Salute Your Shorts: The Lonely Island
Salute Your Shorts is
a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any
other short form visual media that generally get ignored.
By the time The Lonely Island was finally discovered by the masses with its viraltastic Chris Parnell collaboration “Lazy Sunday,” the group had already been hard at work for a (somewhat indeterminate) number of years. For those few in the know, the group’s ascension seemed like a bit of validation for a new brand of comedy, not just because of the original voice behind the material but also because of how it was made and distributed. Yes, at its heart, The Lonely Island is a sketch group, but it’s a group as reliant on editing and mise-en-scene for its laughs as it is cleverness. The group’s rise to fame through short films distributed for free online also points to a new kind of filmmaking; these are some of the first auteurs of the Internet generation.
The above video is one of the group’s early shorts, originally part of their TV pilot Awesometown. The pilot originally consisted of live capering in front of a studio audience interspersed with various comedic short films. Unfortunately, the capering wasn’t all that great. In fact, it was kind of like a entire show of the always-awkward SNL opening monologues. Except there were three people and no one knew who any of them were. Not to mention television capering is never that entertaining in the first place unless you’re a cartoon animal of some sort (or the human equivalent, Conan O’Brien). It’s not so surprising that first Fox, then MTV, passed on the show, though it is disappointing not to have a show on the air with a cowboy snapping his whip during its intro.
But regardless of the networks' opinions of Awesometown, the videos in it were good. Very, very good. There’s never been much truly great comedy music in the world, but in even shorter supply is good comedy music videos. "Weird Al" Yankovic's stuff is fine for what it is, and it is mostly replacing normal lyrics with ones about food, but after one graduates from middle school, one loses a lot of that innate food-based song hilarity appreciation. Unlike Yankovic’s stuff, TLI’s music videos weren’t direct take-offs of anything; they’re entirely new material that incorporates surprisingly accurate style-parodies that match the music. They also only think food is innately hilarious approximately 30% of the time.
What also proved important is that TLI's videos had practically no budget at all, yet still manage to look pretty good. There’s always the feeling that if you and a few friends put in a solid weekend you could come up with something that looks like theirs, but it's simply not that easy. What began as a clear limitation became a stylistic choice. Most film directors grow out of their amateurish roots. Scorsese’s films today don’t look much like Boxcar Bertha, but if anything, TLI's “Space Olympics” looks significantly lousier than their stuff without NBC funding. It also looks significantly lousier than most home videos, but hopefully that’s the point. Even their best-looking videos, such as the recent one for “On a Boat," maintain these rudimentary moments, like when one of the guys rides a blow-up dolphin toy.
TLI's output isn't limited to music videos and style parodies, though that's obviously what they're best known for. What's perhaps more consistent throughout their works is an abstract weirdness and love for non-sequiturs that's clearly influenced by their SNL step-father Will Ferrell. This has led to some inspired moments, such as the above short, "Glirk." Or sometimes their films have just been weird and confusing without being particularly funny. But at their best, they encompass all of the above qualities and it somehow still works.
Again, they usually make a point to show production values, such as in the Laser Cats series where the production is the primary joke. Oddly enough, this self-reflexive aspect of filmmaking is one of their most prevalent topics. Their filmmakers and actors are incompetent, from third wall-breaking antagonism in “The ‘Bu” to “MacGruber”’s world of failed heroism. The makers of TLI’s videos are always suspect, and some of their absolute funniest videos, such as the last episode of “The ‘Bu” and the digital short “Daiquiri Girl,” are a result of this. This directly relates to the trio's music, where a tension exists between parodying formulas and types and simply doing it themselves; they’re both creators of lo-fi video comedy shorts and critics of what it can entail.
As with every artist or group of artists, there are also some things that don’t quite fit with anything else they’ve done (see above). But part of why The Lonely Island remains interesting is because a pretty large amount of their oeuvre is made up of one-shot ideas that seem so different. It’s not like they’ll be making serious films anytime soon, but you get the feeling that every retread they create will be followed by something completely and rewardingly unexpected.