Flashback – Interview: Only the Lonely: The Rise of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone

With two films headlined by members of the viral video trio, we look back at the origins of the Saturday Night live-bound boys when they first made the leap...
Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg and Isla Fisher in a scene from Akiva Schaffer/Lonely Island film "Hot Rod"

It’s been a busy time for The Lonely Island. After passing a billion hits collectively for their online videos, Akiva Schaffer’s second feature “The Watch” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” which features Andy Samberg in one of his biggest film roles to date, will both see the inside of theaters within the next two weeks. To honor the occasion, we’re republishing this piece that originally appeared on July 27, 2007 at Premiere.com, documenting the rise of the group the two co-founded with Jorma Taccone, who has also gotten his due in recent months for a most memorable cameo on Girls and is finally getting acknowledged for the genius that is “Macgruber.”

It’s the morning after “Dick in a Box” has been nominated for an Emmy for best song. Obviously, the apocalypse is upon us.

The three-minute slow jam, an ode to the phallic present for all occasions with vocals by Justin Timberlake, has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving after being watched by millions of people on YouTube since its debut on “Saturday Night Live” during the 2006 holiday season. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, the creative team behind “Box,” were en route to a Seattle morning radio show when they got the good news.

“[There was] a lot of high fiving, a lot of gigglng. A lot of whaaaat?” reports Schaffer, the short’s director, who had forgotten there was even a best song category when he received the first congratulatory e-mail. Sadly, the award isn’t usually presented during the ceremony, so one shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the prospect of seeing “Dick in a Box” escaping the lips of an Angela Lansbury-type presenter any time soon.

“If we don’t [win]. no hard feelings to the Academy,” beams Samberg, the shaggy haired star and co-writer of the song. “But the fact that it’s nominated and called ‘Dick in a Box’ is already pretty sweet.”

Life in general is pretty sweet for The Lonely Island, the comedy collective formed by lifelong friends Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer. Besides wrapping their heads around the idea of an Emmy engraved with “Dick in a Box” on their mantle, the trio’s first film “Hot Rod” arrives in theaters this week and judging by how many songs of the ‘80s hair band Europe made it into the movie, they finished the film they set out to make – an off-the-wall debut that ranks right alongside the first efforts of comedy heroes such as Steve Martin’s “The Jerk” and Adam Sandler’s “Billy Madison.” Heck, they’re even excited to go back to “Saturday Night Live” after they finish their whirlwind publicity tour for “Hot Rod” since as Taccone says, “When you get a good sketch, there’s nothing quite like that feeling.”

Which is one reason Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer have been friends ever since Schaffer first locked eyes with Taccone in seventh grade Spanish at Willard Junior High School in Berkeley, California.

“I saw this little short skinny white dude who looked pretty much like me,” says Taccone, whose circle of friends grew to include Samberg, who was a year younger, and a bunch of pals who skateboarded together and made each other laugh. “It was just compiling friends into this big group of stupid dudes.”

Adds Schaffer, “Every group of high school kids fucks around with each other. We perhaps did it a little more than most. Enough that sometimes outsiders of the group would come try to hang out with us and [after] 10 minutes and they’d be like ‘ohhh, how do you guys even hang out all day?’”

But they did, each harboring plans to pursue the arts following high school. A year apart, Schaffer and Samberg both went to UC Santa Cruz as film students, though Samberg found being a Banana Slug was “too similar to Berkeley” and transferred to NYU after his sophomore year. Taccone, meanwhile, headed south to UCLA to study theater, following in the footsteps of his father Tony, the artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre – a far cry from “Hot Rod,” Taccone would appear in his father’s productions of the classics such as “Waiting for Godot” where he remembers, “I would constantly forget to take off my Swatch watch before the performances and so it kind of ruined that world a little bit.”

Although their relationship would continue primarily over the phone during this time, the trio reunited after college, each with a degree and each without a job. Clearly, something had to change.

Schaffer recalls, “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?’”

A compromise between the two occurred when the three of them moved to Los Angeles, but started The Lonely Island web site, a little online nook for the funny shorts they’d make for family and friends named after the nickname they gave to the L.A. apartment they shared. At the time, “it wasn’t viable to show things online” to producers, according to Schaffer, who toiled away as an assistant at a company that made movie posters in between making shorts. Taccone and Samberg landed jobs as production assistants on “Spin City” and all three would take the occasional temp job as well – Schaffer recalls sitting around tying ribbons around metal snowflakes that Fox handed out to their employees at Christmas.

