Saturday Night At The Movies: What the heck was 'The Saturday Night Live Movie'?
This morning, I sat down with Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and Eva Mendes to discuss their new film "The Other Guys," and while I'm still under embargo about that movie, I can share what happened at the very end of my interview with McKay.
I mentioned to him that I was doing this series on this site right now, and he told me he'd love to sit down and talk "SNL" at some point in the future. I mentioned to him that I was going to write up a script I just discovered for the column this week, and when I told him the title, he looked at me like I'd just tried to describe cell memory in Mandarin Chinese. "What is that?" I told him, and I listed some of the writers who were involved, many of whom are friends of McKay's from his time on the show. "I never even knew that existed," he said, astonished. Keep in mind, Adam McKay was head writer of the show at one point, and he'd never heard of it.
I know the feeling. And, honestly, it seems impossible to me that I've never heard of "The Saturday Night Live Movie."
As I've said since the start of this column, this subject has fascinated me for almost as long as the show's been on the air. Once Chevy Chase made the jump to the bigscreen, he established a path that many others have followed over the years, both in front of the camera and behind it. There have been films that have capitalized on the cultural currency of "Saturday Night Live" by tapping into the same counterculture comic sensibilities, like "Animal House" or "Caddyshack," as well as films that have directly translated "SNL" characters to the bigscreen like "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World" and "Coneheads."
But what I never knew until last month was that in 1990, there was an attempt to make an actual theatrical release called "The Saturday Night Live Movie," an anthology comedy film a la "Kentucky Fried Movie" that was aimed at satirizing the experience of going to the movies, written by an all-star cast of writers who have been associated with the show over the years.
How did I learn of the project's existence?
The best way possible: the script landed on my desk.
Let's start with a look at who's involved. On the very last page, there is a list of the various sketches that are part of the film, and a list of who wrote which one. It gives you an idea of the format and what sort of sketch to expect from the movie.
"Welcome To The Movies" by Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Greg Daniels
"Young Bush At Yale" by Jim Downey, Al Franken, and Robert Smigel
"Cineplex" by Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien, and Greg Daniels
"Appeal #1" by Jim Downey and Al Franken
"Romance" by Al Franken and Tom Davis
"Crack Rap" by Al Franken and Tom Davis
"Appeal #2" by Jim Downey and Al Franken
"Dad's Car" by Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels
"Bum Piss Canyon/Apology" by Tom Davis, Jim Downey, and Al Franken
"Appeal #3" by Jim Downey and Al Franken
"E.T.'s" by Greg Daniels, Robert Smigel, Jim Downey, and Conan O'Brien
"On The Farm" by Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien, Greg Daniels, and Al Franken
"Wonderful Life" by Jim Downey and Al Franken
"Tip Stealer" by George Meyer
"Movie's Over" by Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Greg Daniels
"Blooper Credits" by Conan O'Brien and Jim Downey
That's a pretty amazing list of names. It's interesting that Lorne Michaels is credited as a writer on the title page, but there's no sign of him on the actual breakdown of individual sketches. I'm guessing that, just as he does on the show, Lorne ended up as the final arbiter of what made it into the script and what didn't. Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner are also listed on the title page, but don't seem to have any sketches in the film, which makes me think they must have served as editors of a sort. They were a big part of Lorne's early-'90s push to make movies. So who are the guys who are actually listed on the sketches?
First, we've got Greg Daniels. He's a writer/producer on "The Office" these days, and also a writer/producer on "Parks and Recreation." He was a major voice in the mix on the long-running animated show "King Of The Hill." He has several scripts for "The Simpsons" to his name, and he wrote the classic "Seinfeld" episode, "The Parking Space." He was a writer for "SNL" from '87 to '90 and before that cut his teeth on the HBO comedy series "Not Necessarily The News."
Tom Davis and Al Franken are one of the great writing teams from the early days of "Saturday Night Live," and much of the tone for what's been produced on the show since those first few seasons was established by the work Franken and Davis did together. They never quite managed to make the jump to writing features together, though, and their one big shot at the bigscreen together, "One More Saturday Night," vanished without a trace.
James Downey has been with SNL since 1977. That's unreal. If anyone can claim to be one of the bedrocks of the show's ongoing success, it's Downey. He's the anchor, the guy who's been there forever. No one has ever been a voice on the show longer. Even Lorne had a few years off while Downey was there.
George Meyer is a "Simpsons" legend. Seriously... just watch the box sets with commentary on, and you'll hear the various contributors to the show sing his praises to no end.
