‘Bash Brothers’ Netflix Project Was a True Labor of Love for the Lonely Island
In late May, the comedy group The Lonely Island released a “visual poem” on Netflix with virtually no prior promotion or explanation. Which was probably for the best. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience landed from out of nowhere with an absurdity befitting its punchline of a premise: a half-hour of rap music videos recorded in 1988 by A’s sluggers Jose Canseco (played by Andy Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Akiva Schaffer).
Framed by a series of artsy, Lemonade-like interstitials ruminating on fame and deforestation, the cameo-laden special follows the duo as they grapple with roid rage, long for parental approval, and attempt to seduce (and bench press) the women of Oakland to mixed results. (A slightly longer version of the 11-song album is also available on Spotify.) Yet even amid ample PED jokes and the sort of silliness central the group’s work on Saturday Night Live and in songs like “I’m On A Boat”, Bash Brothers is imbued with the love of lifelong A’s fans and more poignancy than its sheer ridiculousness might suggest.
Samberg and Schaffer hopped on the phone with SI this week to discuss the project’s origins, whether a collab with the real Canseco is in their future, and why sports has been a frequent source material of theirs. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
SI: Where does something like this come from?
Akiva Schaffer: Just like, our twisted minds.
Andy Samberg: Nope. That’s not gonna read in print.
Schaffer: Alright. Not that then. This one specifically came from a year ago. We did our very first concert. It was in San Francisco and we are from the Bay Area, so we wanted to do something Bay Area-based. I don’t remember how it came up but we were like, let’s dress up like the Bash Brothers, and Jorma like Joe Montana, and come out on stage as a local something-to-do.
Samberg: Then we wrote a little bit of music to that idea. It was just fun and we realized the combination of the nostalgia and the era of the music that we started writing to made us creatively a little excited. So just kept doing it here and there in between our schedules.
SI: So how does that evolve and grow from just one bit at a show to a full-blown special?
Samberg: That’s a good question. (laughter)
Schaffer: Very organically, as it would for a true artist just following their muse. Basically, Andy was full-time at Brooklyn Nine-Nine and I was helping make this Tim Robinson I Think You Should Leave show, among other things, and Jorma [Taccone, the third Lonely Island member] was on the East Coast doing Miracle Workers and The Last O.G. We weren’t really looking for a new project to do together because there wasn’t actually any time for anything. But then occasionally Andy would get off work early or get a day off and be like, “Hey, I’m actually free—should we work on something?” The only thing that fit in there and that we were having fun doing was, Let’s make another song as those guys. There was no intention of where it would end up or how it would be used. We discussed putting the whole thing on SoundCloud and just seeing who found it.
Samberg: We always like to stay in the studio a little bit. Part of the fun of this one was knowing that if we decided it wasn’t enough of an idea to put out, we could just cut bait on it. But no work put in is wasted because we learn how to do things, like [Schaffer] learned how to use auto-tune better when we were working on it and experimental vocals and trying different styles—the same way a quote-unquote real musician might. Even though we’re fake musicians, we try to keep pushing the things we can do and try to make them sound neat and more legit. It was kind of fun for us to just fuck with it knowing that it could be just for us if that’s what it came down to.
Schaffer: The stakes couldn’t have been lower. There were no expectations. Nobody ever came in being like, “Hey, when are we gonna hear this new Bash Brothers album you guys are working on?”
SI: It’s such a specific idea. How do you pitch this to Netflix and try to sell them on it?
Schaffer: I was already working with [Netflix comedy executive] Robbie Praw over there for I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. I just kind of mentioned this in passing, not as a pitch, just telling him, like he was someone saying, “What were you up to yesterday?” Like, “Well, me and Andy were making this song.” Then I explained to him what it was, and he’s around our age and an A’s fan as well, so he kind of lit up at it. I was like, “Ah, it’s not for you guys. This is more of an Adult Swim style thing.” Then it just became more and more real. For the record, we did it for very, very, very cheap. We just all were like, “This is kind of a fun idea.”
