Samberg, Taccone And Schaffer: Three's Not A Lonely Island

Originally published on December 31, 2013 2:29 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on June 18, 2013.

With digital shorts like "D--- in a Box," "Mother Lover" and "Three-Way," the parody trio The Lonely Island is responsible for some of Saturday Night Live's funniest bits in recent memory, as well as funny collaborations with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar. When Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone's SNL video debut, "Lazy Sunday," first went viral, it seemed like the three came out of nowhere.

Not so: They'd been working together for years, having met as adolescents obsessed with hip-hop and shows like Yo! MTV Raps in Berkeley, Calif. Oakland and its vibrant hip-hop culture was just down the road, and their proximity to the city fed their fascination with its music — as well as their desire to make comedy that responds to it.

"We're tiny little white dudes," Samberg says. "We weren't living the rap life at all. We just loved the music. ... [T]hat's where our comedy comes from: It comes from a love for what that music is and what it represents, but also always drawing a clear line to let everyone know that we don't believe that we're part of it."

Their enthusiasm continues. The Lonely Island's new The Wack Album features songs like "YOLO" and "Diaper Money" — which reflect, yes, its members' own aging, but also a sense that hip-hop as a genre is growing up.

"There's a trend in hip-hop of being more mature and getting older, for real right now," Samberg says. "So it coincides really nicely for us, in terms of certain songs on our album ... that are more about being an adult and the joke of bragging about the responsibilities that come with being an adult."

Interview Highlights

Samberg on Justin Timberlake being on board with the SNL short 'Mother Lover'

"When we did the second one — 'Mother Lover' — me, Akiva [and] Jorma were the more hesitant ones. We were like, 'I don't know if we want to go back to that well, because, you know, 'D--- in a Box' went over so well. I don't know if we want to mess with something that is generally liked. I don't know if we should do it.' And Justin [Timberlake] said, 'That's why you should do it! Because who would have the audacity to do it again?'"

Taccone on his mother's reaction to sexist, violent rap music

"My mother would go through and actually edit my tapes. I had a Fat Boys album that she edited, and I remember her hiding Run-D.M.C.'s album Raising Hell — which was one of my first albums I had on vinyl — and hiding it behind this bookshelf, and I'd have to go sneak and listen to it. And by today's standards, it's one of the tamest things ever."

Taccone on his mother lecturing him on how to treat women

"There was a moment where I, under my breath at one point, called my mother a 'b----' and my mother hit me so hard, and shook me, and looked me in the eye and said, 'Don't ever say that word about a woman ever in your life. It's the most insulting thing you could possibly say to a woman.' And then I remember my brother, years later, did the exact same thing, under his breath, called her a 'b----', and then she tried to go there with him and he said, 'I said witch! Oh my god!' And he tricked her, and I was like, 'Oh younger kids are just smarter.' But because of that, I never say that word ever. I find it very insulting."

Samberg on his shaggy hair

"When I had my final meeting with Lorne [Michaels] before I got hired ... [h]e asked me a few questions. He asked me, 'So you think you can do this?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to think that I could.' And he said, 'You think you can live in New York?' and I said, 'Yeah, I actually lived here for two years when I was at NYU. I love New York.' And then there was a long pause and he said, 'Would you consider cutting the hair?' And I said, 'I will shave bald if that's what you want. I really want to work here.' And he laughed and said, 'Okay.' And then I left, and one of the assistants said, 'So?' and I said, 'Did I get it?' And they were like, 'Yes, you got it!' and I was like, 'Oh, great!' and then I called my parents and cried."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, filling in for Terry Gross, who is out with a cold. We're ending the year with another of our favorite interviews of 2013. It's from June, when Terry spoke with three alumni of "Saturday Night Live": Andy Samberg, who was a cast member; and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone.

Collectively they're known as The Lonely Island. Their digital shorts for SNL have included such famous hip-hop video parodies as, well, let's called it "Bleep in a Box" with Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake; and "3-way," with Samberg, Timberlake and Lady Gaga. Samberg currently stars in the Fox sitcom "Brooklyn 99." Schaffer directed the film "The Watch," and Taccone played the pretentious artist Booth Jonathan on the HBO series "Girls."

When Terry spoke with The Lonely Island in June, the group had just released its third album of hip-hop inspired parodies called "The Whack Album." Let's start with a track from "The Whack.". This is "YOLO," and it features guest vocalists Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar.


