Music is one big joke to the Lonely Island

Confucius never listened to early '90s R&B group Color Me Badd. But even if he had, he never would've interpreted "The Golden Rule" like the Lonely Island, the trio of "Saturday Night Live" writers-rappers whose "3-Way," featured as a digital short during Saturday's season finale, warped an ancient proverb into an absurdist treatise on the sexual politics of a male-dominated ménage à trois.

Starring Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Lonely Island's Andy Samberg and a wardrobe ostensibly donated from a Cross Colours-clad boy band of the early '90s, "3-Way" is the latest viral video smash from the Lonely Island, whose sophomore album, "Turtleneck & Chain," was released May 10. In addition to Samberg, the group features Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. The release debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, but that wasn't a huge surprise, though; its predecessor, "Incredibad," earned the Lonely Island a 2009 Grammy nomination in the best rap/sung collaboration for the T-Pain-aided "I'm on a Boat." Alas, Jay-Z won the award.

"They made the right decision. We're comedians, not professional rappers," said Taccone, who has produced many of the group's tracks, including the 2005 breakout viral smash "Lazy Sunday." "We all grew up loving hip-hop and dancehall, but it was never about being rappers or making fun of rap. We wanted to tell jokes in a musical way and can't play instruments or sing."

The self-effacing Lonely Islanders steadfastly downplay their music abilities, preferring to divert the attention to their comedy — a broad sweep from the gross ("…in My Pants"), to the tangentially political ("Iran So Far" featuring Adam Levine of Maroon 5) to even parody dance songs (the Nicki Minaj and John Waters-aided "The Creep").

Since rap's earliest days, comedians have attempted to mine the genre for laughs, including "SNL" alumni Chevy Chase ("Rapper's Plight") and Joe Piscopo ("The Honeymooners Rap") and hound-faced hero Rodney Dangerfield ("Rappin' Rodney"). Weird Al Yankovic, of course, deservedly remains the gold standard, despite inspiring a legion of suburban imitators substituting goofiness for punch lines.

"Our mandate's always been that it isn't funny because we're white guys rapping, it's funny because we're telling jokes," said Samberg, who traces his love of rap back to N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," Too Short's "Life Is … Too Short," and "Licensed to Ill" by the Beastie Boys.

Whether considered a novelty, their SoundScan numbers are no joke. Their Universal Republic debut, "Incredibad," sold nearly 250,000 units in 2009, making it the year's eighth bestselling rap record (between Drake and Flo Rida). Since its December release, "I Just Had Sex," the first single off "Turtleneck & Chain," has racked up almost 83 million YouTube views. And in its first week of release, the album sold an impressive 68,000 units.

Most striking is the way the crew members have balanced broad mainstream appeal with a dizzying array of esoteric rap references. They wrote a hilariously profane rap for Natalie Portman that interpolated Eazy E, early Sir Mix-a-Lot and largely forgotten '90s rapper Nine. Even more impressive was "Santana DVX," which cast rapper E-40 as Carlos Santana touting his line of sparkling wine over an infectious beat from underground hero J-Zone.

"People sometimes pigeonhole them as being goofy, but they're sharper than a lot of the serious guys I've worked with. If you listen closely, you can pick up all sorts of subtleties," said J-Zone, whose 2002 "Pimps Don't Pay Taxes" remains a handbook for comedy-oriented rap.

Despite their deep love of music, none of the group members took rapping or producing remotely seriously until they moved to Los Angeles after graduating college. Friends since junior high, they shared a house with a musician friend and eventually began documenting their drunken late-night joke-rap sessions.

Posting on YouTube precursors iFilm and Heavy.com, they quickly drew Internet audiences with their first music video, 2001's "Ka-Blamo!" Their nascent online fame and a friend's recommendation led to gigs writing for the MTV Movie Awards. It was there they met Jimmy Fallon, who eventually referred them to Lorne Michaels, the executive producer and creator of "SNL."

Even then, the group had to prove its brand of comedy could translate to the venerable late-night variety program.

"To [Michaels] and the other producers' credit, they never asked why our songs would work, they just said 'show us,'" Schaffer said.

With no budget, they filmed and recorded 2005's "Lazy Sunday." Its immediate viral success helped establish then incipient YouTube and catapulted the group to the top of the next generation of "SNL" stars. Film offers led to the Schaffer-directed cult favorite "Hot Rod," and 2010's "MacGruber," which Taccone co-wrote and directed. A scene-stealing turn in "I Love You Man" stamped Samberg's ascendance as one of Hollywood's funniest young comic actors.

Simultaneously, the rap world evolved from the gritty gangsta rap of the '90s. A more eclectic field filled the vacuum — one open to different archetypes and types of humor. Increasingly, rappers employing heavy irony and parody have entered the fray: from the dead serious (Open Mike Eagle), to the mostly serious (Das Racist) to the patently absurd (Dirt Nasty). Comic Donald Glover, star of NBC's "Community," sells out shows under the pseudonym Childish Gambino. And even Yankovic is returning after a half-decade layoff with next month's "Apocalypse."

Yet the Lonely Island is the most prominent, with "Turtleneck & Chain" featuring guest spots from Beck, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna. Written last summer in a rented house in Encino, the sophomore effort finds them sticking to their roots — recording without engineers or production assistants — just three old friends trying to make one another laugh.

"The music industry is in a weird place. There's so much competition for people's attention that as long as you're entertaining, it doesn't matter whether things are real or fake. At least, we hope so," Samberg laughed. "Because our stuff is fake."

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