How Lonely Island Launched YouTube

How Lonely Island Launched YouTube

Before YouTube became an influencer-stuffed, cat-infested social media monolith, it was a l’il old Internet start-up, just like thousands of other Internet start-ups.  In fact, it was originally conceived as a dating app -- upload footage of your smooth romantic patter and meet your video soulmate.  

Its original slogan?  “Tune in, hook up.” Let's just say everyone swiped left on that version of YouTube. 

So its creators quickly shifted gears, advertising itself as a video repository at a time when dial-up was still the primary way to connect to the web.  YouTube’s early video quality wasn’t nearly up to today’s HD standards but it worked!  Moving video!  In real time!  Now, all it needed was something people wanted to watch.

Fast forward a few months to an SNL episode featuring a lo-fi video called Lazy Sunday, the second-ever digital short by the guys from Lonely Island, with an assist from ultimate white guy Chris Parnell.  (The first digital short? That would be Lettuce.) It was a shot in the dark for Akiva Schafer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg -- they hadn’t had much luck getting sketches on the air. They decided to try short films, with Lazy Sunday created “for just the cost of cab fare.” 

Writers like Colin Jost were skeptical when they heard the idea of Parnell and Samberg rapping about cupcakes on an apartment stoop. “You’d be like, ‘All right, but I’d really like to see it first.’ But they knew it was going to be good and they knew they thought it was funny.”

It was funny.  The kind of funny that makes you want to show your friends.  “We did Lazy Sunday in December of 2005,” remembers Akiva, “and by the end of the weekend my brother e-mailed me and told me, ‘Look at this place where you can watch it online.’”

That place, of course, was five-month-old YouTube, a site Lonely Island had never heard of before that moment. “I was checking it every day— oh, another ten thousand people saw it, no, a hundred thousand people saw it,” Akiva says. 

The clip went viral at a time when The New York Times was still putting quotation marks around “viral” and explaining what “viral” meant.  Variety says it was the first piece of TV content to find a second life on the web. Two million views!  That one single video increased YouTube’s overall traffic by 83 freaking percent. 

What a coup! What great publicity for SNL!  So of course, NBC sued.  Today, the network is thrilled when an SNL clip busts the Internet. But back then, it insisted that YouTube remove Lazy Sunday and other NBC clips.  Oh, and NBC also sued YouTube for a cool billion dollars.  Good luck collecting, NBC – this was way before Google owned it. It only had about 20 employees at the time.  

The whole thing had Lorne Michaels shaking his head.  “You know, you would think that (NBC) would have gone, ‘Let’s just buy this thing or figure it out,’” since the network’s own digital efforts were pretty embarrassing.

The suit was settled years later. That delay was probably good for NBC since, by that time, YouTube actually had some Google money jangling in its pockets.  For its good fortune, YouTube can thank the Michael Scotts of the world who were forwarding emails with a link to Lazy Sunday.  

“YouTube would have found its way without Lazy Sunday," says Parnell, “but we gave it a shot of adrenaline.”

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