Lonely Island is the music trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Their latest project is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. They joined Terry Gross on Fresh Air to promote the new movie. The interview fascinated me. Amanda Palmer reminded us that we are all creating something, we are all artist, and the Lonely Island trio talks about how to make good art. Here are 3 things I learned from Lonely Island.
1/ Constraints help. “Sometimes lightening strikes and inspires you. In the movie, he (Connor) puts out a new record. It flops, and people think it’s kind of an offensive record and don’t think it’s good. That gave us – in the writing process – a lot of freedom to come up with songs that we thought ‘let’s make the silliest version of a song that fails’ that gives you so much creative license to make the silliest song you can think of because it’s not supposed to be ‘good.’”
A lot of artists point out that creation doesn’t come ex nihilo. Part of How to be a Genius involves constraints; from Da Vinci (because of his station at birth) to Michelangelo (squirming as he painted). Austin Kleon’s work was limited to newspapers. Maria Popova was limited to classic books.
Constraints help in other domains too. Jason Fried wrote, “fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek.” Ryan Holiday addressed marketing, “Because these companies didn’t have access to the ‘luxuries’ of an ad budget or the burden of proper training, they were able to be creative enough to broaden the definition of marketing to immense advantage.” Sophia Amoruso wrote how constraints helped her:
“When people write about Nasty Gal, the articles almost always note how I built the company with no debt, because that’s a pretty unusual feat in the business world. And yes, once I finally got a job and started working for my money, I was extremely responsible with it. But what these stories usually leave out is that it wasn’t by choice that I built the company debt-free. It simply wasn’t an option, because no one would even give me a credit card, never mind a business loan. This was frustrating; however, it was also a blessing in disguise.”
From ancient times to modern, from art to business, being constrained helps.
2/Comedy = Comprehension. “The idea behind it (the song Equal Rights) is talking about how people will sometimes piggyback a social cause to leverage goodwill. In this case, Connor is trying to piggyback the gay marriage cause and get behind it, but he has trouble wrapping his head around what he really is saying and maybe is not as behind it as he claims to be.”
This segment of the interview was an excellent explanation of what it means to understand something deeply enough to make fun of it. The Lonely Island trio needed to understand how people felt about gay marriage, what was taboo and what wasn’t, what they could say about it and what they couldn’t. Then, they had to consider all those questions from the main character’s point of view.
Jason Zweig said “the ability to define a term in such a way to be cynical or funny is a measure of your own skepticism.” Garry Shandling said, “the struggle in the writing room, is getting people not to write just words.” When B.J. Novak handed Steve Carrell a script, Carrell told him “these are not just jokes.” Novak didn’t get it at first. Later he did.
To be good at anything requires a deep understanding, comedy is one demonstration of this. If something is funny, it’s because it exposes something more.
3/Too busy for an existential crisis. “One of the advantages of Saturday Night Live (SNL) is that because it’s happening every week, no matter whether you felt like you had been successful the week before or failed the week before…there was another one the next week. You couldn’t really dwell on anything. There were moments of excitement, but we were just head down, working so much that we didn’t really focus on anything more than that.”
People who go on podcasts believe work is a good thing to get lost in. Casey Neistat called it “the religion of work. Rich Roll said “the only time that I’ve actually ever accomplished anything noteworthy was when I allowed myself to be out of balance.” To which Gary Vaynerchuk added, “I’m not interesting in the politically correct version of everything right now. I’m not interested in having a conversation around how to raise my kids. I’m not interested you imposing your will on me on how I meditate.”
Jason Fried said that he finds his mind in two modes; default and focus. In his default mode, he said “the mind is wandering and the mind tends to wander towards worry.” That’s not good, said Fried.
Freud said the secret to a happy life was “love and work.” Lena Dunham told Judd Apatow “I’d always wanted to be a person who worked so much that I wasn’t even available to go to dinner.” Percy Fawcett wrote:
“One learns little from a smooth life, but I do not like roping others into the difficulties which have dogged me so persistently . . . It is not that I want luxuries. I care little about such things—but I hate inactivity.”
Work can be a philosophy, a religion, an attitude.
Finally, I couldn’t catch in the interview which of the guys said what, sorry for the lack of attribution in this post.