SI: In terms of it translating to a larger audience, were you curious or worried at all about how such a specific thing would be received?
Samberg: I think we were the most worried how the actual guys would feel about it. Less about the audience and more about growing up in the Bay and having so much love for McGwire and Canseco, that was really the only concern that we had. Other than that it was more just, Ah, if we put it out it’ll be for whoever wants to see it. The people who are into this kind of thing will like it and everyone else will ignore it.
Schaffer: We were very pleasantly surprised and relieved when we realized the vast majority of the people who watched it really understood what we were going for and why we were doing it. Even though the main joke is, Why are you doing this? they were delighting in that as well, which is what we were delighting in. We weren’t sure if people would understand the “visual poem” kind of comment, I guess, and not really parody but just format, just kind of delight in it with us. So we were really happy about that, and also really happy that Jose, who is the more vocal of the two of them, said he watched it and thought it was funny.
SI: I saw the approving tweet from Canseco. Any further word from him or anything from McGwire?
Schaffer: Nothing from McGwire, but our camps have spoken to [Canseco’s].
Samberg: We’re in touch.
SI: Is there something brewing?
Samberg: Unclear as of yet, but definitely not ruled out.
Schaffer: There’s an openness.
SI: You were worried about how they would react to it. But were you worried about, like, legal action from them or the A’s?
Samberg: Um, sure! All of the above.
Schaffer: Again, we’re coming at this from a place of love. Even if there’s stuff in there that could be considered parody, these guys really were our heroes growing up.
Samberg: And we are huge A’s fans. We’ve been exchanging with the A’s Twitter and heard that they played some of the songs at the A’s games already. We’ve been texting with all our friends back home and everyone’s just juiced, being like, Holy shit! They’re playing your stuff at the A’s game at the Coliseum!
Schaffer: When we made some of the songs we were like, What if one day they played one of these at the Coliseum? That was ultimately, I’d say, the only marker we had of success for this. And then they did it the day after it came out, so we were very happy.
Samberg: It was so rad.
SI: You mentioned loving these guys growing up. How much did you watch them and what did you like so much about them?
Samberg: We both grew up—and Jorma too—in Berkeley, so they were our team and are still. To be a kid and for your hometown team to be that Oakland A’s team, which was, I would argue, one of the most exciting sports teams ever to watch—we all had the Bash Brothers poster on the wall.
Schaffer: They went to the World Series three years in a row when we were like 10, 11, 12. What a dream.
Samberg: I waited in line for like an hour and a half at Moscone Center to get McGwire’s card signed by him. They were the dudes. I was also a huge Terry Steinbach fan, I might add. Since we’re talking to SI this seems like a safe place to say it.
Schaffer: Those guys were the Bash Brothers, but the truth is, we worked in a Walt Weiss [reference in the Netflix special] with Jorma but we wanted to have Carney Lansford, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart—
Samberg: [Bob] Welch, Hendu [Dave Henderson]—that was an incredible squad.
Schaffer: Eckersley. There’s lots of room for other characters. We had ideas that we might have more guests playing more people, but once again, we didn’t really plan this thing out.
Samberg: I will say revisiting the Kirk Gibson moment over and over in editing, it was tough. Like I remember when it happened in real life, I sat in front of the turned-off television for about an hour with my head in my hands because I was so upset.
Schaffer: It’s very triggering for A’s fans of our generation.
Samberg: I still think deep down the bat was corked. It didn’t really seem like he got all of it. But that’s I guess a different article. We’ll leave that to you guys.
Schaffer: But you should write that article. (laughter)
SI: I’ll look into it. How did you settle on or develop the personas you used for the characters of Canseco and McGwire?
Samberg: It started with that first song, “Jose & Mark,” which kind of started by accident because we just thought of the joke first for the chorus.
Schaffer: The thing that we were making didn’t have to be true to reality. It only had to be true to what us as 10-year-olds thought reality was. That was kind of our way in on everything. We were like: When we were 10 or 11 and looked up to these guys as gods, what did we think their life was like? What did we think they were like? So the whole video is almost from that perspective.