Robert Smigel? Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Need I say more?
And, of course, there's Conan O'Brien. Especially after the last half-year or so of "Team Coco" and the "Tonight Show" battle, Conan's place as a comedy icon seems pretty well secured now. For many of us, he's been a source of great comedy for a lot of years, and even before people knew his face, they knew his work. He must have been fairly new to SNL when he got involved with this project, and he's all over it.
Like an average episode of SNL, there's a lot of hit and miss in the line-up here. "Crack Rap," for example, might be one of the least funny and most unintentionally racist things I've ever read. Unfunny, dated the second it was dropped into the script, and a total throwaway. It confuses me because when you're doing a weekly show, I can understand that sort of written-on-the-run some-works-some-doesn't approach. You're writing like you're being chased, working your ass off and hoping it all comes together. You're trying to balance the demands of the guest hosts and the desires of the cast and the inspiration of the writers. It's frankly amazing that anything good ever happens on SNL, and that magic trick each week is one of the things that's always kept me interested in the show through cast changes and writing room shake-ups. With a feature film, though, you've got way more time to prep, and there's no excuse for the sort of haphazard approach to the sketches. It seems like you'd want to take your time and really polish each and every piece so that the movie serves as a permanent record of the best the show has to offer. I have no idea how far into the process they made it with this film, but I would hope the script went back up on the blocks after the draft I read.
Which is not to say I disliked the script, or that I think it was a bad idea in general. I'm actually intrigued by this one's potential. Now that I've read this, I'm sort of amazed they never made some version of the film. It seems like a natural fit, especially since the '90s saw Lorne Michaels working closely with Paramount to bring the SNL brand to the bigscreen in a more aggressive way, leading to things like "Coneheads" and "Wayne's World." It seems like the holy grail would have been to make a film with "Saturday Night Live" in the title.
The very first bit, "Welcome To The Movies," is a send-up of a pre-show announcement trailer that overexplains and overhypes the most mundane parts of the movie experience. Words whoosh out of the screen. "Thank you for coming to this theater." "You could have chose any theater but you chose our theater." As they talk about the smoking policy, the camera zooms into and out of an animated cigarette, then does the same with concessions.
Things start to go off-topic with "IT" "IS" "ILLEGAL" "TO" "COMMIT" "BIGAMY" racing out of the screen, one word at a time, followed by "PLEASE DON'T MARRY TWO PEOPLE." Each new message that races off the screen is more ridiculous than the one before. It's silly, it's simple, and it's over in three pages.
"Young Bush At Yale" is 29 pages long, a mini-movie about a love triangle in college between George H.W. Bush, a young Barbara Pierce, and a young Jack Kennedy, who spies the lovely silver-haired 20-year-old at a dance and decides she will be his next conquest. She's already interested in young Bush, though, and so Kennedy is driven mad. He's had every other girl on campus, and Barbara's refusal only makes him want her more. It comes down to a football game with Jack Kennedy on the field, George Bush on the sidelines as a cheerleader, and Barbara in the stands, torn between the two men. It's funny and profane, and with appearances by public figures like Gloria Swanson and Ronald Reagan, it's a very strange riff on these very famous names and faces.
I spent most of high school and college and even some time afterwards working in movie theaters, and the next sketch, "Cineplex," is a very funny instructional film on how to sneak into every single movie at the multiplex in one day. Techniques including walking in backwards, elaborate disguises, and the use of a totally empty auditorium showing "The Presidio II" as home base. At 17 pages, it's a long sketch, but it's so gleefully absurd that I think it would play.
All three of the "Appeal" segments make fun of those pre-movie trailers where celebrities used to ask you to donate money. It's a little shocking to see them using Christopher Reeve begging for money for medical research until you remember this was written years before his accident. Spooky. More celebrities interrupt Chris, arguing over what the point of the Walter Sternberg Foundation is, all of them asking for money, but none of them agreeing on why. Charlton Heston, Robert Vaughn, Clint Eastwood, Mary Tyler Moore, and others show up to argue. They return later to yell at the audience for not giving enough money, accusing them of not caring. Finally, in the third appeal, Chris Reeve just snaps and loses it, furious at the audience. "I don't know what to say. Words cannot express my contempt for you people. You sit there stuffing your faces in your Reeboks and your Levis 501s. You don't care about the children. You just want to beat the crowd out of the parking lot at the end of the movie. Well, as far as I'm concerned, you can all go fuck yourselves." Then for the rest of the film, Reeve just randomly shows up in the background of scenes, glaring at the audience with naked disgust.
