Total Recall

Total Recall: Saturday Night Live Movies

We count down every film that's made the transition from skit to screen.

by | May 21, 2010 | Comments


For decades now, weekend TV viewers have enjoyed two reliable pastimes: complaining about the latest cast of Saturday Night Live, and tuning in anyway. Through deaths, ratings scares, and constant creative turnover, SNL has persevered — and along the way, it’s taken some of its most popular characters and turned them into feature films. Of course, just like the show’s ratings, its big-screen success has been through some ups and downs — and with SNL premiering its impressive 40th season this weekend, we thought now would be the perfect time to take a look back at every movie that got its start as a sketch. Live from Rotten Tomatoes… it’s Total Recall!


12. It’s Pat… The Movie

Julia Sweeney was in countless skits during her SNL run, and got plenty of laughs along the way, but the character she was most closely identified with was the androgynous Pat, whose indeterminate sex was the focus of a long-running series of sketches that attracted such guest stars as Linda Hamilton and Harvey Keitel. Still, not even Sweeney thought a full-length movie was a good idea; it took studio sweet-talking (and cash) to get the project rolling. Of course, once the original studio bailed on It’s Pat, everyone involved should have known they were headed for disaster — and when Touchstone finally stepped in to release the movie and gave it a three-city release, the critical knives were out. At zero percent on the Tomatometer, It’s Pat is not only the worst SNL movie, it’s one of the worst movies of all time — “Patently atrocious in every conceivable way,” in the words of eFilmcritic’s Scott Weinberg. About the only positive thing that can be said for It’s Pat (aside from “it’s only 77 minutes long”) is that it featured a Ween cameo and the underrated Charles Rocket in a supporting role as Kyle Jacobsen, the neighbor obsessed with deducing Pat’s sexual identity.


11. A Night at the Roxbury

Before Will Ferrell could make a name for himself as one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, he had to suffer through A Night at the Roxbury, the feature-length version of the SNL sketch about a pair of obnoxious club patrons who can’t help bobbing their heads in unison whenever they hear Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” It’s a thin premise, even held alongside some of the other entries on this list, and even during their best moments, the Roxbury characters were more absurd than truly funny — but when Hollywood comes calling, you have to open the door, even if the project in question includes the fateful five words “starring Richard Grieco as himself.” Written by Ferrell and co-star Chris Kattan, A Night at the Roxbury invented a suitably outlandish backstory for the head-bobbing Butabi brothers, making them the sons of a fake plant store owner (Dan Hedaya) who wants Ferrell’s character to marry the daughter (Molly Shannon) of the lamp store owner next door so he can…well, it really doesn’t matter much. Suffice it to say “What Is Love?” is involved, Richard Grieco is suitably convincing as himself, and the critics wanted nothing to do with any of it. In the words of Cinemaphile’s David Keyes, “those who manage to sit through all 81 minutes of it deserve a medal of bravery.”


10. The Ladies Man

In 2000, the same year Tim Meadows concluded his long run on SNL, his most famous character finally got his cinematic due: The Ladies Man, an 84-minute look at the exploits of Leon Phelps, the Afro-wielding, cognac-sipping talk radio host and sex therapy expert. As SNL characters go, Phelps might have had a fair amount of cinematic potential, but The Ladies Man arrived three years after the sketch’s debut, after its star had already left the cast, and burdened by a script (co-written by Meadows) that produced little in the way of laughs. Still, its 11 percent Tomatometer is ever so slightly deceiving; even a number of the critics who panned the movie found it relatively harmless, and by blending ribald humor with a wonderfully wacky cast that included Billy Dee Williams and Julianne Moore, it earned the begrudging admiration of writers like Mike Miliard of the Boston Phoenix, who wrote, “The Ladies Man is pointless and should never have been made. But check your brain at the door and it almost stacks up to a snifter of Courvoisier and a handful of butt.”


9. Stuart Saves His Family

One of the most popular SNL characters of the early 1990s, the blissfully ignorant self-help guru and cable access host Stuart Smalley was a rite of passage for many of the show’s guests — including Michael Jordan, who was famously unable to keep a straight face during his segment. Audiences, alas, found resisting laughter far easier — the few who saw it, that is. Released in 1995, Stuart Saves His Family was an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved — Paramount Pictures, which grossed a mere $911,000 during its brief theatrical run; director Harold Ramis, whose previous releases included Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day; and star Al Franken, who bore the brunt of the film’s failure and was more or less forced to retire the character from the show. It’s hard to feel too badly, though, for the group that took a perfectly silly skit and puffed it up into an uneasily sentimental feature about such unfunny topics as property law, estate settlements, and 12-step programs. If there had ever been a way to bring Stuart Smalley to the movies, this feature wasn’t it. As Joe Leyden wrote for Variety, “It isn’t good enough, it isn’t smart enough, and, doggone it, most people won’t like Stuart Saves His Family.”


