“The Lonely Island” read the two large screens surrounding the outdoor Clusterfest main stage Friday night. In the center of said stage was a larger screen that also read “The Lonely Island.” In all three versions, there was a palm tree. See, it was 10 p.m., Friday night, and, after nearly 30 years knowing each other and nearly 20 years making comedy together, in front of a hometown crowd, the Lonely Island were about to play their first official concert ever.
Three guys in turtlenecks and chains to my right, two women in Style Boyz sweatshirts to my left, I was nervous. As I heard beforehand, so were Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, because the Lonely Island performing a live show represented a bit of a conundrum: How do you “[make fun] of posturing and pretending to be cool and tough and masculine,” as Schaffer had once summarized the group’s raison d’etre to me, when that’s exactly what putting on a concert is? Relatedly, it didn’t make sense to put on a “good” show where they seriously performed their songs as if they were hit rappers running through their catalogue, but it would be worse to do a “bad” show where the joke was how poorly it went, as that would completely undermine all their effort to convey that the joke wasn’t just “Look at who is rapping (white people)!” Too big an entrance would’ve felt pompous; too small would’ve been unsatisfying to a crowd that had been waiting years for this. So they went right in the middle, with a new track where they literally described in extreme detail the specifics of their entrance.
Hi guy, it’s us
We are, backstage
We are, backstage
But soon, we won’t be
Now we’re walking up the back of the stage
Yeah, walking up the back of the stage
Now we’re at the top of the back of the stage
Now we’re just waiting
Now we’re just waiting
We can see you, but you can’t see us
Can you imagine if we came on stage?
Well, get ready because we’re about to
It successfully made fun of the faux gravitas of entrances while also amping up the crowd. At one point in the song, after they finally came out wearing turtlenecks and chains, they hid behind the ramp on the stage while rapping “Now we’re hiding / Where did we go? / Is the show over? / Will we be back? / Hang on a second / Look over here / We’re looking at you / Isn’t that annoying?” At this point, when they were humbling themselves with their own stupidity, I relaxed, because I realized they figured it out: This was going to be a big dumb show.
The song finished, the music cut out, and then it was just them, talking to the audience, a thing they’ve never done before in this way. They did press tours and late night appearances, but they came up doing filmed sketch as opposed to live performance. And of course Samberg was on Saturday Night Live, but whenever Schaffer, and more often Taccone, appeared, it was in Digital Shorts. They never did a three-man sort of stand-up act. Who were they going to be? What was clear was that the intro song was going to be their one real joke about performing. When they started talking they weren’t playing Steve Martin-esque 0verly fake show business phonies, and they sure were not going to make fun of live rap shows, as I have to imagine a Lil Dicky must do. No, where they landed felt so much like Stella — three silly goofs, having a fun time being dumb and goofing around.
Schaffer: Andy, you said something backstage that made me laugh.
Taccone: It was about Clusterfest.
Samberg: I said, “Clusterfest? More like Clusterfuck.”
Schaffer: We just started laughing.
Samberg: I guess I just have a demented mind.
Taccone: You’re twisted, bro.
Schaffer: Yeah, your perspective is a little bit skewed.
Samberg: Well, I’m a lampooner, you know. But what can I say, I’m a breakfast defector.
Schaffer: Yeah, you make a lot of room for fourth meal.
Samberg: You gotta live más.
Yup, very dumb! I loved it so freaking much. Then Schaffer stumbled over the word “concert” when setting up the next bit, and it was very charming and everyone exuded an “It’s okay; we’re all friends here” vibe.
And then they played some songs. If you went down the most-viewed songs on their YouTube page, they played all of those, starting with “Jizz in My Pants.” When the tracked kicked in, Schaffer left the stage since he wasn’t on the song. This would happen periodically throughout the show if he or Taccone or both weren’t on a song; Samberg was off-stage for “Just 2 Guyz.” Notably, they paired (almost) every song with a fully produced lyric video that would often feature clips from the original Digital Short. During the Adam Levine part of “YOLO,” they showed the clip from the music video, and when the Kendrick Lamar part started, the guys all got down on one knee to watch in honor of the new Pulitzer Prize winner that they still can’t believe they got to rap with.