THE LONELY ISLAND: (Rapping) YOLO, you only live once. The battle cry of a generation. This life is a precious gift. So don't get too crazy, it's not worth the risk. You know that we are still young, so don't be dumb. Don't trust anyone 'cause you only live once. Ugh, you only live once, that's the motto. So take a chill pill, ease off the throttle.

(Rapping) Never go to loud clubs 'cause it's bad for your ears. Your friends will all be sorry when they can't hear. And stay the hell away from drugs 'cause they're not legal. Then bury all your money in the backyard like a beagle. 'Cause you should never trust a bank, they've been known to fail. And never travel by car or bus, boat or by rail.

(Rapping) And don't travel by plane. And don't travel at all. Build a bomb shelter basement with titanium walls. And wear titanium suits in case pianos fall on 'ya. And never go in saunas 'cause they're crawlin' with piranhas. And never take the stairs 'cause they're often unsafe. You only live once, don't let it go to waste.

(Rapping) You know that we are still young, so hold off on the fun. Cook your meat 'til it's done, 'cause you only live once. Yeah, and here's another piece of advice: Stay away from kids 'cause their hair is filled with mad lice. There's no such thing as too much Purell. This a cautionary tale, word to George Orwell...


Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. So let's start with "YOLO," which we just heard, which usually means you only live once, but in yours it's you ought to look out. So which one is more of the motto of your life?


GROSS: Which one were you more brought up with?

ANDY SAMBERG: You know, our version begins as you only live once, and by the end, the conclusion is you ought to look out. So I think it's kind of like telling our story of getting older and using more discretion and more caution. But it's also a cautionary tale. Like you ought to look out, and you only live once. It's somewhere in between I think is what...

AKIVA SCHAFFER: Yeah, you can go far. You can too far with you ought to look out, as well, until you're just basically sitting in a room by yourself rocking back and forth holding your knees and not wanting to go outside.

JORMA TACCONE: Howard Hughsing it, so to speak.

SCHAFFER: Yeah, so that could be bad, too.

GROSS: Well, my favorite line is there's no such thing as too much Purell.


GROSS: So the hook of this, the song part, is like really catchy. Did you really want to be regular songwriters, as opposed to comic songwriters when you were young or now?

SAMBERG: Not really. I mean, this is Andy. I'm speaking personally. I always wanted to do comedy in one way, shape or form. And I did mess around with comedy music when I was in, like, high school and college.

TACCONE: Yeah, we all did, for sure.

SAMBERG: And then we sort of fell into it on accident when the three of us decided to move to L.A. together, and we were all living together, and our roommate had like a little digital eight-track, and we would have some drinks and come home and make joke songs. And that's sort of how it started. But it was never - any ability music-wise is completely happenstance, sort of stumbled into that part of it.

TACCONE: We grew up in Berkley, California - this is Jorma speaking, hi - listening to hip-hop and R&B, and so when we had our friend's eight-track, we would just loop old funk samples, like sort of the way that, you know, hip-hop came about, and make little beats and just make songs until the wee hours of the morning.

GROSS: Now on your new album and on, you know, some of the digital shorts, you have like real hip-hop stars on there with you. So what are some of the things that you've learned from working with people who do this seriously, for real?

TACCONE: That they're better than us.


SAMBERG: Yeah, it's harder than it seems.

SCHAFFER: We learned a lot about recording from Justin Timberlake, legitimately, because that was so early on when we did the first on, "Blank in a Box." I don't know what you're allowed to say.

GROSS: Yeah, not the thing that's in the box.


SCHAFFER: OK, great.

SAMBERG: Richard.

TACCONE: "Richard in a Box."

SCHAFFER: But that was pretty early on in our comedy music career. So we were still really just doing - like teaching ourselves how to use the stuff and didn't really know how to use, like pro tools or any of that stuff. So when he came and did that song with us, he taught us, like, 10 things, I would say, that we still use to this day about just proper recording and kind of little tricks about using, you know, the left speaker versus the right speaker and stuff like that.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guests are Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, the three members of Lonely Island, the group that did all those great digital shorts, music - like hip-hop digital shorts for "Saturday Night Live." Now they have a new album, and that's called "The Wack Album," and we should hear another track from it.

So I - since we were talking about Justin Timberlake, why don't we hear "3-way," which is really hysterical, and it's in a digital short on "Saturday Night Live," and now it's on the new album. So I'd like you to talk about how you came up with this idea, and the idea is basically it's cool for two guys to be together if it's a three-way with a girl in between. So...