"Romance" is eleven pages of one joke, about an Italian movie star who falls in love with an American tourist during a whirlwind day together, marred only by his incessant farting. That's pretty much it. It gets old exactly as fast as you think it would, too.
"Dad's Car" is a riff on films like "Risky Business" and "Ferris Bueller," in which a dad goes out of town and tells his teenage son Turner not to touch his car. For any reason. Seriously. So of course, Turner's best friend Shitty convinces him to take the car for a drive. Before they even leave the garage, though, they decide to first attack it with sledgehammers. Makes sense. They've just barely finished destroying it when the phone rings and Dad tells them they forgot the plane tickets so he's coming home. In 12 minutes. That ticking clock is absolutely ridiculous, and Smigel, O'Brien, and Daniels earn some of the biggest laughs in the script with the way the segment plays out.
"Bum Piss Canyon" is an "American Geographic" nature special that traces the titular canyon through New York City, shooting rivers of piss in various gutters like a majestic natural wonder. And then there's an apology for showing that to the audience. And that's pretty much that.
As funny as "E.T.'s" is, I'm surprised they'd do a movie parody eight years after the film came out. The basic gag is that Elliott (although they call him Josh) kills E.T. by feeding him applesauce. Then another E.T. shows up, and they accidentally smother it to death. Each time a new E.T. shows up, Josh tries to bond with his new friend, only to end up killing it in some horrifying way, right down to knocking one out of the basket of his bike as they fly past the moon.
"On The Farm" is a disturbing educational film about the benefits of beef-fed beef. I'll let you contemplate what that means and just how horrible it can get. Then contemplate veal-fed veal-fed veal. Or lobster-fed lobster-fed lobster, with a double shell that becomes impossible to crack. Yeeeeeks.
"Wonderful Life" dates the script almost more than any other sketch, a look at Ted Turner trying to find some new way to screw up movies even more than colorization. He starts with new updated dialogue, turning "It's A Wonderful Life" into a film filthier than "Scarface." He calls the process vulgarization, and they show a recording session for the vulgarization of "Gone With The Wind." And, yes, they go for the obvious joke at first, but when that doesn't work, they amp it up until Gable eventually delivers a hearty, "Frankly, you twat, fuck you" as he walks out. "Casablanca," "The Wizard Of Oz," and "My Little Chickadee" all get the onscreen treatment, and Turner gloats about other upcoming titles including "The Pride Of The Yankees," "The Gold Rush," "Fantasia," and "Eddie Murphy Raw," all for broadcast on the Turner Broadcasting System, where progress is a four letter word.
My favorite piece in the entire script is "Tip Stealer," and it's the hardest to describe. It's one of the longer sketches at 21 pages, and it's the story of Adrian, a guy who learned to steal tips as a kid, and who has grown into a professional, a guy whose pathological need to steal tips provides him with an excellent living. I didn't know until I was done reading the script that this is the George Meyer segment, but I should have guessed. Surreal, silly, smart and stupid sometimes within the same joke, this reads like a "Simpsons" episode, but without any of the familiar characters. Sight gags, wicked verbal humor, and a slap-happy sense of absurdity make it one of the best moments in the script. There's no simple punchline to the piece, either. It's just a whole lot of darn good jokes in a row.
And then there's a closing announcements reel and, finally, a description of some of the bloopers that can play during the credits. In one, an actor vomits mid-sentence. In another, a heavy light falls and almost severs someone's arm. A wild dog attacks an actor mid-take. Finally, someone simply bursts into flames.
You get the idea.
I've been trying to get someone to talk to me about this script since it ended up in my hands, so far to no avail, but I'm hoping this article might turn up someone willing to go on the record about how it started, the development process, and where it went wrong in the end. Also, if you're reading this and you are fortunate enough to possess a copy of Michael O'Donoghue's "Arrive Alive" screenplay, please get in touch with me. I'm going to be writing about O'Donoghue in general and that film in specific at some point soon, and I would love to finally lay eyes on the damn thing.
I hope you enjoyed this peek at this almost-was. I'm always interested in stories of films that could have happened but didn't for one reason or another, and I think this is a perfect example of just how many amazing near-misses there are out there. In this case, this would have been the film that perfectly illustrated the crossover from the show to the bigscreen, making it the single most important film for this particular series of columns. Instead, it's a curious footnote, a long forgotten dead end of development, and I'm glad I finally stumbled across it.
Have you missed earlier columns in this series?
"Saturday Night At The Movies" runs here every Saturday night. Appropriately enough.
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