Of course, the crowd exploded whenever the guest actually was in attendance. “Lost it at Parnell,” wrote a message from a colleague after the show, referring to Chris Parnell who came out to rap his little heart out on “Lazy Sunday.” Oh, and you know Michael Bolton was there, who with a resolute confidence and a deadpan stillness sang the hook to “Incredible Thoughts” from Popstar and “Jack Sparrow.” Still, the best cameo, and maybe the single most fun moment of the entire show, was during the “Dick in the Box”/“Mother Lover”/“3-Way (The Golden Rule),” when the part of Justin Timberlake was played by a puppet. But then it was revealed (to the audience; Samberg treated the puppet as he was, calling him “Justin Randall Timberlake”) that the puppet was being handled by Taccone in an all-black outfit. I’ll never forget the look on Taccone’s face – so stupidly happy, but a bit vacant, as he was both playing himself and a person who makes puppets sing for a living. “Of course they’d do puppeteer parody,” said a friend after the show. It was small and specific — nd deeply weird, but it used pop culture and pop music grandeur to better communicate the joke to the audience. It was the most Lonely Island moment of the show.
Throughout the performance, they’d add new little elements to old songs, and over and over they’d just work. During a performance of “Ras Trent,” the titular Trent got a cell phone call from his dad, offering him a job: “Hi daddy. What’s that? You’re retiring and you want me to be CEO? A corner office? Your entire empire no questions asked, based entirely on nepotism and almost inversely proportionate to my knowledge of the position? And all I’d have to do is cut me dreads and cash in on my white privilege that’s been lying dormant this whole time like some kind of sleeper-cell of whiteness?” Better yet, during “Lazy Sunday,” after Samberg rapped “dropping Hamiltons,” the music cut out and he started singing the intro song to the famous musical about that dude. And then Schaffer joined him in a dress and wig to sing the Angelica Schuyler part, followed by Taccone in full Revolutionary War regale. When a confused Parnell asked what was happening, Samberg said when he heard “Hamilton,” the idea of singing the musical came to him. Schaffer added he came out when he heard Samberg, as he was already just wearing a dress and wig backstage. Taccone was already dressed like Aaron Burr. It was a coincidence! It was a very dumb bit that appropriately undercut their least nuanced big song.
All the completely new bits worked just as well, and there were tons of them. Because of the costume changes needed for a show like this and because they haven’t put out anything in awhile, the guys jam-packed the show with jokes. But nothing topped the show’s already-heralded, multiple-part mini-opera of sorts aimed right at the heart of the Bay Area crowd, with the three playing famous athletes from their childhood — Jose Canseco (Samberg), Mark McGwire (Schaffer), and Joe Montana (Taccone). You can see clips from their warm-up shows here:
The best part was the slow R&B music video they played after they all left the stage of Jose and Mark (Samberg and Schaffer) playing in the baseball game but having a tragic identity crisis during the famous 1988 World Series loss to the Dodgers. It was a surprisingly and refreshingly small bit for such a large outdoor space and show filled with their biggest songs.
After an hour of dumb bits and great jokes and songs everyone knew all the words to, Schaffer and Samberg informed the crowd they had only one song left, pulling out a dunce cap. The crowd cheered knowingly and then even more loudly when it was turned around to show what was written on it — “Landlubber” — and they placed it on Taccone’s sad head. Out came T-Pain and we were all on a boat, singing along like Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer once did to Weird Al and Too $hort as kids growing up across the bay. When Samberg rapped “if you could see me now,” the entire crowd sang along in unison, as if to say they could. Like Kevin Garnett, anything is possible.