Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes July 11, 2022
I read the lost "Saturday Night Live: The Movie" screenplay from 1990 with some friends. Was it any good? Here's my take.
• In May 1990, a bevy of legendary SNL writers— Lorne Michaels, Robert Smigel, Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, Al Franken (sorry), Tom Davis, George Meyer, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner— completed a draft of “Saturday Night Live: The Movie.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably saying, “Wait, what? This exists?”
Thanks for reading Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Well, the screenplay does. The movie, unfortunately, does not.
Through a confluence of events, I got my hands on a draft of the script a few weeks ago courtesy of the Yale Library who had a copy stored away in Tom Davis’ archive of unfinished projects (a true treasure trove for comedy fans).
Rather than devouring the 135-page screenplay alone in my apartment, I decided to reach out to fellow comedy nerds and hold a reading of this lost tome over an ancient form of communication known as Zoom (if you’re like, “Hey, you didn’t reach out to me!”- check out the last Comedy Stray Notes. There was an open call at the end to take part in this reading for the real ones who got that far).
So, on Sunday, July 10, with the help of over 20 friends- Anna Paone, Sam Zelitch, Courtenay Cholovich, Tom Scudamore, Matt Storrs, Max Weinbach, Nicky Weinbach, Dan Fitzpatrick, Allie Kroeper, Kaley Morrison, Jess Dungan, Marianne Deschrorers, Jared Young, Dan Miller, Reena Ezra, Justin Smith, Brian Boone, Rebecca Kaplan, Jose Gonzalez, Jake Kaye, RA Bartlett, Jason Zinoman, Jason Farr and Michael Sullivan- we slogged through this unmade movie.
How did it hold up over 30 years after it was written?
Honestly, pretty well.
Overall, I’d describe “Saturday Night Live: The Movie” as hit or miss with a pretty high hit ratio. There were more than a few very smart, very Harvard-y sketches that it’s a shame we’ll never get to see.
Now, without further ado, here is my complete review of each “Saturday Night Live: The Movie” sketch that we'll never get to see accompanied by my favorite bit from each (copied verbatim from the screenplay).
INDISPUTABLE BONA FIDE CLASSICS
“Dad’s Car” (written by Smigel, Conan, Daniels): A gleeful, absurd parody of the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” dad’s car fixation. This sketch was so good it would fit right in on the fourth season of “The Simpsons.”
Best action sequence: “Three minutes remain before DAD returns. The kids ride their bikes up to the auto parts store. The doors are locked and a sign reads BACK IN 3.5 MINUTES.”
“Young Bush at Yale” (Downey, Franken, Smigel): Clearly written for Dana Carvey, the writing trio here skewers the limp former president’s “wouldn’t be prudent” persona to great comic effect. Featuring cameos from a rival JFK, competitive Bobby Kennedy, bodacious Barbara Bush, sidelined Reagan and even a young Cheney, I see this crackling satire as the genesis of Smigel’s later recurring “X-Presidents” TV Funhouse segment.
Best line: JFK to young Barbara Bush: “Yes, uh, I took the, uh, liberty of asking my father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, to check you out. And I must say, the more I know about you, the more I want to, uh, bed you down.”
“Blooper Credits” (Conan, Downey): Goofy outtakes must have been all the rage circa 1990 because this dark and gory takedown of good-natured post-credits follies really took them to task. Love the idea of a “wild dog leaping into an actor and biting him in the throat” before cutting to another “cut scene” like this wasn’t the most horrific thing you’ve ever witnessed.
Best bit: A cast member vomits in mid-sentence. The other actors laugh and we hear the director shout “cut!”
“Welcome to the Movies” (Conan, Smigel, Daniels): The flick kicks off with a “Let’s All Go To The Movies” style parody that begins normally enough before veering off into crazy town absurdity where they advise viewers that “Bigamy is illegal.” The first true big belly laugh of many in this zany anthology.
Best gag: The words “IT” “IS” “ILLEGAL” “TO” fly on one at a time, followed by “COMMIT” “BIGAMY” forming a sentence. Below it, another sentence shoots in: “PLEASE DON’T MARRY TWO PEOPLE.”
VERY SOLID ENTRIES
“Cineplex” (Smigel, Conan, Daniels): Remember the days of trying to fit every single movie playing at the multiplex into a single trip? Well, this elaborate, intentionally complex 15-page gag-filled mini-film explains the great pains one must endure to make this a reality.
Favorite instruction: “Okay. Now, try to act like you’ve just seen the movie. Talk about it. Say, ‘I liked the part where the fellow got angry.’” (Now if that line doesn’t sound like Conan, I don’t know what does).
“Romance” (Al Franken, Tom Davis): An illicit tryst between a would-be lothario and a stranded traveling mom in her 40s is punctuated by an extended running fart joke. But what a fart joke. Said lothario (assuming this would have been Phil Hartman) is a movie star who just can’t stop breaking wind at the most inopportune, romantic moments. Juvenile and somehow complex. I liked this way more than I should have.
Best moment: “He tries to time a fart with the ‘pop’ of the champagne cork, but the fart is twice as long as the pop of the cork.”
E.T.’s (Daniels, Smigel, Downey, Conan): One of comedy’s all-time dream teams puts together a pretty funny parody of a movie that was already eight years old when they wrote this bit. Here, the joke is that a suburban family accidentally kills every cute extra terrestrial they come in contact with. It’s goofy and would most likely really work with funny-looking “Mac and Me” style aliens.
