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SNL Sketches Made Into Movies

The true legacy of SNL is defined by the sketches that became movies.

By Stephen HamiltonPublished 8 years ago 8 min read

Following a balmy Cold War winter, the spring of 1976 came in dry and would lead to global droughts. April 24 was a Saturday, and a show known as NBC’s Saturday Night was wrapping up its first season. Part way through, the camera cuts to a shot of producer Lorne Michaels at his desk:

"Hi, I'm Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night. Right now, we're being seen by approximately 22 million viewers, but please allow me, if I may, to address myself to just four very special people—John, Paul, George, and Ringo—the Beatles. Lately there have been a lot of rumors to the effect that the four of you might be getting back together. That would be great… The National Broadcasting Company has authorized me to offer you this check to be on our show [Michaels holds up a check] a certified check for $3,000… You divide it up any way you want. If you want to give less to Ringo, that's up to you.

Saturday Night Live Captures the Imagination of a Nation

Paul McCartney was, in fact, visiting John Lennon at his New York apartment while this episode aired, and they were watching it together. “John said, ‘We should go down, just you and me. There’s only two of us so we’ll take half the money,’ ” said Paul McCartney. In the end, the Liverpool sons found themselves too gassed and stayed in.

It was moments like these that captured the coveted viewership of young baby-boomers across the US throughout the second half of the 70s. In a country that was hard at work arming itself with nuclear weapons, not apologizing for the conflict in Vietnam, and spying on political rivals, the show that came to be known as Saturday Night Live provided a reprieve of spontaneity. Despite the show’s comedic nature, SNL’s live format earned it a reputation of sincerity and respect due to its less-adulterated content compared to other television at the time.

Image via NPR

The Production of SNL

Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza has hosted the show since its inception. Although its former occupants—Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphonic Orchestra—used it primarily as a soundstage, Lorne Michaels found the equipment limited and outdated. He demanded NBC replace/repair to the tune of $300,000. Even after the improvements were completed, the network kicked SNL out to a Brooklyn studio for the first four episodes of the first season in order to use it to cover the Carter/Ford Presidential race.

The cast has normally a period of two days to rehearse their sketches. Some features like the opening monologue and Weekend Update maybe written as late as Saturday afternoon. At 11:29:30 PM EST, SNL is broadcast, provided that a sports event isn’t running late. Certain slip-ups or four-letter words used (accidentally or not) may be edited out for west coast viewers. For those watching it live, however, anything is possible.

During the 1981 Halloween episode, for example, John Belushi invited his punk pals to play as the musical guest. Belushi had seen huge success after leaving the show the prior season to act in major Hollywood productions. The band was sore because they’d already tried to collaborate on Belushi’s new film Neighbors but the network had pushed them off the project. The Halloween episode spot was poor compensation.

SNL's Hardcore Early Days

Bandleader Ving Lee didn’t even manage to yell his count-in before a 20 percent shirtless punk crowd (including Belushi) started moshing across the stage. After playing two songs, insulting the audience, and recklessly slam dancing across the beautiful studio that Lorne had ordered renovated, the plug was pulled; The screen faded to black.

Fear and its fans caused roughly $20,000 of damage, although the New York Post initially reported 10 times that sum. You wouldn’t catch this event on Johnny Carson. For countless communities in the US, SNL provided a window that looked out onto emerging scenes.

Other notable events include Sinead O’Connor shouting “Fight the real enemy” and ripping up a picture of John Paul II after an a capella cover of Bob Marley’s “War.” Before Rage Against the Machine took the stage on April 13, 1996, band members hung upside-down American flags over their speakers. It marked a protest against billionaire Steve Forbes, who was hosting the show that night. Minutes before they were set to play, stagehands pulled the flags down. After the first song, the band was ordered to leave the building. Tim Commerford, the band’s bass player, ran quickly to Steve Forbes’ dressing room to throw shreds of the torn flags at him. Because SNL is live television on a major network, it acts as both a voice for the man, and venue to fight him.

Image via Getty Images

The Modern SNL

With the rise of YouTube in the early aughts, coupled with Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island gang, SNL writers began directing their best efforts at pre-recorded material. Following the Lonely Island exit, Rhys Thomas, a director who has worked on SNL since 2004, took on new talent. Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider joined the writing staff in 2011 after producing several clips for the likes of CollegeHumor and Funny Or Die. Other new writers have had huge success, like Alex Buono’s “Louie Lincoln,” or Oz Rodirguez’ and Matt Villine’s “Darrell’s House,” or Mike O’Brien’s Oprah biopic.

While it is true that SNL has used pre-recorded material since its inception, the current reliance on sketches filmed out of the purview of a live audience marks a new direction. If the biosphere of television can be understood as a system that follows the process of natural selection, SNL would be the common octopus, a cunning predator in the eternal night of the deep who can blend into any environment and regrow a severed tentacle. Over the years the show has waxed and waned; It has influenced elections; It has succeeded with and without Lorne. The longtime executive producer would not be able to entice Jay-Z into the studio with a check for $3,000 (although he might get Kanye). Perhaps the only way this octopus vulgaris will survive into the future will be with a move away from live television towards digital content. If this is true, then let us all shed a single tear and move on. But in the mean time, let’s celebrate the legacy of SNL by counting down our list of the best SNL movies to be made from their sketches.

