On December 16, MacGruber returns to TV with his own streaming series on Peacock. Before watching new episodes, read Alan Siegel’s feature, originally published in May 2020, on how the SNL character turned into a cult hero.
The morning Will Forte squeezed a stalk of celery between his ass cheeks and cawed like a seagull, he had a visitor: his mother.
The outrageous scene in MacGruber called for the title character, a bumbling version of 1980s do-it-yourself hero MacGyver, to distract a handful of gun-toting bad guys with nothing but a little nudity and a strategically protruding vegetable. The day before, the actor’s mom had told her son that she’d be dropping by the Albuquerque set before heading to Santa Fe. Knowing what was on the shooting schedule, he tried to convince her to go sightseeing in New Mexico’s capital first before coming to see him naked. His plea failed. “I looked over and there’s my mom,” Forte says. “Mom seemed fine with it. I think I saw her and maybe she even gave me a little wave and was smiling.” If only she had come to New Mexico alone. “Behind her,” he recalls, “were just these aghast faces of her two friends who could not believe what they were having to watch.”
Classic MacGruber. Classic Forte. “Will’s sense of humor is so singular and always has been,” says longtime friend Maya Rudolph, who plays the ghost of MacGruber’s slain wife in the film. “It hasn’t changed one bit.” Over the past two decades, Forte has become a cringe comedy king. From 2002 to 2010, he played a wide variety of wonderfully deranged characters on Saturday Night Live—from an off-base color commentator named Greg Stink to a NASA pencil pusher who’s disturbingly protective of his bowl of potato chips. He created and starred in the postapocalyptic sitcom The Last Man on Earth, and has also delivered legendary guest appearances on sketch shows like Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories and I Think You Should Leave. But nothing he’s ever done is a purer distillation of his uncomfortably funny sensibility than MacGruber. “Will brought this fucking deep, committed insanity to this piece-of-shit guy,” says Lonely Island trio member Jorma Taccone, who directed the action comedy.
“He’s the worst friend, he’s the worst lover, the worst boyfriend, the worst soldier. He’s just terrible,” says Ryan Phillippe, who plays MacGruber’s straight man, Lieutenant Dixon Piper. “Jorma and Will managed to make this utterly reprehensible character somebody that you actually root for.”
MacGruber is a silly, violent, sex-filled, SNL sketch–based farce about a truly deplorable man. Aside from his celery-related antics, in the movie’s 99-minute running time he accidentally blows up his entire team of mercenaries, torches the car of a man who makes fun of his Mazda Miata, and has sex with the ghost of his dead wife … in a cemetery. If that doesn’t sound like the formula for a Wayne’s World–style smash hit, that’s because it’s not.
Perhaps fittingly, MacGruber’s comically inept hero couldn’t save it from bombing. After making only $4 million during its opening weekend, the movie grossed a total of $9.3 million. But after quickly fleeing from theaters in the spring of 2010, it’s become an ass-kickin’, throat-rippin’ cult favorite. The movie has somehow become so beloved that, after years of fan-driven calls for a sequel, NBC enlisted Forte and Taccone to develop a follow-up series for the streaming platform Peacock.
No major studio release of the past 10 years has featured more bits that make you ask, Did that really just happen? And hardly any movie in the past decade is as quotable, or sneakily beloved. It’s the kind of comedy that only could’ve been made by comedians trying to make other comedians laugh. As Rudolph puts it, MacGruber is a “sort of insane concoction of something that’s brutally funny and close to the edge of wrong that makes it funnier.”
In the aughts, before streaming services pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into original content and franchises enveloped cineplexes, studios still cared about theatrical comedies. Back then, there was room on the slate for something as strange as MacGruber.
“When I think about Wayne’s World, I think about two guys with really big, endearing smiles and who are super funny and a lot of fun,” says former SNL staffer John Solomon, who wrote MacGruber with Forte and Taccone. “And MacGruber’s obviously very funny, but sometimes he’s not a lot of fun because he’s a bad dude.”
