If you don't think you've ever heard of the comedy troupe The Lonely Island, you may just be surprised. Chances are, you've seen their work, either on YouTube or on TV. They're behind the hugely popular SNL Digital Shorts, which have included one of the web's first big viral videos, "Lazy Sunday", and this past year's "Dick in a Box" with Justin Timberlake, which was just nominated for an Emmy. And of course, they now have the new movie Hot Rod coming out.
The main trio of Andy Samberg (castmember on SNL and star of Hot Rod), Jorma Taccone (writer on SNL and co-star of Hot Rod), and Akiva Shaffer (writer on SNL and director of Hot Rod), originally met in junior high, but got back together after college to form The Lonely Island and begin writing and performing comedy in short films and music videos. At that point, they also began working with a friend of Andy's from his time at NYU film school, Chester Tam. Often considered the fourth member of The Lonely Island, "Chez" appeared in many of the group's pre-SNL videos (including "The 'Bu", "The Backseatsman", and "Anger Management"), continues to keep fans updated with everything relating to the Dudes on their website TheLonelyIsland.com, and has a role in Hot Rod himself.
He's also carving out a career of his own outside of The Lonely Island, and I got the chance to talk to Chez about his own projects, some history of The Lonely Island before they "made it big", and Vancouver's crepes.
Paul Little: We know Andy, Jorma, and Akiva knew each other way back in high school and they formed The Lonely Island when they moved to L.A. together. But how did you get involved with them and that whole world?
Chester Tam: I went to NYU with Andy. We were both in film school, and we were in the same video class. And we just started, I don't know, I think we were (some) of the few people in the class who would just goof off, and wanted to shoot crazier stuff and more alternative type of stuff. And I met Andy there, and we became friends, and we were shooting shorts at NYU. And then eventually, he was like, "After college I'm going to move out to L.A. with my buddies. Do you want to come?" I had planned on moving out anyway, so I was like, "Yeah!" And eventually I met Kiv and Jorm, and it was like the first time I met dudes that I got along with creatively and just hanging out wise. At first I was kinda hesitent being like, "well, I don't know these guys," and then we just got along really well. It was awesome.
Paul: So pretty much you were involved from the very beginning.
Chez: Yeah, yeah, it was weird. It wasn't necessarily a hard schedule. "We'll shoot everything every weekend, and we're gonna eventually be successful." It was just amusing ourselves, more than anything.
Paul: As you were making videos for your own website, you also began entering into the Channel101.com contests. For those who don't know, what is the basic concept of Channel101.com and how did you hear about and get involved in that?
Chez: The basic concept of 101 is that the people are the studio heads, and they decide what shows they want to see every month. So, there's about 5 people who get voted back every month. You submit a pilot of 5 minutes or less, and the live studio audience gets to choose what they want to see next month. So there are 5 new pilots every month, and the (groups) who come back the next month are actually deciding which new 5 new (pilots) are going to screen.
Paul: And how did that come about? How did hear about it (and) get involved in that?
Chez: Pretty much our agent, who (also) reps Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, who are the creators of 101. It started off very small at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood. Our agent said we should submit stuff or just meet them. And I think Akiva and Andy met with Dan, and they got along, and were like, "yeah, let's submit some things." And I think the first thing they submitted actually was "Nintendo", which did really well, and then eventually we started doing the "Ignition TV", and eventually "The 'Bu".
Paul: Well I should mention "The 'Bu" then. It's pretty much the greatest online series of shorts ever. My friends and I have been watching them since they first aired on Channel101. And your part in the 8th one, the "We Didn't Do the 'Bu" episode, seems to be the longest of that episode, and the most loved amongst many of my friends. How did you score the longest introduction there?
Chez: As far as my verse on "We Didn't Do the 'Bu"? The guys were recording during the day, and I actually at the time was working as a post assistant on Law & Order. And you know, it was one of those grinds when you're trying to do creative stuff and you've gotta pay the rent. But the guys were kinda good. They were recording that day, and they stopped by at night, and I heard what they were doing, and I was like, "ah, this is really funny." And they were like, "just go on, get on the mic and start rapping or singing or whatever you wanna do." And then I just started kinda venting about how my life kinda sucked at the time, and Kiv and Andy would just throw me lines. The funny thing is there's actually a longer verse that I believe Jorm cut, and it was Kiv who said that it should be a little bit shorter. I definitely go on for a little bit, like 4 or 5 more bars.
Paul: But it turned out really funny.
Chez: Cool, thank you. When we screened it at 101 for the first time, Jorma's part obviously gets the biggest laughs, and then I remember my part came on and people were genuinely annoyed with how long it was and how it was just all over the place. And I told Andy, "Oh f***, I ruined it, I ruined it. Dude, I'm so sorry, I thought it was funny at the time." And he was like, "No, dude, honestly, that's one of those things that doesn't go over well at a live screening, because people just want big jokes. When people online see it, and they watch it over, you're going to have the best verse. And I thank them for that.