What can be said that already hasn’t been said about Blues Brothers? John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are some of the coolest characters in all of cinema, on a “mission from god,” these two blues rich performers are on a quest to reform their band and take the music world by storm. Unfortunately, the pair are completely clueless, leading to one of the most remarkable and memorable third acts in comedic cinematic history. Aretha Franklin delivers some groovy tunes as well. Minnie the Moocher alright, Minnie the Moocher.

This film starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey is the mother of all goofball comedies. The two main characters are the anchor of the narrative, which isn’t particularly memorable, all told. What is memorable is the character’s passion for music, life, and all that makes a man happy. Besides, Wayne’s World is the film that many credit to be responsible for the massive resurgence in interest for the Queen record "Bohemian Rhapsody." If that isn’t worth some semblance of praise, I don’t know what is.

If James Bond, and to a lesser extent, Austin Powers, have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t resist a suave ladies man on the big screen. Enter, Tim Meadows as Leon Phillips, a late night radio chat show host with one of the most magnificent afros I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Wooing women, stumbling through the urban jungle looking for a new job after being fired from his old gig and trying his best to avoid the cuckolds who hold a grudge against him, Leon Phillips has his work cut out for him.

Featuring a young Vincent D’Onofrio alongside Al Franken, this mid 90s SNL film follows Stuart Smalley as a self-help advocate who, instead of dealing with strangers all the time, has to try and help his own family overcome their inner turmoil. As dark as that may sound, it’s all done with an exceedingly light touch. Don’t go in expecting an introspective examination of human psychological behavior. Instead, expect a few memorable gags alongside some interesting comedic characters to truly enjoy one of SNL’s more underrated films.

To point out the elephant in the room, SNL produced an incredible amount of films throughout the 90s. They’re of a certain taste, but for those who enjoyed the skits, these years were a goldmine for potential material. Superstar follows Mary Katherine Gallagher as she pursues her dream of becoming an undisputed superstar. Superstar is a simple lesson in how to produce effective comedy. The nerdy Catholic school girl is the archetype. Now, the audience has a clear stereotype in their heads, throw that archetype into a major fish outta water situation and let the comedy come naturally.

My mind wouldn’t instantly wander towards SNL when considering film producers that want to try and promote a socially progressive agenda. Not because they’re political, but because they want their films to carry a message. It's Pat is one of the early comedic examples of transsexual feelings in a mainstream context. Panned by the critics but endearing a small but devoted audience, It’s Pat remains a cult classic for those who’d remember it. It seems to have fallen to the wayside and is relatively forgotten, but if you want a silly, fun and interesting look into early 90s SNL comedy, you can do none better.

Most of the films on this list are interesting premises. However, Coneheads takes the cake. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when they came up with the concept of aliens who’s most distinctive feature is, you guessed it, their coneheads. Coneheads is SNL’s take on the instantly recognizable sci-fi alien flick but with a sprinkling of comedic flair. Some argue that the PG rating harmed the film in the long run, but honestly, there’s something so charming about the innocence of the central conceit that I can’t help but love it, despite its apparent and quite obvious flaws.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Blues Brothers 2000 isn’t a perfect movie. I’ve no shame in that. However, I do think that it is beat up on more than it deserves. Considering that the film had to try and be a sequel to one of the most beloved movies of not just SNL movies, but of all time, I think that it did an alright job. Just like Ghostbusters 2016, it doesn’t matter if the movie is good or not, you’ll always get those who hate it, and on a pure musical and entertainment level, Blues Brothers 2000 succeeds.

It’s infamously difficult to try and make an effective comedy sequel. Much like Blues Brothers 2000, expectations were exceedingly high for this film. As far as SNL sequels go, Wayne’s World 2 actually succeeded in many different areas. It managed to increase the celebrity cameos resulting in some surprises that I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it. With the increased budget came the potential for the boys to get into more ridiculous situations. And of course, the two main goofy characters remained at the centre of it all, much like Bill and Ted, they’re instantly lovable despite their major character flaws.

The most recent film on this list, MacGruber came out in 2010, long after many imagined the show it riffed on, McGyver, was past its peak of relevancy. However, this Will Forte headed flick showed the naysayers wrong. In the vain of Get Smart and Austin Powers, MacGruber takes the archetype of a clueless but confident main man and throwing him into the most ridiculous situations possible to make for a surprisingly memorable film despite the instant dismissals that many skeptics threw its direction.


About the Creator

Stephen Hamilton

Definitive movie buff. Quickly realized that it was more financially prudent to write about film than trying to beg for millions of dollars to make his own.

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