To someone who wasn’t paying attention to web comedy in the early 2000s (and before YouTube and Funny or Die, who could blame you?), it may seem like The Lonely Island, the comedy conglomerate made up of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, came out of nowhere when they were snatched up by Saturday Night Live in 2005. Despite the trio’s seemingly-fast rise to fame, they were far from an overnight success.
Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone all met while attending junior high together in Berkeley, California in the late 80s. Samberg was a year younger than Schaffer and Taccone, but the three soon became a part of what they’ve called a “big group of stupid dudes” who enjoyed skateboarding and joking around with each other. The trio remained close friends throughout high school but went their separate ways when college came around. After graduating, Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg both enrolled at UC Santa Cruz to study film, with Samberg transferring to NYU’s film school after two years, while Jorma Taccone studied theater at UCLA.
After graduating from college, the trio reunited in their hometown, Berkeley, and decided to pursue a career in comedy together. Schaffer recounts in 2007 profile in Premiere, “We all had this one day at Jorm’s parents’ house in Berkeley [where] we just literally sat there and went, ‘Should we move to L.A., get regular jobs and then start making short films to try to put together like a demo reel of us or should we stay in Berkeley where we could live for free, start making films right away and then move to L.A. with a demo reel already made?’”
The trio, who began referring to themselves as “The Dudes,” chose to move to L.A. in September of 2000 and started a website, naming it “The Lonely Island” after the nickname they gave to the apartment they shared. The guys did grunt work around town to pay the bills, with Taccone and Samberg scoring jobs as production assistants on Spin City and the guys working various temp jobs as they began to make a name for themselves with their online videos, pioneering the field of web comedy in the pre-YouTube era.
Aged 23-24 at the time, The Lonely Island guys made their first video, “Ka-Blamo!,” demonstrating an early mastery of the music video and showcasing their love of rapping. They released the video under the name Incredibad, which they would go on to use throughout their careers.
The Lonely Island Pilot #1: “White Power!”
Next, the Lonely Island guys decided to make an original TV pilot and shoot it themselves. The result was this 17-minute sitcom pilot for a show called The Lonely Island. The first episode, “White Power!,” involved the trio getting addicted to teeth whitening products. The pilot quickly earned them agents.
During filming of a scene in which the Dudes mugged an old lady to get money to buy teeth whitening supplies, Kiefer Sutherland was driving by and tried to intervene, not realizing it was a video shoot. He quickly realized his mistake, but not before he ruined the take.
Here’s the footage of Kiefer Sutherland ruining the shoot:
And here’s Andy Samberg telling the story during his first Letterman appearance in 2006:
Early songs and demos
The Lonely Island began recording songs in 2001. Some of them, like “Ka-Blamo!” and “Just 2 Guyz” were turned into videos, while others, like “Saturday Night” and “I Think I Might Have Killed the President,” weren’t. Here’s a collection of their early songs (from 2001 to 2005) from The Lonely Island’s website.
The Lonely Island’s second music video, in which they rap to and profess their love for a stork.
The Lonely Island Pilot #2: “Regarding Ardy”
The Dudes’ second pilot for a Lonely Island series was called “Regarding Ardy,” and it featured an introduction from Brooke Shields as herself, in which she talked about huffing ether and getting knocked up by the Lonely Island guys. The pilot was screened at the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles, the cable network’s proving ground for new talent. After a successful screening, Comedy Central purchased the show and signed The Lonely Island to write them a script for a potential new series. The Comedy Central series didn’t move forward, but the Lonely Island guys soon found success elsewhere.
“Nintendo Cartoon Hour”
The Lonely Island guys’ careers really started to take off when they began contributing to Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s monthly short film festival Channel 101. Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer made this video for Harmon and Schrab’s Super Midnight Movie Club, the duo’s monthly video club that was a predecessor to Channel 101. The theme for that month’s show was “Saturday Morning TV Shows” and the Lonely Island turned in this Nintendo parody.
“Ignition TV Buzz Countdown”
Episode 1 (July 2003)
The Dudes made this video for the second-ever Channel 101 competition. Warning: it’s got some adult porno stuff in it. I hate the acronym “NSFW” but I really don’t want you to get fired.
Episode 2 (August 2003)
The Channel 101 audience voted “Ignition TV Buzz Countdown” back for a second week, but the show did not score enough votes to come back a third time.