Paul: Now after Channel101.com, the Dudes got the option to make the Awesometown pilot, that was shopped around to FOX and MTV. How involved were you in that project?
Chez: As far as writing, it was just the guys who just knocked out sketches. They also had to get approved by execs and stuff. They knocked out the skits. I was mostly there for the post-production part. I was there editing stuff that eventually never even made the final cut, and just helping them with punching up jokes and trying to tell them what I thought was funny. It was super fun, 'cause their apartment on Genesee across from Fairfax High School, we stuffed the apartment with like 4 Macs, 4 G5s, and we were just editing. Everyone was just editing a sketch. Kiv was editing "Blurk", and I was editing this other one called "Chad", and Jorm was digitizing the opening sequence. It was super fun in retrospect.
Paul: So post-production-wise, it was very collaborative?
Chez: Yeah, yeah, and then as a goof I ended up making this short thing called "Table Dance" that is pretty much just me humping everyone over a 2 Live Crew song. I did that really as a goof, and Akiva loved it, and eventually that was one of the final sketches they submitted for Awesometown for MTV, which they ended up passing on.
Paul: But, with MTV passing on that, the guys eventually got auditions for and hired by SNL. At that time, was there any thought to shutting down the website completely, or did you always plan to keep it going once the guys got to New York?
Chez: I don't think it was ever talked about to shut it down. I think it was always assumed that everyone would be super busy on SNL, and I was trying to do my own thing. So if anything, it would still be awesome, because I'd be able to post my own videos as well. It was never talked about to shut it down. I think we're going to keep that up for a little while.
Paul: Speaking of your own videos, with the guys in New York, you've been posting quite a few of your own on YouTube and linked from The Lonely Island website. You did one in particular called "Avon Lady: Part 1", with Kal Penn, who's made several appearances with The Lonely Island over the years. And then his Superman co-star, Brandon Routh, made an appearance as well. I want to know, do you work with big stars like that because they're friends, or are you just using Superman to get more views of the video.
Chez: Just more views of the video. I'm using as much Hollywood potential, stars, as I can to get more views. At the end of the day, it's just all about me.
Chez: No, no, no. Me and Kal, honestly, we've been trying to work together for a while, and he was just busy with his schedule and I was busy with my schedule. And eventually we got together. The reason why we shot "Avon Lady" was because I was actually trying to put together a sketch show that I wanted to shop around, which eventually I didn't actually go out with. But that's still a possibility in the future, (and) that was actually meant for my sketch packet. Eventually I got a writing job, and that got pushed back, so we just posted it online. But yeah, the feedback has been super positive, and me and Kal are super happy about it. There was a time when his agent, or one of his representatives, was asking if he wanted to sell that -- to download it for like $1 or something. And we were just like, naw, we kinda want to just do it for everyone. I felt super dirty after hearing about that, and I was like no, I don't want to do that.
Paul: The public wants to know: will there ever be a "Part 2"?
Chez: You know, we had plans to shoot it this month, and Kal got busy and wasn't able to do it. We definitely have a plan of what we wanted to do. It's just a matter of us getting our schedules together.
Paul: So someday.
Chez: Yes, absolutely. And what's weird, too, is that "The Avon Lady", it's been showing at festivals. I submitted it to San Francisco, the Asian American Film Festival screened it in March or April, and then there's one in New York screening, and the feedback's been super positive. And it's all the festival people contacting me about it and thinking it's really funny.
Paul: So, you alluded to them a little before, but you've worked on some TV projects over the last little while. How were your experiences on Help Me Help You with Ted Danson and The Sarah Silverman Program?
Chez: It was great, man. The Help Me Help You writing job that I got was my first staff job, and I think it was just a great intro to me writing on shows. The show runners were super cool, and they knew obviously about The Lonely Island. It was just a little weird, obviously, because the humor has to be turned down a little bit for ABC. But eventually they put me in a couple episodes, too, which are online on YouTube... and they actually used me as a recurring character. That was super awesome. And then on the Sarah Silverman show, they re-shot the original pilot and had me in there as the waiter, as kind of a recurring character as well. And all of my part got cut out of it. Actually, nothing they re-shot for the pilot actually aired, they ended up just showing the original. But just working on set with Sarah and Brian Posehn and meeting Jay Johnston. It was just super fun. I was happy to be around people that I looked up to, and it was cool, it was a great experience.
Paul: Then there's Hot Rod, the new feature starring Andy and Jorma, and directed by Akiva. I haven't had the opportunity to see the film yet, but I heard that you have a small role that recurs throughout the movie. Can you describe your role at all?
Chez: Absolutely. The role I play in Hot Rod, his name is Richardson, and he's pretty much Rod Kimble, Andy's character's, number one fan. And I'm constantly bugging the crew, so that I can be a part of Rod's crew. I actually don't have any talent, but I dance really well. And it's me just showing up, I'm borderline stalker.
Paul: And then you dance.
