Remembering ‘Lettuce,’ The Forgotten Lonely Island ‘SNL’ Digital Short That Aired Before ‘Lazy Sunday’

Without Andy Samberg and Chris “Parns” Parnell catching a screening of The Chronicles of Narnia on the Upper West Side, it’s fair to wonder if there’d be no Hot Rod, no “Dick in the Box,” no Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which would be a tragedy.

“Lazy Sunday” was an immediate sensation. On the morning of December 17, 2005, the day the Jack Black-hosted episode of SNL aired, the Lonely Island, made up of Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, were a niche comedy group; by the following Monday, the trio were iTunes chart-toppers and, as Samberg told the New York Times at the time, “I’ve been recognized more times since the Saturday it aired than since I started on the show. It definitely felt like something changed overnight.”

But “Lazy Sunday” wasn’t the Lonely Island’s SNL debut. “Lettuce” was.

There’s a reason you probably don’t remember “Lettuce,” which aired two weeks before “Lazy Sunday” reclaimed Magnolia Bakery from Sex and the City. It’s not available on Hulu or or YouTube (the only active clip is on Tumblr, which is to say, it’s extremely low-res), and you won’t find it on any The 10 Best Lonely Island Sketches list. It would be a curiosity and otherwise forgotten, like many other mid-2000s SNL sketches (“Art Dealers” anyone?), if it didn’t, years later, lead to Palm Springs (so good) and “Jack Sparrow.” Bob Dylan didn’t become BOB DYLAN with his self-titled album — he became the Voice of a Generation with his second album. I’m not going to claim that the Lonely Island guys are also the voice of a generation, but, hypothetically, if they were, “Mona Lisa, you’re an overrated piece of sh*t / With your terrible style and your dead shark eyes” is a better era-defining lyric than that “blowin’ in the wind” hooey. Hypothetically.

“Lettuce” — which was cut during dress rehearsal from the Eva Longoria episode (November 19) before airing during the Dane Cook-hosted, James Blunt-musical guested episode (December 3) — is charmingly simple, lacking the catchy songs, CGI imagery, and guest stars of later Digital Shorts. Will Forte walks up to a glum-looking Samberg on the stoop of a New York City apartment. “I just keep trying to tell myself he’s in a better place, you know?” Samberg says to his pal, who responds, “You know, it’s all right to feel sad. But the pain goes away.” Forte then reveals that he’s been holding a head of lettuce this whole time, and he takes a huge honking bite out of it. Samberg later does the same with his own lettuce head. We never find out who the “he” is, but we do learn that the conversation between two grieving buddies is actually a commercial paid for by the “United Lettuce Growers Association.” Through good times and bad… lettuce.

The way things usually work at SNL is that if you have an idea for a sketch, you pitch it to your fellow cast members, writers, and the Grand Poobah himself, Lorne Michaels. And if you’re lucky enough to get a laugh in the room, you have to actually write the sketch. Then there’s a read-through, set building, makeup and costuming, and rehearsals, all while the soul of the joke slowly drains away through repetition. Live from New York, baby! But that’s not what the Lonely Island guys did for “Lettuce.” As newbies, with Taccone and Schaffer as writers and Samberg as a featured player, they made it during their spare time. “We knew if we had to pitch it and go through the table and get a budget, we weren’t going to be allowed to do it because we were so new,” Schaffer told GQ back in 2012. “It would have cost a lot of money and been a big deal, so we just decided to skip all that. And a few weeks later it got on air… We had total freedom.”

“Lettuce,” it’s worth noting, is extremely dumb. That’s a compliment, as the Lonely Island does dumb as well as anyone. It takes an expert (or, in this case, experts) to come up with something as profoundly stupid as a socially-awkward dweeb teaming up with Rihanna to rob a bank, only for the shy nerd to get a “boner alert!” during the heist. “Lettuce” isn’t on the level of “Laser Cats” (or “Laser Cats 2” or “Laser Cats! 3D” or “Laser Cats! 4 Ever” or “James Cameron’s Laser Cats 5” or “Laser Cats 6: The Musical!” or “Laser Cats 7”), and it was written by Forte, not Samberg, Schaffer, and/or Taccone, but it set the template for 100-plus Digital Shorts to come. It was also SNL‘s online breakthrough; 15 years later, millions watch the best sketches on YouTube the next day.

The Lonely Island departed SNL in 2012, but when I (regularly) re-watch their old work, I get the same thrill seeing the familiar “An SNL Digital Short” title card as I do when I hear the HBO static. And that’s, in part, because of “Lettuce.” Beautiful, stupid “Lettuce.”

The Lonely Island’s latest effort, ‘Palm Springs,’ premieres this weekend on Hulu.