If The Lonely Island were N’Sync, Andy Samberg would be the collaborator Justin Timberlake of the group: the handsome, charismatic frontman who gets most of the attention. But his longtime partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone haven’t exactly suffered silently on the sidelines. They are, after all, two-thirds of a brilliant, Emmy-, Golden Globe-, and Grammy-nominated trio that has put out four critically acclaimed albums and released videos that rack up tens of millions of views on YouTube.
As Saturday Night Live writers, Taccone and Shaffer helped restore an air of hipness to the creaky old comic institution. Their digital shorts dragged the show-business warhorse kicking and screaming into the 21st century, where young people watch short, funny videos on this thing called “YouTube” instead of waiting patiently for The Ed Sullivan Show while nursing a mug of Ovaltine with marshmallows in it, like they did when Michaels was a kid and television was still a new and exciting invention.
Yes, it seems like movies are just about the only medium that these brash, talented young men haven’t conquered. The films directed or co-directed by Schaffer and Taccone have all been commercial flops but the non-Samberg two-thirds of the trio have quietly racked up an impressive track record, directing three of the most underrated, funny, and most quotable cult comedies of the past decade in 2007’s Hot Rod, 2010’s MacGruber, and most recently Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
What’s perplexing about these films’ failure is that they perfectly embody the Lonely Island aesthetic that made them such successes in music, video, and television. Like “Weird Al” Yankovic, The Lonely Island is obsessed with nailing the details. If the trio does a Rick Ross or a Bone Thugs N Harmony pastiche it’s going to sound exactly like what it’s parodying. The Lonely Island songs work beautifully as vehicles for jokes but the key to their sneaky longevity is that they work equally well as music, so there’s a reason to keep listening even after you know all the jokes and words by heart. And like Weird Al, The Lonely Island is motivated by affection, understanding, and a deep love and almost encyclopedic knowledge of the last thirty years of pop music. Their pastiches, consequently, are homages more than spoofs, and there is a remarkable level of craftsmanship and care to go along with all the dick and fart jokes. The Lonely Island are geniuses of schoolyard scatology, proud professors of juvenile foolishness.
They bring that same attention to detail to their movies. MacGruber is hilarious in part because Taccone, who co-wrote as well as directed, gives the film the blinding sheen and macho tropes of a gleefully unselfconscious 1980s action movie. And just as The Lonely Island benefits from collaborating with many of the people whose music they’re lovingly sending up, MacGruber benefits from agreeably straight-faced, deadpan performances from guys like Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, and Ryan Phillippe, who could just as easily star in the straight version of what MacGruber is sending up.
As Saturday Night Live writers, Taccone and Shaffer came into daily contact with some of the biggest and most powerful stars in existence, so it’s not surprising that they’ve made mocking the bloated egos of crazed narcissists a recurring theme in their music and their films. Like the anti-hero of MacGruber, who is heroic only in the sense that he’s ambiguously less evil than the villains he’s pitted against, Rod, the misguided goof at the core of Hot Rod, has a ridiculously inflated sense of his skills, talent, and significance to the world. Needless to say, oblivious entitlement and pathological over-confidence are defining characteristics of Popstar’s protagonist as well.
To everyone else, Rod might be a not-so-lovable loser whose greatest dreams involve becoming a world-famous stuntman and also violently throttling his emotionally abusive stepfather, but when he looks in the mirror he sees the second coming of Evel Knievel. Just as The Lonely Island’s music is winningly specific and obscure, Hot Rod lovingly obsesses over pop culture detritus like the weird stuntman craze of the 1970s, when a Knievel-besotted nation briefly elevated weirdos who took unnecessary risks using motorcycles and rockets to the level of gods.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Hot Rod didn’t prove to be Samberg’s big breakout hit. As in Popstar, Samberg’s shaggy affability makes a character who is delusional to a pathological degree more likable than he really has any right to be. Hot Rod nevertheless proved a hard sell for mainstream audiences. When you’re trying to win over skeptical audiences (and honestly, the only real reason to be skeptical of Samberg at that point was because he was too cute, too young, and too successful), you want to be as lovable as Wayne Campbell, not as loathsome as Mike Myers. MacGruber traveled even further in the direction of unlikability. Will Forte, whose sensibility meshes perfectly with Taccone’s, makes MacGruber something of a sociopath, but if the pampered man-child at the heart of Popstar begins the film in a state of Justin Bieber-like arrogant unlikability, he ends it somewhere much different.