Best dialogue: MOTHER: “He must have suffocated. I guess he breathed out of THIS end.”
“On The Farm” (Smigel, Conan, Daniels, Franken): Clearly another precursor to another SNL classic (“Cluckin’ Chicken”), “On The Farm” starts with a fairly familiar premise where cows are fed beef because it ends up tasting better. Then, they heighten to such absurd lengths that all you have to do is sit back and marvel at the sketch’s willingness to go there.
Choicest line: “We’ve gone as far as lobster-fed lobster-fed lobster-fed lobster.”
“Movie’s Over” (Conan, Smigel, Daniels): A simple goodbye calling back to the movie’s opening where nonsensical words addressing the crowd whoosh onscreen.
Funniest bit: “YOU COULD HAVE SMOKED. WE WOULD HAVE BEEN POWERLESS TO STOP YOU.”
NOT QUITE GREAT
“Bum Piss Canyon” (Davis, Downey, Franken): Judging by the title alone, you can probably guess that this sketch ends with an apology. Still, I’ll give credit where it’s due- this one-joke idea where pee flows freely from New York City sewers to a beautiful canyon where thousands of Americans vacation had its moments. The “beautiful monument” being threatened by an asparagus canning plant was particularly inspired.
Line that was so dumb it made me laugh: “To the conquistadors, the first white men to gaze upon the Bum Piss, it was known as El Rio de Numero Uno.”
“Wonderful Life” (Downey, Franken): Here, Ted Turner addresses the camera and speaks his piece on why he believes audiences find old movies boring. With their dull patter and wimpy dialogue, wouldn’t it be better to spice them up with a bit of vulgar language? He clicks into an old film and the joke presents itself: “It’s a Wonderful Life” but vulgarized. So, if the idea of Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable cursing up a storm works for you, you’d love “Wonderful Life.” Definitely not my favorite of the bunch but you really can’t go wrong watching Stewart spew F-bombs wily nily.
Most Jimmy Stewart-y line: “In the whole vast configuration of things I’d say you were nothing but a stupid f—ing s—-head.”
“Tip Stealer” (Meyer): I’d read a review of “Saturday Night Live: The Movie” once before actually. In it, the critic effusively praised this con man genre parody as the best the movie had to offer. I beg to differ. While “Tip Stealer” certainly has its fair share of striking visual images (“Deftly he slaps the free end of the chopstick, and the money is catapulted up into his other hand), this over-baked, over-long effort by “The Simpsons’” most legendary writer mostly disappointed.
Most “Simpsons-y” line: “Do me a favor, Kelly. Define ‘good’ for me…Oh, and while you’re at it, why don’t you explain Watergate to me. And Iran/Contra.”
Appeal #1, 2 and 3 (Downey, Franken): Recurring gags or “runners” are typically a refreshing shock to the system when watching any sketch program. You go, “Oh, yeah! I forgot about that bit! There it is again!” Not so much here. The “Appeal” is a parade of early ‘90s stars like Christopher Reeve (RIP), Glenn Close, Charlton Heston (RIP), Mary Tyler Moore (RIP), Carl Weathers, James Woods, Madonna and Clint Eastwood disagreeing about why they support the Walter Sternberg Foundation for Childhood Disease. The “running” gag here heightens when a collection plate is passed around the theater for the audience to donate to the foundation and predictably no one gives. Amusing idea, a bit too dry to work on the page.
The bit in a nutshell: “I’m certain that when the ushers once again circulate these cups, you will give generously. For the children. Once again, thank you.”
Crack Rap (Franken, Davis): A rap advice song to take “half a hit of crack” instead of a whole is kinda funny. The whole gag falls apart once the rapper tastelessly suggests that half hit so you don’t die young like ‘80s NBA prospect Len Bias. This one’s just mean.
A somewhat passable rhyme: “When the dude/Put the torch/To the bowl/Take half a hit/Not the whole.”
After the reading, the group came to a consensus why the movie didn’t work. Too many animals, too overstuffed (comedies really should be no more than 90 minutes), too inside baseball (multiple jokes about the forgotten film “The Presidio” for chrissakes), too many gross-out gags (pee AND farts?), too much excess.
Yet, I loved “Saturday Night Live: The Movie.” This fascinating kitchen sink mishmash of all these legendary writers’ greatest obsessions— mealy mouthed politicians, the Kennedys, smart scatalogical jokes, mild mannered actors letting loose, obscure references— is a perfect demonstration of everything that makes late ‘80s/early ‘90s “Saturday Night Live” so great. In fact, at times, I’d go so far as to argue that the movie is representative of everything golden era “Simpsons” would become in the next few years:
Smirking, heartfelt, overly detailed, painstakingly written and rewritten to make the writers laugh first and foremost.
The screenplay tries to have its cake and eat it too and for that, I can’t help but wish “Saturday Night Live: The Movie” existed. Comedy nerds everywhere would have revered this as a cult classic.
It’s a shame we’ll never see this thing produced but as long as this screenplay floats around the fringes of the web, we can always wonder. And for me, that’s almost more fun.
With that, I will leave you with a truly fantastic line from the “Bush at Yale” sketch:
JFK: Hey, dad, I’ve got an idea. Let’s see who can eat the most eggs.
JOE: You’re on.
Bobby opens the fridge and the three Kennedys start Cool Hand Luking out.
It's a shame we'll never see that perfectly stupid moment
Thanks for reading Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.