I think it is fair to say that the track record for Saturday Night Live characters making the transition from five-minute sketch to feature length film has been pretty spotty. For every Blues Brothers or Wayne’s World, there has been a Superstar or Ladies Man or even a Blues Brothers 2000 or Wayne’s World 2. Amazingly, the late night franchise’s strongest asset – a format that allows all sorts of comedy scenarios to be explored – has never been utilized on the big screen. But that’s not to say that it hasn’t been considered. In the summer of 1990, several of the show’s then-current writers collaborated on a sketch anthology movie called, appropriately enough, The Saturday Night Live Movie.
Not much is known about the development of this project. There’s no mention of it in Tom Shales’ otherwise authoritative tome SNL: Backstage History, and the only major online reference to the project is Drew McWeeny’s article on the script from two years ago and he seems to be at an equal loss for information on the aborted project.
A look at the writers who contributed to the script reads like a list of established comedy veterans and rising stars in the making. Future Senator Al Franken, his writing partner Tom Davis, Greg Daniels and Jim Downey represent the old guard writers whose various associations with Saturday Night Live stretch all the back to the show’s earliest days while Conan O’Brien, Robert Smiegel and George Mayer represent the new young turks of the show. Interestingly, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels and writers Bonnie and Terry Turner are listed on the script’s title page though their names are absent from the page at the end of screenplay that breaks down each sketch’s individual writing credits. I can only assume that their contributions were more along the lines of editorial guidance.
Looking at that final page of writing credits, we can also see that many of the sketches are written by a mix of the old and new writers. Even though they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, it is not surprising that Franken and Downey collaborated on a piece called “Young Bush at Yale,” but it is interesting that they are joined by relative newcomer Smiegel, the guy who would create Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog for O’Brien’s future talk show. It is almost as if there is some sort of mentorship program going on. Mayer is the odd duck out here with his sole contribution being the solo-written “Tip Stealer.”
Perhaps appropriately enough, the script is about as scattershot as your typical SNL episode. Some sketches are home runs, most are at least solid base hits and a few are complete strikeouts, the kind that leave you wondering how they ever got past the initial table read, let alone dress rehearsal and onto the live show. But at 18 sketches and 133 pages, this screenplay is overwritten and it is easy to assume that some of the weaker material would have gotten trimmed out as it continued through development.
The film opens with “Welcome To The Movies,” a spoof of the animated “Welcome to our Theater!” spots that run before the trailers and the featured film at movie theaters in the 1980s. But rather than just animated reminders that “Smoking Is Permitted In The Lobby” and to “Please Place All Refuse In The Trash Receptacles,” it proceeds to also inform us that “It Is Illegal To Commit Bigamy” before going into an extended and drawn out thank you for coming to this particular theater. The words fly through space with great whooshes and the whole short piece acts as a silly harbinger of much of what is to come.
The film then kicks into high gear with “Young Bush At Yale,” the first of the screenplay’s two big set pieces. In this one we find a collegiate George Herbert Walker Bush attempting woo a beautiful co-ed by the name of Barbara who is also being pursued by the far more lecherous John F Kennedy. Not the slam piece one would like to expect with Franken being one of the credited writers, “Young Bush” actually feels like an affectionate throwback to screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. Both Bush’s naivety and Kennedy’s reported girl-chasing tendencies are played up here for comedic effect. The third point of the triangle, Barbara, actually comes off the best, a smart young woman who fights off Kennedy’s advances while slowly falling for the far more innocent George. Ronald Reagan also makes an appearance in the story, as the announcer of the piece’s big football game finale, which JFK’s father Joe Kennedy is trying to fix. (Reagan casually mentions that he is 68. Since this story is set in 1940, I leave it to you to do the math.)
The next piece is “Cineplex” and would likely have irritated theater owners as it basically is a seventeen-minute tutorial shot in the style of old educational films on how to sneak into the movies. And yes, at seventeen pages it goes on much longer than it needs to. Hopefully, this would have been edited down somewhat if the project had continued.
Following “Cineplex” is the first in a trio of short parodies of another mainstay of the cinematic experience of the 1980s – the celebrity charity appeal. Lead by Christopher Reeves, the likes of Glenn Close, Carl Weathers, Charlton Heston, Robert Vaughn, Clint Eastwood, Mary Tyler Moore and Madonna implore the audience to give to the fictional Walter Sternberg Foundation for Childhood Diseases, even though they wind up bickering as to what exactly is the best reason why one should be donating. As the piece recurs through the rest of the film, Chris Reeves grow increasingly irritated at the audience over lack of donations until he snaps in the third installment and starts appearing in other sketches, showing up in the background to glare at the audience.
“Romance” is a sweet yet silly story of a woman’s whirlwind romance with a rather flatulant Italian movie star while travelling in Europe. Not so much a parody of Hollywood rom-coms but instead a riff on bittersweet European romances, the bit is unfortunately one joke stretched out to eleven pages.
