The Lonely Island talks stepping onto the big screen with ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
Glen-Wilson/Universal-Studios/Courtesy

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It’s a movie about The Lonely Island, but it’s not. It’s a movie about Justin Bieber, but it’s also not.

Best known for its leadership at Saturday Night Live’s Digital Shorts division, bringing the public viral classics such as “Dick in a Box,” “I’m on a Boat” and “I Just Had Sex,” the Lonely Island released its film “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” on June 3.

“Popstar,” co-produced by comedy veteran Judd Apatow, is a more involved work for The Lonely Island than its previous feature film foray “Hot Rod.”

A mockumentary on the pop industry and stardom, the film is about the second album and upcoming tour of pop artist Conner4Real (Andy Samberg). After he splits from his famous boy band Style Boyz because of an estrangement with lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), Conner prepares for his second album’s tour with his best friend from Style Boyz, now DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone). But through a series of comedic mishaps, Conner finds himself lonelier than ever.

Last week, The Daily Californian had the opportunity to interview the Lonely Island on its mockumentary. After a brief cameo at the screening the night before, the trio seemed more at ease in a room of fewer people. Schaffer peeked in first with a twinkle in his eye and an assuring smile, soon followed by Samberg and Taccone. After formal introductions, the three slipped into something more familiar: their comedic selves. They were the Lonely Island, but they were also just three friends cracking jokes about the level of organization at the table.

Looking at the conference speaker set, Taccone mischievously asked, “And who’s our fourth interviewer?” Samberg gladly chimed in, “Hello? We’re not able to hear you, you’ll have to speak up.” And just like that they settled into discussing their new venture.

After a career of working on short sketches packed with comedy from start to finish, for the Lonely Island, “Popstar” was a very different project, filmed in 35 days and taking seven and a half months to edit. Unlike the comedic arc of skits, where humor fills every moment, a feature length film allowed the group to include more character development. Samberg noted, “(Character development) is really helpful for comedy because when the audience keys into the characters and what they’re thinking, it allows them to get into the jokes.”

Compared to their SNL skits, well-known for egregiously random moments and consistent vulgarity, the humor established in “Popstar” is more tied to the audience’s connection to the characters, from Lawrence’s woodworking to Conner’s knack for well-intentioned but often poorly executed publicity stunts.

While Schaffer silently observed and nodded in agreement, Taccone expanded on another bonus of working with a feature film. “You have more opportunity to sort of get rolling laughs that go from one scene to the next,” he explained. “You know you’re doing your job correctly if you can kind of get a laugh that builds upon itself.”

Between questions, the group slowly transitioned from comedy trio the Lonely Island to a group of great friends passionately discussing their love for comedy and the inspirations that excite them.

With a hint of nostalgia, Samberg revealed, “The best feeling that we can have as people who make comedy is when people tell us, ‘Me and my friends quote such-and-such song like all the time.’ Or like, ‘We quote “Hot Rod” all the time,’ or whatever sketch because that was us and that is still us when we watch comedy we love.”

Looking down and smiling, he continued, “We were those dudes that would memorize stuff and quote ‘In Living Color’ and ‘Billy Madison’ to each other, or ‘Wet Hot American Summer.’”  

Taccone jokingly added, “And then occasionally when we’re messing with each other we’ll sarcastically say lines from our songs back to each other. Like, ‘I’m on a boat, right?’”

The three knowingly smiled at each other, perhaps knowing that their appreciation for quotable content has reached their audiences through their own quotable content. Songs such as “I Just Had Sex,” “Jizz in My Pants” and even the “Popstar” character Conner4Real’s “catchphrase verse” reflect the notoriety the Lonely Island has for almost nonsensical and vulgar yet somehow applicable quotes.

As the banter continued, Samberg noted how many people are interpreting the film to be about Justin Bieber despite the intentions of the film. “We were more like, ‘Let’s do a movie about pop music and pop culture that we can do comedy songs for,’” he explained. “And then, we have a few direct references to Bieber.”

In fact, the film has more than 25 celebrity cameos, not just direct references to Justin Bieber.

Samberg lit up, recalling how they got Seal to be in the film. “Kiv (Akiva) wrote that scene. We had talked about wanting to do sort of a crazy, like, public proposal scene and Kiv jotted that down. And I was like, ‘Oh, so Seal is in it?’ And then it had to be him.”

A conversation in the recording studio later, Seal was on board.

While most celebrity cameos were either secured through strong personal connections, such as Bill Hader from SNL or Justin Timberlake from previous works, other cameos had to be arranged more strategically. The biggest surprise to the trio was getting Ringo Starr in the film. From Ringo Starr to DJ Khaled and Mariah Carey, the variety of cameos reflects how successfully their charm worked and how willing celebrities were to play around with their image through satire.

Because the movie was set in a pop culture context, the trio decided not to create the mockumentary featuring their persona, The Lonely Island. “It’s a more traditional movie structure, but we’re also making a movie as friends about friendship, and our story still has a happy ending. We kind of wanted to share that happiness in our lives and incorporate it into the story,” Samberg revealed, sharing warm knowing glances with Schaffer and Taccone.

Throughout the interview, the resemblance between the actors and their respective characters in the film became more visible. Like the charismatic “Conner4Real,” Samberg animatedly responded to many of the questions. Taccone’s added humor and insights matched with the insightful Owen, while Schaffer’s script input matched the lyricist Lawrence. The trio is clearly more than just colleagues: Just like the boy band friends they play in “Popstar,” they are first and foremost a group of buddies having fun creating the type of content they love.

Contact Gautami Sharma at [email protected].