Andy Samberg was sitting in a Sunset Strip hotel restaurant on a recent afternoon, talking about his latest comedy, when he suddenly paused. His ears pricked up as he noticed that the piped-in background music that had been playing for the past hour had been replaced by a live guitarist strumming gentle Brazilian music.
“Oooh, it’s getting slightly romantic,” Samberg said with a crooked smile. “It feels like the scene in a ‘Mission: Impossible’ where Tom Cruise sees the super hot girl who’s also his enemy.”
Samberg, 37, is not a musician himself – at least not in the traditional, play-an-actual-instrument sense. But the comedic actor and former “Saturday Night Live” star has a particular ability to take a kernel of music and twist it toward something funny. As one-third of the comedy group the Lonely Island, Samberg has spent more than a decade channeling that ability into viral videos for absurdist songs like “I’m On a Boat,” “Jack Sparrow” and others with titles too profane to be quoted here. (Ask your kids what’s in the “box.”)
Since breaking through with a series of much-loved “SNL” digital shorts, the trio of Samberg and fellow “SNL” vets Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone has made three albums, selling more than 800,000 copies, and drawn 1.8 billion views on their YouTube channel. Now the Lonely Island is bringing its brand of ridiculous faux pop to the big screen with “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” opening Friday.
A “This Is Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary for a generation reared on auto-tuned pop hits and social media oversharing, “Popstar” stars Samberg as a dimwitted singing sensation named Connor Friel, aka Connor4Real, formerly one-third of a hip-hop group called the Style Boyz. Sent into a tailspin when his second solo album, “Connquest,” flops badly, Connor is forced to contemplate a reunion with his estranged one-time best friends and bandmates (played by Taccone and Schaffer).
Gleefully silly and often surrealistic, “Popstar,” which is sprinkled with cameos from the likes of Usher, Carrie Underwood, Nas and Mariah Carey, takes aim at the more fatuous aspects of modern pop stardom: the sycophantic entourages, the relentless commercialism. (At one point, Connor4Real signs a deal to have his music uploaded into a line of refrigerators, washer-dryers and other appliances.) But Samberg insists it’s all done out of genuine affection, not scorn.
“People are painting it as a spoof or that we’re sticking it to people, but for us, we just love living in this space and telling jokes,” said Samberg, who currently stars on the Fox comedy series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” “We’ve never been like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get so-and-so.’ ” And yes, that includes Justin Bieber, to whom Connor4Real bears at least some resemblance. “We did two digital shorts with him,” Samberg said. “He’s fully down. We have nothing but love for him.”
On another level, “Popstar,” which is produced by Judd Apatow, plays as a kind of bizarro, cautionary-tale version of the Lonely Island’s own story, with Samberg as the attention-grabbing star who is thrust into the spotlight, leaving Taccone and Schaffer off to the side.
“It’s basically a version of us if we had no self-awareness and had made bad decisions,” said Schaffer, 38, who co-directed the movie with Taccone. “The reality of us on a red carpet is that they want photos of Andy by himself as well. And if Andy believed in that and thought he was worth more than us, then we would have a problem. It was very easy for us to see a different route things could have taken in life, so this is kind of playing with that.”
Arriving a little over a decade after the Lonely Island’s video “Lazy Sunday” debuted on “SNL” in 2005 and went on to shatter YouTube records, “Popstar” actually traces its roots back even further. Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer first met in junior high school in Berkeley and have been contemplating a movie like “Popstar” since their pre-“SNL” days, when they would sit around the modest L.A. apartment they shared (dubbed the Lonely Island) making joke rap songs for their own amusement as much as anything else.
“We always daydreamed about making a movie with songs in it,” said Samberg, who has been married to singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom since 2013. “Then once the digital shorts went well, it came up more: Should we try to do a musical?”
Exactly what a Lonely Island film would be was far from clear at first, though. It’s one thing to make a three-minute video in which Michael Bolton croons passionately about his love of Capt. Jack Sparrow. Finding a way to piece those kinds of nuggets of musical ridiculousness into one coherent movie is something else entirely.
“People would pitch us their ideas but we don’t really have a musical theater background,” Samberg said. “We wouldn’t know how to do ‘Dreamgirls’ or, like, a comedy ‘Frozen.’ We were searching for the format that would match up with us doing what we do.”
Eventually they found the ideal fodder for parody in glossy popumentaries like “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Katy Perry: Part of Me.” “We pulled little tidbits from all of them,” Samberg said.
While still working at “SNL,” the three teamed up one previous movie together, 2007’s “Hot Rod,” with Schaffer directing and Samberg starring as an amateur stuntman. But the movie – which had originally been conceived as a vehicle for Will Ferrell – proved a dud at the box office, grossing less than $14 million.
“It was scary just because a movie takes so much time and energy,” said Samberg. “I will say, we were not expecting it to do great. But it was a magical experience making it, and kids come up to us a lot talking about how much they love ‘Hot Rod.’ ”
With “Popstar,” the Lonely Island – which is releasing a soundtrack album in conjunction with the film, including bonus songs – is hoping that same kind of audience embraces the movie. Just a little sooner this time would be nice.
“That’s our main goal,” said Taccone, 39. “We’re really proud of what we made. But you just want those people you know are going to love it two years from now to somehow show up that weekend instead of going to see the eight other superhero movies or whatever.”
As the guy whose face is on the movie’s poster, Samberg is on his own kind of lonely island of pressure within the trio. While he has won a Golden Globe for his work on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and turned in a well-received performance in the 2012 indie romantic dramedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” “Popstar” marks his first time anchoring a major studio comedy since leaving “Saturday Night Live” four years ago.
“The plus and the minus of being the most famous one is that, if people love it, then they love him the most – and if they don’t like stuff, he gets the most dislike,” said Schaffer. “It’s the same with the cast of anything.”
Asked if he was personally stressing about the stakes, Samberg paused a moment. “I’m trying not to give it too much power,” he said. “It’s out of my hands. I feel like people will really like it, so I hope they go see it. But as far as everything else, I’ll just keep making comedy no matter what. That’s all I did before this movie, so that’s all I’ll do after it.”