8. Superstar

Arguably the unsexiest schoolgirl in pop culture history, Mary Katherine Gallagher gave Molly Shannon’s hyperventilating, armpit-sniffing dark side hilarious free rein during a series of skits that found her clashing with nuns, schoolmates, and, in one notable episode, Whitney Houston. Still, despite her popularity, Mary Katherine was sort of a one-note character, which meant that for her 1999 theatrical debut, she needed a fairly outlandish backstory (courtesy of screenwriter Steve Koren, who also had a hand in A Night at the Roxbury). Turns out Mary’s a special ed student, as well as an orphan whose parents were trampled to death at a Riverdance-style competition, and…well, at one point, Will Ferrell shows up as an exasperated Jesus Christ (one of two roles Ferrell played, along with the dance-inventing Sky Corrigan). Does it sound like a bit of a mess? Critics thought so — and although many of them appreciated Shannon’s immense likability and total commitment to the role, most echoed the sentiments of Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Here is a portrait of a character so sad and hapless, so hard to like, so impossible to empathize with, that watching it feels like an act of unkindness.”


7. Coneheads

More than 25 years after they first appeared on SNL, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin’s pointy-domed clan of Remulakians finally made their way to the big screen. On paper, Coneheads sort of looked like a slam dunk — the characters were fondly remembered from their original run on the show, and this was the era when not only Wayne’s World was proving SNL sketches could make good movies, but old shows like The Brady Bunch and The Addams Family were pulling in big bucks in theaters. Unfortunately, despite all that — and a cast stuffed with series vets like Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman, and David Spade — Coneheads failed to catch on with audiences or critics, with both groups pointing out that the characters just weren’t strong enough to support a movie of their own. Wrote Chris Hicks of the Deseret News, “The film itself is like the cinematic equivalent of a clothesline, with a steady stream of skits and gags hung out to dry.”


6. Blues Brothers 2000

In 1980, The Blues Brothers helped shine the spotlight on some marvelously talented (and sadly out of fashion) blues, soul, and R&B musicians, all while treating audiences to a terrific wisecracking action movie. Eighteen years later, Blues Brothers 2000 was released, and…well, the music was still pretty solid, anyway. This might seem like damning with faint praise, but really, when you consider that nearly two decades had passed since the original — and that one-half of the Blues Brothers, John Belushi, died in 1982 — getting even the music right seems like a pretty big deal. Remaining original Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd earns points for trying — he reunited original director John Landis, many of the musicians who appeared in the first picture, added a few fresh faces on the blues scene, and recruited John Goodman to try and fill the void left by Belushi — but ultimately, no matter how many songs they fit on the soundtrack or how many cars piled up in the climactic chase scene (it was 60, setting a new world’s record), Blues Brothers 2000 couldn’t come close to its classic predecessor. Still, Jeff Vice of the Deseret News was one of a number of critics who appreciated the effort, writing, “While the comedic scenes are hopelessly inept, Landis again shows a deft hand with the staging of the musical numbers, which should provide fans with a good enough reason to see the movie.”


5. MacGruber

SNL movies have been spun out of some awfully thin premises before, but perhaps none that seemed as ludicrously non-cinematic as MacGruber. Inspired by a belligerently over-the-top recurring parody of the long-running ABC series MacGyver, in which Richard Dean Anderson starred as the titular handyman/hero who could save the day armed with little more than household goods, the movie attempted to bring the film-length funny with Will Forte as MacGruber, a hollering moron whose SNL appearances always ended in disaster. The MacGruber movie wasn’t a total dud; although it failed to find much of an audience at the box office, it featured enough gonzo comedy (including a supporting turn from Val Kilmer as the evil Dieter Von Cunth) to earn something of a cult following among absurd humor enthusiasts. Betsy Sherman of the Boston Phoenix numbered herself among them, writing, “From one of Saturday Night Live‘s lamest recurring sketches comes one of its funniest spinoffs.”


