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'SNL,' a television institution for decades, hasn't fared as well at the movies

Will Forte brings his 'MacGruber' skit from 'Saturday Night Live' to the big screen, following in the uneven footsteps of other 'SNL'-inspired movies. Will Forte brings his "MacGruber" skit from "Saturday Night Live" to the big screen, following in the uneven footsteps of other "SNL"-inspired movies. (Greg Peters / Rogue Pictures)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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There are times in the middle of a “Saturday Night Live’’ sketch when love turns to tolerance.

And there are times, moments later, when tolerance turns to stone-cold hatred. What started as a lark — Fred Armisen! As Frank Sinatra! In a Danish production of “I Did It in My Style’’! — begins to feel like a bird of prey on your back. The sketch just won’t let go. One joke for six minutes? It’s death by “No Exit.’’

So the idea of full-length movies built from “Saturday Night Live’’ sketches seems insane, like turning a tweet into a novel. Why stretch out the already stretched out? Why turn a trailer-length trifle like “MacGruber’’ into a full night out?

History has affirmed that illogic. Of the dozen or so movies based on “SNL’’ sketches, only two early ones — “The Blues Brothers’’ in 1980 and “Wayne’s World’’ in 1992 — have been worthy. Most, including “Stuart Saves His Family’’ in 1995 and “A Night at the Roxbury’’ in 1998, were existential queries into pop cultural nothingness, destined to provide after-midnight filler in the corners of cable TV. Not even masochists, it turned out, wanted to submit to the gender dyslexia of “It’s Pat: The Movie,’’ in 1994; it never got a national theatrical release.

On Friday in theaters, we’ll finally have the opportunity to find out whether the heavily promoted “MacGruber’’ will maintain or improve upon the poor “SNL’’ movie record. “MacGruber’’ is based on Will Forte’s sketches parodying the ticking-clock tensions of the 1985-92 series “MacGyver,’’ who was Jack Bauer before Jack Bauer was Jack Bauer. With hair styled into the mullet worn by Richard Dean Anderson in the TV series, Forte turns the American action hero into a bumbling, childlike loser.

“MacGruber’’ is the first “SNL’’ sketch feature to be released in 10 years, since Tim Meadows’s “The Ladies Man.’’ The decade-long hiatus of the ’00s began after the “SNL’’ movies — including the sequel “Blues Brothers 2000’’ in 1998 and “Superstar’’ in 1999, with Molly Shannon as pit-sniffer Mary Katherine Gallagher — repeatedly disappointed both critically and financially. “Wayne’s World’’ had begun the trend in earnest, earning $121 million at the box office. But by “The Ladies Man,’’ which cost some $24 million to make and earned only $13 million at the box office, Hollywood had to face the reality that “SNL’’ was not an automatic launching pad for movies.

Indeed, the reality was worse: “SNL’’ movies were getting the green light thanks to brand-name recognition, but “SNL’’ brand recognition was actually driving moviegoers away. The more “SNL’’ movies fell short of “Wayne’s World’’ across the 1990s, the more audiences understood that “SNL’’ movies were not worth seeing. The “SNL’’ imprimatur became the kiss of box office death.

One reason “Wayne’s World’’ and, to a lesser extent, “Wayne’s World 2’’ in 1993, worked was that they were affectionate portraits. Mike Myers’s Wayne and Dana Carvey’s Garth were innocents set loose in a world of rock and roll and big-time TV. Sketches are allowed — nay, encouraged — to be thoroughly cynical; it’s not hard to laugh at a stupid or troubled character for six minutes, such as Shannon’s Mary Katherine. A sketch — on TV, or, now, online on YouTube or Funny or Die — isn’t trying to bond with viewers, so much as tickle them. But movie-length comedies do generally require a bit of humanity in order to connect with large audiences. The Judd Apatow movies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’’ and “Knocked Up’’ have thrived on having heart.

Also, the “Wayne’s World’’ movies in the early 1990s had roots in a then-new cultural phenomenon — the personalized TV movement that started with local access and now thrives on YouTube. This wasn’t just the tired old scenario of a pair of creepy, head-bobbing guys trying to pick up women, as in “A Night at the Roxbury.’’ This was humor based in the start of online DIY culture, which was clearly going to revolutionize teen America. “Wayne’s World’’ felt tapped in; “The Ladies Man’’ did not.

Only a few sketches rest on that kind of relevancy, and most sketch-to-movie writers aren’t able to mine it, anyway. “Saturday Night Live’’ sketches tend to be eminently disposable. Occasionally, they get an online foothold and go viral, such as “Dick in a Box’’ and “Lazy Sunday,’’ but they pass relatively quickly through our cultural digestive system. The performers tend to be gifted improv players who can kill onstage but don’t necessarily know how to act on a movie set. It’s the rare sketch that has the legs to stand in a theater.

It will be interesting to see if “MacGruber’’ can redeem the image of the “SNL’’ movie and usher in a new era of sketch-to-movie projects. If “MacGruber’’ does well at the box office, we will surely find ourselves facing a new era of elongated bits — two hours of the kissing family anyone? Could this be the decade of Gilly? Gilly? GILLY?

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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