The Lonely Island is a lot like one of those cans that's filled with spring-loaded snakes -- most of their humor comes from how long it takes for the joke to reveal itself, and how surprising it still is when it finally does. Their current string of #WACKWEDNESDAY releases -- "Semicolon," featuring Solange and probably not T-Pain, is today's special -- has, among other things, served to remind me that I've been laughing at the same can-with-snakes-in-it for like eight years now, which is hard to explain.
So what is it that makes the trick work, even after I know that those slick club guys are premature ejaculators, and that pissed-off rap is about Narnia, and the thing in that box is his penis?
Using "Semicolon" as my guide and "Dick in a Box" as my format, I tried to figure out The Lonely Island's system for making me snicker like an idiot at work. I've cut it down to these three steps:
1. Cut a Hole in a Trope The Lonely Island's major parody-song innovation: Bringing the people they're parodying into the joke, so that the novelty song is almost indistinguishable from the songs it flowed from. Instead of Weird Al doing impressions of T-Pain and Michael Bolton, it's T-Pain and Michael Bolton doing impressions of T-Pain and Michael Bolton.
They get so close to the absurd tropes they're pointing out that they're kind of participating in them -- which is exactly what happens in "Semicolon," an extended riff on the laziest rapper trope of the last two or three years:
Some of their "describing a thing I am / word that rhymes" couplets are clearly jokes about the format itself (Oxnard / Oxnard.) Others could be transplanted without issue into any number of songs from the artists who lean on it.
That weird mix lowers our defenses and gets us ready for step two:
2. Put Your Junk in that Trope
Which is exactly what they did in "Lazy Sunday," right before everybody heard about YouTube at the same time:
The Lonely Island's junk: The pop-cultural detritus that accumulates around liberal, college-educated, self-consciously ineffectual white guys. (Granted: This later became the Junk of basically every comedian to emerge in the past 10 years, and also Buzzfeed.)
So they filled their hyper-masculine, gunshot-sampling hip-hop song with artisinal cupcakes, web apps, young adult literature, and winking references to the Founding Fathers unit of your U.S. History class.
At that point, then, they almost have me. There's just one step left.
3. Make Them Open the Trope
The best part of most Lonely Island videos is the 30 seconds or so before the joke is revealed and then the five seconds afterward. This is why they worked so well on SNL -- the joke is concealed until the last possible moment, because we don't know the title, and it's accompanied by a live, slapped-in-the-face laugh track reaction.
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Which is good, because this is laugh track comedy. We know the timing; we know the characters; we know that they're just about to make themselves look ridiculous. All that's left is to see exactly how they react to the straight line.