By the late 2000s, when he was nearing the end of his eight-season tenure on the show, Forte had turned MacGruber into a Saturday Night Live mainstay. It was one of many memorable characters from an era loaded with them: Forte, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Kenan Thompson, and Kristen Wiig turned the post–Will Ferrell/Tina Fey years into one of SNL’s best stretches. It was a group that the now-49-year-old Forte actually had to be convinced to join. In the ’90s, the Northern California native found success performing with the Los Angeles–based improv troupe the Groundlings. Forte, who in interviews has spoken about living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, spent hours fine-tuning sketches. Some of them, like one about a woeful spelling bee participant, presented a distorted reflection of himself.
“That idea of a guy who is, like, so fixated on spelling this word correctly and is so wrong and takes so much time,” says Solomon, who first met Forte in a history class at UCLA. “That is the quintessential Will sketch.”
Another one of those characters was a street performer who sang a catchy tune about how he earned his money. “We all knew the melody,” Rudolph, a fellow Groundling, says before breaking into song. “I suck cock for my face paint …” Forte used the raunchy number to close his 2001 SNL audition.
“I remember my first thought was, ‘Fuck, this guy’s fantastic,’” says Meyers, an SNL cast member and writer at the time. “I’m never gonna get on TV again.”
Yet after Lorne Michaels offered him a spot in the cast, Forte turned it down out of a fear of both failure and professional instability. By then, he’d washed out of a dream writing gig with The Late Show With David Letterman after nine months. “He maybe didn’t see himself as a performer,” Rudolph says of Forte, who’d also worked on sitcoms That ’70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun. “I remember having to get on the phone with Will and say, ‘I really think you should come do the show.’” It took a year and a second offer from Michaels, but in 2002 he finally relented.
Forte’s rise at SNL was gradual. “The most unique thing about Will from the start was that he wrote sketches like he was making Fabergé eggs,” Meyers says. “There was an incredible attention to detail. Even, I would argue to this day, there didn’t need to be. We would walk by Will’s office and hear him asking John over and over again if ‘do not’ was funnier than ‘don’t.’”
At the outset, Forte had the thankless task of filling Ferrell’s role as then-president George W. Bush. There were times when Forte displayed his signature absurdism—as the skittish, degenerate politician Tim Calhoun; bird enthusiast/hermit “The Falconer”; and the spelling bee sad sack he’d developed at the Groundlings—but his star turn didn’t come until his fifth season on the show. That year, Taccone brought Forte an idea about MacGyver’s stepbrother, named MacGruber. “He diffuses bombs the way MacGyver would,” says Taccone, who originally pitched it for Lance Armstrong when the cyclist hosted in 2005. “And all the items he needs to diffuse the bomb are pieces of shit and pubic hair.”
“That,” Taccone adds, “got a huge groan from everyone in the room.”
Neither Forte nor Solomon thought the sketch would work. “He kept saying, ‘I have this idea that’s MacGyver’s less-talented brother called MacGruber,’” Forte says. “We thought it was dumb—at least I did.” But Taccone was persistent. “I think mainly just to get him to shut up, we said, ‘OK, fine. Let’s try it,’” Forte recalls.
In the first “MacGruber,” which aired on January 20, 2007, Forte’s mulleted, vest-wearing wiz attempts to defuse an explosive device with a paper clip, twine, gum wrapper, and a dog turd. But when his assistants Casey (Rudolph) and JoJo (host Jeremy Piven)—yes, they’re named for the R&B duo—refuse to hand MacGruber the last item, the bomb detonates. MacGruber pops up twice more in the episode; each appearance is shorter than the last and all three end with the incompetent lead failing to avert disaster. “The first one sets it up, the second one gets a little weirder,” Forte says, describing what became a foolproof formula. “And then the third one is the most bonkers of the three.”
The audience’s reaction to the increasingly filthy sketches—by the third, MacGruber requests a bucket of sperm—was a mixture of laughter and groaning. Taccone, who directed the vignettes, relished watching Forte infuse MacGruber with the deadly seriousness of a real ’80s action movie star. “I’ve never met somebody in comedy who goes so deep into character,” he says. “I’ve never seen him break. Ever.”
