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Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Sketch Anatomy: Jeff Loveness Visits Lonely Island's 'The 'Bu'

shaffer_taccone_samberg_thebuWelcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer's perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week's installment of Sketch Anatomy, we talked with Jimmy Kimmel Live! writer Jeff Loveness, who chose the classic 2003-2005 Lonely Island web series and Channel 101 favorite The 'Bu directed by Akiva Schaffer and starring Jorma Taccone as an angsty ninja navigating teenage life in his new home of Malibu with Andy Samberg as his on-and-off friend Aaron. Loveness breaks down not only how The 'Bu put The Lonely Island on the map as a rising comedy trio and soon-to-be SNL innovators, but he also sheds some light on how their work helped pave the way for his own YouTube-to-late night show success.

After a lot of consideration, you've decided to talk about Lonely Island's old web series The 'Bu. Why did you end up choosing it?

When you first asked me to do this interview, I kind of went through the rolodex of sketches — everyone wants to choose a very obscure, cerebral sketch or something that makes them sound like this comedy scholar. I was going through the old 
State sketches that I loved and the Ronnie Dobbs stuff from Mr. ShowI even went back and was looking at old Peter Cook sketches to talk about, but then I stopped and thought about what was the most influential sketch that I ever saw or something that just popped out of my head and made me want to be a comedy writer, and it was really early, like mid-2000s Lonely Island sketches. I got more encouragement from internet sketches than from television sketches, because internet sketches made it seem attainable. And once The Lonely Island made the crossover to SNL, that was the first time I had ever heard of something like that even happening, and it kind of bridged the chasm between "regular people" and the people on TV — when they went on to SNL, it was like one of "us" went on to SNL. So I remember watching The 'Bu at my best friend's house, and it felt exactly like in our style of comedy, and even though we had never seen an episode of The O.C. it just kind of fit for us. Then there was the earlier Lonely Island stuff like "Stork Patrol" and "Just 2 Guyz" — I guess that stuff, more than anything I even saw on TV, encouraged me to become a comedian because it wasn't professional, it was made with home video cameras probably similar to the ones we had at home, and it very much had a vibe of bored friends having fun with a camera, and it showed me that it wasn't impossible to get a job in comedy — you just had to go out there and try to make something with your friends.

But I love even the stages The 'Bu went through — like they had Sarah Chalke for the first three episodes or so, and then she was not available so they just replaced her with one of their friends. And even at the end, the finale sums up the experience of everyone making internet comedies; they couldn't organize it, so they just made a music video by themselves making fun of how they didn't make The 'Bu that month. That sums up the experience of anyone who's ever tried to make sketches on the weekends with their friends — locations don't come through or friends bail at the last minute or you forgot to charge your battery the night before. And I just love the spirit of it. There's also this running thing — The Lonely Island really likes having amulets in their sketches. I noticed that from the "Laser Cats" videos as well.

That's true! I never thought about that.

They're big on ninjas and amulets.

How did you first find The Lonely Island's videos?

I'm pretty sure it all started with my friend saying "Hey, look at this." It was just something he ran across on the internet. But I feel like that's the best way to discover comedy — it's something your friend sees in his room. And I think this was the same friend who introduced me to 
The Simpsons on VHS, so I trusted his taste.

Did you know about Channel 101 at the time?

I had no idea what Channel 101 was, I slowly discovered it through 
The 'Bu and all the great Dan Harmon stuff they had been doing through that. I was from way up in north California almost by Oregon in this town of 400 people, so I had never even been to LA. I actually might have discovered it through The Lonely Island website — they still have some of the same website layout, kind of sparse and with a simple white background. I love how they've kept it basically the same.

What's your favorite 'Bu episode?

I think it is actually the last one where they make that music video about not making 
The 'Bu. The first one's great because it parodies those O.C. tropes and everyone in the opening theme having such a great time on the beach playing volleyball, constantly rubbing themselves against each other, and the angsty teen turnaround pose from the theme song. But I really love the last one, because it just encapsulates everything that's great but also frustrating about making videos by yourself — they just couldn't get together so they said "Ah, screw it — let's just make a funny video mocking the whole thing."

