Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night… Matinee!
One of the key components of the long-running sketch comedy show is the amount of creative input and brand recognition that can be brought by the individual talents on the show. We think of the show in eras, and those eras are defined by the stars within.
Once in a while, Lorne Michaels and some Hollywood producers decide to take the plunge and attempt to make feature films based on characters and sketches made by the SNL creative team. You know, the characters that often exist for a singular joke? Yeah, it doesn’t pan out as well as you’d hope most of the time…
Still, it’s worth looking into the entire scope of the Saturday Night Live film catalog, for better or worse. There are real gems here, but most are absolute duds. The desire to cash in on whatever iconography the character has often taken precedence over actual humor or nuance. When you see these films, especially the bad ones, you can’t help but feel that there’s a better version that could’ve been made with better forethought.
Anyways, let’s take a look at the dark parts of memory lane:
10. It’s Pat! (1994)
Based on Julia Sweeney’s character Pat, where each sketch’s humor was based on normal people being baffled and confused by Pat’s gender ambiguity. Pat’s gender is never identified.
Oh man, this character did not age well. I don’t think that’s necessarily creator Julia Sweeney’s fault. This character came from an honest place meant to break gender tensions, especially in the SNL offices. Still, this is the ultimate “one-joke” movie. You can’t even fit a true narrative to this one without forcing it. Pat is given an equally ambiguous love interest and an antagonist obsessed with finding the truth. Pat’s gender ambiguity definitely loses a central appeal in the modern era, but worse than that is the film doesn’t even feel all that funny within the considered context. The punchlines are muted, often with the same sort of deliveries. This sketch is the worst kind of sketch to be a film because there is absolutely no variation.
Ultimately, the best this film offers is a dream project for talented Sweeney and her family and friends, but that single joke becomes profoundly unfunny when you realize you have no business obsessing and asserting other peoples’ gender identities. Making Pat the butt of jokes here is also really sad, people like this exist everywhere and even if this film wasn’t made with cruel intentions, I struggle to find any laughs.
9. Blues Brothers 2000 (1998???)
Based on the Blues Brothers music act original cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd performed in both in reality and on the show.
This film gets as many cameos and musical performances and big deals as it possibly could to capture the heart and warmth of the original, yet every frame remains too cynical and greedy to bring any joy out. While the glaring flaw is John Belushi’s absence due to his untimely death, I think small things meant to attract children or alternative demographics, like Buster Blues, are much bigger issues with the film than they are harsh realities of making such a production in the first place. Goodman, Aykroyd, and the rest of the supporting cast deliver moderate performances, but even having Jim Belushi (who plays Zee Blues in real life performances) in the film would have done a lot more to bring authenticity to the film.
As of now, authenticity is the biggest problem. When you have a shoddy, licensed Nintendo 64 game based on you, you have an uphill battle proving you’re doing it for the love of music. Still, there are solid musical performances and wonderful talent that shows up for bit parts. You can like the moments, but it’s nearly impossible to fall in love with the film as a whole.
8. Superstar (1999)
Based on Molly Shannon’s character Mary Katherine Gallagher, an intense and awkward teenage girl attending a Catholic school.
Superstar could’ve been a better movie in another time and place. Mary Katherine Gallagher is someone that desperately needs heavy helpings of sympathy if she’s going to be the protagonist in a romantic, character-based comedy. Instead, the humor is what I call “proto-cringe”. The bulk of the humor comes from Mary looking like a fool making out with trees and taking her dreams too seriously, and Mary can’t be the joke here. This needed an entirely different direction and made under a different perspective, this could have been a more personal and honest portrayal of awkward teenage girl problems. There are much better films that portray that.
Like other films in this list, the supporting cast helps the load. Will Ferrell and Harland Williams serve as a nice balance by both being really dumb guys fighting for the love of Mary. Yet… Tom Green is in this film, and his brand of humor should be a clear sign of what’s wrong with this picture.
7. The Ladies Man (2000)
Based on a character Tim Meadows played who operated a radio show and gave terrible relationship advice in the guise of a smooth swinger.
This movie had slightly more potential for an actual story. There are plenty of romantic comedies that have a player fall in love and realize the value of settling down. I think there are plenty of jokes here that actually land, and it’s competent at points. What sets this film back is the actual character and his jokes. The supporting cast is responsible for most of the memorable moments. The bar’s cast in contrast to the hapless husbands who want to enact revenge on the ladies man, the film wants to inject humanity into the characters but this is a case where you can’t fall in love with any character if you don’t fall in love with the protagonist first.
To a fault, Leon Phelps as a character is doing the same thing he’s always done. Still, it works well enough to be mediocre. The lesson of the story and Phelps’s character arc yield mixed results by the end. If your wife cheats on you, it’s because you were bad? Phelps’s goal in the film is to have sex with this rich lady he doesn’t remember again so she could pay for everything. Even if he turns a complete 180 and does mission work it’s a hard plot to care about.
6. Night at the Roxbury (1998)
Based on the characters Doug and Steve Butabi (or “The Roxbury Guys”), the sketch lampooned night club culture and the personalities of the men that frequent them.
The best of the “please don’t turn this one-joke into a film” pitches. Mostly because these characters totally exist in real life, and unlike Superstar or The Ladies Man, make few attempts to justify their stupid life and immature behavior. Sure, they get happy endings at the end, but it feels more like a consolation prize because the audience just spent an hour and twenty-two minutes laughing at the very essence of their personality. The saving grace is that certain gags work, but taken as a whole, the film is ugly. That seems to be a trend here, but what helps Steve and Doug Butabi is Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell bringing amazing energy and charm to very terrible people. Kattan never had many hits, but Ferrell hits a nice niche here that he carries into other buddy films. He has an amazing chemistry with just about anyone, and I think it’s because of his timing when he delivers a punchline. Kattan is no John C. Reilly however.
This film is as high as it is for making the pop culture relevance of Haddaway’s magnum opus “What is Love” eternal. Thank you, Night at the Roxbury.
5. Stuart Saves His Family (1995)
Based on Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley, a recovering addict who is nearing completion of his recovery by being a television self-help guru. The humor comes from Stuart’s personality, which is often insufferable and of little help to anyone.
Did you know this film existed? I didn’t until I saw it for this list. I like Franken, and this is a very strong character and pitch. The film itself is way smarter than the rest of the runts here, and to some, this may be the hidden gem of the list. The character’s personality mixed with traumatic background is definitely fascinating and it was probably refreshing for the time to explore characters that are attempting recovery. Stuart has a lot of easy jokes mixed in with the family drama, but then again the jokes or grand appeal just aren’t really here. They even dial Stuart’s personality down a tad to make him more sympathetic, but it’s hard to think “Oh Stuart has a craaazy family” when Stuart is an utter goofball next to any person. It feels more personal than a simple comedy, but there’s something essential missing here. The best you get is an exploration of the absurdities of recovery programs and family personalities.
There are amazing performances by the family, but the dysfunctional family and Stuart’s own character would’ve been more suited for sitcom programming; I picture another world where Stuart could’ve been a mix between Roseanne and Frasier, with a dash of originality, and television audiences would have loved it.
4. Coneheads (1993)
Based on the classic SNL sketch, where alien Beldar and his family are inserted into average American situations and do completely absurd things, and the people around them socially accept it without question.
I think the biggest problem with Coneheads is it actually came out in the wrong era. This skit was a classic of the seventies and the film came out in the nineties. Still, this is a strong idea and executed with above-average results, for the purpose of this list. You get a lot of mileage out of creating sympathy towards how much the aliens are like human families; they just do slightly sillier things. These jokes get old really fast, and the film falls apart and goes completely bonkers near the end. The family is funny and insightful in contrast with the real world, but when you start to see the alien invasion plot, the film feels very… alienating.
The other thing to mention is this is really the only movie in this list to feature a specific era of SNL alum. This has David Spade in a major supporting role, Chris Farley, Michael Mckean, Adam Sandler, and Phil Hartman. Their individual films weren’t made under the SNL umbrella and the only other film close to that is Sandler’s The Waterboy (1998), being an unofficial mix of SNL characters Sandler made. They probably deserve their own list and inspection one day, but for now, let’s just say I wish I was watching their movies instead of this one.
3. MacGruber (2010)
Based on the MacGruber sketch, where Will Forte’s character had to get out of Macgyver-like situations… and often failed.
