Saturday Night Live is far more than a TV sketch show that’s remained basically unchanged since it debuted in 1975 — it’s also the brand name of Lorne Michaels’s comedy empire. Over the years, there have been SNL albums, books, officially licensed merchandise, and, most prominently, movies. To date, 11 movies based on hit SNL sketches have hit theaters, in which the most popular recurring characters get 90 minutes of big-screen time to tell a story far too big for a five-minute sketch.
Most of these films were churned out in the ’90s, and most of them are pleasant, fun, and, as examples of cinema, okay. Audiences have been largely indifferent to this particular genre of film. As box office goes, only one cleared the magical $100 million threshold; quite a few were full-on flops. However, there are some actual classics in the mix … along with a few whose mere existence is inexplicable (and mainly forgotten).
11. It’s Pat (1994)
In the early ’90s, SNL was all about recurring characters with a catchphrase or easily understood hook, for better or for worse. Along with the “makin’ copies” guy and “Wayne’s World,” a major hit at the time was Julia Sweeney’s obnoxious, annoying, simpering “Pat,” whose whole premise and joke was that their gender could not be determined. That would be extremely problematic and insensitive today, and even Sweeney agrees — she told the Chicago Sun-Times that in 2016, she was asked to appear in a Halloween bit on Today as Pat, and she declined because “It seems so completely inappropriate at this point in time.” But it was so popular — this sketch where guest hosts playing office workers would try in vain to determine Pat’s gender — there was a of course movie version. The plot concerns Pat failing upward despite being really off-putting, and SNL veteran Charles Rocket plays a guy who stalks Pat, desperate to determine Pat’s gender. It’s a bad movie, but at least the wonderful Ween is in it. (Pat plays tuba for Ween for some reason.)
10. Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)
Very little of what made the original Blues Brothers such a beloved classic is present here. There’s no agro punk rock anti-establishment tone, and no John Belushi, to name two things. The Belushi-sized hole is unsuccessfully filled with a blues-singing little boy, which is as cloying and obnoxious as it sounds. (At least there are some good soul performances and car crashes.)
9. A Night at the Roxbury (1998)
This had to have been hard to market, because in the days of pre-online fussing over every aspect of SNL, very few people knew that the nightclub-frequenting, head-bobbing-to-“What Is Love” douches portrayed by Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan in a recurring sketch were named “the Roxbury Guys.” The sketches were pretty innovative — there was almost no dialogue, because club music is loud, forcing Ferrell and Kattan to mime their way through. You can’t make a mime movie, or have 90 minutes of two guys getting rejected by women, so A Night at the Roxbury provides a backstory and stakes for Steve and Doug Butabi. (They’re shallow and disappoint their father, basically.) There’s not much to work with, but Kattan’s enthusiasm and Ferrell’s star power make for a breezy, inoffensive way to kill a Sunday afternoon.
8. Coneheads (1993)
Mention SNL in the presence of a boomer, and they’re likely to go off about how the show hasn’t been funny or edgy since 1978. It’s simply not true. And sure, it was a lot hipper and progressive than most other TV of the era (that Richard Pryor–Chevy Chase “Word Association” bit comes to mind), but not helping the argument that SNL peaked in the ’70s was the 1993 release of Coneheads. This was not a reminder of the show’s so-called golden years. Maybe if it had been made in the ’70s when the Coneheads — over-the-top, fish-out-of-water aliens with phallic protrusions for heads — were popular and relevant, it would have ranked with classics of the era like Animal House and Caddyshack. Instead it just felt hopelessly out of its own time, and a rehash of every other sci-fi comedy in its wake. Coneheads is ALF, you guys.
7. Stuart Saves His Family (1995)
Al Franken, disgraced senator and one of the original writers on SNL, occasionally showed up on camera, notably in the ’90s as Stuart Smalley, the pastel-clad, beta-male host of a faux TV show called Daily Affirmations, in which he’d give himself mirror pep talks (“I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”) and discuss his many past struggles with addiction and his endorsement of various 12-step programs. While the put-upon, struggling Stuart could’ve been the butt of the joke of the movie, Franken used him as the vehicle to make an astute, sometimes sensitive comedy about addiction, recovery, and toxic familial relationships. In Stuart Saves His Family, Stuart, well, saves his family with all of his 12-step program knowledge, although they’re all so awful that Stuart can’t help but fall backward in his own recovery. It’s dark and atonally dissonant at times, but the cast and filmmakers pull it off.
