Forty years ago, Lorne Michaels brought Saturday Night Live to NBC, aided by an unknown band of comedy freaks, and powered by vague dreams of reinventing comedy for a younger generation. As SNL celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend, it’s hard to deny the show’s success. That is, until you remember SNL sketches are occasionally made into movies.
Despite an impressive knack for producing movie stars, Lorne Michaels and company have failed to master the medium themselves. Of the 18 movies derived from SNL sketches, only two have defied expectations and achieved critical and commercial success. That’s the kind of résumé that would get most producers fired. And in Michaels’ case, it kind of has: Despite a torrent of SNL movies in the '90s, only one popular sketch, MacGruber, has gotten the cinematic treatment in the past 15 years. The closest Michaels has come since is a proposed big-screen incarnation of loveably strange nightlife maven Stefon, a project Bill Hader nixed because he and writer John Mulaney didn’t think it would work.
Perhaps Michaels has finally learned to stay away from Hollywood after years of box-office failures, like 1998’s A Night at the Roxbury ($30 million), 1999’s Superstar ($30 million) and 2000’s The Ladies Man ($13 million). But it makes sense that he spent so long trying to wrestle four-minutes sketches into ninety-minute movies: After all, the first two SNL bits to become films — 1980’s The Blues Brothers and 1992’s Wayne’s World — aren’t just the finest SNL movies. They’re two of the best comedies ever made, period.
Watch Wayne’s World trailer:
So why did Jake & Elwood and Wayne & Garth succeed, when so many of their small-screen siblings failed? For starters, both The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World were based on wildly popular characters. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi built a fan base in the late ’70s with SNL performances, a Blues Brothers album, and a touring live show. And while Mike Myers and Dana Carvey didn’t take their characters on the road, they lucked out in terms of timing: “Wayne’s World” made its SNL debut in 1989, just as the show was starting to recover from its horrid mid-80s near-meltdown, and Michaels gave Wayne and Garth plenty of screen-time. In both cases, the duos’ cult-phenom status provided them not only with a built-in fan-base for a movie, but also gave Hollywood executives proof of concept.
Michaels, who stepped away from the show in the early ’80s, initially didn’t try to mimic Blues Brothers’ success, and the decade was devoid of SNL movies. But in the wake of Wayne’s World’s culture-conquering box-office spree — the movie made an astonishing $118 million — he and Hollywood spent the ‘90s in a frantic search for the next big schwing.
In the years that followed, SNL spawned 11 movies that few fans wanted, including a sloppy Wayne’s World sequel, and several flops headlined by one-dimensional characters who were never as beloved as Wayne, Garth, Jake and Elwood: Coneheads (1993) revived a sketch that hadn’t appeared on SNL since the late ‘70s; It’s Pat (1994) tried to craft a rom-com around Julia Sweeney’s famously androgynous character; and Stuart Saves His Family (1995) plugged Al Franken’s self-help guru into a likeable (but hardly commercial) story of addiction and abuse. None of these movies were awful — though It’s Pat came close — but even so, they lacked star power, and suffered from labored stories that tried to squeeze laughs out of endless cameos (Coneheads), tired one-liners (Stuart Saves His Family) and sight gags (It’s Pat).
And all the post-Wayne’s World films — a group that also includes 1998’s A Night At The Roxbury, 1999’s Superstar and 2000’s The Ladies Man — suffered from odd, unrelatable characters who existed in their own self-contained worlds. They were either sympathetic weirdoes (Stuart, the Coneheads) or obnoxious twits (Pat, the Butabi brothers, Mary Catherine Gallagher), which stands in stark contrast to the leads of The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World. Both pairs had an effortless cool that — even if it was a touch inauthentic in the case of the Blues Brothers — made audiences want to hang out with them at Stan Mikita’s donut shop, or share some fried chicken and dry white toast. Their likability made stupid jokes funny and personality quirks amusing. When Wayne’s scrunches his shoulder and giggles after ordering the “cream of sum yung guy,” it’s like one of your buddies just made a self-consciously bad joke. Those same words coming out of The Ladies Man’s mouth would inspire eye rolls.
The films’ casting also play a big part. If you knew nothing about the SNL movies and only looked at their IMDB pages, you’d be able to guess that The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World are the best. Each has a comedic actor who achieved greatness (Belushi with his teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity performances on SNL and in Animal House; Myers with his affable Bond-spoofing spy, Austin Powers) and a talented, understated sidekick. And let’s not discount the power of the comedic pairing: None of the other SNL movies had two leads (save for A Night at the Roxbury), which might go a long way toward explaining their failures. There’s a reason Abbott had Costello, Cheech had Chong, and Abbi has Ilana. Comedy duos work.
Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the reasons why neither Blues Brothers nor Wayne’s World feel like simply beefed-up sketches is because they try to be, well, movies. Both films feature big-scale musical numbers, whether it’s Aretha Franklin belting out “Think” in a diner or Wayne and the gang tackling “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Garth’s Gremlin. And they each experiment in their own way: The car chases in The Blues Brothers are as good as any action movie, while Wayne’s World is uniquely post-modern, as its characters break the fourth wall, interact with subtitles (“Gratuitous sex scene” “Gratuitous sex scene” “Gratuitous sex scene”) and introduce multiple endings.
After all this praise, it’s probably time to acknowledge that neither The Blues Brothers nor Wayne’s World will be joining The Criterion Collection anytime soon. The Blues Brothers is 133 minutes long, a pretty remarkable feat for a movie with such a simple story. As Janet Maslin wrote in her 1980 review in The New York Times, director John Landis fills the “long bloated saga” with “senseless extra shots, distracting editing, [and] views of virtually everything from too many angles.” The biggest problem with Wayne’s World, meanwhile, is the over-reliance on inside jokes and the likeability of its leads. Or, as Roger Ebert put it in his three-star review, “The plot is not exactly the point here. It’s only a clothesline.”
Fair criticisms all, and plenty reason to move these two films down a peg on lists of great cinematic achievements. But alongside their SNL-birthed brethren, those minor transgressions do little to move them from their lofty perch atop a tower built of turds.
The funny coincidence is that SNL’s uneven movie output mirrors the inconsistency we expect from the show itself. Each episode has a great sketch, a few enjoyable ones, some one-note filler and a lemon — not unlike it’s cinematic canon. The problem is that the formula that’s worked for forty years on Saturday nights doesn’t really cut it on Friday.
Watch The Blues Brothers trailer: