Leave it to The Lonely Island to end a three-year sabbatical with a lavishly produced, surprise drop celebrating a nearly forgotten period of baseball history. While Andy Samberg has been busy patrolling the streets of backlot Brooklyn and the whole troupe has put their collective imprimatur on some of 2019’s funniest new shows, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience marks their first major onscreen team-up since 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Emphasis on the “team”: This is the story, told through the group’s typically bombastic verse, of Jose Canseco (Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Akiva Schaffer), the Oakland Athletics sluggers who made a name for themselves by mashing home runs and then celebrating by bashing their forearms together. The duo helped take the notoriously stingy A’s to back-to-back World Series at the end of the 1980s, their achievements memorialized on a poster riffing on earlier era of Saturday Night Live musical comedy, and eventually tarnished by their abuse of performance-enhancing substances.
It’s a testament to Samberg, Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone’s influence and esteem that they convinced a Major League Baseball franchise to splash its name and logo all over something so outrageously profane as The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. It’s with an expected amount of chutzpah that they get to the steroid stuff in the first verse of this so-called “visual poem,” which plays over the image of Samberg and Schaffer in full Oakland uniform, crummy wigs on their heads and shit-eating grins spread across their faces.
That “visual poem” billing is a joke in and of itself, but it’s also an apt description. It puts a project about shriveled balls and giant egos in the same arena of artistic ambition as Lemonade or Endless, while also properly sizing up the proportions of the thing. These songs and these sequences all add up to something that exists somewhere in the space between “I’m On A Boat” and Popstar—more complex than a sketch, but not full enough to be an album. Hilariously audacious in scale and amusingly narrow in scope, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience has a quick-hit giddiness that feels more in line with 7 Days In Hell and Tour de Pharmacy, the Jake Szymanksi-Murray Miller sports mockumentaries Samberg fronted for HBO.
As the third title in a sports-comedy triple crown, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience maps its main characters onto types The Lonely Island has perfecting for years: Samberg combines his Keanu Reeves and Nicolas Cage impressions for the brash Canseco, while Schaffer revives his flat affect from the proto-Digital Short “We Like Sportz” to play a momma’s boy McGwire. That fire-and-ice concept sets up The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience’s first big laugh, as Samberg pivots from an on-field interview to announce his character with walk-up music swagger and CGI fireworks. Schaffer’s follow-up, spoken dry as a bone: “And I’m Mark.”
The premise presents a potential Friday Night Lights conundrum; sports fandom is not a requirement for enjoying The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience, though the humor is enhanced by even a passing familiarity with the A’s late-’80s campaigns, the scandals that plagued the Bash Brothers later in their careers, or Canseco’s Twitter feed (the more faux-profound musings of which aren’t too far off from the whispered koans bridging the special’s songs). The project finds a path to wider accessibility through its central characters, who are treated less as direct parodies of the actual players and more as avatars for The Lonely Island’s pet themes. A screening of The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience’s blood would find characteristic traces of late-20th-century cheese, tacky fashions, bad sex, and masculine overcompensation.
The only real red flags raised by those results (you know, aside from all the androstenedione) would pertain to the music. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience lands its fair share of lyrical punchlines—a digression about the plural of Goliath, an absurd exercise program built entirely around “bench-pressing bodacious babes in bikinis”—but none of the songs that contain them pull off the rib-tickling, ear-worming alchemy of “I Just Had Sex” or even the Oscar cast-off “Why Not Me?” The two that come closest don’t even need the Canseco-McGwire framework: The Sia-assisted “Oakland Nights” could’ve just as easily been a slow jam for the “Dick In A Box” guys, while the supergroup of HAIM, Maya Rudolph, and Stephanie Beatriz steal “IHOP Parking Lot” and its Minneapolis funk squiggles out from under its ostensible stars/subjects.
The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is joke-dense and visually rich, but comes up short on a key factor for making the Lonely Island big leagues: It doesn’t invite the type of repeat viewing that built the cults of Hot Rod and Popstar. It’s a concept stretched to its absolute limit, yet the closing title card prompts a feeling of “Is that it?” It’s not—this is The Lonely Island we’re talking about, so the credits provide one last opportunity to squeeze a gag in—but even after that, there’s the sense that Bash Brothers would be more satisfying as one in a collection of visual poems, rather than a standalone. For those fortunate enough to get tickets for Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone’s sold-out summer tour, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience serves as an enticing preamble; for the rest of us, at least “Jack Sparrow” is never more than a YouTube search away.