As filmmakers, The Lonely Island have evolved since Hot Rod. Perhaps due to the participation of producer Judd Apatow, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has an emotional component absent from their earlier films. Hell, Hot Rod didn’t just purposefully eschew “heart,” it was nakedly contemptuous of the notion and twisted its protagonist’s step-daddy issues into a crazy burlesque of sputtering Oedipal rage. MacGruber was just as defiant in making its “hero” as repellent and unsympathetic as possible, but Popstar actually wants us to care about its characters, and even more surprisingly, gives us reasons to do so.
Popstar is surprisingly poignant for a movie so proudly silly and ridiculous. Without sacrificing laughs, it casually captures the complicated emotions, resentment and competition of people who have worked together forever, and who are alternately pulled together and pushed apart by their long shared history. Yet in the kind of move that makes the trio so much fun to watch yet such a consistent gamble commercially, these inveterate smartasses undercut the bittersweet melancholy of its most emotionally direct and affecting scenes by staging one in a limousine with a fan’s naked penis angrily demanding attention straining against a closed window and another with Samberg’s character wearing a grotesque disguise that makes him look like a cross between Matthew Modine, Jason Segal, and the penis-nosed grotesque Dan Aykroyd nightmarishly portrayed in Nothing But Trouble.
Even when The Lonely Island is yielding to the dictates of the market (and quite possibly studio/producer notes) and making a movie with a solid emotional core, terrific dramatic and comic chemistry between the leads (no surprise, given how long, closely, and effectively they’ve worked together), and some genuinely moving scenes, they still can’t help but push mainstream audiences away while drawing their cult even closer. They seem more interested in making themselves laugh than in catering to a mainstream audience so their cult status seems, on some level, intentional.
The goofball genius of MacGruber, Hot Rod, and especially Popstar all prove that the Lonely Island aesthetic works smashingly in film, but the public still seems skeptical of them as feature-length filmmakers. In that respect, Taccone and Schaffer are victims of their own success. America loved watching The Lonely Island in four-minute-long digital videos with some of the biggest stars in the world roped into the silliness, and they particularly enjoyed not having to pay for the privilege, or even watch Saturday Night Live when they could just watch the digital shorts on YouTube any time they’d like.
Getting audiences to pay twelve bucks to spend 90 minutes with one of the comically over-confident dolts The Lonely Island loves to lampoon is a much trickier proposition, particularly when you’re synonymous with YouTube’s short attention span and ruthless succinctness. The default criticism of movies from Saturday Night Live alum (or current Saturday Night Live cast members) is that they’re glorified sketches sadistically stretched to feature length. Sure enough, Hot Rod, MacGruber, and Popstar all feel custom-made for the YouTube age. A lot of the scenes feel like they could be discreetly removed and transformed into a stand-alone sketch but they hold together as films surprisingly well.
The Lonely Island’s movies play just as well, if not better, at home, where audiences tend to be more forgiving and also more stoned. They’re cult movies, in other words, from what seems to be, for better or worse, a cult act. And that’s okay. The biggest budgeted, most commercial movie directed by a Lonely Island guy, 2012’s Schaffer-directed The Watch, was an even bigger flop than The Lonely Island’s good movies, and is in no danger of attracting a cult, despite a script co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and big movie stars like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill in the lead.
The Lonely Island may never make a hit movie. They may never make their Night at the Museum, but if their past is a good indication of their future, they will have to be satisfied with making small-scale cult classics for audiences as modest as they are intense and appreciative. I suspect that’s a trade-off they’d be more than willing to accept.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.