Chez: Yeah, I do a couple of dance moves in there. Look out for that, I guess.
Paul: What was your experience working on a major studio film? Even though it was directed by your friend and starring your friends, I imagine it was a little different than making The Lonely Island shorts.
Chez: You know, we shot it in Vancouver, and they flew me in just sporatically throughout July and August. When they told me that they were going to be able to use me... there were talks that I wasn't going to be able to do it, just because the Canadians, the Canucks, wanting to use just local talent for that. I was kind of stressed out at the time, 'cause I was like, "ahh, I'm working on this job, and I really want to shoot with my friends." And when they told me that I got it, I was just super happy. And I wasn't nervous, I was excited to see my friends, 'cause they were off in Canada already. And when I got there, and I was shooting the first day, the only thing that made me nervous was that there were like three camera people on me and a gang of crew watching on. And then I heard Kiv's voice in the background going, "and action!" I was a little nervous, but his voice definitely calmed me down. Even on like the Sarah show, it's all obviously video and the crews are smaller, and on a feature film it's just double that. And I was definitely nervous, but my first day of shooting was actually the last scene of the movie, and I don't have any lines in that scene, so that actually was a good segue into the bigger scenes.
Paul: You mentioned that Hot Rod was filmed in Vancouver. What did you think of the city, and Canada in general?
Chez: I really liked Vancouver. After visiting, I was like, "I want to move here." The air is cleaner. The people are nicer, from what I've experienced. The weed is fresher. And just everything, I don't know. Oh and also, what I loved about Vancouver? The crepes. You guys eat a lot of crepes, and you like mayo with it, and I became a big fan of it.
Paul: One question I managed to ask Andy as well -- I assume you've seen a relatively finished cut of the film?
Chez: Yes, I have.
Paul: So what would you say is the most "kablamo" moment of the film?
Chez: Did Andy answer that, or did he not want to give away moments of it?
Paul: He answered it a little literally, like physically kablamo, like "boom".
Paul: You can choose to answer it whichever way you want, without giving stuff away.
Chez: Wow, you know what, I'm gonna say the most kablamo moment for me is, um... Andy had a sick three-minute dance sequence in it, and I think that's the most kablamo moment for me, watching him bust out his sexiness and just make all the guys and girls horny in the theatre.
Paul: That's a fair moment.
Chez: Andy said a specific, like, crash sequence that he thought was kablamo?
Paul: He said there were a couple crash sequences, and a couple hits from Ian McShane.
Chez: Ahh, f*** that, my answer is better.
Paul: Is there anything else you'd like to say that you want "out there", that you want people to hear?
Chez: I would love everyone to try a savoury turkey crepe with cheese and mayo, because that rocked my world. It changed my life, really. I'm in search of crepes all the time in L.A. now, and nothing I've eaten so far has even come close to that delicious turkey savoury crepe that I'd eaten in Vancouver. And I just want everyone to know to just try it. Don't judge it unless you've tried it.
Paul: But now what you're doing though is, for all our American visitors, they now really, really want these crepes, but they won't be able to find them.
Chez: You know what, sometimes you have to bust your ass to find a good place to get a crepe, and after you do bust your ass and you do find that place, you won't regret that you busted your ass. 'Cause sometimes, eating a good crepe takes energy, and a lot of dedication to find a good spot.
Paul: It's worth it in the end.
Chez: I actually wish you would have done this interview before Andy's, so I could kinda tell you what questions to ask him, that he absolutely hates. And one of them is definitely, "so what's up with you and Natalie Portman?"
Paul: Oh, yeah?
Chez: I hope you didn't ask him that.
Paul: We did not ask him that.
Chez: Okay good. I would've recommended that you did, just to piss him off.
Paul: I could see how that would piss him off.
Chez: It's more of an annoyance thing. Obviously, we all just want everyone to enjoy Hot Rod, and instead it's just, "so who are you dating?"
Paul: And that's probably the standard question for people who haven't seen the movie, or don't know anything about his pasts. So the two questions would be: "Tell me about Natalie Portman" and "How was Dick in a Box?"
Chez: Yeah, absolutely. You've nailed it. You could be a totally professional radio DJ at that point. You know the wrong questions to ask.
Paul: Yeah, I definitely know the wrong questions. I don't know about the right ones, but I know the wrong ones. I have those down.
Chez: Hey, sometimes that'll lead you to the right question, I guess.
Paul: That's true.
Chez: That is a Romanian proverb.
Paul: Is it, really?
Chez: Yeah, yeah. The wrong questions will sometimes lead you to the right ones. So ask them.
Listen to the entire 30-minute interview below, which includes a rave review of the 2005 Woody Allen thriller Match Point. Also, you should read or listen to our interview with Andy Samberg.
Hot Rod, released by Paramount Pictures, is in theatres August 3.
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Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found putting on and promoting music and comedy events with The Purple Room in Winnipeg, or co-producing the live comedy game show Pants on Fire. (@comedygeek)