In the past, several recurring Saturday Night Live characters and sketch formats have spawned major motion pictures. Some have been successful (Wayne’s World), others (It’s Pat) less so.
Granted, it’s not easy to take a character that works in a short, three to five-minute sketch and try to make him or her sustain a full-length movie. That’s why it’s impressive when done right. MacGruber (2010) is an example of a film based on an SNL character that manages to expand what was essentially a one-joke premise into a full movie that succeeds on its own merits. Here are some of the smart choices the filmmakers made to achieve this difficult goal.
Identifying the Potential in the Idea
While it’s not easy to take any small sketch character and build an entire story around him or her, it was particularly difficult in the case of MacGruber. Again, the character’s entire comedic appeal on SNL was based around a single joke: MacGruber is a MacGyver-like hero who, unlike his inspiration, can never successfully manage to find a last-minute solution to a problem, despite trying. A typical sketch involved the title character and a teammate caught in a building that’s about to explode in only a few seconds. MacGruber comes up with a plan to get out of the situation, but the building explodes before he can implement it—usually because he becomes distracted by personal problems.
MacGruber sketches tended to be fairly short, many lasting less than a minute. Obviously, the filmmakers adapting the character for the big screen couldn’t rely on the sketch format. No audience would laugh at a feature-length adaptation of a typical MacGruber sketch.
Instead, the filmmakers had to identify other potentially comedic aspects of the character. Every MacGruber sketch may have followed the same format, but they also implied that this character, much like MacGyver, was no stranger to intense, dangerous scenarios. The audience wasn’t meant to believe that MacGruber had never been in harm’s way—they were just meant to believe that he wasn’t quite as qualified for this type of job as the character upon which he was based.
Still, by implying that MacGruber did have MacGyver-style adventures, SNL’s writers implanted in many audience members the desire to see how this character would fare in a full action movie storyline.
That’s precisely what the filmmakers behind the movie adaptation offered. They took the two main characters from the original sketches, MacGruber and Vicki, and put them in a genuine espionage-action scenario. The appeal of this character on the small screen was the consistency of the joke; audience members who had seen one MacGruber sketch always knew what to expect from the next one, but it still delivered laughs.
On the big screen, the appeal of the character is the idea of seeing someone who is utterly incompetent try to foil truly villainous bad guys.
Expanding the Universe
The filmmakers behind MacGruber didn’t just rely on the two main characters from the original sketches to generate laughs. That’s often why movies based on sketch characters fail. They don’t take the opportunity to fully explore what the universe of the sketches might look like.
The film MacGruber is populated with a wide assortment of truly entertaining characters, often played by surprising actors, including Ryan Phillipe, Val Kilmer, and Powers Boothe. Juxtaposing the macho, serious qualities those actors tend to bring to roles with the silliness of the premise was smart casting. It probably would have been enough to simply add in a few more characters, casting other traditionally comedic actors to fill the roles. However, the team behind MacGruber understood that in order to make the title character’s incompetence shine for maximum comedic effect on a large canvas, they needed to cast actors who are known to lend their roles a certain degree of gravitas.
One popular comedy writing guru, Steve Kaplan, points out in his book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, that in many ways, the only difference between a comedy and a drama is that a comedy is willing to give characters in dramatic situations human flaws. Again, MacGruber’s situations are very similar to those of MacGyver. What makes MacGruber a comedy isn’t the situation, but the fact that the character isn’t completely skilled—and is easily distracted. Casting supporting actors known for more serious roles highlights these comedic character traits.
Of course, there are many reasons why MacGruber stands the test of time as one of the better films based on an SNL character, but these particular choices indicate that the filmmakers behind the project understood how to take a character intended for a short sketch format, and transform him into someone who can keep an audience laughing for an entire film. That’s no easy feat.