Three longtime friends and comedic writers got together to make a concept album featuring aliens, a zombie apocalypse, time travel, and Alex Trebek. Joel and Stephen Levinson along with Rob Kutner call it “2776”, the year the album takes place. The premise of 2776 entails Will Forte (acting as the future president of America), trying to convince an evil alien (played by Martha Plimpton) not to destroy Earth. Why? Because America, that’s why. The rest of the album involves time travel through the past, present, and future. Spanning several centuries as well as several genres, the 28-track album is a jam-packed hilarious journey into a universe where eventually Canada saves the day.
The album features an incredible roster of talent, including Paul F. Tompkins, Andrew WK, Reggie Watts, Aimee Mann, KD Lang, Will Forte, Martha Plimpton, and many more. All these names signed on, and from there the Levinson brothers and Kutner had to struggle to make an epic album with almost no budget. The album is a labor of love, and all the proceeds go to charity. I met the three ambitious philanthropists at a bar, where we drank and talked about the project.
Filmdrunk: Explain to me what this whole thing is, all of “2776”. How did the idea come about, and what is the concept?
Rob: A couple years ago it was the 40th anniversary of “Free To Be…You and Me”. Joel, Stephen, and I have been working together for many years doing all kinds of stuff. Joel is an awesome songwriter and I thought what if someone did just sort of an homage to “Free to Be…You and Me”, and what if we did it for charity so celebrities can make time for it and it could all go to a good cause. So we planned that all about three weeks, right before the birth of my second child which I don’t recommend.
Joel: We started brainstorming and were just like “what is an idea where we could put in every stupid joke we have?” That’s what 2776 is. A thousand years of American history: the past, the present, the future.
Rob: We could geek out about Thomas Jefferson, and zombie robots.
Filmdrunk: So is there a clear story-line?
Stephen: There is a story-line that comes along in a couple of places throughout it. It’s the year 2776 and Will Forte is the president of the US, and he’s an idiot. Martha Plimpton is an alien about to destroy the earth but Forte says “No, no you can’t destroy the earth. The earth contains America!” So he and his body guard, Aubrey Plaza, take the alien on a time traveling journey throughout all the past and future of America. They pick up George Washington (Paul F. Tompkins) along the way and he’s no help at all.
Rob: In the end, spoiler alert, America doesn’t convince the alien to save Earth. But then the Canadians step in. We got all these Canadians like Kids in the Hall, Samantha Bee, and Will Arnett.
Joel: KD Lang, Alex Trebek…
Rob: To sing this “We Are the World” type of song to brag about Canada’s minuscule accomplishments like inventing the multiplex and discovering insulin.
Filmdrunk: Is this stuff you already knew in your head?
Rob: We did some research
Stephen: We asked Canadians what they’re actually proud of.
Filmdrunk: What about the recording process? How difficult was it to get all these celebrities on board?
Stephen: Every song was a different story. Andrew WK and Aimee Mann came to Joel’s garage.
Joel: It’s not even a garage studio
Stephen: It’s a laptop in a garage.
Filmdrunk: That’s where you primarily recorded?
Joel: That’s where I did all of the music.
Rob: So those were the first few people to sign on and we recorded there, but once we got more people we started taking more swings. We started asking recording studios to donate time, and we found studios in LA, NY, and one in Toronto who all gave us free time.
Joel: Alex Trebek agreed to do his bit on a song, and we weren’t going to ask him to schlep to a studio. So we went to his house with a microphone and stood in his living room.
Stephen: I was driving our dad’s 10 year old Buick to Alex Trebek’s house. I’m sure they thought they were about to get robbed.
Filmdrunk: How long did each song take to get finished?
Joel: Some of them were as fast as 6 months. It took between 6 months and 18 months.
Rob: But all simultaneously.
Filmdrunk: How long did the whole project take?
Rob: 18 months total
Filmdrunk: Did anyone surprise you with their singing talent?
Rob: Paul F. Tompkins is a great singer.
Joel: But we kind of knew that. Will Forte, I didn’t know he could sing. When he agreed it meant he wasn’t afraid of songs, but when we got in there I was like, “damn he’s hitting a good note right now”.
Rob: Conversely there were a lot of funny musicians. Like Neko Case.
Stephen: She is on a song about feminism in sci-fi. We had it written by two women. We didn’t want to write it because we’re not women. We gave it to these great writers, but when Neko and Kelly [Hogan] got it, they changed lyrics to how they saw it.
Filmdrunk: What was harder to write about? The past, present, or future?
Stephen: We all have different strengths, I fell asleep in history class.
Joel: I think the past was the hardest because so many people have talked about the past. It was hard to come up with our own new perspective on the past.
Stephen: Rob is really good at writing that stuff. He’s a smart guy, he knows history. I’m a big sci-fi nerd so that was better for me.
Rob: Stephen has crazy ideas that only exist in sci-fi.
Filmdrunk: It seems like there is a bunch of different genres happening here.
Joel: That was Rob’s push.
Filmdrunk: Any favorites?
Rob: Sophie’s Choice man…to Joel’s credit, he is a very versatile songwriter. Because of that I was like, let’s push many styles. So, we got like what 12 styles?
Joel: Oh come on, there’s got to be more than that.
Rob: Well, there’s big band. There’s hip hop, rap, jazz, broadway.
Joel: Plenty of blues.
Rob: You get the idea.
Stephen: One thing we really wanted to do was like, if we’re getting a blues guitarist we’re getting the best blues guitarist we can get. We have a guitar solo as a joke and we got Eric Jonson, who is this amazing guitarist, to play us the best guitar solo ever on a comedy album.
Filmdrunk: Why was concept album the route you wanted to go?
Joel: Stephen objected to it from day one, but Rob and I wanted to make a Broadway musical.
Rob: We settled on making an album that can also be a show.
Joel: We thought it would also be easier to do this than write a Broadway musical. Turns out we were absolutely wrong.
Stephen: I think we wanted something to unify all this crazy, diverse music.
Joel: But you grew up as a fan of concept albums.
Stephen: I guess.
Filmdrunk: So it’s also an homage?
Stephen: Yeah it’s definitely an homage to a lot of things that we like.
Filmdrunk: Last but not least, talk to me about the charity this is all going to.
Joel: Yes, it’s OneKid OneWorld. It’s for kids. We wanted to do something that would benefit kids. So the goal was really finding a charity with a sense of humor. OneKid OneWorld was started by a comedic writer and they do annual shows with comedians. We wanted to have creative freedom on the album and them still be proud to be connected to it.
Rob: Also, they have a small focus. They have contacts in Kenya and El Salvador. They go and they send groups over and they build schools. They pay teachers and buy textbooks.
Joel: It’s more targeted. The money goes there, and nowhere else.
Rob: Exactly. We like that. It’s not one of those huge sprawling ones where you don’t know what they do.
Filmdrunk: Sounds great. I am definitely going to buy this album for myself.
Joel, Rob, and Stephen: Yay!