I rewatched the episodes yesterday and I have to say, that Good Charlotte song has been stuck in my head ever since.

When you said "Good Charlotte" at first I was like 
what? And then I remembered it's the 'Bu song — of course! It's a perfect choice for that type of show.

It takes me back to my Blink-182 days.

Oh yeah. We had a good era of music in middle school. It was like the height of angst — it was really good. I still can't fully appreciate Justin Timberlake music because I still have this sixth grade resentment of him. He's a wonderful talent and hilarious guy, but I can never truly appreciate him because I will always have this insecure middle school anxiety towards him, because every girl loved him and I was just in the back of the bus thinking about 
X-Men.

You posted your first YouTube video back in 2006. What's the story behind that? Would you say Lonely Island helped push you into giving it a shot?

Yeah, absolutely. I can't speak for every person who makes videos on YouTube, but I think The Lonely Island influenced all of us — especially me. It just made it seem fun and possible to make stuff that could be seen by people. And YouTube kind of became big around the same time, and once I saw it my head exploded because you could put up all these funny videos you'd been making with friends for years, and you'd get a random comment from, like, some dude in Serbia who liked it, and that seemed like the craziest thing in the world to me.

So I started making videos with some of my buddies in high school, and then once I got to college I joined the campus television station, and I'd just keep making sketches and putting them on YouTube. In the back of my head I'd always have those Lonely Island guys as an inspiration — just do what you think is funny, even if it's on the lowest budget or scale possible where you're using your college-age friends to play your dad and just putting powder in their hair or bad wigs on them, and you embrace the low quality of it, and there's a little bit of magic in there.

What other comedy influences would you say have guided you the most, particularly with your current gig on Kimmel?

When it comes to late night writing or even just comedy in general, the biggest influence for me is Brian Stack's sketches from 
Late Night with Conan. I would watch that, once again, with my comedy-savvy friend, and he had a good TV so we had all the channels. We would watch all these old Brian Stack sketches on TV, from the traveling salesman that he did to The Interrupter and stuff like that. He had such a sadness to each character, but they would not acknowledge their sadness — they'd just continue on like everything was fine. The best comedy always has an insecurity or sadness behind it, and I think Brian Stack embodies that so perfectly. And he's never had a bad character on that show. I also love Conan's old late night model in general where anything can happen in that studio — there were always weird interruptions or odd characters or people who didn't understand how late night shows worked — they would just barge in. Kimmel works differently than that but I try to bring some of that sensibility to a few sketches, like when Chewbacca's in the audience for that Harrison Ford bit, or like for some reason Kristen Wiig meets a date she met on OkCupid during her interview — something like that.

The Kristen Wiig bit was one of my favorite things on Kimmel this year. The insecurity/sadness thing you mentioned really shines. You know how to create believably awkward moments.

[
laughs] Yeah, that's basically my normal function in life. It's my default behavior. In a way, it's almost like therapy to exercise that awkwardness and put it on a broader scale, whether it's the dating thing with Kristen Wiig or the Ford thing. I love comedy that comes from a place of insecurity or awkwardness, and I like seeing people exercise their fears onstage. And I guess I got a lot of that from Brian Stack. Andy Daly as well — I came to Comedy Bang! Bang! a little late, but every Andy Daly character makes me weep openly, it's so funny. They're both definitely inspirations in that realm.

How do you keep the insecure/awkward thing believable? Do you truly feel that way, or does it fade away the more you perform?

