Ten years ago this week, “Saturday Night Live” aired “Lazy Sunday: The Chronicles of Narnia.” Even if you weren’t among those who tuned into NBC that night to watch cast members Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg rap about their favorite cupcakes, chances are you still saw the video courtesy of a website few had heard of in 2005: YouTube.
“Lazy Sunday” was groundbreaking because it was the first TV programming to earn a second life on the Internet, collecting over 2 million views in its first week alone and setting off a legal fracas with NBC Universal months later. A decade later, this “Digital Short” clearly paved the way for the current state of late-night TV, where producers from “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” to “Inside Amy Schumer” program these shows just as much to go viral on digital platforms as they do to grab ratings on linear TV.
To commemorate this milestone moment in media, Variety spoke with Parnell, who shared a personal photo he took of the “Lazy Sunday” shoot (above), as well as Samberg and his “SNL” writing partners, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who continue to operate as the comedy trio known as The Lonely Island. In the oral history below, they recalled their pre-“SNL” days operating their own comedy website at a time the industry and the marketplace were just beginning their digital transition.
Jorma Taccone: The only things that were around then were Heavy.com, Atom Films, iFilm. But it cost so much to do. Our first website — we hid it in the server of a friend who had a successful site.
|CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Chris Parnell, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer
Schaffer: When we had our website, it was still so hard to get people in the industry to watch our videos. We had to send “Saturday Night Live” DVDs of our videos.
Taccone: When we first signed with UTA, they couldn’t watch our stuff, because their Internet connection wasn’t fast enough. We had to give them a VHS tape.
Schaffer: We learned we made it on “SNL” about a week before we started. We were living in this house in Los Angeles with free couches. We didn’t have any possessions worth anything; I sold my car for two crisp $100 bills to a guy who worked at Goodwill. A 1988 Nissan Stanza.
Taccone: There were amazing folks there already: Tina (Fey), Amy (Poehler), (Seth) Meyers, Will Forte, Chris Parnell. It was really up in the air whether the three of us would get hired.
Chris Parnell: (“SNL” executive producer) Lorne (Michaels) was smart to hire the guys in the first place, to see where the direction things were heading. They brought this amazing skillset to the show that let us bring it all together.
Schaffer: We had only been there 2 ½ months, and had made one video with Forte eating lettuce, which finally got on the air. (“SNL” writer-producer) Mike Shoemaker said, ‘Hey, that worked, do it again.’ He didn’t interfere, he just wanted us to do more stuff like that.
We’d always loved music videos. We always were also slightly embarrassed by it; we considered musical comedy kind of a crutch, and fake rap specifically as a lame thing to do. It makes me cringe in general. We’d held back. I don’t know what convinced us to do it–probably desperation because we needed to do something.
Taccone: We wanted to make an aggressive-sounding hip-hop track about mundane things. Parnell did super-aggressive raps on Weekend Update.
Parnell: I don’t remember when the idea came out but they basically said, ‘We like your raps, do you want to do this with us?’ It was cool because they could have probably written it on their own, but they asked me to collaborate with them.
Schaffer: It was just the four of us, so we could move quick. We borrowed the camera from Bill Hader’s wife, Maggie, who was a teacher’s assistant at New York Film Academy. We took the subway down on Thursday morning, then rolled around all day playing it off an iPod and a little speaker. We edited on the same desktop iMac we used for writing. The moment you have to ask for something, you open yourself up to a note – not even just “SNL,” but in the business in general. Also, the moment you ask for money and it’s bad, you can’t get more money. It was fear; we wanted to fail quietly.
Parnell: It was so pure in its innocence, and we just went for it really hard. We were two white jackasses trying to rap. We were clearly very lame about what we think is cool.
Schaffer: When it aired, it was still “SNL“ as it always had been: unless someone had recorded it, it was just going to evaporate until the next rerun.
Taccone: We’d never heard of YouTube until “Lazy Sunday” came out.
Andy Samberg: The idea of streaming video at a big audience was still new. It was not a fully formed machine at the time.
Schaffer: It was really exciting when we woke up and found out, hey! You can actually watch it on this site! Somebody sent us the link.
Parnell: I didn’t know for a bit that it had become a hit. I just wasn’t plugged in to what was going on online. I was home in Memphis for Christmas, and NBC said The New York Times wanted to talk to me. I guess to some extent nobody had done anything like that before, the idea of being able to share it so easily with their friends on the Internet. I think it was brilliantly uploaded it to YouTube…and then NBC brilliantly took it down.
|“We were two white jackasses trying to rap.”|
Schaffer: There were a lot of growing pains that came with being first because everybody was scrambling to catch up. I made weekly angry calls to NBC’s lawyers about their pulling the videos down. NBC didn’t like the idea that they were building YouTube. It was a month before NBC even wrapped their head around it. We just loved watching it grow. We thought it was an ad for the show, we wanted to leave it up there. Allowing something like this to be out there – sure, they’re not monetizing it, but it’s great buzz for the show. Honestly, to Lorne’s credit, he kind of agreed, but it wasn’t in his control.
Taccone: When “Lazy Sunday” came out, we were watching numbers on a site we had never heard of. It was this double whammy: we always got associated with the Internet, but it was television that made it possible. Then it became the currency of the popularity of our shows – oh, this one is really popular because it had X hits. YouTube really changed that, honestly. There was this second life to television.
Schaffer: The story became “Lazy Sunday” and YouTube. We got a lot of mileage out of that, YouTube continued to be in the news for years. You couldn’t kind of write a story about YouTube without mentioning us. But we didn’t end up selling Lonely Island to Google for $1.6 billion.
Parnell: The most amazing thing to me was how many people were doing their own versions of “Lazy Sunday.” There were these 10-year-old kids doing shot-for-shot remakes. It’s clearly not a high-production-value video, you have a sense that it’s homemade.
Samberg: In some ways, it cemented our place on “SNL.” It became our calling card.
Schaffer: It’s not like YouTube made “Lazy Sunday” popular – it was because it was on “Saturday Night Live.” If (2000 “SNL” skit) “More Cowbell” had come out and YouTube was around, that probably would have hit. I don’t know what it was about the video. It was a little bit of right place, right time.
Parnell: If it hadn’t been “Lazy Sunday,” it would have been something else coming along.
Taccone: I don’t think we’re any different from the groups of kids who are doing it now. There’s a lot more access to really good, professional-grade equipment.
Schaffer: It’s a lot harder to be seen today, but then again, everyone is looking at YouTube for new things. The interest is exponential, but the product is also exponential. Taylor Swift can cut through and get 20 million views. Every album we made, the speed they got up to 1 million views just got faster and faster. I could see people just getting buried under the noise.
Taccone: There’s a lot more noise now. It’s an interesting time to create art, whether you’re making videos or music or anything. There are advantages and disadvantages; you don’t need to wait for anyone, just put it out to the universe.
Samberg: It’s definitely a bigger bowl of soup now, you have to spoon around for what’s good.