Little did they know, Fox Television would be their first full-fledged employer when then-television president Gail Berman, who became a guardian angel of sorts to the trio since she also greenlit “Hot Rod” as president of Paramount, signed Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer to produce a pilot called “Awesometown” after seeing seeing one of the group’s more eccentric shorts.

“We were in that room with all these Fox executives and put on ‘Just 2 Guyz,’” says Taccone, referring to a music video which features Schaffer rapping the joys of partying with spinach dip as Taccone reads John LeCarre before momentarily breaking the rhyme pattern. “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 pilot that Taccone and crew turned in for “Awesometown,” which now lives on in cyberspace via the Lonely Island web site, shouldn’t have disappointed those who would laugh at “Just 2 Guyz.” It mixed The Lonely Island’s reverence for pop culture with their irreverence for everything else with sketches like “The ’Bu,” a parody of “The O.C.” that hinged not on soap opera largesse, but the actors pointing directly into the camera because the episode’s in 3D, a joke that’s compounded when a goofy smurf-like creature shows up to instruct audiences when to put their glasses on. As a future trivia game answer, the show also featured the first appearance of Samberg’s intergalactic hermaphrodite who would later appear on “Saturday Night Live” – bonus points – romancing none other than Jack Black, who provides the intro to “Awesometown” playing George Washington. Needless to say, the show wasn’t picked up.

“I think the thing we started questioning a little bit was is what we think is funny ever going to translate on the bigger scale?” says Samberg. “Because we knew that we still thought what we were doing was good.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to come around. When Lorne Michaels hired the trio to work on “Saturday Night Live” in 2005 – Samberg as one of the show’s cast members and Taccone and Schaffer as writers – the internet had come of age, so The Lonely Island already had laid the groundwork for a string of one-click wonders on YouTube. But just as importantly, the ironic twist that had been the basis for a previous generation of comedy had begun to wear thin, perhaps in response to an unpopular war, an environmental crisis and a world in which what was once the fodder for satire had become a little bit to real. In a generation where escapism reigns supreme, there’s both no explanation needed, or for that matter, any explanation that could really explain the appeal of one of the group’s first shorts for SNL, “Lettuce Heads,” which was merely Samberg and Will Forte chomping on heads of lettuce in between a serious discussion. A “My Dinner With Andre” for the Y generation, the short demonstrated both the audaciousness and simplicity that have come to define The Lonely Island.

Amazingly, the three guys who had never made a feature, either together or apart, were able to bring a similar blend of innocence and anarchy to “Hot Rod,” an 82-minute joyride that appears to be so much fun for the trio to make that it wouldn’t be shocking for Samberg to break out of character to yell “wheeeeeee!” He doesn’t, but he’s more than game to put on a fake mustache from time to time as the aspiring Evel Knievel-esque daredevil Rod Kimble while Taccone plays his George Michael enthusiast half-brother Kevin and Schaffer took his usual spot behind the camera to direct.

The film’s screenplay is credited to “Team America” screenwriter Pam Brady, who Schaffer considers a kindred spirit and says her script was “weird and surreal and absurd and quirky in a way that feels honest to us.”

Still, “Hot Rod” is decidedly a Lonely Island affair, complete with punchdancing (a sequence that imagines what it might’ve looked like had the boxer Sylvester Stallone played in “Rocky” been directed by Stallone circa Staying Alive”) and a two-minute riff of the phrase “cool beans” that shifts from a funny non sequiter after 30 seconds into a masterpiece of Dadaist art. The Lonely Island also features their growing company of comic partners in the film, including Samberg’s “SNL” castmates Bill Hader and Chris Parnell, with whom Samberg scored his first major success, the “Narnia” and cupcake-inspired rap “Lazy Sunday.” Samberg also cast his NYU roommate Chester Tam, whose unexpected (and wholly unwarranted) dance moves get some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Schaffer says the group has ideas about a next film, all three members of the Lonely Island are just excited to return to “Saturday Night Live,” though “Hot Rod” is bound to open up some new opportunities. One thing it won’t change, however, is the Lonely Island’s commitment to each other.

“Everything we do, we’re still learning as we’re doing it and our style is growing and becoming a little more concrete, I think,” says Samberg. “And we have each other, When one of us turns to the other two and goes, ‘is this funny?’ and they both say yes, that’s really my bottom line of whether or not I believe it’s true.”

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