But after MacGruber’s successful debut, Forte expected him to disappear. “There’s no reason we would’ve thought that we would’ve ever done a second one,” he says. “It was just like a one-off and moving on to the next thing.” But then Michaels suggested bringing him back. And from there, every subsequent “MacGruber” revealed more about the bizarro MacGyver, who, well, had issues. He becomes an alcoholic, gets addicted to having plastic surgery, and struggles to accept his gay son.
“‘MacGruber’ was a dumb idea written to the height of its intelligence,” Meyers says. “That’s why it continued to get better the longer they did it.”
On the back of Forte’s likably intense performances, the recurring sketch became an audience favorite. Even more key, it became a Lorne Michaels favorite. And in 2008, when Pepsi approached SNL about collaborating on a Super Bowl XLIII commercial, Michaels suggested that it star MacGruber.
“It’s pretty awesome and inspiring when your boss has that kind of confidence,” Forte says. “So we said, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do it.’” MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson was also enlisted for the Pepsi spot, which was actually three short ads, intended to run throughout the Super Bowl and play off each other the same way “MacGruber” functioned on SNL. In the end, however, only the second part aired during the game.
“Which is weird,” Forte says, “Because there was no setup to it, and all of a sudden it’s just Richard Dean Anderson sitting there. You don’t know how he got there, what his deal is.” Forte still doesn’t know why this happened, or exactly why the second part was the chosen one, but he has a guess: “I think it’s because we just say the word ‘Pepsi’ way more.”
That winter, seizing on the character’s post–Super Bowl notoriety, Michaels suggested making a MacGruber movie. Just as he had when Taccone brought him the sketch idea, Forte initially thought it was absurd. “What would we even do?” he recalls wondering. But obviously, the possibility of turning Grubes into a big-screen action hero became too enticing to pass up.
Even after agreeing to write the screenplay, Forte, Taccone, and Solomon had no clue what a MacGruber movie would look like. “There’s no idea there,” says Taccone, who’d been tapped to direct the first SNL film since 2000’s The Ladies Man. “It’s just a guy who explodes.”
Naturally, the Gen-Xers searched for inspiration in the testosterone-injected movies of their youth: First Blood, Uncommon Valor, Commando, Road House, and Die Hard. This was the world in which they wanted to drop MacGruber. “One-man army, American badass, can’t be stopped, bigger than life,” Taccone says. “And ours just happens to be a massive piece of shit. The scenes came so easy.”
That ease can be felt in the movie, as its lines hit hard and fast—and are laugh-out-loud funny. There are jokes that play on the absurdly self-serious stakes of the action genre. “The game has changed!” MacGruber’s superior, Colonel Faith, says, to which MacGruber replies, “But the players are the same!” (In a parody on top of a parody, an exchange later in the movie echoes that one, but flips the order.) And there are also countless lines that accentuate MacGruber’s mix of awfulness and ’80s machismo—from “I’ve got a better idea—no fuckin’ way” to “Hoss Bender, dead at the age of who-the-fuck-cares.”
Holed up in Forte’s one-bedroom New York City apartment near Union Square in early 2009, the three friends churned out a 175-page script. In the first draft, the film opens with a long chase scene in which the villain, Dieter Von Cunth—MacGruber blissfully took aim at a hard-R rating—steals a nuclear warhead. That, along with other complex action sequences, were quickly excised for budgetary reasons. “It was just super clear very early on that you’re not gonna have anywhere near the amount of money that you’re gonna think you’re gonna have,” Solomon says.
“It started off being, ‘It’ll be $30 million. It’ll be $20 million. We’re lucky if we get $10,’” says Taccone, who for insight into how to create inexpensive special effects watched a handful of Robert Rodriguez’s films on DVD with the commentary tracks on. “But luckily with that price tag, too, you get a lot less people breathing down your neck, because it’s not as big a swing.”
But even the pared-down version of MacGruber exploded off the page. “It’s one of those memorable scripts,” Rudolph says. “It was like when I read the script for Anchorman. Like, ‘Jesus Christ, this is the funniest thing I’ve ever read.’”
During the casting of the movie, there were two obvious choices: Forte’s sketch partners Rudolph (Casey Fitzpatrick, MacGruber’s dead wife) and Wiig (Vicki St. Elmo, MacGruber’s teammate and love interest). But there was also a need for experienced dramatic actors to help counterbalance the film’s ridiculousness.
