NEW YORK — When “Saturday Night Live” characters journey from sketch to screen, they often appear lost away from their live studio habitat.
The first “SNL” movie, 1980’s “The Blues Brothers,” was also the best, as anyone who recalls the “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants” can attest.
Since then, there’s been “Wayne’s World,” but most of the adaptations have resulted in films like “Coneheads” (1993) and “It’s Pat” (1994). Others like Molly Shannon’s “Superstar” (1999) and Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell’s “A Night at the Roxbury” (1998) have their cult defenders, but the big-screen “SNL” output has been checkered at best.
Sometimes, a character hasn’t seemed quite deserving of movie-length attention (see Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken, in 1995’s “Stuart Saves His Family”). Other times, the adaptations have struggled to go beyond the original one-joke premise (see Tim Meadows’ 2000 film “The Ladies’ Man”).
Little about Will Forte’s parody of the ‘80s adventure series “MacGyver” would seem befitting big-screen adaptation. Since the sketches began airing in January 2007, they’ve been remarkably similar: MacGruber gets distracted while assembling household items to try to deactivate a ticking time bomb. He and his assistants explode in a perfectly timed finale.
Forte, himself, never thought the sketches had any cinematic viability. Yet when he was approached about making “MacGruber” into a film, he couldn’t turn it down.
The resulting movie, which opens Friday, is very much an “SNL” creation: It’s produced by Lorne Michaels, directed by “SNL” writer Jorma Taccone, and written by Forte, Taccone and John Solomon, another writer on the show.
“Some people have already developed opinions one way or another about ‘SNL’ movies,” Forte said. “I hope they give it a chance.”
One thing going for it: “MacGruber,” the film, doesn’t feel like a 90-minute sketch. Forte and company expanded the story into an ‘80s action film parody. MacGruber never leaves his red Miata without his car stereo, on which he blasts Toto and Mr. Mister.
“People seem to want to throw this into this ‘SNL’ bag, which is great if they’re talking about ‘Blues Brothers’ or ‘Wayne’s World,’ but might not be great if they’re talking about other movies,” says Forte. “We never were looking at this as an ‘SNL’ movie, we were just looking at this as a movie.”
They kept “the character and the clothes and the attitude and nothing else,” Forte says.
“From a very early point in the writing process, we realized that if we just went for 90 minutes doing the sketch over and over again, people would get sick of it after about 90 seconds,” he says.
Though Forte, a former writer for the “Late Show with David Letterman” and “3rd Rock from the Sun,” temporarily succeeded Will Ferrell in playing former President George W. Bush, his contributions since joining the show in 2002 have generally leaned away from the topical and toward the absurd.
One of his early characters was Tim Calhoun, an exceedingly soft-spoken and wooden politician. In one memorable sketch, he played the ponytailed lead singer of a morning talk show house band, leading them from soothing sounds to — after downing a bottle of whiskey — a primal jam, screaming, “Go Thunderbird Spirit!”
That odd sense of humor transfers to the R-rated “MacGruber.” But the “SNL” process, which goes from a pitch meeting to a table-read to dress rehearsal before airing live, is constantly formed through feedback and audience reception.
Former “SNL” cast member Chris Kattan, who played characters like Mango and Mr. Peepers, also had a surreal quality on the show. Like Forte, he came up through the Groundlings, the Los Angeles improv comedy troupe.
Kattan said the adaptation process was considerable for “A Night at the Roxbury”; the sketch’s head-bopping characters basically didn’t talk, so they needed voices. He and Ferrell, he says, “had no idea” and went into the process “just along for the ride.”
“You have to trust the character and trust the story line and trust that it’s OK that you’re not going to get laughs every two-seconds,” says Kattan. “That’s hard at first to get used to because you’re trained on the Groundlings and on ‘SNL’ to get laughs every five-seconds.”
Kattan was surprised the Roxbury guys were chosen to be made into a film, though he believes a guest appearance by Jim Carrey sparked the spinoff. The “MacGruber” sketches similarly received a boost when they were used for a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial. Relativity Media took up producing the film, which Universal Pictures is distributing.
There haven’t been any “SNL” spinoffs since “Ladies Man,” but Michaels has helped find other, often fruitful avenues for “SNL” talent.
With Tina Fey, he produced the films “Mean Girls” and “Baby Mama,” and her acclaimed TV series “30 Rock.” He produced the film “Hot Rod” with Andy Samberg, and is executive producer of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
“I tend to want to work with the comedy people who I share I sensibility with,” says Michaels. “It’s much more driven by that than any other kind of consequence.”
Michaels, too, divorces “MacGruber” from any previous “SNL” spinoffs.
“I don’t think you can compare it to anything that’s come before,” says Michaels. “I would only make one of these movies if I thought there was more to it than we were able to do on the show.”
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