SAMBERG: How did we come up with it?

SCHAFFER: They're looking for any excuse to get into bed together, these two guys.

TACCONE: Yeah, that's the real...

SAMBERG: Yeah, it was the third in the trilogy of these two guys, these two characters, and, you know, in the first two there were all sorts of allusions to, like, how into each other they are. And we felt like that was sort of the natural next step.

TACCONE: How deeply they were looking into each other's eyes and how close they were.

SAMBERG: Yeah, they're best friends who find each other extremely cool and sexy. But it was also a case of just SNL circumstance, which was Justin was hosting, and Lady Gaga was the musical guest, and we knew that for the third one it would be a real ante-upper to throw Lady Gaga into the mix, and naturally when you add a girl to the two guys, it turns into a three-way.

So then we had to think of a comedy angle for that, and that's what we came up with.

GROSS: Were they both willing, or did you have to convince them?

SAMBERG: Oh, they were willing. When we did the second one, "Mother Lover," me, Akiva and Jorma were the more hesitant ones. We were like I don't know if we want to go back to that well because, you know, "D in a Box" was so - it went over so well. I don't know if we want to mess with something that is generally liked. And, you know, if we don't do it, we're safe. And Justin said that's exactly why we should do it.


SAMBERG: Because who would have the audacity to do it again?

SCHAFFER: That was very similar on "3-way," as well. I mean, we had the idea really early on in the week, and usually, you know, we only come up with the idea on like a Thursday night, record it Thursday night and start filming Friday into Saturday morning and start editing Saturday morning until the show airs. And that's basically the, you know, natural way that we did any of our digital shorts.

And in this one, we actually had the idea on a Monday, and the three of us were totally hesitant the entire week, and Justin kept being like no, it's great, just do it.

SAMBERG: He's very confident. And to answer your question, Gaga was 100 percent into it. Like we...

GROSS: That's a lot of work to do in a few days.

SAMBERG: Oh, yeah, that's why we...

GROSS: Because it's like your videos, it's like there's an edit every few seconds, and the scene keeps changing, and there's costume changes. It's a lot of work.

SAMBERG: I mean, the credit also to SNL and to their crew and their system that's built in to be able to pull something off that fast. You know, they had props and crew of, you know, people putting together sets overnight on a Thursday for a Friday shoot, constantly.

When we'd come up with an idea late Thursday night and be like OK, this is it, and then all these people have to be like OK, all the wardrobe and everybody and the wig department.

SCHAFFER: We need a horse head and a hot air balloon basket.

SAMBERG: Yeah, and it's - you know, you get so used to it that then you show up on Friday morning, and you're like where's our horse head. And they're like guys, you gave us the song at like 5 a.m.

TACCONE: Yeah, we're having a puppet master make it.

SAMBERG: Yeah, so it was - you know, it's an incredible machine to be a part of, and it's the only way it can really happen is to have hundreds of people all working towards this one goal at the same time because there's no choice because it's airing Saturday.

GROSS: OK, so this is "3-way" by Lonely Island, and it's from their album "The Wack Album," and we're going to hear Andy Samberg, Justin Timberlake and a little bit of Lady Gaga. She's more prominent on the video than she is on the song. So here it is, a cleaned-up version of "3-way."


ISLAND: (Singing) Your mom says hi jinx. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, jam. Summertime in the city, and everybody's having sex.

(Singing) You know I just got a page from a girl that I met last week at the Pay-less Shoe Source. I also have a cutie to call who loves the way I knock on her boots. Well it's time to mack, let's handle that. In two to six hours, we'll meet back here and regroup. Now let's shoot.

(Singing) Roll up to her crib with some Bartles & James, hop off the bus with a Alize. Now hold up player, what you diggity-doing here? I should diggity-ask you the same, and she sang. Hey, boys I want you both. I hope that you think that's cool. Say word? I know most guys won't freak together, but she forgot about the golden rule, a huh, huh.

It's OK when it's in a three-way. It's not gay when it's in a three-way. With a honey in the middle there's some leeway. The area's grey in a one, two, three-way. Normally, I don't get down with dudes, but tonight is a special exception. So you're my best friend through thick and thin. Now it's time to make a triple connection. Lights off.