Ryan Phillippe remembers his manager reluctantly asking if he was interested in participating in a MacGruber table read. “I’m like, ‘For what? MacGruber?’” he says. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, that sketch.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t need to tell me what MacGruber is. I know exactly what the fuck it is.’” A self-proclaimed comedy nerd and SNL obsessive who’d become a huge Lonely Island fan, the Cruel Intentions and Crash star was excited to prove that he—“an outsider”—could hang with some of the world’s funniest people.
“We kind of forced Ryan to audition for us, which was so wildly beneath him,” Taccone says of Phillippe. “I’m gonna have to fuckin’ placate these nerds. I actually want to be in this.”
Also on hand for the read-through was Ray Liotta, who that day played the part of MacGruber’s superior, Colonel Jim Faith. In hindsight, Taccone wishes he’d offered more direction to the actor, who gave the character a New York wiseguy accent. “Within one line, you’re like, ‘Well, it’s not gonna be Ray Liotta,’” Taccone says. “And that’s not actually fair. It could’ve been. He’s a fantastic actor. I just didn’t have the wherewithal to tell him how to play it.”
The part of Faith eventually went to the late action movie stalwart Powers Boothe; Taccone and fellow Lonely Islanders Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg had loved him in Deadwood. “To have that level of seriousness was what we needed,” says Taccone, who also worked with Ian McShane on 2007’s Hot Rod.
Cunth, the movie’s big bad, required someone who could embody a certain kind of whimsical evil. Luckily, Val Kilmer was interested. “I love the Lonely Island music and the skits were so clean and professional,” Kilmer writes in an email. “I had seen the MacGruber sketches and you can tell the ones that Lorne really supports because they have time to produce them independently.”
At the table read, the Top Gun and Batman star killed as Cunth. “He annihilated it in a way where you were like, ‘OK. I’m never gonna question it,’” Taccone says. Later, Kilmer admitted that it was the first time he’d looked at the script.
Making MacGruber became like an intense month of summer camp. “It was just a joy to be around it while it was happening,” says Meyers, an executive producer on the movie. “Mostly because you couldn’t believe it was happening.” For the monthlong shoot, which began in August 2009, Forte, Solomon, and Taccone rented a house, where they both hosted parties and workshopped scenes with actors, including Boothe. “We tried to be as generous as we could and put [the dialogue] in people’s voices,” Taccone says. “If they were gonna be involved in something this stupid, you treat them with some level of respect as they debase themselves.”
To its benefit, the film is full of hysterically odd flourishes that its creators added for self-amusement. Comedy writer Matt Murray suggested having MacGruber play the saxophone. That found its way into the opening credits—as did the same prop C-4 used in Die Hard. Taccone also paid homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando with a freeze-frame shot through binoculars. And the montage where MacGruber assembles a team played by WWE wrestlers—the ones who later blow up in an accidental van explosion—is scored to Emerson, Lake & Powell’s “Touch and Go” for a reason: When they were writing the movie, Forte bet Solomon that he could go a full year listening to only that track. (Forte won the bet.)
MacGruber’s ludicrousness is what makes it unique. But the movie works only because its supporting cast occasionally makes it believable—or at least semi-believable. “We wanted to fill it out with people who had gravitas,” Forte says. “I mean, you do not get much more gravitas than Powers Boothe.” In the scene where MacGruber offers to perform sex acts on Faith to save his job, Taccone had a conversation with Boothe about how to respond. Taccone recalls him asking, “Am I Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!?” The director instructed him to play his reaction even straighter than that: “Powers sold the shit out of that.”
Forte called Phillippe’s part “one of the most important roles in the movie because he’s basically the audience. Like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m with these dumbasses.’” When MacGruber tells the story of why Cunth killed his wife, Casey—a revenge killing after MacGruber stole expecting mother Casey away from Cunth and then asked her to terminate the pregnancy so they could “start fresh”—Piper looks like he’s going to be sick.