4. Wayne’s World 2

A year after Wayne’s World grossed almost $200 million worldwide, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey returned for more party time at the box office — and while the results weren’t quite as excellent, Wayne’s World 2 still proved a respectable follow-up, especially given that it added another 95 minutes to the legacy of two characters who originally seemed like they’d have a hard time filling up a half-hour sitcom. This time around, Wayne and Garth seek to build on their budding media empire with a concert festival (naturally dubbed “Waynestock”) inspired by instructions handed down from the ghost of Jim Morrison in an Aerosmith-fueled dream. It’s even sillier than the first movie, in other words, with a goofball factor enhanced by the sort of expanded budget that allows for cameo appearances from the likes of Aerosmith, Charlton Heston, and Rip Taylor. Although audience indifference dashed any hopes of a Wayne’s World 3, the sequel was surprisingly well received by critics like the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote, “This film is sometimes too familiar, especially in early scenes that deliberately repeat the first film’s gags. But the formula isn’t tired yet.”


3. Wayne’s World

If you’re going to make a movie about the type of suburban youth that spent a lot of time hanging out at rock shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you could hardly pick a better director than Penelope Spheeris, the filmmaker who gave us the Decline of Western Civilization series — and for Saturday Night Live, the cable access mullet enthusiasts known as Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) were the perfect characters to end the show’s long cinematic drought. Probably the most popular complaint leveled against SNL movies is that you can’t stretch a five-minute sketch out to film length, and really, there’s no reason anyone should have been able to build a decent script around a pair of catchphrase-spouting doofuses who hang out in a basement, rocking out and talking about babes. Wayne’s World solved this problem by embracing the absurdity of its very existence, sending the movie way over the top and into a land where anything could happen: the fourth wall could be broken, Tia Carrere could star in a hit film, and Queen could score a Top Five hit with a 20-year-old song. There’s a plot buried under Wayne’s World‘s trucker cap, but it isn’t really important; the only thing the movie is really concerned with is making you laugh — early, often, and usually in spite of yourself. As Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss put it in his review, “Hollywood surely accepts the movie’s message: laughter is the least expensive therapy. And audiences may happily parrot another Wayneism to Myers: ‘He shoots! He scores!'”


2. The Blues Brothers

They may have gotten their start performing in killer bee outfits, but the Blues Brothers were never entirely a joke — Dan “Elwood Blues” Aykroyd was a lifelong disciple of the music, and John “Jake Blues” Belushi developed a fascination with it through his friendship with Aykroyd. Though they were often derided as dilettantes in a genre whose lifeblood is authenticity, Aykroyd and Belushi actually played an important part in restoring some of the blues’ commercial potency; when they made their 1976 debut on SNL, disco was king, and their band (which released its first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978) employed some great blues and soul musicians when they really needed the work. This respect for the music extended to the Blues Brothers’ 1980 feature, which placed legends such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Cab Calloway, and Ray Charles in the middle of the action — and made sure audiences were introduced to relatively unsung heroes like Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn in the bargain. The script might have meant that whole “mission from God” thing as a joke, in other words, but for some music fans, they weren’t far from the truth — and like the music the titular duo took their name from, The Blues Brothers has aged gracefully. A cable and home video favorite, it also enjoys praise from critics including the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who wrote, “The mere spectacle of Elwood and Jake in their shades isn’t quite as giggle-inducing as it presumably was back in 1980, but the stunts are still awe-inspiring, and there’s plenty of laughs. They really were thinking big.”


1. Bob Roberts

Surprise! Yeah, we know most people don’t identify this 1992 political mockumentary with Saturday Night Live, but writer/director Tim Robbins debuted the character in a short film for the show in 1986, which makes Bob Roberts a branch on the same family tree as It’s Pat. Fortunately, that’s just about all they have in common. Robbins’ lefty politics received their first cinematic airing with this sharp satire, which he starred in as the titular presidential candidate, who uses dirty politics and disingenuous folk songs to campaign against the Democratic incumbent (played by Gore Vidal). As a broadside against the rise of identity politics, Bob Roberts is as unfortunately prescient as it is ruefully funny; as a musical mockumentary, it’s one of the few This Is Spinal Tap-inspired features that truly stands on its own. Of course, Robbins has become such a polarizing figure that it can be difficult to see his films clearly, especially when they carry such an obvious political agenda — but if you can set all that aside, you may find yourself agreeing with Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, who wrote, “Bob Roberts is not merely a satirical fictional biopic, but a wry exploration of the relationship between political reality and manufactured image.”

In case you were wondering, here are the top SNL movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Blues Brothers — 93%

2. Wayne’s World — 85%

3. Bob Roberts — 79%

4. A Night at the Roxbury — 70%

5. Wayne’s World 2 — 63%

6. Superstar — 61%

7. Stuart Saves His Family — 50%

8. The Ladies Man — 43%

9. Blues Brothers 2000 — 38%

10. Coneheads — 37%

11. MacGruber — 34%

12. It’s Pat… The Movie — 25%

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.


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