BIANCULLI: That was "3-way," featuring Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. More with the new Lonely Island, who wrote that song, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's June 2013 interview, one of our favorites of the year, with the members of The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone.

GROSS: When you started working together when you were, what, in junior high school...?

TACCONE: Yeah, we were all in different sort of goofy music groups. I was in a group with two friends of mine called Strike Three because we had all been dissed by girls, so we had all struck out.


GROSS: So did you do for-real music or comic music?

TACCONE: No, it was all jokes. We had joke rap music.

SCHAFFER: Yeah, me and my friends would record ourselves on, you know, little boom boxes with the record button on cassette and do like comedy raps that we had written in high school.

SAMBERG: I will say I wasn't a part of it, but I feel like I remember the first actual Lonely Island piece of audio, which is Akiva and Jorma recorded themselves over this skit from a Wu-Tang Clan album. And it's like this really intense...

TACCONE: It's very sad, actually.

SAMBERG: It's a bunch of - yeah, it's all the Wu-Tang and people on their block being like you, did you hear this guy Shaheem(ph) got shot, and everyone's like oh my God, no, and it's like really intense. And then Kiv and Jorm dub themselves over it going oh no.


SAMBERG: Not Shaheem. Wait, is he the guy from - oh sorry, sorry, I interrupted, sorry. What were you saying?

TACCONE: It was just us being super lame.

SCHAFFER: There's so many members of the Wu-Tang Clan, you just, you can just slip a couple nerds in there, and you'll never notice.

TACCONE: These two nerdy guys who get railroaded into...

SCHAFFER: That's a part of the gang.

GROSS: So what were your mothers' reactions to you listening to rap music that - some of which was probably very sexist and some of which was probably, you know, very much, you know, bragging about violence? I'm assuming that your mothers were - I think all your parents moved to Berkley from New York in the '60s and '70s. That's what I read; I'm not sure if it's right.

SCHAFFER: That is correct.

GROSS: But I'm sure that they had, you know, an ethic that was kind of different from, like, the kind of sexist bragging on a lot of rap.

TACCONE: Absolutely, as do we.

SCHAFFER: We had to hide in our house like pornography, literally. Like something I hid them...

TACCONE: Yeah, absolutely, and my mother would go through and actually edit my tapes. Like she'd edit out the songs that were in any way - like, you know, I had a Fat Boys album that she edited, and I remember her hiding Run DMC's album "Raising Hell," which was one of my first albums that I had on vinyl, and hiding it behind this bookshelf, and I would have to go and sneak and listen to it.

And by today's standards, it's like - I mean, it's the most tame thing ever, you know, I mean...

SAMBERG: Yeah, I don't want to throw my parents...

SCHAFFER: My mom took away "License to Ill" because I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a whiffle ball bat, so - the first Beastie Boys record. And that was enough. She head that line and took away the whole record.

TACCONE: Little did they know that we were listening to, like, Too Short...

SAMBERG: I was going to say I have two older sisters. I have two older sisters, and Eazy-E and Too Short were on all the time. And I think because I was the youngest, by the time it got to me, and what I was listening to, they were kind of just tired.


TACCONE: Yeah, you had a distinct advantage. Both me and Kiva are the oldest child, so it was much harder for us.

SAMBERG: Yeah, also my dad got into rap. We'd like, bump the "Boyz n the Hood" soundtrack in the car on the way to soccer practice and stuff.

GROSS: So you all got on "Saturday Night Live" at the same time - Andy as a performer and writer and Jorma and Akiva as writers. Did you have a joint audition, or did you each audition separately?

SAMBERG: Auditioned separately. I had been doing a lot of standup, so I auditioned first, and then, you know, we had been writing for the MTV Movie Awards and Jimmy Fallon was the host, so he was there, along with Steve Higgins and Mike Shoemaker, who were producers at "SNL" and a bunch of "SNL" writers came with them.

And we got along really well with all of them, so Jimmy and Higgins and Shoemaker recommended us to Lorne. So I came in and auditioned, and it went well, and then they said, you know, these guys are best when you have the three of them together, you know, which was correct.


SAMBERG: So they offered Akiva and Jorme to audition as well. Jorme did audition...

TACCONE: Yeah, which is the most nerve-racking thing I will ever do, and it's being beamed to like NBC West Coast, and Lorne and Tina are in the room. It's totally nerve-racking.

