It’s just weeks before the release of their third record, The Wack Album, and the three men of the Lonely Island are looking back on what they’ve learned from their success as a viral video phenomenon. “How to fake-rap about your fake dick,” says Akiva Schaffer.
“In more ways than anyone dreamed possible,” Andy Samberg adds.
“How to make your parents proud,” Jorma Taccone suggests. “Twenty percent of the time.”
Another might be: how to build massive popularity and sustained longevity in a medium where most phenoms last three minutes or less. The trio were Saturday Night Live fixtures for years; they’ve won an Emmy; racked up more than a billion views for their exuberantly deadpan videos; collaborated with Justin Timberlake (“Dick in a Box”), Akon (“I Just Had Sex”) and T-Pain (“I’m on a Boat”); and sold nearly a million albums.
Today, they want to hit the Universal Studios theme park. The place has sentimental value – back in 2005, all three worked on the writing staff of the MTV Movie Awards, hosted by Jimmy Fallon. The show’s offices were in a Universal building adjacent to the park (which they sneaked into on one occasion to eat fried chicken and drink beer). The MTV gig got them hired later that year at SNL (Samberg as a performer, Taccone and Schaffer as writers).
“I’m a big Michael Bay fan,” Samberg says, heading toward the Transformers ride, which they’ve been looking forward to with an enthusiasm even their teenage fans might find odd. “Everyone thinks I’m kidding, but I’ve been waiting my whole life to see a giant robot transform.”
In fact, the Lonely Island guys are almost as obsessed with action movies as they are with hip-hop – the primary inspiration for their comedy. “If aliens came down and listened to our first album versus the third, they’d be like, ‘We get the idea,'” Samberg says.
Schaffer stops him short: “They probably wouldn’t have time for all three. Are they trying to take in all of Earth’s knowledge? There’s Shakespeare. And math.”
“If aliens came in peace and listened to our album,” Samberg insists, “they probably would then wage war.”
They rattle off this banter with the ease of guys who’ve been hanging out since childhood. Taccone, 36, and Schaffer, 35, first became friends in a junior-high Spanish class; Samberg, 34, one grade below, hooked up with them a few years later. “We do have other friends,” Schaffer insists.
“Our other friends are just us in wigs,” Samberg says. “It’s like any long-term relationship.”
The trio’s egalitarian approach to songwriting has been the same since they were calling themselves Incredibad in the early ’00s: Put something down on tape and see if it’s funny. “We’re not beholden to anyone else’s input,” Taccone says. “We’re just trying to make each other laugh.”
The Lonely Island’s finest moments are the work of loving fans, not snide parodists. At SNL, they had access to each week’s host and musical guest. To get songs for their albums now, they need to persuade people to carve out time and come into the studio (a steady supply of backing tracks from top-flight producers such as Needlz and JMike helps). When they cut a demo, Samberg does a guide vocal that’s an impression of the person they hope will sing or rap on it. Most artists are amused; Adam Levine was not. “So that’s what you think I sound like?” he demanded.
“No, that’s the best I could do,” Samberg assured him.
Levine and Kendrick Lamar appear on the caution-urging “YOLO,” Timberlake and Lady Gaga show up as sexual-etiquette advisers on “3-Way (The Golden Rule),” and in the video for “Spring Break Anthem,” James Franco, Ed Norton and Zach Galifianakis play the group’s partners in gay marriage. Samberg says, “It all feels a little like the Make-a-Wish Foundation.”
In addition to the Lonely Island, Taccone directed the MacGruber movie and played the artist Booth Jonathan on Girls, and Schaffer directed last year’s The Watch. Samberg’s next project is starring in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a cop comedy from the creators of Parks and Recreation airing this fall on Fox; he’s also getting married to musician Joanna Newsom.
The preferred term for leaving Saturday Night Live for bigger stardom is “graduating.” But Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone have reversed that trajectory: Although they’re all working steadily, they’re most successful together, making videos that tap into their adolescent ids. After college and before SNL, they shared an apartment (which they nicknamed “the Lonely Island”). Now they have adult relationships, and Schaffer has two young children, not exactly fodder for new L.I. songs – “What 12-year-old kid won’t relate to the feeling of ‘Oh, you’re married with kids, and now the only thing you have left to look forward to is your grave?'” he says.
The trio trek across the park, Samberg pausing for a few photos with fans, and join the Transformers line. “This has me teetering between pure joy and a nervous breakdown,” Samberg says quietly.
“That’s my whole life,” says Taccone.
The ride proves to be an extended 3D chase. “That changed my life,” Samberg says afterward with a broad grin. When your junior-high obsession becomes your job, the search for stupid fun gets harder and harder. “I miss goofing off,” says Samberg. “I wish there was more goofing off.”
This story is from the June 20th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.