one simple requirement: word-of-mouth popularity. It’s the same thing that got Barack Obama elected and Betty White a new TV show. A “viral” idea doesn’t need to be hilarious, well-made or aesthetically pleasing; nor must it satisfy any particular emotional need. The idea just needs to be so weird and peculiar that it becomes “sticky.”

(That’s not to say The Lonely Island, Obama and Betty White are untalented or undeserving of their success. Rather, I’m proposing that the three capitalized on the Web-based hunger for peculiarity.)

The peculiarity of most viral videos stems from the fact that they weren’t initially intended to be popular or interesting. When you watch the Double Rainbow or Antoine Dodson clips, you feel like you’re in on a joke that the videos’ stars aren’t yet aware of, that you’re laughing at them, not with them. The content’s meaning isn’t one conceived by its author, but one collectively endowed upon it by its audience. (For more discussion on this concept, check out Leon Dische Becker’s Splitsider article on unintentional comedy.)

Meanwhile, the Lonely Island guys regularly achieve that same viral status… intentionally. Their aim, it often seems, isn’t to make a video that’s “funny” as much as one that’s “catchy.” In a sense, that makes them less “comedians” than it does “producers” or “marketers,” less artists than businessmen.

That was a little harsh, so let’s be fair and look at The Lonely Island on a more creative level. Below, I list five common elements to the SNL digital shorts that give us some insight into the Lonely Island creative process:

1. Music and repetition. The most obvious reason for the success of The Lonely Island is the group’s musical talents, evidenced by their album Incredibad and the fact that their most popular (and Emmy-nominated) clips are music videos. Even non-music video digital shorts feature some simple “hook” repeated ad finitum, (“The Mirror,” “People Getting Punched Right Before Eating,” “Andy Popping Into Frame”). Considering most singles are produced these days based on how “catchy” they sound, there’s nothing stopping a comedy group from trying to get stuck in our heads too.

2. High production value. You have to give Akiva Schaffer credit for how gorgeous his videos look. Specifically, he has an eye for specific visual motifs — the shot of children singing and walking with Adam Levine in “Iran So Far,” the wide helicopter shots in “I’m on a Boat,” the miscellaneous awed spectators in “I Just Had Sex.” Say what you will about their viral goals, The Lonely Island is hilarious when they’re mocking the cinematic extravagance and rooftop imagery of music videos these days.

3. Celebrities. After “Lazy Sunday,” the next popular SNL digital short was “Natalie Raps,” a dark, swear-filled rant by the sweet and innocent ingénue. The video’s appeal was an extension of the classic SNL (and current Funny Or Die) premise: Let’s see what happens when we place our favorite celebrities in comedic situations. It’s a formula The Lonely Island has banked on, with images of hanging out with T-Pain on a yacht, Jonah Hill having sex with Andy’s dad, and Pee-Wee Herman and Andy getting drunk together. It certainly doesn’t hurt your video’s appeal when Jake Gyllenhaal, John McEnroe and Anderson Cooper make cameos.

4. Blue humor. You could argue that all comedy is somehow related to sex, violence, drug use or profanity, yet the digital shorts get away with a lot more than what’s typical of SNL sketches. Titles like “Jizz in my Pants” and “Dick in a Box.” The “Hero Song” short ends with 70 seconds of a man getting violently beaten to death. The chorus of “I Just Had Sex” features the unnecessarily specific line of “A woman let me put my penis inside of her!” I’ve never had a problem with the vulgarity, and most of the time it’s necessary to heighten the comedic idea at the heart of the shorts — the contrast between the legit, professional production value and the absurd, unprofessional content of what they’re saying or singing.

5. Weirdness. Here’s where The Lonely Island becomes difficult to nail down. It seems that Samberg and co. are obsessed with random non-sequiturs — Viking costumes, singing cherries, pointing to ducks. These little visual surprises, in the tradition of Monty Python, are often unrelated to the sketch and exist just for the sake of absurdity. Why? Because ending “Business Meeting” with the building inexplicably collapsing is just funny.

I love The Lonely Island and the SNL digital shorts. If they aren’t funny, they’re at least fun, and they’re never lazy. Do Andy Samberg and co. need the leash pulled on their ideas every now and then? Probably — Hot Rod and shorts like “Space Olympics” proved their fallibility. But their success is a testament to the theory that if you just do good work, eventually good things will happen for you.

Before any online sketch comedians try to use this list as a crude “how-to guide” to become the next DERRICK, Human Giant or The Lonely Island, keep in mind that whatever success or popularity those groups would eventually attain, they all started by making videos that they found funny, by simply trying to make each other laugh. “Viral video” is not an artistic genre to which you can contribute; it’s an unintended effect telling you that something you created and uploaded resonated with people for some reason.

So rather than trying to make a viral video, just make a funny one. It’ll go viral if it’s destined to.

Erik Voss is going viral right now.