In preparation for MacGruber, we actually watched The Ladies Man.
With the new MacGruber, we enter our third decade of movies based on Saturday Night Live characters. Using characters meant to sustain a five-minute sketch (and coast on audience goodwill forever after) as the basis for a feature film is a tricky business, trickier than some of the people who've tried it may have realized when they signed the contract. Here are the SNL films from best to worst.
1. A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
SNL was struggling in the early '80s. For the 1984-85 season, instead of taking a risk on completely unknown new talent, producer Dick Ebersol plugged the holes in his cast with proven veterans of the comedy scene. Two of the new hires who came to be known as "Dick's all-stars" were Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, both of whom had appeared in This Is Spinal Tap, the cult hit of the year. During their time on the show, Guest and Shearer (along with their Spinal Tap teammate Michael McKean, who would do his own stint as an SNL cast member ten years later) introduced the Folksmen, a hoary musical trio who would later anchor A Mighty Wind, Guest's parody of the folk scene. Since the Folksmen only made one appearance on SNL, a lot of people probably don't consider A Mighty Wind a "real" SNL movie, but it's also a lot funnier than most of the "real" SNL movies.
2. THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had already spun off their white-soul-men routine into a hit album and a touring act before John Landis (National Lampoon's Animal House) directed this $27-million movie. The original SNL players liked to go on about how they were revolutionary figures clearing away generations of show-business hacks; Blues Brothers revealed that their notion of hip wasn't significantly different from that of Frank, Dean, Sammy, and maybe even Joey Bishop. This is essentially a Rat Pack movie, albeit one for people who prefer blunts to martoonies. Overall, it's not too unpleasant, provided you don't mind spending what feels like half your life watching car crashes. The closest it comes to greatness are the sequences featuring guests musical (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway) and comedic (John Candy, Henry Gibson). Belushi and Aykroyd only really connect in those fleeting moments when they lower their sunglasses and drop their "characters."
3. WAYNE'S WORLD (1992)
Most of the SNL films would never have even occurred to anybody, if not for the blockbuster success of this massively hyped vehicle. In addition to launching Mike Myers into the stratosphere, Wayne's World also made a celebrity of Tia Carrere, allowed Rob Lowe to redefine himself as in on the joke, and created a new generation of Queen fans — mixed accomplishments all. Any movie about teens that people saw when they were teens (and subsequently watched a hundred times on VHS) will always be regarded by them as a timeless classic, so I expect to catch hell for pointing out that Wayne's World isn't very good. Most of the point of Wayne and Garth is lost by taking them out of Mom's basement, and the movie comes closer to celebrating mullethead stupidity than satirizing it. To his immense credit, Myers later scandalized the industry by refusing to do a Sprockets movie because he couldn't get the script to work. (Although that does make you wonder how it could have been worse than his script for The Love Guru.)
4. CONEHEADS (1993)
In their original TV incarnation, the Coneheads were the stuff of midnight movies: surreal, grotesque, and mean-spirited. (In the context of late-'70s SNL, they were also walking drug references. When they gorged themselves on beer and snack food, it was as if they'd gotten contact-high munchies from the viewers.) Revived more than a dozen years after their last TV appearance and reconceived for a family audience, they became cute, lovable, and implicitly anti-drug. The movie was a big commercial disappointment, and to add insult to injury, Zippy the Pinhead cartoonist Bill Griffith used his newspaper strip to accuse creator Dan Aykroyd of ripping him off. That said, Coneheads is about as good as a movie version of a played-out TV skit could be. Parts of it are funny, the parts that aren't funny aren't unduly painful, and many of the guest stars, including Dave Thomas as an alien warlord and a dashingly toupeed Jason Alexander, really strut their stuff. I actually like it more than Wayne's World, but in anticipation of negative public reaction, have chosen to rank it beneath the smash hit, which is just my way of saying, hey, I care about your feelings, please don't stuff dead cats inside my mailbox.
5. STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY (1995)
Stuart, starring Al Franken as the self-disintegrating public-access self-help guru Stuart Smalley, sat on the shelf for a while before being giving a flyspeck of a theatrical release. It did badly enough to send Franken himself into a reported shame spiral, but it has its defenders. With the vulnerable Stuart trying to reconnect with his awful family at the same time he's coping with the cancellation of his TV show, it's as genuinely dark as SNL movies get. There are funny moments throughout, but it has trouble achieving sustained liftoff, maybe because it's hard to make a movie seem fully alive when its hero keeps taking to his bed for six days at a stretch.
