People tend to get overly nostalgic about Saturday Night Live, typically looking back to the supposed “golden years” of the show (an era that can shift around by decades depending on who you’re asking) in order to knock its most current, supposedly subpar season, whichever year they’re complaining. The truth is that the show might struggle a little here or there, but has overall been consistent in its quality in a way the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can significantly alter. SNL generally produces a few great sketches on a weekly basis in one of comedy’s most demanding writing rooms (James Franco’s Saturday Night documentary is a good glimpse of that punishing rhythm if you’re interested). These sketches often define their current era’s height of comedic performance & off-the-cuff writing, but just as often appear among enough failure & filler to greatly soften their in-the-moment impact. Looking back at past seasons of the show allow you to remember the great work & forget the filler, constructing a false reality where the show was ever perfect or firing on all cylinders (and I’m saying this about a series I love dearly & never miss). One of the things that helps foster this skewed perception is many of the performers’ post-show fame. It’s easy to look back & think SNL was so much better when Will Ferrell or Bill Murray were on instead of these no-name nobodies they’re currently working with, but the show is where those comedians cut their teeth & made a name for themselves in the first place. The truth is that they suffered just as much public scrutiny & just as many comedic missteps in their own day, but came out the other end of the show’s star-making machine all the better for it.
One of the ways the SNL star-maker machine used to work was in movie production. The franchise’s first film, The Blues Brothers, was an outrageous hit that helped make its stars Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi insanely popular in the early 1980s. The brand’s follow-up, Wayne’s World, had the same effect on the careers of Dan Carvey & Mike Myers and has gradually become a near-universally well-regarded comedy despite its inherent stoner-minded silliness. Things got much stranger in the mid to late 90s. When SNL movies like Coneheads & It’s Pat critically & financially sank the franchise’s box office reputation, the SNL movie seemed to shift focus from defining pop culture to developing the strengths of its performers. The late 90s run of A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man in particular play like movie star training wheels for the show’s performers (not unlike WWE productions like 12 Rounds & See No Evil). They’re low-stakes pictures aimed to help a future generation of comedic giants define their on-screen presence in a halfway point between a comedy sketch & a feature length character study. It’s easy to see, for instance, the beginnings of Will Ferrell’s future schtick, later defined in films like Step Brothers & Talladega Nights, beginning to form in his early roles as a club-hopping airhead in Roxbury or Jesus Christ himself in Superstar. The latest movie in SNL’s official sketch-to-silver-screen catalog (and my personal favorite to date), 2010’s MacGruber, seemed to be a similar incubator for comedic madman Will Forte, whose onscreen work gets weirder & more prominent every passing year.
It’s been six years since MacGruber and it’s unlikely that there are many sketch-to-film characters currently in development (not that I would necessarily be opposed to a Stefon or Olya Povlatsky movie), but that doesn’t mean the SNL movie is currently dead as a format. This hasn’t been the longest gap between SNL pictures by any stretch; there was a full decade separating both The Blues Brothers & Wayne’s World and The Ladies Man & MacGruber. It has been interesting, though, that in this most recent time span there’s been plenty of comedies I’d readily classify as “unofficial” SNL movies. Official SNL productions are traditionally helmed by the showrunner Lorne Michaels & have some sort of character connection to a recurring sketch from the show. Unofficial SNL movies, to me, exist solely in the casting. As a life-long fan of the show, I get incongruously excited when a comedy features a long list of SNL players, especially when I wasn’t expecting their participation. It happened, for example, in recent works like Inside Out, Skeleton Twins, and Zoolander 2 (which was a great showcase for Kyle Mooney in particular). Adam Sandler, for instance, has built a career around including as many of his SNL collaborators as possible in his own productions, which admittedly often disappoint in quality & basic human decency. Sometimes even his unofficial SNL movies can win me over, though. I doubt I’d have enjoyed an Adam Sandler children’s cartoon, horror comedy or otherwise, without a long list of SNL collaborators tagging along, but I gotta admit this long list of Not Ready for Prime Time Players brought too much joy to my heart for me to sour on Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania 2: Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Dana Carvey, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Robert Smigel, Chris Parnell, and oft-recurring host Steve Buscemi as a CGI werewolf. Similarly, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters got me stoked last Christmas with this delicious SNL lineup: Fey, Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Parnell. Moynihan in particular was allowed to steal the show in his role as the world’s worst amateur comedian and it got me excited about where his big screen career will eventually go, which is exactly what an SNL movie should be doing, undercover or not. That brings me to this summer’s undercover SNL movies: Popstar & Ghostbusters.