SAMBERG: And Akiva, who had no interest in being a cast member, opted to just have a writer's meeting. It went well enough that I got hired to the cast, and Akiva and Jorme both got hired as writers. But I think what they did not realize they were getting was two writers who also happened to be really good directors, and that was...

SCHAFFER: Thanks, Andy.

SAMBERG: You're welcome. It's part of the story.


SAMBERG: You know, because when we were brought in, it was like...

SCHAFFER: We were not hired to make shorts.

SAMBERG: No, not at all. But, you know, the classic thing that we have always done, and I think Kiv is really the spearheader of that, is to be really proactive and to just, if you have an idea you like, go out and make it and then you don't have to explain to people why something is funny, you can just show them.

So these guys went out and shot a video on their own called "Bing Bong Brothers" and brought it in and said, would you ever air this? And they were like, well, we're trying to break all of these new cast members so it would be confusing to put something on with you guys in it, but definitely continue to do these and bring them in because we always need pre-tapes to turn sets over during commercial breaks or when we're in an act break kind of a thing.

You know, we can run a pre-tape and that gives us more time to do costume changes and set changes, so we just started shooting them on our own. And the third one we made was "Lazy Sunday" and after that they were like, OK, you guys are a film unit. Keep going.

TACCONE: And Akiva was always our sort of our main director. Like I mean I kind of learned how to direct from him, and to edit as well. And so we would, you know, in the beginning it was always Akiva as the director, and I would be making a lot of the music for what we're doing, and then that sort of changed when I started doing some the "MacGrubers" and some other ones, and so I started doing shorts as well.

GROSS: Akiva, did you study videos so you could really make yours look authentic?

SCHAFFER: I was studying for it my whole life, not knowing I was studying for it. I was just obsessed with them. I didn't have cable growing up and I would go to friends' houses and just watch MTV, like honestly like - it was like I would have like sugar cereal and watch MTV because those were the things that were not allowed in my house...


SCHAFFER: I would just do it like a fiend. Like I wouldn't even care if they were home or they were asleep, I would just watch.

SAMBERG: For sure.

TACCONE: And Kiv's parents had, they like had his TV under lock and key, literally. Like there was a key that you had to - how did it work, Kiv? I mean you used to sneak up into their room and take the key...

SCHAFFER: It only lasted like a month, but there was a month where my mom like got out of some catalog like a thing where it's like, you know, where like somehow it locks the power cord or something, you know, kind of the equivalent today of like, you know, putting a password on people's iPads, which I'm sure they do, so that the kids can't play with their iPads. But it was a much more clumsy box that made it that you couldn't turn on the television.

SAMBERG: It's like a chastity belt for your cable box.


GROSS: I want to squeeze in one more song from the new Lonely Island album, the "Whack" album. And this is an excerpt of "Diaper Money" and it's an excerpt because several of the verses aren't clean enough to play on the radio. But describe what the premise of this one is.

SCHAFFER: "Diaper Money" arrives in three suites, each represented by a verse from each of the three members. The first one is "Diaper Money," which is Akiva who has two young children, and it's sort of bragging about being a dad. The second one is Jorma, which is something I can't say, but it's about how proud he is to be in a monogamous married relationship with his wife.

SAMBERG: And the third verse is me bragging about how I've got an incredible grave plot lined up.

SCHAFFER: He's very excited about his coffin.


SAMBERG: And how - I would say it's like a meditation on the inevitability of death.


GROSS: Accept that.

SCHAFFER: We're in a more mature place in our lives now.

SAMBERG: Like a hilarious meditation on that. It's, you know, it's about we're all in our mid-30s now, and we're all either married or engaged to be married and having kids or headed towards kids. And it's our reality, and we're like why not embrace it and make an anthem for that?

SCHAFFER: And sadly, this is our most mature work to date.



ISLAND: (Rapping) I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot. It's right off the highway. Wobble-dee-wobble-dee-drop into my grave plot. You afraid of death? Well, I'm afraid not. 'Cause I got the bomb spot right off the highway. I did it my way. A very small percent of the time way. I got my coffin picked out. Styrofoam painted like wood. Tricked out.

(Singing) It's even got handles to lower me smooth, and my tombstone only has minimal typos. Grave plot. I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot right next to my dad. I got that diaper money. I got that wife to boot. I got that grave plot. I'm a grown-ass man.

BIANCULLI: That's The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone. Terry spoke with them in June. It's one of our favorite interviews of the year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.