Glen Wilson/Universal Studios
Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone play the hip-hop trio The Style Boyz in the film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
Glen Wilson/Universal Studios
Three kids meet in junior high, grow up skateboarding, doing graffitti and shooting stuff on home-video cameras, then eventually get jobs together on Saturday Night Live. It sounds like an adolescent fantasy, but for former SNL cast member Andy Samberg and former SNL writers Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, it actually happened.
"We were not ambitious," Schaffer tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We were just kids who liked comedy, and we liked music, and we were nerds about that stuff."
Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer work together under the name The Lonely Island. Their new film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is a comedy that satirizes pop-music documentaries, like those on Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and One Direction, which draw on tropes like the hometown visit, band breakups and the inevitable disaster in the relentless press cycle.
In the movie, which the three wrote and which Taccone and Schaffer directed, the friends play a hip-hop boy band that breaks up acrimoniously when Samberg's character decides to go solo as the pop star Conner4Real. The character's breakout success in the start of the film parallels Samberg's own success as a cast member of SNL -- except, Samberg says, The Lonely Island handled things better in real life than they do on screen.
"This [movie] is our therapy on a grand scale," Samberg jokes. "We've been saying that the characters in the movie, The Style Boyz, are like us if we weren't self-aware."
On how they've managed to stay friends over the years
Akiva Schaffer: You know what? It's all about honesty, communication and keeping it interesting in the bedroom.
Andy Samberg: You gotta do what it takes.
Jorma Taccone: And do we ever!
Samberg: We just love working together, and we love being buddies, and when we work together, we get to stay buddies. So it's sort of a cyclical, wonderful thing.
Jorma Taccone: We've all worked with other people and we love doing that, too, but there's just something special that happens when we're all together.
On the ways that the plotline of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (about one artist's breakout success) draws from real life
Schaffer: There'd be moments where Andy gets invited to the cool party and me and Jorma don't, or whatever.
Samberg: And of course I would say, "I'm not going to that lame party if my homies can't come."
Schaffer: That's not true, he definitely goes.
Samberg: Occasionally, I go.
On staying grounded, despite success at an early age
Samberg: I'm trying to think of a less annoying word than "blessing," but the blessing of getting hired with two of my best friends and having that be something that allowed us to keep each other grounded through the whole process — when it was really good and when it was really bad — to be like, "Oh right, we knew each other before all this, we know who we are before all this, and it's really fun and cool that all this stuff is happening, but it's not necessarily going to change who we are."
Schaffer: And we were 26.
Samberg: Yeah, we were a little older, so we knew who we were.
Taccone: One of the advantages of SNL, too, is that because it's happening every week no matter whether you felt like you had been successful the week before or you had failed the week before in terms of what we were putting out there, because we made a [digital] short basically every week that we were there — there was another one next week, so you couldn't really dwell on anything really. ... We were just head-down working so much that. ... You couldn't really focus on much more than that.
On how they got hired together at SNL (Samberg in the cast, Taccone and Schaffer as writers)
Samberg: We got really, really lucky. Also, we had just worked on the MTV movie awards writing for Jimmy Fallon, who hosted that year, and Jimmy and two of SNL's producers, Steve Higgins and Mike Shoemaker were all working on the movie awards together, and we had a really nice time with them. So they had seen the three of us working together, and seen us as a unit. So I think the word got back to [SNL producer] Lorne [Michaels] and to the show that if you needed three folks, that these three have a good rapport. ... We submitted a writing packet that was the three of us as writers and then it just worked out. ... I made it very clear that if we were all hired that they would probably get a much better version of me, which definitely came true.
Schaffer: And Lorne is always looking to pair cast with writers, just in general. He knows that when a cast member finds a writer and when a writer finds a cast member that they can really write for, that both of them flourish. Some classic pairings are [Adam] McKay and [Will] Ferrell, who were just put in the same office together and just figured out that they work great together. Or [Tim] Hurlihy and [Adam] Sandler, is similar.
Samberg: A lot of times it happens just by chance, like John Mulaney and Bill Hader kind of found each other.
On shooting the early digital shorts, like "Lazy Sunday"
Schaffer: We knew that we were best when we could shoot and edit something, so we started, maybe a few months in to being there, we got some stuff on the live show, but we just kind of were like in our office like, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do one of our shorts?" So we just borrowed a camera from a film school, because we didn't want to ask permission because then they could say "No," or it could come out bad and we could embarrass ourselves, so we just kind of went off on our own, made a short film, and then just submitted it, showed it to the producers.
Taccone: Bill Hader's wife, Maggie, worked at a film school and she would meet us at a subway station and hand us a camera that we could borrow. So the first couple shorts were just made with a borrowed video camera.
Samberg: It sounds very shady.
Schaffer: It kinda was!
On how they get the beats for their songs
Schaffer: We get sent hundreds of them from producers who are unknown, all the way up to producers who are pretty known. Because a lot of guys and girls out there that are producing beats, maybe they'll have made one in the hopes that it's for Drake and then Drake doesn't use it, and now it's just sitting on their hard drive. And they're like, "Listen to this one," and then we listen to it and go, "Wow, that sounds like a Drake song. What if we made some terrible jokes on top of it and just ruined it?" And I think they're happy to sell it to us because it's just sitting on their hard drive. ...
Our whole thing always has been to try to not direct parody any single person or group out there, just to try to take the general vibe or feeling on the radio, or in a certain genre of song or a trope we've noticed, and then just create a completely new, original song that kind of reminds you of the other stuff.
Samberg: We always say we're not real rappers, because sometimes people go, "Hey, it sounds really real, you guys are like real rappers." We're like, "No, we're much worse than any real rapper, but when it comes to fake rappers, or frappers, as we call it, I contest we are actually the best. We are the best fake rappers out there."
Taccone: So come at us, frappers!
On creating a "drop" for Fresh Air
The Lonely Island feat. Funkmaster Flex make a "drop" for 'Fresh Air'
Schaffer: We just thought that your show, maybe, could use a little bit of spice, maybe?
Samberg: A little Lonely Island pizazz.
Schaffer: These are not just for today, these are for other episodes. ... These are for you to use.
Taccone: They're called drops, and a lot of other radio shows have these, where they'll shout out the name of the show and who is on it. They play them randomly just to give you a station ID thing. I think it's really helpful for you to have one, just so during an interview you could play this at any time. ... That was [DJ] Funkmaster Flex doing your drop. We grew up listening to that guy and to have him on your drop is --
Schaffer: It's a big honor for you, Terry. ...
Samberg: A legend dropping for a legend.