The Lonely Island are still geniuses, but that’s all we can tell you

The comedy trio’s show at Pier 17 over the weekend was an excellent showcase for their delightfully bizarre new project and a reminder of how funny their early work remains. Just don’t ask us for the details.

June 26, 2019
The Lonely Island are still geniuses, but that’s all we can tell you Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images  

The Lonely Island are geniuses. This wasn't always accepted as fact. For much of the past decade — roughly beginning with Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell's proto-meme SNL digital short "Lazy Sunday" and continuing with a string of albums in which Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer crafted joke-laden songs that engaged with real-deal hip-hop styles — the comedy trio have faced skepticism from music nerd types. The Lonely Island, the nerds said, were disingenuously co-opting genres. But that idea ignored the nucleus of the Lonely Island's mission statement — to make you laugh, with devil-in-the-details lyrical phrasing paired with hooks that are, more often than not, impossibly catchy.

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Their 2016 mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping flopped hard at the box office, as nearly every comedy film in the last few years has. But the second life it's rightfully earned since — that of a comedy classic that doubles as a send-up of the pop music machine at large — has earned them a level of critical goodwill they previously lacked. (Of course, the fact that Popstar's killer soundtrack also ventured beyond rap qua rap and more towards pop music at large helped, both in showing their surprising versatility and through shaking off any nascent claims of cultural appropriation that otherwise would've nipped at their heels.)

The Lonely Island's latest project, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience, was released last month through the decidedly more comedy-friendly Netflix, and it's their most specifically and delightfully bizarre project yet. The trio have been referring to it as a "visual poem" imagining an alternate universe in which a 1980s-set Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco made a 'roided-out rap album. But it's essentially the Lonely Island's Lemonade — not so much a parody of Beyoncé's paradigm-changing project but, simply, what you'd get if the Lonely Island gave their stupendously silly and gut-busting approach the Lemonade treatment. It shouldn't work due to the WTF-ness of the concept alone, and yet it's just as ridiculously funny as anything else they've done up to this point.

Combined with Popstar's growing cult status, the Lonely Island have certainly earned themselves a victory lap or two — and that's essentially what their ongoing North American tour represents. It's the first time they've taken their thing to a big-stage setting, from Bonnaroo to Manhattan's Pier 17 this past Friday. The crowd was filled with casual SNL viewers and obvious diehards alike; there were plenty of official and handmade Style Boyz T-shirt wearers in the audience, and some had even taken to crafting their own Bash Brothers merch (for the record, they are selling BB ballcaps on tour, too). Surprise guest and stand-up comedian Conner O'Malley might have (intentionally) bombed hard with the crowd with jokes about necrophilia and brutally murdering the "Can you hear me now?" guy, but it did little to dissuade the overall enthusiasm running through the sold-out crowd's collective funnybone.

And that enthusiasm was well-warranted: it's astounding how well the Lonely Island's small-to-midsize-screen shtick translates to a concert setting. It felt like watching a real pop concert spectacle — that is, if your typical pop concert experience featured an introduction from Seth Meyers. Material from Popstar and Bash Brothers was well-represented, as was the entirety of the Lonely Island's surprisingly deep catalogue; some of the songs featured contemporary updates from some of the hottest hip-hop songs of the last year or so, but even without the presence of current-day familiarity, much of their material still feels refreshingly current. (What is "On the Ground" if not a critique on the perils of embracing an overt wokeness at all costs?)

If my description of the Lonely Island's performance sounds infuriatingly vague, that's kind of what they want. Before the performance, there was a disclaimer asking audience members not to share audio, video, or general information about the bits and bobbles that make up their set so as not to "spoil" the experience for future concertgoers, and their publicist made a similar request prior to the writing of this review. On a level, I understand the desire for mass reticence; these shows have been largely well-attended, but the attention economy is more competitive than ever, and the notion of an experience that's meant to be enjoyed as mass spectacle being consumed through Instagram snippets and pithy Tweets is certainly a concern for those responsible for crafting said mass spectacle.

But hand wringing about spoiler culture also seems antithetical to the Lonely Island's "thing" — a comedic approach that relies on repetitiveness in that the third, fourth, or fifth time they repeat a bit, it only becomes funnier even if they haven't changed a single element about the bit itself throughout the process. Sometimes they employ this approach through escalation, as on "Jack Sparrow," in which every heaven-sent chorus sung by Michael Bolton becomes more knowingly ridiculous in its muddled pop-cultural references; at Pier 17, they applied it to a running and location-specific gag that had me and many others in tears by the fifth or sixth time they revisited it. Want to know what it was? Guess you're going to have to catch them for yourself — and it's worth doing so, too.

The Lonely Island are still geniuses, but that’s all we can tell you