6. The Ladies Man (2000)
Tim Meadows has the time of his life here portraying Leon Phelps, the sex-obsessed (if not addicted) radio show host who never stopped living in the free-love ’70s, The movie is a goofy, amiable romantic comedy, not too good and not too bad, as standard and middle-of-the-road of an SNL movie as there ever was. Are there other SNL cast members rounding out the dramatic personae? Yes. (Will Ferrell leads a group of husbands who hate Leon because he slept with their partners). Do we get a backstory and a humanizing angle for a character that was just really supposed to be a conduit for crude sex jokes? Yes. Also, Oscar winner Julianne Moore shows up!
5. Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
Not quite as earth-shattering, comedy-wise, as the original Wayne’s World, as it’s a sequel, so there’s a lot of rehashing of stuff that made the first movie great. But, like its predecessor, it’s episodic, built around setpieces and bits. Some are a bit dated and culturally insensitive (when Wayne squares off with his fiancée’s father, who is of Asian descent, the film parodies an old martial-arts movie, including poor English dubbing), others are marvelous. Wayne’s World 2 boasts about the only funny parody of The Graduate’s final sequence on record, and that’s because it thoroughly dissects and deconstructs it. There’s also a funny subplot about a woman named Honey Hornée (Kim Basinger) trying to get sweet and innocent Garth to kill her husband, all while Garth ignores his female look-alike (Olivia d’Abo) who is super into him. Oh, and the movie makes fun of Jim Morrison (who appears as a mystical presence/jackass in a dream), which is always a welcome addition to any movie.
4. Superstar (1999)
I did not expect the Mary Katherine Gallagher movie to be so sweet. Sure, there’s lots of carry-over from the sketches featuring Molly Shannon’s breakout character, a goofy, sexually frustrated, wannabe-famous Catholic high-school girl — people in their 30s playing teens, Shannon accosting inanimate objects, pratfalls — but there’s also some tenderness. Shannon has a deep knowledge and affection for her character, who, beneath the surface, is a lonely, love-starved teen just trying to figure herself out.
3. MacGruber (2010)
“MacGruber” would have been harder to adapt than a lot of other SNL sketches. It was self-consciously one-note: The titular, third-rate MacGyver clone (Will Forte) makes “life-saving inventions out of household materials” and every time, dies in the process in a fiery explosion. For the movie, Forte and Jorma Taccone placed the character at the center of a zany, throw-everything-in send-up–slash–homage of melodramatic and super-violent ’80s action movies. It’s ridiculous (particularly the part where MacGruber engages in graveyard sex with a ghost) and a glorious, 90-minute revelation of what can happen if you just let Forte do whatever he wants. (And there’s been sequel talk — Forte and Taccone really want to do it … someway, somehow. “We are going to make MacGruber 2 for sure,” Forte said in 2013. “Whether we have to do with with a video camera in our backyards — there will be some form of MacGruber 2.”)
2. The Blues Brothers (1980)
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s “Blues Brothers” bit wasn’t all that funny when they performed it on SNL — they’d just get up onstage, faithfully sing an R&B cover to the best of their abilities, and dance kind of weirdly. It was some self-indulgent and pointless nostalgia, but people loved it so much they made a Blues Brothers movie, which turned out to be one of the best and most important American comedy films ever. The Blues Brothers finds Jake (fresh out of prison) and Elwood striving to get their amazing band back together in order to raise enough money to prevent their old orphanage from closing. There’s something for everyone here, including crude comedy, an epic, mall-destroying car-chase scene, an Aretha Franklin musical number, and like 10,000 quotable lines.
1. Wayne’s World (1992)
The “Wayne’s World” sketches were delightful, low-key little gems about a couple of metalheads running a cable-access show out of a basement. The movie, though, was a groundbreaking, self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking, highly sophisticated comic masterpiece. Somehow, a major studio released this satisfying and weird comedy. Wayne’s World has three endings, and it insults the audience for being “fished in” by a bad one. The plotline with Noah’s Arcade taking over the show and killing everything that’s good about it is a meta commentary on the cool-sketch-to-mainstream-film process of Wayne’s World itself. Alice Cooper delivers a monologue about the history of Milwaukee. This was completely unexpected and next level for 1992.