It is odd. I still blank out beforehand…I don't know if the nervousness ever goes away, and in some ways I hope it doesn't because it heightens you and it focuses you and it makes you better than you probably would be if you were completely relaxed. This is an offshoot, but it's a story I always like to think about when I get nervous
: I had a one-episode thing on The Office a while ago, it was like my first acting job ever. And I remember seeing Steve Carell on the bus — it was episode 7 of season 7 — and I only had like three lines, it was a very minor thing. But I remember seeing Steve Carell before the take, and he had his script in his pocket and he was mouthing the words as he looked at the script, then he crushed it up and put it in his pocket. And that was exactly what I'd do on my YouTube sketches. I'd just have the script lying around; you can probably see a script in the shot of 75% of YouTube sketches, they just have it lying around because people are so nervous about their lines or whatever. That was so encouraging to me to see even Steve Carell, one of the funniest people alive, still running over his lines right before the take, going over them and mouthing them then just shoving the script in his pocket before we began. It was cool to see that that energy doesn't ever go away, even on that level.

The way comedy shows find talent has changed drastically since The Lonely Island joined SNL. Do you see that evolving further?

Absolutely. That was the first time I had known of someone from the internet crossing over and becoming a professional, and then I love how it's now almost the norm. You see people like Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett from Good Neighbor now on 
SNL doing characters they did from their Good Neighbor YouTube sketches, you see Broad City obviously which started as a web series, then there's this upcoming BriTANicK pilot on Comedy Central, which I'm very excited about. They're amazing and they're going to be incredible.

I love how pooling talent from the internet is now becoming the norm, and it's so encouraging because it shows that The Lonely Island were right — you just have to make stuff with your friends that you think is funny, and if you keep making it and you keep getting better and you create volume and quality, it will get noticed. That was the single greatest lesson I learned from The Lonely Island — just go out there and make stuff.

How old were you in your earliest videos? You look like just a little kid!

[
laughs] Oh yeah, those old ones from like 2006…high school was not good to me. I was like a sophomore in high school. I uploaded my first video eight years ago, and it was a really bad video with my friend about a killer microwave because my mom never allowed me to have a microwave in the home; she thought they were poisonous and dangerous, which I guess they are. So we made this horror movie about a microwave that killed people. It was a joke that only two of us got, but that was kind of the beauty of it. Later on I made this Wes Anderson parody, and that was my first experience with having some sort of big viral video or whatever. That's how I even got the job on Kimmel – they saw that and brought me in. I was 19 or 20 when I made that, so it was a very surreal experience.

How long after you posted the video did they reach out to you?

I think it was like a week after. I got a Facebook message from a field producer there and they wanted me to come in for a possible director job, but they didn't know how young I was. So when I walked in I was like 19 and I could see the surprise in their eyes. I got an internship for the summer and I kept making videos and was contributing to 
The Onion at the time, and eventually they let me submit to be a writer when I was 21, so like the next year or so. My first day of work was my 22nd birthday so I was very nervous and intimidated, but I got incredibly lucky.

Seeing that the Lonely Island method worked so well for you, can you offer some advice to aspiring TV writers or makers of YouTube comedy videos? Especially now that the competition out there is so steep.

There's a lot of people making videos right now — it's always been like that, but they're getting more proficient; the production quality's really stepped up. I'd say let the limitations inspire creativity in you. We had no lights, we had no good audio equipment — you don't need high-end production gear to make something funny. As long as you have a good idea, just run with that and see where it leads you and just keep making stuff. I think volume is important when you're starting out, too. No one just becomes Steve Martin — even Steve Martin wasn't Steve Martin for a long time — if you read his book, he had to really struggle. I think I've got like 50 videos [on YouTube], and I don't know how many I'd show to people, you know? [
laughs] You just have to keep making stuff, and you get more and more confident or weird with your work. So if there are people out there, just find a group of friends that you trust and have likeminded comedic sensibilities, fill out your team, get a good core together, and go out there and make stuff that makes you laugh, then other people will follow suit. And I think the important part is to not be afraid that you're not good enough, and just go out there and start making stuff even if it's not up to your standards — just keep making stuff and you will get better over time. I still struggle with this too — you're never going to be 100% satisfied exactly with everything you make, but at least you made something. And next time you're going to make something that's even better.