Samberg: That’s true, although I would say the kid version of myself probably thought McGwire was a lot cooler. (laughter)
Schaffer: You’re right. I do want to apologize for playing him, for comedic reasons, a little more vanilla than he is.
Samberg: No one thinks McGwire is like that.
Schaffer: It’s like pushing it to some weird extreme.
Samberg: It’s not weird. It’s turning it into a comedy duo, as opposed to actual human beings.
Schaffer: There has to be a straight man and a—whatever they call it. What’s the opposite of a straight man? A wild guy?
Samberg: Yeah, straight man and a wild guy, the classic comedy duo. (laughter)
SI: There’s this narrative of them wrestling with fame and bonding during this moment. Was that something that came about organically too, or were you aiming in that direction?
Samberg: Making this as a comedy, it was kind of one of our options, when you look at their story. It’s interesting because it plays funny, but we also didn’t want it to seem like an indictment or anything. We weren’t out to be like, “Can you believe they did this?!” It was more like using it as a lifestyle point in the way that a rapper would, seemed funny to us. But yeah, I don’t know exactly how to answer the question.
Schaffer: This is kind of a side note, but I did read Canseco’s book.
Samberg: Some of that stuff was adapted.
Schaffer: Some of the attitudes we’re doing are the same attitudes in the book.
Samberg: We loved that he went out of his way to clarify that using steroids makes your nards shrink, but not your wang. Stuff like that.
Schaffer: He does very plainly state that. He just wants to clear some stuff up. For real, not a joke. It was like OK, if he’s willing to say it, our characters can say that. And that was new information—I didn’t know that.
Samberg: And we, through deductive reasoning, expanded on it, that it would make the jimmy-jam look long.
SI: You mentioned other guests at some idea. Is there anything that didn’t make it in that you wish did?
Schaffer: That’s the main thing, just having more people doing more filling out of the A’s roster would have been fun.
Samberg: We talked about at one point—well, I don’t wanna say, in case we do end up doing something.
Schaffer: Yeah, this is one of 10.
Samberg: No, no!
SI: Just expand the A’s universe.
Schaffer: They’re like the Avengers. They’ll each get their own standalone until they finally come together to play a game.
Samberg: I love sports, like in earnest. I watch a lot of sports and read about sports and grew up playing sports. And I also love comedy. So it’s kind of just a natural thing that’s in my head.
Schaffer: Sports and comedy have gone hand-in-hand for a long time too, whether Dodgeball—
Samberg: Happy Gilmore.
Schaffer: Bad News Bears. Major League.
Samberg: The Naked Gun has a sequence at a baseball stadium.
Schaffer: Yeah, the whole finale is based on that. Reggie Jackson, famous A. And some other sports stars we don’t have to talk about. (laughter) But yeah, there’s something always about sports and comedy that I think can go together. Like, it’s a bunch of people hanging out with different personalities, on a team together.
Samberg: A League of Their Own!
Schaffer: Also our comedy a lot of time comes from making fun of people pretending to posture and trying to be cooler or more macho than they really are while secretly inside having feelings like a normal person, but trying to hide them. That applies here as well, I would say.
Samberg: What is asked of the outward persona of athletes versus what it’s like to be an actual human being on Earth.
SI: Do you have any other sports ventures lined up? Maybe a Terry Steinbach special?
Schaffer: That’s what the streets are begging for.
Samberg: I wish.
Schaffer: We don’t. We really came to this one randomly and I’m sure that’s how we’ll get to the next thing.
Samberg: Something with Chris Mullin maybe. How ’bout them Dubs?
Schaffer: Just as fans we’re gonna watch the NBA Finals and root for the Warriors.
SI: But no Warriors musical is in the works.
Samberg: I mean, if anyone on the Warriors wants to make a musical, they can DM us.
Schaffer: I don’t know that we’d be their first call.
Samberg: I think we would be. Well, it’s not gonna be Drake.