October 2003-April 2005
The Lonely Island’s second Channel 101 series really put them on the map. Starring the Dudes and Scrubs’ Sarah Chalke, “The ‘Bu” is a parody of The O.C. about an angsty ninja teen who moves to Malibu. The show ran for eight episodes with the Lonely Island (and three more without them after the trio abandoned the series to develop a TV show for FOX). To this day, it’s one of the most popular Channel 101 shows ever.
For the eighth episode, the Dudes didn’t have time to film a short because they were so busy with their FOX pilot Awesometown, but they re-recorded the Awesometown theme song with the lyrics “We didn’t do ‘The ‘Bu’ this month/we didn’t do ‘The ‘Bu.’” The show was voted back, despite them phoning it in, and the next three episodes of “The ‘Bu” were written and directed by other Channel 101 filmmakers without any involvement from The Lonely Island, who were too busy with TV work.
The Lonely Island made this five-minute short as a part of Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s Channel 101 TV pilot for FX in 2004. The TV version of Channel 101 show would have been hosted by Jack Black (who was also producing) and Jeff B. Davis, but the network elected not to pick it up, and it took until 2007’s Acceptable.TV on VH1 for Harmon and Schrab to get a Channel 101-based show on the air.
“Just Two Guyz”
One of The Dudes’ most popular non-SNL videos, “Just Two Guyz” is a music video starring Schaffer and Taccone. A sequel video, entitled “We Like Sportz,” was made in 2008, becoming even more popular than the original. The “Sportz” song was included on The Lonely Island’s first album, Incredibad, the following year.
This genre exercise was made entirely by Andy Samberg and frequent Lonely Island collaborator Chester Tam.
A short rap video from Jorma Taccone. According to the Lonely Island website, it was Taccone’s birthday and he asked Akiva Schaffer to shoot this video as his present. Taccone also insisted on being fully nude, even though they were filming in broad daylight.
Awesometown Pilot – FOX Cut
By 2005, The Lonely Island’s shorts had caught the eye of FOX executives who gave them $70,000 to produce a pilot for a new sketch show called Awesometown. Here’s Taccone describing an initial meeting with FOX:
“We were in that room with all these FOX executives and put on ‘Just 2 Guyz,’ and then that part comes on where it’s like ‘Who invited Steve? That dude’s a cunt.’ I’m like, oh my gosh, fingers crossed, and then as soon as it happened, they just had this huge laugh and we’re like, ‘Holy shit, I guess we can work with Fox.’”
The Awesometown pilot is a little more mainstream than most of The Dudes’s stuff (it features a laughtrack and sketches in front of a live audience), but the trio’s sensibilities shine through and there are plenty of funny moments throughout. The “Glirk” sketch was later remade on SNL with host Jack Black taking Jorma Taccone’s part. Black, a pal of the Lonely Island guys from their Channel 101 days, delivers the intro to the FOX pilot as George Washington.
Here’s Akiva Schaffer talking about the gang’s frustrations over their early work with Comedy Central and Fox:
“When we tried to explain why our stuff would be different, we’d say that most sketch shows came from the stage, from Second City or wherever. But you can tell it’s a live show made into a TV show. Our comedy comes from the medium of TV and music videos. A lot of our jokes are editing- and music-based. Ours could never be a stage show. It seems so obvious now, but I remember the people at Comedy Central listening to this, and then saying to us, ‘OK, but could you put this up on our live stage, so we can see what you’re talking about?’ That’s literally what they said.”
The Lonely Island’s last pre-SNL sketch, “B.P.D.,” is a crime drama about Baltimore police officers. Here’s what the Lonely Island website says about how the video was made:
“The Channel 101 screening was just a couple of days away and the Dudes hadn’t made anything yet, so Kiv made Ardy and Jorm a deal: if he wrote something, they had to perform it no matter what it was.”
The super-short video didn’t receive enough votes from the Channel 101 audience, but that probably didn’t faze Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, who were just a few weeks away from landing their dream jobs on Saturday Night Live. Their last job prior to SNL was working on the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, writing bits for host Jimmy Fallon. Fallon brought the trio to Lorne Michaels, who hired Samberg as a cast member and Taccone and Schaffer as writers, and the rest is history or something.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.