6. THE LADIES MAN (2000)
Tim Meadows stood out among SNL cast members of the '90s by being generally pretty easy to take. If anything, his light touch may have held him back in a field that rewards obnoxious overkill. Where someone like Adam Sandler threw anything at the wall to see if it would stick (Opera Man, Cajun Man, Unfunny Horrible Man Whom Somebody Should Have Taken A Hammer To Before He Got Rich Enough To Hire Bodyguards), Meadows was slow to acquire a recurring character. He eventually arrived at Leon Phelps, an ingenuously gauche love expert with a retro-'70s style and — a recurring curse in these movies — a funny voice that's amusing for five minutes at a time but can really get on your nerves over the course of a feature film. Meadows's likability is a major asset here, but the film itself is dispiritingly half-assed, partly because no one figured out how "real" people should react to this sexed-up goofball; anyone who responds favorably to his come-ons seems deranged, but if nobody responds to them, there's no movie. (His most satisfying run-in is with Julianne Moore, unrecognizable in full clown makeup.)
7. GILDA LIVE (1980)
This rarely mentioned performance film grew out of a stage show that Gilda Radner did in 1979. The show began as a little one-woman revue, something fun and low-pressure that she could do to fill the time during the summer hiatus. Then notorious control freak Lorne Michaels got involved, and blew the whole thing up into both a record album and this movie. Radner does all her familiar SNL characters (including those that by then were screamingly over-familiar, like Roseanne Roseannadanna) and also some new "too hot for TV" material that the SNL writing staff whipped up for her, including Michael O'Donoghue's song "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals." ("Up yours, Mr. Hippo/ Piss off, Mr. Fox/ Tell a chicken, 'Suck my dick'/ 'N give him chicken pox") There are funny moments, but the discrepancy between the warmed-over material and the lavish production drove Radner into a depression. Michaels immediately ordered that the release and the publicity be scaled way, way back. In the end, Michaels and NBC wanted as few people as possible to know that the movie existed, and they got their wish.
8. WAYNE'S WORLD 2
The success of the original Wayne's World led to this sequel, a commercial disappointment that did nothing for the momentum of Myers' career, to say nothing of the indie cred of such musical guests as Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, and the late Jim Morrison (who does not perform but instead appears to Wayne in spectral form, dispensing career advice from the next plane while being shadowed by a "naked Indian"). It has the distinction of being the only movie I've ever seen that draws upon the thespic talents of both Christopher Walken and Rip Taylor.
9. SUPERSTAR (1999)
SNL's contribution to the unusually stimulating year in American movies that was 1999 manages to combine some of the best qualities, and most of the worst, of Fight Club, Election, and that dream where your mother keeps walking in on you while you're masturbating. Superstar stars Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher, the Catholic high-school girl who longs to attract the attention of cute boy Will Ferrell. Though Shannon has since demonstrated real range as an actress (especially in 2007's Year of the Dog), most of her attention-getting work on SNL was along the lines of what's now called "cringe comedy", a term now applied to stuff like The Office and Sasha Baron Cohen. That means Shannon was ahead of the curve, instead of, as with most SNL in recent years, far, far behind it. Still, eighty minutes is a long time to cringe, especially at thirty-something actors playing teenagers. Superstar may suffer the worst from a problem that afflicts most SNL movies: torn from their natural habitat, sketch characters need full, stylized realities in which they'd make sense, like the one that Tim Burton fashioned around Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. There's more to turning a TV skit into a movie than writing a new skit and then continuing until the script is fifteen times longer.
10. BLUES BROTHERS 2000 (1999)
Dan Aykroyd and John Landis reunited in 1999 for this Blues Brothers sequel, for reasons that have never been made clear. Maybe Chevy Chase really didn't want to do Spies Like Us 2.
11. A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY (1998)
Roxbury marks the period when SNL achieved pure, unalloyed self-indulgence. When it came out, SNL and I had been taking a little break from each other, and I had never laid eyes on Chris Kattan or Will Ferrell and didn't know about their head-bobbing act. Yet when I saw the trailer, I instantly knew that they were SNL cast members doing characters they'd done a million times on the show. There's nothing much else to say, except that this was Will Ferrell's first starring role in a movie — though there are times when you could swear the filmmakers thought they were about to make a star out of Chris Kattan.
12. IT'S PAT (1994)
This is probably the most infamous of all the SNL spin-off movies, though few of the people who groan at any mention of its title have actually seen it. It became notorious before its (extremely limited) release, from published reports about the struggle to make an It's Pat movie in bold defiance of reason. Not having seen It's Pat before agreeing to write this, I actually hoped it might turn out to be a weird undiscovered classic, and that I could have the thrill of getting the ball rolling on its rediscovery and redemption. This turned out not to be the case.
Pat, you'll recall, was played by Julia Sweeney in a costume that gave her a blobby torso, a thick head of dark curls, and caterpillar eyebrows behind thick eyeglasses. (Pat actually bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Al Franken. I wonder if anyone's ever told him that.) The joke of the TV skits was that nobody could tell if Pat was a man or a woman. This not being much on which to pin a movie, the team of writers who worked on this project (including Sweeney and an uncredited Quentin Tarantino) came up with a second joke, one that virtually swamps the first joke and the movie itself: Pat is so rude, clueless, and grating that it's impossible to imagine why anyone would care about his/her gender identity. Sweeney later worked the experience of making this bomb, along with her battle with cancer, into her stage monologue God Said, Ha!