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'MacGruber' carrying 'SNL' baggage

May 16, 2010|By Saul Austerlitz, Special to the Los Angeles Times

An episode of "Saturday Night Live" contains, on average, 11 sketches. Given the 35 (!) seasons of "SNL" and an average of 20 episodes per year, that makes for approximately 7,700 sketches written, rehearsed and performed on the influential comedy show.

Out of that enormous trove of raw material, a handful of sketches have received the honor of being bulked up to feature-film length. After a decade-long hiatus (anyone remember 2000's "The Ladies Man," starring Tim Meadows?), "SNL" returns to the big screen Friday with the action-film parody "MacGruber," featuring cast members Will Forte and Kristen Wiig (joined by Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe and Val Kilmer), produced by the show's creator, Lorne Michaels, and directed by "SNL" writer Jorma Taccone.

But will "MacGruber" — a parody of the 1980s ABC television series "MacGyver," which starred Richard Dean Anderson as a spy whose modus operandi revolved around constructing weapons out of the unlikeliest raw materials — bring back the glory days of "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World," or will it be another "Stuart Saves His Family"? (It's a good thing Al Franken decided to go into politics.)

The film's creators are certainly leery of other "SNL" comparisons. "It wasn't until I read people's initial take online of what they thought the movie was going to be that I [realized], 'Oh, there's a tremendous amount of pressure,' " Taccone says. "It was a little shocking to read how many people thought the movie was going to be 'It's Pat' " — the notorious 1994 flop based on a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

The track record of the preceding "SNL" sketch films, almost all produced by Michaels, is a mixed one at best. The parade of adaptations got off to a slam-bang start with 1980's "The Blues Brothers," but the true dawn of the Age of "SNL" onscreen was 1992's smash hit "Wayne's World," in which two suburban dolts ( Mike Myers and Dana Carvey) with a fondness for heavy metal and Claudia Schiffer find fame and fortune with their cable-access television program.

The challenge of making "Wayne's World," according to director Penelope Spheeris, was of staying true to the spirit of the wildly popular sketches without growing stale. "I knew I couldn't instruct or direct [Myers and Carvey] to do anything that was contradictory to something that was preexisting," Spheeris says.

But the process was hardly smooth, requiring nearly 20 versions of the script. According to Spheeris, Myers and Carvey were squabbling over matters large and small: "I had to shoot it three times," she says. "I had to do it Mike's way, and I had to shoot it Dana's way, and then I had to shoot it my way."

In the final estimation, though, any kinks in the narrative were overwhelmed by the good fun "Wayne's World" offered: "We had a very simple story, and as I say quite often, who remembers whether Freedonia won the war or not?" says Michaels, referring to the Marx Brothers' masterpiece "Duck Soup." "The audience gives you a break on the plot."

For a short while, it seemed as if every moderately popular "SNL" sketch was making the transition to the big screen, with no fewer than nine "SNL" adaptations between 1992 and 2000. "Wayne's World" was an enormous hit, but many of its big-screen successors were plagued by inconsistency, hammering away at the original sketches' jokes without offering much in the way of new material.

The urge to capitalize on "Saturday Night Live's" appeal even led to such anomalies as a rushed film of the legendary "SNL" sketch "Coneheads" — some 16 years after a pointy-headed Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin debuted on the show. The result was a final product which, director Steve Barron admits, uncomfortably mingled old and new "SNL" styles. "The first act of the film really drove from the '70s 'Coneheads' sensibility, and the second act [represented] a mid-'90s version of 'SNL,' which was a 'Wayne's World,' contemporary suburban humor."

Other "SNL" spinoffs of the same era were widely perceived as failures, although they, too, have their adherents. "There's a lot of really funny stuff in 'The Ladies Man' and 'Superstar' and 'A Night at the Roxbury,' so I was a little surprised at how many people had so much hatred for them," Taccone says with a nervous chuckle. Still, Taccone and Forte learned their lesson from past "SNL" experiences, treating the film as an entirely new endeavor. "A lot of people think that the movie is just going to be repeating the sketch over and over again," says Forte. "It's nothing like that."

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