Image Credit: Greg Peters; Everett CollectionYou knew that the blood was on the floor the moment the critics, like Lisa, took out the long knives and began to slash away. Yet even given the worst. dumb. movie. ever. spitballs that were hurled at it, the box office returns for MacGruber had to be scary, and a bit of a shock, even for those who avidly follow the genre it belongs to: the bad Saturday Night Live movie. Now, I’m tempted to say that “bad Saturday Night Live movie” is a perfectly redundant phrase. I mean, just let your mind drift back over all the Lorne Michaels-mentored, here’s-what-you-crave, beloved-character SNL spin-off movies that have crashed and burned, and all for the same reason: because they were belabored, post-expiration-date one-joke follies that should never have been big-screen comedies in the first place.
A handful of them have their moments — teensy throwaway chuckles of jovial naughtiness amid the wreckage, and MacGruber has a few of those, too. Will Forte, with his gift for velvet-voiced smarm, makes MacGruber a posing, macho-phrase-making ’80s tough guy who, from his frosted long hair to his fits of backslapping myopic sincerity, hasn’t quite shaken off his ’70s roots. He’s a rebel who’s really a cry-baby conformist. I laughed at the way that he blasts sensitive-guy hits like “Rosanna” and “Steal Away” from the removable radio of his too-small cherry-red sports car, or at how, when he’s desperate to get his way and pleads, “I will suck your f—in’ d–k,” he says it with a little too much conviction.
On paper, MacGruber probably looked like the perfect SNL spin-off, because a parody of a brain-dead action comedy is still a brain-dead action comedy, and that means that the jokes can ride along on a commercial chassis of fireballs and renegade-military-man clichés. But what you feel at a movie like this one when you’re not laughing is…tepid numbness. It’s that old, familiar SNL movie feeling. And the response to MacGruber says that the feeling may finally have worn out its welcome with audiences.
The Saturday Night Live spin-off comedies first came into the world as real movies, starting 30 years ago, in 1980, with The Blues Brothers (though I have to say that I’ve never much cared for it — too many car crashes and too much instantly dated white-guys-in-shades fake hipsterism). The movie that really put the genre on the map, though, was Wayne’s World (1992). It was pure up-from-the-rec-room goofiness, but Mike Myers, who obviously had what it took to become a major screen star, made Wayne Campbell more than a glorified midnight-sketch ticker-tape joke machine. He spoke to the shwingy, head-banging universality of teenage suburban passion. Wayne’s World 2, which is actually hilarious and underrated, came out a year later, in 1993, and so did Coneheads, a from-the-vaults SNL comedy that no one in the world needed, but that on its own sci-fi satirical-kitsch terms wasn’t half bad. Then, in the middle of the 1990s, the SNL movie assembly line jumped the shark, and it more or less never looked back. It kept jumping that same shark, over and over again.
The beginning of the end was It’s Pat: The Movie (1994), in which Julia Sweeney’s androgynous dumpling wallflower, with her borderline-mentally-challenged whine, simply couldn’t fill up the space of a motion picture. You weren’t laughing with Pat, or even at her — it’s more like you were trapped at an unfunny audition that never ended. At that point, with the kind of pride that can be bred only by ignorance, the duds kept coming: the tinny, inert Stuart Saves His Family (1995), the egregiously “nostalgic” let’s-pick-the-bones musical Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), and then, finally, the movie you can blame for making the paper-thin toxicity of the SNL movie an entrenched part of the landscape: A Night at the Roxbury (1998), in which Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan, giving their disco-bopping Butabi brothers the ungainly and tedious pedestal of a feature-length backstory, squashed our laughter all the way to the bank. Terrible as it was, the movie squeaked by at the box office, more or less launching Will Ferrell’s movie career into orbit. And so the SNL spin-off comedy, instead of dying on the vine, was enabled once again.
The most painful thing about these movies is that they take characters, like MacGruber or It’s Pat! or Tim Meadows’ Ladies Man, who were inspired creations within the quick-blast universe of short-form TV and make you forget that you ever loved them. It’s a good thing, isn’t it, that this genre wasn’t kicked off in the ’70s, so that it never had the opportunity to soil our memory of classic SNL bits. Can you imagine the potential awfulness of a comedy like Wild and Crazy Guys Go Wild and Crazy or Emily Litella Saves the World? Or, from the 1980s, Church Lady For President? Or, more recently, Debbie Downer: Grief Counselor? These days, you can almost hear the Dr. Evil whirring of Lorne Michaels’ mind as he muses, “Stefon Takes Out the Eurotrash? I’ve got it — Gilly Forever!” No, no, and no, thank you. No one needs another SNL movie that’s so funny you forget to laugh.
So what’s your all-time favorite Saturday Night Live movie? And what do you think is the all-time worst one? Despite what I said, are there any SNL characters you would still love to see get their very own Hollywood comedy vehicle?