“That blend of silliness and darkness is my favorite brand of humor,” says Phillippe. In order to hang with a cast of comedy vets, Phillippe resorted to digging a fingernail into the underside of his thumb to stop himself from laughing. “It always works, to me. But that doesn’t mean everybody else gets it. If you even try to explain it to somebody it sounds horrible and it’s not funny. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘You just kinda have to see the scene.’”
Late in the movie, Piper is tasked with staging a MacGruber-style distraction, which can mean only one thing: the celery trick. Phillippe remembers everyone doubting that he’d actually go through with it. “They didn’t believe I was gonna do it,” he says. “They were like, ‘We’re gonna get to that scene and he’s gonna say no. He’s an actor. He’s known for romantic leads and action/war movies—there’s no way he’s gonna do the celery thing in his ass.’ I’m like, ‘I’m just as crazy as you are. I may not have done this stuff my whole career, or life, but if Will’s gonna do that, I’m gonna do it.’”
Like the rest of the cast, Phillippe took the lead of Forte and Wiig, whose chemistry in MacGruber feels far more genuine than almost anything between a leading man and his love interest in an actual ’80s action movie. “Will and Kristen are two of the most fearless actors I’ve ever worked with,” Phillippe says. “You could couch that in a comedic sense. But to me I see it in a greater, broader sense.”
Forte and Wiig’s dual genius is perhaps best on display during MacGruber and Vicki’s graphic sex scene, an absurd fiasco (par for the course) that begins with the line “I like holes” and features a stomach-churning amount of grunting. The scene was filmed on a scorching hot afternoon, and also on Wiig’s birthday. “Will sweats,” Taccone says. “We may have sprayed his butt but it was like 110 degrees in that room.”
Then, after MacGruber sleeps with Vicki, he guiltily visits Casey’s grave, which is perhaps when the movie hits peak ludicrousness. While in the cemetery, Casey’s ghost appears—and they make love (with just as much grunting). The scene was, well, logistically tricky. “He was supposed to be banging away at me in a cemetery in the middle of the night,” Rudolph says.
But Forte was less concerned about how he looked in the buff than he was about Rudolph, who was seven and a half months pregnant at the time. “I know he felt guilty and was afraid to hurt me,” Rudolph says. “So they had to hire a stunt double to be pounded and then there would just be, like, closeups of me.”
“I’m basically naked with this woman that I’ve known forever who’s eight months pregnant,” Forte says. “It’s late at night, it’s freezing and at eight months pregnant, from what I understand, you’re pretty uncomfortable any position your body is in.”
“Did Will tell you about Lorne taking a picture of his butt?” Solomon asks in the middle of our interview. Sure enough, in the midst of simulating sex in a graveyard with his pregnant friend, Forte noticed his boss standing in the distance—with a camera. “I remember turning around and just seeing Lorne over by the video tent just taking a bunch of pictures of me,” Forte says. “I guess Lorne had a little Forte fetish.”
In the end, Forte, Taccone, and Solomon’s only regret was that they couldn’t fulfill the promise that MacGruber repeatedly makes in the movie—a vow to rip off Cunth’s penis and feed it to him. Kilmer, who once showed up on set dressed in an all-white suit, white cowboy hat, and bolo tie, nixed the plans to film that filthy, climactic insult.
“I’m still upset about that. Genuinely,” Taccone says. “I described it to Val so many times. I was like, ‘It’s going to be beautifully shot, Val. We’ll cut off your dick. We’ll bring it up. It’ll be in silhouettes. It’ll just be the shape of the dick and there’ll be sun behind it gleaming.’ And he would laugh so hard every time I pitched it. And I was like, ‘You’re laughing!’ He was like, ‘It would only be funny if I was a lesser star.’ And I was like, ‘I thoroughly disagree with that.’”
Kilmer’s objection didn’t keep him from enjoying the time he spent on MacGruber. While making the movie, he and Forte became friends. (Meyers says that there was a rumor that the two buddies wanted to be a team on The Amazing Race.) A few years after it was filmed, Kilmer invited Forte to a party. At the gathering, he explained that he was between rentals and asked Forte if he could stay at his house. Forte said yes. “I thought it was just for a couple days,” Forte says. But the day after Kilmer arrived, an assistant came by with two duffel bags filled with books.
