Will Forte is returning to Saturday Night Live this weekend, more than a decade after leaving the show, for his first-ever hosting gig. Though the lack of a Forte-hosted episode has felt egregious to his many fans — every other cast member from Forte’s circa-2007 glory years has either already returned to host or still works at the show — it also makes a certain amount of sense. Forte has a reputation as a fan favorite, prone to following his own weird muse; more of a Kyle Mooney or (fingers crossed) Sarah Sherman type than a beloved jack-of-all-trades like his castmate Bill Hader. Forte has always seemed so dedicated to disappearing into his own strangeness that it’s hard to picture him doing a sentimentally glad-handing monologue as himself.
Yet while SNL diehards glory to Forte’s presence in perfect oddities like “math whiz vs. history buff” or the potato chip sketch, here’s a secret about his eight-season tenure on the show: He may have been the single best purveyor of the dark art known as recurring characters.
There are other SNL legends with a greater volume of recurring characters, or with greater cultural impact, replete with familiar catchphrases, spinoffs, and terrible schoolyard imitations. But that familiarity breeds inevitable irritation; who among us cannot name at least one Kristen Wiig bit that drives us up a wall? Forte’s gallery of characters, on the other hand, rarely wear out their welcome, in large part because hardly anyone seemed to be asking them to stick around. Based on their sporadic presence, these are labors of love — opportunities for Forte to indulge a particular weirdo voice, off-putting haircut, or bulged forehead vein, all of which get funnier when he brings them back, often in a new, format-shifting context that keeps the bit from getting stale.
With all that idiosyncrasy, Forte still managed to create a genuine breakout. His signature character MacGruber has survived long enough to top-line not only a feature film in 2010, but a recent eight-episode series on Peacock. Hilariously, for a character built on five-minute trilogies of mini-sketches, MacGruber has now probably logged more pure hours of screen time than even fellow big-screen transplants like Wayne and Garth or the Coneheads. Somehow, Forte’s relentless dedication to the bit makes MacGruber more endearing each time he appears onscreen, rather than turning him into a nuisance.
MacGruber is the most likely candidate to be revived on Saturday — and so we must take this opportunity to celebrate those who probably won’t appear, like Lyle Kane, or Clancy T. Bachleratt, or Jean-George Peppers, who the SNL Fandom wiki claims was a recurring character despite him being traceable only to a single sketch (which actually introduced Horatio Sanz’s character Carol).
For this list, we have excluded any political impressions; they weren’t really Will’s forte, even though he logged ample time as John Edwards, Zell Miller, and even George W. Bush. (Though Forte is on record as never having particularly enjoyed his time as Bush, his work there is ripe for reappraisal: He’s the only one to do W. without blatantly knocking off Will Ferrell’s version. His whinier, more weaselly spin was a pretty strong interpretation of second-term Bush.) But that’s not what we’re cataloguing in this list; here, we look at the characters who are inimitable Forte originals — a designation that may prove redundant.
The Closet Organizer
This character places last not because it’s the least of Forte’s creations and co-creations, but because it only counts on a technicality, if that. In a Jon Hamm–hosted episode in January 2010, viewers were treated to the sight of a unitard-clad Forte as a “closet organizer,” a handy tool pelted with all manner of objects in a losing battle against clutter. It sort of has to be seen to be believed. Then, later in that very same episode, a low-key dialogue-driven sketch between Forte and Hamm reveals that Forte is playing the same character — the closet-organizer guy from the ads. It’s not just a throwaway detail, either; the sketch hinges on Forte’s frustration with the thoughtless users who are only interested in him for his closet-organization fame. In-episode continuity is so rare in contemporary SNL episodes that this diptych warrants a mention; it’s also a laugh-out-loud sketch with an amusingly downbeat chaser.
Forte wasn’t as big on “Weekend Update” characters as, say, Fred Armisen, but he teamed with Armisen to play Patrick and Gunther Kelly. The straitlaced brothers are tasked with explaining complicated matters such as tax codes or SARS, and inevitably do so by singing an absolutely nonsensical, content-free song. Armisen has other characters who do the not-actually-saying-anything shtick (remember Nicholas Fehn?), but Forte brings a touch of demented charm to this routine by hitting those yowling high notes.
Normally, we’re disinclined to count recurring characters who exist only to aid or react to other cast members’ showcase characters; Forte repeatedly played an announcer on “What Up With That,” but it’s not really his sketch. That said, Forte is a crucial component of the endless sketches starring Kristen Wiig’s mischievously destructive Gilly, where his calmly rhythmic questioning style (“Was it you, Liam?”) and interrogations (“Gillyyyy?”) give the sketch its shape, providing the right counterbalance to Gilly’s inexplicable chaos.
