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What About the Movies? Accounting for the Cinema of ‘SNL’

Since eliciting compassion for dunces and kooks wasn’t the point of the original sketches, the big-screen versions’ hallmark is how often they have to invert their parent skit’s snarky premise to make sense at feature length.

Because Lorne Michaels won’t know what a decent night’s sleep is until he’s made Saturday Night Live as unavoidable as Star Wars or the Marvelverse in pop culture’s cosmic debris field, he’s never given up on transferring the show’s buzziest sketch characters to the big screen. This has turned out to be a lonely passion at times. While deciding to Hollywoodize Wayne’s World back in 1992 was a no-brainer, it took real doggedness to imagine audiences were baying for MacGruber — one of 2010’s biggest box office flops and the most recent SNL-derived movie to date.

All the same, even the notorious It’s Pat, which Michaels had nothing to do with, has its WTF fascinations — not charms, I’m not crazy — in the big rearview mirror. That’s because totally concocted Cheez Whiz movies often make better time capsules than class acts do. Stephen Hawking could go nuts trying to figure out why these particular one-joke goofs struck America’s funny bone to the point that Michaels thought they’d kill at the multiplex.

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With one or two exceptions, the Saturday Night Live movies never really struck a nerve. New cast members caught on fast that patenting their own go-to dunce or kook was the surest guarantee of airtime and subsequent film appearances, which prioritized safe bets over interesting gambles. But since eliciting compassion for dunces and kooks wasn’t the point of the original sketches, the big-screen versions’ hallmark is how often they have to invert their parent skit’s snarky premise to make sense at feature length.

If you’re into watching memory lane turn into a bowling alley, you’ll also gaze in wonder at the clutch of formerly zeitgeist-yeasty performers who’ve long since faded from view. Maybe Mike Myers won’t need to depend on Wayne’s World to keep him feeling like a big cheese in the old folks’ home, but Dana Carvey hasn’t been as fortunate. And then there’s U.S. Senator Al Franken — the star of 1995’s Stuart Saves His Family — who apparently has his own idiosyncratic notion of how to recede into obscurity.

On top of that, because Michaels always did know talent, you’re getting early glimpses of people destined for bigger or more durable careers than the movies’ ostensible stars. Future queen of the indies Parker Posey and future Ellen DeGeneres Ellen DeGeneres both turn up in 1993’s Coneheads, for instance. So does a ferally callow Adam Sandler — and second-billed Jane Curtin and fourth-billed Laraine Newman must wonder sometimes about the fame train’s whimsies.


The fun of playing pop culture spelunkhead is that it lets you ignore how few of these movies had any reason to exist besides the obvious parasitic one. Whether they’ve scraped by with audiences or even at the box office, all SNL movies share the same basic dilemma: Movies based on sketch characters are one step up — and sometimes not even that — from movies based on video games.

Adding to the strain on the screenwriters’ ingenuity, successive generations of series regulars kept going to the same well. Stupidity is an easy failing to spoof, especially when it’s made so garish that even the dimmest bulbs in the audience can feel superior. Morons with quirky voices and simpleton worldviews have been the show’s most reliable recurring laugh-getters, from the noogie-addicted Loopners, who never got a movie incarnation, to Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s Roxbury Guys, who did.

Among other things, this is a good reason to suspect that SNL’s role in propagandizing for the Great Liberal Conspiracy is overrated. However farcically presented, the message that life’s losers deserve only ridicule — how else can you know for sure you’re not one of them? — isn’t starkly at odds with the winner-take-all callousness Ronald Reagan did his best to make as American as Humvees. Yet the common thread of SNL-derived movies is how they take sketches whose default mode is cool-kid contempt for also-rans and turn them into acceptably heartwarming triumphs of the dumb-ass metalhead, dorky-clubland shlemiel, or hydrocephalic-space-alien spirit.

There’s no ideology at work here — just expediency. Different mediums have different needs. With the weird-and-what-else-is-new exception of The Blues Brothers’ Jake and Elwood Blues, none of these characters originated as human beings (or refugees from the planet Remulak) whose behavior and/or aspirations audiences were supposed to root for. But when we go to the movies, we’re partial to having our snark served with mush for dessert.

If the central challenge of the Cinema of Lorne is cooking up some sort of serviceably dopey plot to rationalize the spawning gag, the other is infusing sentimentality into the mix. Those chores aren’t unrelated. Keep this in mind as we wade into separating — if not precisely gold from dross — good-to-great Cheez Whiz from bad.


Most Charming: Wayne’s World

Not much of a contest here, considering that mush was the middle name Mike Myers dropped the day he left Canada and took back once he’d made the big time. Even though Austin Powers remains the ultimate proof that satire was Myers’s version of Walter Mitty–ism — a long-standing SNL tradition, keynoted by the singing career Eddie Murphy launched by burlesquing other singers — the Wayne’s World headbangers were probably his secret ideal of the simple life. If it turned out Wayne could also quote Kierkegaard in Chinese to woo Tia Carrere and learn American history from an erudite Alice Cooper, so much the better. With director Penelope Spheeris adding her own underdog sympathies to the concept’s reconfigured bias, WW upgraded the original skit’s suburban yokels to holy innocents by pitting them against ace smoothie Rob Lowe’s cynical TV entrepreneur, who wants to exploit and corrupt their amateur-hour appeal — and if Kevin Smith wasn’t paying close attention, Kierkegaard is the name of a deodorant. Starting with the guys’ “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along, infectious good nature trumps residual snark every time, the revealingly unintrusive meta jokes about product placement and formula clichés included.