“It was the best experience,” Forte says. “I’d show up late at night and all the lights would be off, and I’d kind of be going up to my room, and I’d notice a little light coming out of his room.” Kilmer had found the headlamp that Forte had saved from his trip to Burning Man, and was using it to read. Kilmer’s other favorite activity? “He loved 30 Rock,” says Forte, who had a recurring role on the sitcom as Jenna’s boyfriend Paul and later recorded a 30 Rock DVD commentary track with Kilmer. “He would watch 30 Rock on his computer all the time.”
All told, Kilmer ended up staying at Forte’s house for two and a half months.
In the tradition of action heroes of the ’80s and ’90s, Forte (as MacGruber) spent the months leading up to his movie’s release on a promotional assault. In March 2010, the film premiered to a raucous crowd at South by Southwest. “I’ve still never been to a screening like that,” Forte says. “It was just the most special thing. It was a really, really fun way to watch that movie.”
On April 17, Phillippe hosted Saturday Night Live. Two days later, he and his costars appeared in character on WWE’s Monday Night Raw. Backstage, MacGruber and Vicki met Chris Jericho, who has a small part in the movie. A month after that, on May 21, MacGruber came out. Just three weeks into the movie’s run, theaters dropped it. For Forte and Co., the premature detonation hurt.
“It didn’t have massive, super-high expectations,” Phillippe says. “But it just was like, ‘This is a funny fucking movie!’ And if people see it, word of mouth is gonna generate some interest. That didn’t happen initially.”
What made things worse was that Forte, Taccone, and Solomon loved the movie. It was their version of an ’80s action epic in all its goofy glory. “You get your hopes up and then all of a sudden it just fricking tanks and it’s bad enough to question your own feelings about it,” Forte says. “You go, like, ‘Maybe I’m a dumbass. Maybe I just got lost in it and didn’t realize it was a piece of shit.’” But as time passes, he adds, “You go, ‘You know what? No, fuck that. Everyone can go to hell. This movie, I’m proud of it, I love it.’”
Plus, as the streaming age dawned, MacGruber was about to have a second life. “Jorma and Will were both saying the same thing: that this is not a movie that’s gonna pop right off the bat,” says Jericho, who tells me that Forte had to beg him to stop pointing out how much Lorne Michaels sounds like Dr. Evil. “This is a movie that is gonna grow over time and become the proverbial cult classic. They were right. Completely.”
Ten years later, the strange charm of MacGruber is finally being recognized. “That has been lovely,” Meyers says. “We text all the time when there’s pieces written about how it was underappreciated, which is a fun thing to be.” At a recent college reunion, Meyers showed the movie to a group of friends who hadn’t seen it. It felt, of all things, timeless. “It wasn’t trying to be a movie about the moment we were living in,” Meyers says. “So it is exactly as good today as it was 10 years ago.”
Watching MacGruber rip out a bad guy’s throat late at night, through a cloud of smoke, between bites of a hot slice of Domino’s, will never get old. “It’s just a perfect movie for the right kind of person,” Meyers says. One of those people, apparently, is director Christopher Nolan. “There are a couple of moments in that film that had me howling uncontrollably,” he told Business Insider in 2017. He refused to say which ones.
“It’s especially fun following the disappointment of when it came out and no one went to see it,” Solomon says. “You get a little bit of that feeling back from when you made it.”
When the TV show goes into production, MacGruber will be officially back from the dead. “To have it have the lifespan of 10 sketches on SNL, one Super Bowl commercial, one movie, and potentially a series, is like, ‘What? Why?’” Taccone says. “It makes no sense at all. The thing that no one wanted …”
Forte is excited to resurrect his most famous character, even if it means also resurrecting the infamous celery-aided diversionary tactic he debuted in the movie.
He still looks back on it fondly, after all. Even in the presence of his mother and her friends, and despite the fact that he was wearing only a pair of boots, Forte’s main source of stage fright was his lack of grooming. “I’m not a huge manscaper,” he says, “so I’m like, ‘What if there’s weird stuff going on back there that I just can’t see?’”
Classic MacGruber. Classic Forte.