One of Forte’s most successful recurring characters is also one of his most conventional and least dexterous: one-half of Twinkle and Stink, co-anchors who appear on ESPN Classic broadcasts of various women’s sporting events from decades ago. The recurring joke of the segment belongs to Jason Sudeikis, who is repeatedly tasked with exclaiming the name of various sponsoring feminine products with increasingly ridiculous zeal (and rhyming catchphrases). This leaves Forte free to repeatedly steal the sketch, as Stink keeps finding new ways to provide unhelpful color commentary at Twinkle’s genial prodding. The way Stink papers over his addled lack of expertise with a constant grin is vaguely reminiscent of boobish Will Ferrell–style characters, but Forte is typically more interested in abstracting stupidity than satirizing it. Accordingly, there are some big laughs in the Twinkle and Stink archives — but ultimately, it’s one of Forte’s few recurring bits that wore out its welcome. (This also means there’s a better-than-decent chance it’ll return on Saturday.)
Half of Jon Bovi
Real ones prefer this Forte-Sudeikis collaboration: an “opposite band” that sings covers of songs by Bon Jovi (among others) with words torturously flipped into the antonyms whenever possible. It began as a sketch and then found a more regular home on “Weekend Update,” where even performing three times in relatively quick succession was not enough: Forte and Sudeikis loved this routine so much they revived it on “Second Chance Theatre,” a Late Night With Seth Meyers segment where Meyers allows SNL cast members to perform cut sketches. Typically, this is reserved for offbeat ideas like Forte’s much-hyped “Jenjamin Franklin,” but it’s a tribute to Forte’s tenacity that he could convince Meyers to treat well-trod characters as lost gems.
A performer more focused on pleasing the crowd would have done this bit at least six times, because the dorky coach who tries to inspire a flailing team with a joyfully akimbo dance routine slays a live audience — including other performers in the sketch, as you can see fully half of the six-member basketball team covering their laughing faces in the first installment, featuring Peyton Manning. While there were clearly diminished returns in repeating the sketch with Michael Phelps, Forte has such demented energy in the first one (note that his co-stars are stifling laughter despite not even looking at his face for most of the dance!), and showed such restraint in not bringing it back way for a third through sixth round, that it deserves some extra points.
Many of Forte’s characters come across like children in adult bodies. Almost none of them overflow with childlike wonder or joy, however. Rather, they have a childlike sense of helpless abandon, the purest expression of which may be Andy, whose job over the course of two sketches that aired during season 30 is to answer a phone. Whoever calls, whatever their business, whether it’s at an investment firm or a telethon, Andy can only answer with a panicked cry of “oh no!” (or rather, “oohhhhh nooooooo!”). It might seem maddening, but really, who among us hasn’t reacted that way to the very existence of a phone call? Andy isn’t Forte’s rangiest creation, but there are plenty of SNL sketches that have done less with more.
Performed as a trio with Forte, Kristen Wiig, and the episode’s host, the “Introverts” sketch follows Neil (Forte), Jean (Wiig), and a rotating third member as they branch out into social situations with which they inevitably seem unfamiliar, speaking with nerdy affects, cracking painfully dorky jokes, and often punctuating observations with “that’s America; it’s a problem.” It’s a dynamic flexible enough to accommodate guests as wide-ranging as Lindsay Lohan and Steve Martin, and there’s something almost tender about the way Forte and Wiig seem to really understand the kind of social outcasts who have at least found each other.
Clancy T. Bachleratt
Though he obviously likes to play characters who are bad at singing, songwriting, and/or performing, there’s also something genuinely musical about Will Forte’s performance style, somewhere between opera and whiskey-fueled jam sessions. A shameless sense of muchness often animates his sketch performances. “Fly High Duluth” was a one-and-done; a just-barely recurring example of Forte singing himself hoarse is his character Clancy T. Bachleratt, who, with his partner Jackie Snad (Kristen Wiig), sings exclusively about spaceships, toddlers, Model-T cars, and jars of beer. Reconfiguring single-minded mania to make it seem like it covers a range of interests is a textbook Forte character trait (and doesn’t it apply to plenty of musicians, too?).
One of the most frustrating aspects of the typical SNL recurring characters tends to be the restrictive formats that surround them; so often, these characters are stuck in barely modified situations to generate the same conflicts that fueled their earlier appearances. On a practical level, it makes sense; sometimes these characters are repeated for the benefit of new or occasional viewers as much as faithful fans. But it’s thrilling when characters can break out of those boxes and simply appear wherever they’re needed. (Usually, this is easier to do when the character is not especially popular.) Case in point: Lyle Kane, another Forte child-man with sort of a slicked-down cowlick and an accent somewhere on an imaginary border between midwestern and Scandinavian. He first appears in an ensemble high-school sketch about prom planning; then he hosts The Lyle Kane Show, a talk show on BET where he walks himself through the mechanics of hosting a talk show (on “Black ET,” as he refers to it); then he walks through a sketch about Ashton Kutcher not being admitted to a club while all manner of weirdos (including Lyle Kane) are let in ahead of him. What stands out about Lyle, apart from his “hi der” catchphrase, is the genuine sense of mystery that surrounds him: He repeatedly identifies himself as a valedictorian; the internet identifies him as an exchange student, but there doesn’t seem to be direct reference to that in the text of any of his sketches; and in his first sketch, he announces that he only recently began speaking at school. (This isn’t a spoiler because the sketch in question does not appear in Peacock’s cut-down version of the episode, hosted by Zach Braff.)