On its own, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is enough to make me feel as if the modern SNL movie is being officially outsourced to powers outside Lorne Michaels’s reach. Andy Samberg’s comedy troupe The Lonely Island are lifelong friends with roots much deeper than Samberg’s 2000s stint on the sketch comedy show. However, their “Digital Shorts” music parody bits are what made the troupe famous and now they have an entire This is Spinal Tap-style comedy built around the gimmick in Popstar. The Lonely Island’s first feature film, Hot Rod, included enough SNL collaborators to qualify as an undercover SNL movie, but that movie’s followup, Popstar, is even more ambitious in its inclusion of past personalities form the series: Samberg, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Higgins, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, and a fully-utilized Tim Meadows, which is particularly a rare treat. Not only has the Saturday Night Live roll call gotten even longer, but the film itself is an extension of a gimmick that was developed on the television series into a feature length narrative. The world was introduced to these pop star clowns on Saturday Night Live in songs like “I’m on a Boat” & “Jack Sparrow” and now their parody of pop music hedonism is on display in movie theaters without the SNL or Lorne Michaels brands stamped on it in any official way.
The modern, undercover SNL movie formula isn’t merely content with hjacking past sketches from the show, either. It’s now also infiltrating past works with only a small connection to the series. Early SNL staples Dan Aykroyd & Bill Murray received top billing in the 1984 horror comedy Ghostbusters, but they were the only two cast members involved with the movie, which had about as much to do with SNL as the Chris Farley, David Spade buddy comedies of the mid-90s, maybe even less. Compare that to the undercover SNL movie ensemble Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered in the recent Ghostbusters remake. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and Taran Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, as that’s the best post-Coneheads titles like Superstar & Roxbury ever hoped for.
Ghostbusters does accomplish more than that, though. It’s an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick that’s actually visually striking in its play with aspect ratios in its large format release (ghosts, lasers, lighting, and such spill over the letterbox border to enhance the film’s 3D effects), a kind of ambition I don’t normally anticipate from a summertime comedy, much less a reboot. Popstar is equally successful in its humor & ambition, bringing the Walk Hard brand of pop music cinema parody into the 2010s by tackling the Justin Bieber & One Direction style of “concert documentaries” that have been released since that modern John C. Reilly classic (which featured a few SNL contributors of its own). Two of the best summertime comedies of 2016 boast strong SNL roots, but don’t openly display the series’s brand. Meanwhile, Lorne Michaels supports smaller projects from his sketch comedy children, like the Hader-Armisen series Documentary Now or Maya Rudolph’s various attempts to launch a successful variety show of her own. In the six years since MacGruber left the theaters Michaels has shown little interest in pushing for a project like Riblet: The Movie or One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy: The Male-Driven Comedy. I would totally be down for either of those features, being a huge sucker for the brand (a Tonkerbell movie could work too while we’re at it), but I’m proud to see undercover SNL movies like Popstar & Ghostbusters fill that void in the long-running sketch series’s current theatrical absence. I doubt we’ve seen the end of the official SNL sketch-to-big-screen movie, but it’s been great to see the younger cast find their own collaborative space at the movies in the meantime. Especially Kate McKinnon. Everyone throw all of your money directly at Kate McKinnon. Now.