MacGruber never had a chance, but it deserved one.
“Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy,” Vivian Leigh once said, “It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh.” And she would know, since she won two Oscars for dramatic performances then died of tuberculosis. And I’m right there with her. On the comedy thing, not the tuberculosis thing.
But I can take it even one step further: Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy, but dumb comedy is much more difficult than any other type of comedy.
What is dumb comedy? It’s over-the-top, it plays 100 percent of its moments for comedy, and it incorporates things like gratuitous swearing, dick/fart/poop jokes and sex jokes. And it’s SO easy to screw up but almost impossible to master — that is, to make those things legitimately funny, clever and possibly even poignant. It’s why there have been endless R-rated animated TV shows in the past two decades but only one South Park. It’s why the first American Pie made nine figures in theaters, but its spawn like American Pie 17: Beating (Off) a Dead Horse go straight to DVD and iTunes. It’s so delicate that it can even be impossible for the same team to do it twice: Borat was great; Bruno was a disaster.
MacGruber isn’t just a dumb comedy. It might be one of the five best dumb comedies of all time. And I’m not saying that because of a standard Internet-era recency bias meets clickbait hot-take supernova. I’m saying it because I love dumb comedies, I’ve watched thousands of them (even a lot of those Meet the Spartans types), and I sat here for an hour without being able to come up with more than a couple of dumb comedies that are better. (I’ll save the list for another date; I don’t want to take away from MacGruber here.)
MacGruber is a case study-level example of a dumb comedy created and performed by very, very smart people.
And no one gave it a chance.
To the backstorymobile!
In January 2007, Will Forte debuted a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live that parodied MacGyver. He played a character named MacGruber who was always in the same situation: Locked in a tight space with Kristin Wiig and the weekly guest host, he’d ask for random items in order to get them out before a bomb exploded… but he’d always wind up distracted and the bomb would go off.
The sketches had their moments, but probably wouldn’t have gone down in the annals of SNL history had Lorne Michaels not asked Forte and the writers to consider creating a feature-length MacGruber movie.
They wrote an action movie — but one that was played completely deadpan and borderline postmodern. One that provided a fresh deconstruction of the action movie cliches that we all figured had been deconstructed already. One that parodied sex scenes so aggressively that after my wife watched (and loved) it, she noted, “I’m not sure any woman will ever be able to have sex with Will Forte again.” They expanded the MacGruber character into a self-important, smug, impulsive, vain lunatic. They expanded Kristin Wiig’s character. They wrote an intentionally stereotypical megalomaniac villain, and got Val Kilmer to play him.
But then the strangest development happened. Whether it was Michaels’ power/reputation, a relatively low budget, or everyone at Universal Pictures was asleep at the switch, Forte and company clearly got completely free reign to make the exact movie they wanted. (And if you’re looking for the correlation between “creative freedom” and “quality results,” it approaches 1:1.)
Then it ran into a brick wall.
The big critics didn’t just destroy the movie in their reviews, they went after it with a peculiar and unprecedented maliciousness. A.O. Scott of the New York Times went with, “A film that poses a philosophical question fundamental to our inquiry here, namely: ‘Why does this exist?'”
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly went with “A naughty throwaway in all senses of the word throwaway — 90 minutes of talented performers doing and saying dumb, crude stuff in pursuit of an elusive laugh.”
Kyle Smith of the New York Post was the most vicious: “There’s a reason you’ve never seen the words ‘Will Forte’ topping the billing of a major motion picture. After the throbbing flameball of unfunny that is MacGruber, you never will again.” My God, man! Did Will Forte make your parents get divorced then steal your dog? And also, how pissed must this guy have been when Nebraska came out?
Even many of the critics that didn’t hate it or have a personal grudge against Forte over the whole divorce/dog thing seemed afraid to jeopardize their reputation as being Very Important and Smart (breaking from the herd can do that), so they hedged.
Nathan Rabin from the A.V. Club went with: “It isn’t exactly good, but for audiences in search of nothing more than a few silly chuckles, it should prove good enough.” He gave it a C+.
Ty Burr from the Boston Globe said: “All thing considered, MacGruber is a lot better than it should be. That still doesn’t mean it’s all that great.” He gave it two stars out of four.
But, of course, critics aren’t always everything when it comes to a movie’s box office success (see Squad, Suicide). Unfortunately, MacGruber was a case where they were needed. SNL movies have a spotty reputation (and that might be generous). I love Ladies Man, but most people think the SNL movie library consists of Wayne’s World, Blues Brothers and a bunch of disasters.
Since MacGruber was only a semi-popular character/sketch, people questioned its conversion into a movie from the start. The critical response just reiterated what people were already kind of assuming: Another mediocre SNL movie based on character that never should’ve gotten a movie to begin with.
Then, after a minor marketing campaign (the movie AND marketing campaign had a total of a $10 million budget), MacGruber came out as a summer movie and opened against Shrek Forever After (I think that was the fourth one) and the third week of Iron Man 2. It made a disastrously low $4 million on its opening weekend and was more or less out of theaters within two weeks.
I know the above three paragraphs are true because, in 2010, I was seeing a lot of movies. (I had a TON of time that summer; it was when I was working on my book.) I like SNL, I like Will Forte and Kristin Wiig, I like dumb comedies — but there was nothing that inspired me to actually go to a movie theater and pay $15 to see this movie. Plus, since it only lasted a few weeks, there was no word-of-mouth to move me that direction either.
I didn’t see it until almost a year later, when my good friend Nathan went on an epic rant about how good it was.
I didn’t really get into his points in this essay. I touched on some of the broad strokes reasons why MacGruber is wonderful, but I didn’t think getting into the minutiae was really necessary. If you have any appreciation for genius-level dumb comedy, the odds you’ll love MacGruber are extraordinarily high. If it’s not your thing, you won’t. Over the past six years, the movie has begun a journey to “cult classic” status, but that cult could stand to be bigger. We’re looking for a Heaven’s Gate-size cult here, not a “four dead-eyed people worshipping a guy named Jeremy” cult.
It’s a movie that deserves better than it got.
Fortunately, at least Will Forte knows that — I’m writing this because yesterday, he and director Jorma Taccone posted on social media that they’d begun working on MacGruber 2.