In one of his greatest acts of low-key perversity, Will Forte’s first successful recurring sketch on SNL, originated back in 2002 with comedian and writer Leo Allen, was designed to barely feature him at all. In every adventure of the Falconer, businessman turned hermit Ken Mortimer (Forte) gets into some kind of scrape and sends his falcon Donald out for help; the sketch then chronicles Donald doing various things it might be funny to see a falcon puppet do, like eating at a fancy restaurant or running the tables at Vegas. The interplay between the nutty repetition of the sketch (which, after its introductory sequence, always opens with Forte screaming, “OHHHH, DONALD!”) and a genuine drive to find bizarre variations on a theme (time travel is involved at one point) is sublime. Appropriately, a meta sketch revealing the Falconer’s despair upon finding out that he’s merely a recurring character on SNL was written but never aired.
If ever there was evidence of Forte’s hold over SNL maven Lorne Michaels, it’s the fact that his sketch about ornery businessmen calling each other “Fartface” somehow spun out into two additional installments. This can’t be chalked up to base crowd-pleasing. If anything, bringing back these characters after the first installment, during which Forte and Bill Hader eventually berate Josh Brolin’s character to tears (and, in the hilariously grim punch line, much worse) by calling him “Fartface,” was an act of aggression against the audience, which produced some of the mildest titters I’ve ever heard during an SNL sketch. Somehow, Carl (Forte) and Jerry (Hader) made it to air twice more — and, to Forte’s credit, got better reactions both times around. The sketch where they try to figure out the logistics of buying dildos for everyone in the office certainly deserves to be a holiday classic, but there’s also something special about watching the original sketch absolutely die in the room.
Appearances: 5 (plus at least two real-life weddings)
Another character who slips between various (if similar) sketch formats, Hamilton, a man with long blond hair and dark sunglasses who sounds a bit like Jigsaw from the Saw movies, typically materializes in any kind of semi-public forum where he can take a microphone (or brandish his own) and predict bloodbaths and/or propose marriage to celebrities. (It does feel like a missed opportunity that Hamilton never stood up to ask a question at a post-movie Q&A.) It’s difficult to make a white supremacist funny, but Forte captures the eerie, unyielding confidence of a man who will smoothly turn a wedding toast or a few words at a funeral into a gravelly tirade against “Barack Hussein Obama.” He’s not a flailing, show-offy performer, but the physicality he brings to these roles is deceptively exacting. The sketch above includes both Hamilton and the Maya Rudolph equivalent of that character, the underappreciated (and not racist!) Glenda Goodwin. There may not have been a Hamilton spinoff series or merch sales at the NBC Store, but Hamilton did have the honor of speaking at the weddings of Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg — really.
What more can be said about MacGruber, the MacGyver spoof who parlayed 90-second sketches into a feature film and a TV series? Again, Forte masters the tricky balance between repetition, variation, and punctuation, with cuts to stock-footage explosions serving as the inevitable, and always perfectly timed, punch line. More impressive is the way Forte antes up the Will Ferrell model of parodying masculinity, turning a throwback action hero into a conduit for the ugliness of human (or, really, American) character. Racism, addiction, poor body image, financial destruction — they’re all trapped in a control room with MacGruber, and us.
It’s obvious from his Tim Calhoun character that Forte chafes at even the loose boundaries of reality imposed by SNL’s traditional political material. He seems to much prefer Tim Calhoun, a robotic caricature of a generic southern candidate and another one of Forte’s frown-faced miscreants attempting to mime through the rituals of an adult job. Though he was once ported over to an actual sketch, Calhoun typically appears on “Weekend Update” giving a cracked stump speech. His stiff hand gestures, slicked hair, and his endless supply of index cards hybridize empty campaign bromides with an awkward elementary-school presentation. In conclusion and in summary, Tim Calhoun is nearly the platonic ideal of a Forte character, lacking only the crucial interactions with the outside world that put our No. 1 character at the top.
Sex offender or Halloween costume? That’s the eternal, discomfiting question posed by a two-hander sketch with Will Forte and Jon Hamm that has improbably become a rerun staple thanks to its Halloween theme. Jeff Montgomery’s bad jokes, social awkwardness, and inability to lie convincingly mask something genuinely menacing, which, combined with a bushy mustache and itinerant nature, makes him a perfect Forte character who simply cannot function properly in society. So perfect, in fact, that Montgomery could barely function on the show that created him. Though his Halloween introduction airs annually, a Thanksgiving-themed follow-up that originally arrived mere weeks later ends on a couple of jokes that provoke audible disgust from some of the studio audience. It did not become a holiday-compilation perennial. Plenty of SNL characters test the audience’s patience; Forte does so with a near-scientific precision.