Most Underrated: Stuart Saves His Family

A figure of fun in his TV incarnation, Al Franken’s hapless self-help addict, Stuart Smalley, got turned into an everyman in Harold Ramis’s movie. Just not an everyman anyone wanted to identify with, apparently, considering that it was the worst dud of Ramis’s usually commercially blessed career and the second-worst (after It’s Pat) money-loser of any SNL-based gizmo. A silly man who discovers his resilience is one thing, but one who does it without relinquishing his fatuousness is another, and that’s the difference between a movie that audiences might have embraced and a box office flop. Half Frank Capra for the age of psychobabble and half the trials of Job gone Bourgie Nights, this one’s an art flick despite itself. Which in this lineup is, yes, a compliment.

Rock Bottom: It’s Pat

Again, no contest. But since you’re most likely among the seven billion or so human beings of all sexes who’ve taken a pass on checking out this notorious piece of mange, you may be wondering just how bad it can be. Answer: so bad it’s amazing no semiotician has stepped forward to hail It’s Pat as a misunderstood masterpiece. It isn’t, though — just miscalculated in every way, starting with the grafted-on mania (now Pat the creepy androgyne is a fame whore, too) that makes the character more grotesque, not less. Putting us on Pat’s side by making Pat a sweetie-pie martyr to society’s prejudices shoulda been child’s play, but the loathing that was always implicit in Sweeney’s creation gets foregrounded instead. If you care, Dave Foley is awesomely wasted as Pat’s similarly gender-challenged one-and-only; his performance has the tenderness his costar’s lacks. Luckily, though, Foley has had other showcases for his talent — maybe not enough of them, but plenty.

The Definition of Middling: A Night at the Roxbury

Talk about a movie that has no justification for existing. Not only were acumen-challenged Steve and Doug Butabi a third-generation knockoff of Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin’s disco-era Wild and Crazy Guys, but Dumb and Dumber had also already done better by almost every joke on view. People who actually are stars making fun of the dimwits stuck on the wrong side of the velvet rope have never been my favorite cup of snideness, either. But Kattan and Ferrell go together like anchovy on a pizza, casting Dan Hedaya and Loni Anderson as their parents is a good enough joke that you can almost forgive the script’s failure to get much traction out of it, and the Richard Grieco cameo is a hoot. That said, fall asleep at almost any point — the bros’ dance routine once they finally get into the Roxbury is an exception — and you’ll wake up not having missed a thing.

Most Culturally Evocative: The Blues Brothers

Back in 1980, unwowed reviewers bemoaned its bloated budget, two-hour-plus running time, and notoriously overscaled demolition-derby climax. Meanwhile, music purists snorted at — OK, wanted to set fire to — the spectacle of a couple of self-indulgent white boys with money to burn travestying the blues, R&B, and soul music that Belushi and Aykroyd so awkwardly doted on. But what do you know, that last one is the story of rock and roll. Wittingly or not — and most often not — The Blues Brothers never stops shining a light on the contradictions and ironies involved in white people’s appropriation of African American culture, from both stars’ blatant equation of this music with a form of manliness that was otherwise beyond them to the shaggy-Chihuahua plot device of our heroes trying to raise money for the orphanage they were raised in. Heck, I’d like to read the PhD dissertation about minstrelsy that can touch it. Besides, if you think — not unreasonably — that Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the cast’s other ringers deserved a less undignified showcase for their genius, tell me which one so many moviegoers would ever have seen them in.

Most Unwittingly Ahead of Its Time: Coneheads

It’s not as if illegal aliens and other newbies to the American dream — those pesky gays, for instance — weren’t already hot topics in 1993; they were just somewhat less hyperbolized by panic. But Hollywood wasn’t making many comedies about them unless you count this one. Turning the Coneheads into the melting pot’s latest candidates for assimilation added fresh resonance to the skit version’s subliminal jokes — namely, that (1) every family is from outer space behind closed doors, and (2) teens and parents are always aliens to each other. As perfunctory as a lot of Coneheads is, which is putting it kindly — except for David Spade, who’s happy as a clam to deploy his purring-douche-bag shtick, everyone involved looks as if they’d rather be somewhere else — the movie gains something from 20-plus years of hindsight flavoring the popcorn.

The One That Never Got Made: Sprockets

The movie incarnation of “Dieter” — the disconcertingly post-everything German art fart who was Myers’s most flamboyant creation — might have been the rare SNL flick that did strike a nerve. But Myers ended up getting sued by Universal for bailing on the script — which is famous in comedy-head circles as a lost bit of genius. The big beneficiary? Sacha Baron Cohen, whose character Brüno owes Myers a sizable debt. Then again, Brüno didn’t do nearly as well as Cohen’s Borat, despite being (or because it was) the bolder and better movie of the two. So maybe Myers’s commercial instinct wasn’t wrong, much as I’d have loved to see him get there first.

The One You Wish They’d Made: Jane, You Ignorant Slut

Speaking of Aykroyd and Curtin, the duo’s 1970s spats on “Weekend Update” — her comeback was “Dan, you pompous ass” — parodied testily conservative James J. Kilpatrick and priggishly liberal Shana Alexander’s “Point/Counterpoint” segments on 60 Minutes, the long-forgotten and relatively decorous acorn from which our whole shouting-head TV culture grew. If anyone’s looking for prescience, here it is by the truckload, to the point that today’s kids probably wouldn’t be able to grasp that any burlesque is involved. And what do you mean, how could they have padded Jane and Dan’s pissing match to feature length? Haven’t we been doing just that since Hillary Clinton was still wearing headbands?

Tom Carson (@TomCarsonWriter) is GQ’s movie reviewer and the author of Gilligan’s Wake and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.

Illustration by Linsey Fields.