BERKELEY, Calif.—You may know them as the digital comedy pioneers who turned Natalie Portman into a potty-mouthed rapper and Justin Timberlake into an early-‘90s R&B cheese ball.
But the first collaboration among the multihyphenated team of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone did not involve A-list celebs and was not seen by millions on “Saturday Night Live.”
Most likely, the only audience was their parents.
Back when they were scrawny freshmen at Berkeley High School, the boys made a lip-sync video to rapper Spice 1’s “187 Proof.” Schaffer and Taccone shot it in Schaffer’s living room, hanging upside down. They then flipped the image so they looked right-side up with their hair hanging upward.
“It was pretty innovative,” says Taccone, devouring a salsa-topped chip during a recent interview at Juan’s Place in Berkeley, a favorite old haunt.
Fifteen years later, the trio is known for just that—innovative sketches that are making a splash online and on TV. Now known as the Lonely Island or the Dudes, the comedic force has blown much-needed life into “Saturday Night Live” with more than 30 pop-culture spoofs, such as “Lazy Sunday,” starring Samberg and Chris Parnell. The Justin Timberlake short, which parodied the male anatomy as the ultimate holiday present, is the all-time No. 4 video on YouTube. It has been viewed more than 20 million times and recently garnered an Emmy nomination.
As is usually the case, the guys were together when they heard the news.
“It was seriously an amazing moment,” Taccone says, sandwiched between Samberg and Schaffer at a table in the Mexican restaurant. The energy among them is charged, brotherly. All three talk at once. They laugh often, argue a tad and critique one another’s answers to questions like they’re engaged in skit-writing rather than an interview.
On Friday, the trio’s first feature film hits theaters nationwide. Produced by Will Ferrell and Lorne Michaels, “Hot Rod” stars Samberg, 28, as Rod Kimble, a self-proclaimed stuntman out to raise funds for an operation to save his ailing and acerbic father, played by Ian McShane. Taccone, 30, plays Samberg’s wide-eyed little brother. Sissy Spacek plays mom. Schaffer, 29, directs.
How did they do it, you ask? How did they get from a trio of Gordo burrito-devouring middle schoolers—they’ve been friends since junior high—to Internet-ruling actor-writer-directors giving notes to “SNL” hosts such as Steve Martin?
“It’s not something we planned, at least not in high school,” Taccone says. Adds Samberg: “They (“SNL”) knew before any of us showed up that we were a threesome.” By then, he explains, those in the comedy world were familiar with their online shorts. And the trio had already formed friendships with Will Forte and other regulars.
After high school, Samberg and Schaffer headed to UC Santa Cruz, where they studied film. Taccone, son of Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, went to UCLA for theater. They kept in touch. Taccone spent summers acting in Schaffer’s student films while Samberg transferred to NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts.
In 2000, degrees in hand, they reconvened in Berkeley with an official meeting at Taccone’s parents’ house. Suits, Samberg jokes, were not required.
“We compared the films we were making and noticed that they were surprisingly similar in our desire to make people laugh,” Taccone says.
Just like that, the Dudes were born.
They considered planting roots in Berkeley and living at one of their parents’ houses, but ultimately decided to do it up Los Angeles-style, with an apartment on traffic-heavy Olympic Boulevard. They dubbed the apartment the Lonely Island, inspired by Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Their creative process is simple. Everyone has a specialty, be it music or directing, but ultimately, they can all act and write.
“When you’re in an apartment making a movie, everyone better know how to do everything,” Samberg says.
Still, the gigs were slim. Samberg and Taccone worked industry assistant jobs including the TV show “Spin City” and brought home leftover sushi from the lot. Meanwhile, Schaffer stayed home editing their work. Eventually they launched TheLonelyIsland.com.
The Web site is home to music video spoofs; “The O.C.” pastiche; “The `Bu,” starring “friend-of-a- friend” Sarah Chalke (“Scrubs”), which the trio originally made for Channel101.com; and “Awesometown,” a sketch comedy pilot they created for Fox.
“Once we decided that we were going to be self-motivated and stay together, that’s when everything opened up,” Samberg says.
Success was slow yet steady. But it wasn’t easy. At one point, Samberg’s father suggested he go back to school to become a film professor. Schaffer’s mother was worried, too.
“I had to field calls from my mom saying, “Get a job at J. Crew even if it’s just for the holiday season,”” says Schaffer, imitating his mother’s accent.
But traffic on the site was growing, and a writing stint on the 2005 MTV Movie Awards with host Jimmy Fallon, a Lonely Island fan, sealed their future. Fallon helped them land auditions at “SNL” in New York. Eventually, Schaffer and Taccone earned spots on the “SNL” writing team. And after two auditions, Samberg was invited to join the cast.
Like everything else, the trio wrote Samberg’s audition together.
“I just went in and goofed around,” Samberg recalls. He came off as charming and relaxed, which they liked. But he was so nervous he threw up before the audition, he admits.
Now, as Samberg stars in his first feature film and is currently filming another, “Space Chimps,” due out next year, he is able to reflect on the positive side of struggle.
“We were still having an amazing time and living cheap and getting drunk and making comedy,” he says. “We were taking advantage of the freedom of being broke and having no ties or responsibilities.”
Taccone concurs. Everything’s easier as a team.
“It really did help that I had two guys that I really respected who were willing to do the same thing,” he says. “It never felt like I was making the wrong decision because we were all doing it.”
SALUTE THESE SHORTS
You know about “Lazy Sunday” and the Justin Timberlake parody, but here are some other digital shorts written by Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. Find them at LonelyIsland.com or YouTube.com:
“Business Meeting”: Rainn Wilson and Arcade Fire star in this short about a company cutting costs. It opened an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Directed by Taccone.
“MacGruber”: Also directed by Taccone is this MacGyver spoof starring “SNL” host Jeremy Piven.
“The Natalie Portman Rap”: Good girl Portman raps about her hard-core gangsta persona in this video spoof also starring Samberg. Directed by Schaffer.
“The `Bu”: A teen drama series and “The O.C.” spoof about a misunderstood teen ninja (Taccone) and his girlfriend (Sarah Chalke) living the Malibu life. It became one of the longest running prime-time shows on Channel101.com.
“White Power”: An 18-minute short following all three Islanders as they become addicted to teeth whitening. Also starring friend and Lonely Island regular Chester Tam.
“Awesometown”: A sketch comedy pilot the guys wrote for Fox and later MTV and Comedy Central. All three networks passed, but it continues to draw traffic to their site with segments including Jack Black and the guys’ moms.