I think this is the upset of the list. Most critics place MacGruber near the bottom and it did not sell very well, but I think this film has a lot going for it. First, the sketch was already built for longer-form storytelling and it was based on action properties. A MacGyer rip-off is way easier to make into a movie than anything else on this list. Couple that with amazing comedic and dramatic talent like Forte, Wiig, and freaking Val Kilmer, and you get something worth seeing. The big criticism of the film and this is admittedly big – it’s also not funny. Shock humor dominates the run-time and mileage will totally vary depending on how much you love the concept.
It also helps that this film is the most recent. The real rough patch in these films was in the nineties, where they thought they could get away with anything. This film has more consideration for character work and deliberate pacing. Not to mention the more modern sensibilities for comedy help way more for an entertaining and cohesive film than whatever nineties comedies had for sensibilities, which I assume based everything on Paulie Shore’s film catalog. Don’t ever make a film that reminds me of Son in Law (1993).
2.Wayne’s World 2 (1993) and Wayne’s World (1992)
Based on the Wayne’s World sketches, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey play Wayne and Garth, two young men obsessed with rock and metal music and do a public television show out of Wayne’s parents’ basement.
I couldn’t separate the two.
Wayne’s World 2 should’ve been way, way worse than it was. Instead, it’s ridiculously funny with Myers and Carvey completely unashamed to be going through a sequel. Wayne goes through another will they/won’t they with his girlfriend Cassandra and now they’re putting on a music festival because of a desert-ghost of Jim Morrison? How bonkers is that? The film’s low points come when it feels like a retread, but thankfully you can still feel plenty of heart in this. More importantly, the jokes land and you are always eager for the next one. So yeah, this is a great movie. The first unequivocally great one in the list.
And for the first one, which is an actual comedy classic, Wayne’s World benefits from a lot of separate aspects. First, Myers and Carvey are not only insanely talented but also specifically talented in building characters and unique personalities. These characters aren’t funny because they are a joke, they are caricatures that allow Myers and Carvey to have complete fun. Wayne and Garth are also characters you adore laughing at, and with, not necessarily because they’re bad people like previous entries, but because you see an innocent and stupid adolescence within them. I had buddies like this in high school. I was a little bit of Wayne and Garth. [Ed. note: he still is.]
They also have wonderful chemistry together. This movie also brilliantly examines a contemporary dilemma within rock music and other forms of media: the authenticity and alternative movements that push back against eighties corporate interests. Simple enough, but unlike other films on this list, the jokes get better as the film goes. Imagine that! It’s also well-directed by Penelope Spheeris, and has a strong script while although typical and formulaic, succeeds very well in pacing.
1. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Based on the Blues Brothers musical act starring the characters Jake and Elwood Blues, only this movie is way better than Blues Brothers 2000.
While perhaps not as funny as Wayne’s World, The Blues Brothers is a completely different animal. It’s a spectacle. An almost two and a half-hour concert with comedy from some of the funniest people alive in the era, with musical performances by some of the greatest legends of all time. To top it all off, it’s directed by an early John Landis, who decides to add two amazing car chases. You know, just in case you were tired of the rest of the film.
What’s particularly remarkable about why this film is so great is that it’s not based on a joke. The characters Aykroyd and Belushi developed weren’t conceived for any sort of humor, they were meant to represent their friendship over the music they love. The fictional backstory and demeanor are meant for a live audience — a real one. One that’s meant to go home and play their records again and again. The standard “getting the band back together” formula works as a solid introduction to the larger band but also enables the episodic jokes and settings the brothers find themselves in. They don’t have manners and have little regard for the law, they don’t have brains, they just have love for each other and the music. Their less-than working-class backgrounds make them the butt of every joke, but also the most sympathetic… Because they’re on a mission from God.
So if the best SNL film was the first, should they have stopped there? No, I think the real lesson here is how much of a bubble SNL movie producers are in, in contrast to other comedian-led vehicles. As said in the Coneheads segment, there are entire sections of SNL alums that have movie catalogs that are out of this world compared to this stuff.
Instead of giving SNL talent a chance to make pitches for feature films they thought the only pitches worth going for were the ones already proven to work on television. The best stuff was suited for film and gave the people involved creative freedom. We probably won’t see another SNL movie for a long time, but honestly having them star in their own shows and pitch their own stuff to studios is a much better idea anyway.