“Crack Rap” is a short musical piece spoofing anti-drug Public Service Announcements. Perhaps the execution could have sold the joke on this, but there is no indication as to how do so. As it sits on the page it doesn’t read as funny at all and could have easily been eligible for the editor’s scissors.
“Dad’s Car” starts off as a riff on films like Risky Business where a teen is left at home while his parents go away for the weekend and predictable hijinks ensue. In this case, Turner is prohibited by his father from touching his expensive sports car. This doesn’t stop his friend Shitty from suggesting that they take the car out for a spin, but not without first smashing it with sledgehammers. When they realize what they’ve done – “It was an accident!” pleads one of Turner and Shitty’s friends who was in on the destruction – a phone call comes fromTurner’s Dad stating that they are heading back to the house to pick up their forgotten airline tickets and will be there in exactly 12 minutes! What follows is a hysterical deconstruction of the “racing against time” montage that features in many of these types of films. The kids manages to run to an auto parts store, have parts delivered via mail order from Italy and compete in a race in which the prize just happens to be one of the parts they need all in the alotted twelve minutes. One kid even manages to squeeze in a piano lesson into that time. It’s a ridiculous segment and one of the few portions of the script that left me laughing out loud.
Next is an “American Geographic” short film called “Bum Piss Canyon,” profiling the river of urine that winds through Manhattan before crossing the country to carve out the titular natural wonder. It’s another one joke sketch and the joke is not very funny. At least the script apologizes for the segment at its end.
The next sketch, “The E.T.s” is also pretty much a one-joke premise, but in this case it is a single joke that gets funnier with each retelling. A parody of Steven Spielberg’s film, this sees young Josh befriend a stranded alien only to promptly poison him by offering him some applesauce. The alien has some friends who comes looking for him and Josh and his family proceed to kill them off in an escalating, hysterical series of accidents culminating in a final shot that parodies ET‘s famous bicycle flying across the moon image but has the alien falling out of the bicycle basket to a splattery death.
“On The Farm” is an absurdly twisted idea from Smiegel, O’Brien, Franken and Downey in which the flavor of beef is enhanced by feeding cows delicious stakes. Silly in the way it parodies self-serving commercials from various industry self-interest organizations, it was obviously written long before the words “Mad Cow Disease” became commonly known and historical hindsight gives the piece an interesting, if dark, new level of resonance.
If you hated when Ted Turner decided to computer colorize old black-and-white films, you’ll probably find some laughs in “Wonderful Life,” in which Turner has evolved the idea to the point where he is re-dialoguing old films to add swear words in order to make them more appealing to modern audiences. The result sees Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey calling Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter a “Stupid fucking shithead” in the newly “vulgarized” version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Further examples how Rhett Butler telling Scarlett O’Hara that “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a fuck” and Humphrey Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman “Don’t you see, the problems of two people like us don’t amount to a pile of shit.”
The film’s second and last big set piece is “Tip Stealer,” they story of a man who started stealing tips off of restaurant tables as a kid and is now pathologically driven to continue to do so as an adult. It is well constructed and I can see where the jokes are, but it didn’t really strike me as my cup of tea.
And with that, the film is basically over save for some scripted “bloopers” that are scattered through the closing credits in which we see the various sketch actors flub their lines, get hit by falling klieg lights and even spontaneously combust.
Expectedly, some of the jokes and parodies are very much rooted in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. But what’s interesting about the various pieces is that they all transcend the simple single-set restriction of the television show and really embrace the wider scope that a film affords. Despite the varied results, it is easy to see that all the writers stepped up to the challenge of writing for the broader canvas that film affords.
What’s really fun about reading the script is mentally casting each sketch from the then-current and past SNL players. Dana Carvey gets name-checked in the “Wonderful Life” sketch to provide his Jimmy Stewart impersonation,which he had already done in the classic “Lost Ending To It’s A Wonderful Life” sketch on the December 20, 1986 installment of the series. But Carvey could easily have played the lead in “Young Bush At Yale” as well.There are numerous parts that the versatile Phil Hartman could have filled but I see him most strongly as the dad in “Dad’s Car.” Perhaps Jane Curtain could have come back to play the mom in the “E.T.s” sketch or Loraine Newman could easily have been the girlfriend in “Tip Stealer.”
Of course, there is a caveat to this speculative casting. Outside of maybe Eddie Murphy, I doubt that Lorne Michaels would have used many of the show’s cast who appeared between 1980 and 1985. Michaels was not working on the show at the time and in various anniversary retrospectives those years have always seemed slighted even though they featured some good work from the likes of Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Harry Shearer.
It is not known why the project never came to fruition. Perhaps Lorne Michaels thought that the overall script wasn’t strong enough. Or perhaps he thought working on the project would pull focus away from the show and with a relatively new cast, a majority of whom only had one season under their belts at this time, he didn’t want to do that. Whatever the reason, the fact that the long-running comedy institution was even considering a film project like this makes for a fascinating, if unfortunately ignored, piece of its history.