Following the departure of first its head writer, Adam McKay, and then its star player, Will Ferrell, Saturday Night Live found itself floundering in the late '90s and early 2000s. It wasn't for lack of talent -- McKay was replaced by a future comedy star in her own right, Tina Fey, and the show never wanted for funny performers. But as ratings fluctuated and audiences gave mixed reviews, SNL seemed to lose its voice.
It's hard to speak to the show's history as a whole, but it does seem that SNL has recently been experiencing another renaissance, similar to, if not exceeding the quality of the McKay/Ferrell era. There are, of course, many sources of this creative revival: fantastic performers like Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis and great writers like Seth Meyers, Jessi Klein and Mike O'Brien.
The Lonely Island
But the biggest change seemed to be the insurgence of a new comedic sensibility: Heavy on absurdism and surrealism and informed in equal parts by the anarchistic, D.I.Y. quality of online media, as well as the polish and sheen of modern hip-hop. And this fundamental sea change in Saturday Night Live is heavily indebted to three guys from Berkeley, California called The Lonely Island.
The Key Players
Consisting of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, The Lonely Island is a sketch comedy troupe who created a web series called The 'Bu, a slew of hip-hop parody tracks and a couple unaired pilots, before they were asked to write material for Jimmy Fallon's stint hosting the 2005 MTV Music Awards.
That fall, The Lonely Island were hired onto the SNL staff -- Samberg as a performer, and Schaffer and Taccone as writers. Their impact was immediate: One of the earliest "SNL Digital Shorts" the group submitted was "Lazy Sunday," which quickly spread online and became the most popular SNL sketch since Christopher Walken demanded more cowbell.
Iran So Far
Since then, the Lonely Island has consistently been delivering the best and most popular sketches for SNL. In 2007, following several homophobic and anti-semitic remarks made by Irani President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Samberg serenaded the leader (played by Fred Armisen) in the hilarious hip-hop slow jam "Iran So Far." The song and accompanying video were riddled with hip-hop clichés, from the rooftop views of downtown Manhattan to the appearance of Adam Levine on the hook.
It was also an unexpectedly beautiful song. In fact, the same Aphex Twin sample it was built on was later used by Kanye West on his critically acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy LP. It even features one genuinely moving moment, when Samberg throws up his arms in the middle of Times Square and says, "I know you say there's no gays in Iran, but you're in New York now, baby," a tribute to acceptance made even sweeter by the rapturous applause it received from the studio audience.
I'm On A Boat
In 2009, the Lonely Island's "I'm on a Boat" similarly lampooned modern hip-hop while also representing the genre at its best. In the song, Samberg and Schaffer trade verses lampooning hip-hop's shameless boastfulness of material possessions by gloating about the somewhat less auspicious privilege of simply being on a boat. Aided by a hook from T-Pain, "I'm on a Boat" not only became a hit for SNL, but made a splash on the Billboard charts as well, becoming a platinum-selling single and leading The Lonely Island's debut record, Incredibad, into becoming the eighth best selling hip-hop record of the year.
The "SNL Digital Short" continues to be a consistent highlight for SNL, and The Lonely Island is still going strong in the world of parody hip-hop with their sophomore record, Turtleneck & Chain, which features guests ranging from Beck to Snoop Dogg. As the most visible member of the group, Samberg seems destined to launch a successful career in film or television following his tenure at SNL. For now, at least, he remains a dependably unpredictable presence in the repertory players, and a comedic voice that lends an excitingly unstable air to SNL.