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The Untold Truth Of MacGruber

After years of silence, an 8-episode "MacGruber" limited series premiered on Peacock, improbably continuing the story of the "Saturday Night Live" character first introduced over fifteen years ago, parodying a show ("MacGyver") that went off the air fourteen years before that. A spoof of 80s-era machismo and a vehicle for Will Forte's cringe-inducing neediness that he would later perfect on "The Last Man on Earth," MacGruber is an idea that refuses to die, no matter how often the character himself gets blown up.

Even though it flopped in theaters – Box Office Mojo roasted it perfectly with "MacGruber fails to defuse bomb" — "MacGruber has slowly built a loyal following over the last decade that saved it from the dust-heap of other forgotten "SNL" movie spinoffs like "It's Pat" or "The Ladies Man." It's a celebration of pure idiocy, and a throw-everything-at-the-wall comedy that was already rare in 2011 and barely heard of today. From the writers room to the Super Bowl, here is the untold truth of "MacGruber."

Will Forte thought the original sketch idea was "really stupid"

While obviously the idea for the original MacGruber sketches on "Saturday Night Live" had dumbness baked into the idea, actor Will Forte initially thought it was even dumber than that.  He told Vanity Fair "My initial reaction was, that sounds really stupid." In his defense, writer Jorma Taccone originally conceived the character as not only a harebrained MacGyver, but one with disgusting methods: "...in defusing bombs, he only uses disgusting items such as pubic hair and pieces of dog [feces]."

After pitching Forte and co-writer John Solomon repeatedly, Taccone won out and the first MacGruber sketch was born, or rather sketches plural. The idea was hatched to split the sketch into three progressively shorter clips. So the eternal premise of MacGruber was born: as a bomb is 20 seconds away from exploding, and his loyal assistants hand him common household materials to help him defuse it, MacGruber slows down the proceedings with some kind of strange behavior (in his first appearance, by asking for pubic hair and such), and everyone explodes.

MacGruber was almost a one-off sketch

"Saturday Night Live" is a machine that thousands of sketches have passed through over the years. Some get pitched but never written, some get cut at dress rehearsal, and some air once but never recur.  Will Forte (per Vanity Fair) thought "MacGruber" was destined to be lost to history, until the show's enigmatic producer stepped in: "I thought MacGruber would never be heard of again—but a couple of weeks later, Lorne specifically asked if we would want to do another MacGruber."

Despite admitting to Vanity Fair that he "didn't have the same connection" to the original "MacGyver" television show as the actors and writers in his employ, Lorne Michaels would later become the champion for "MacGruber" at each step in its evolution. He pitched the idea of MacGruber Super Bowl commercials to Pepsi, and approached Forte and Jorma Taccone with the idea of making a "MacGruber" movie in the first place. Of all people, it's strange that the famously taciturn and withholding Michaels would be the force that took "MacGruber" from throwaway sketch to feature film.

Ryan Phillipe made the MacGruber movie work

Oddball characters would be nothing without straight-laced foils to play off of. In the "MacGruber" movie, Will Forte and his "S.N.L." contemporary Kristen Wiig dial up the absurdity of their characters to insane heights. But it's Ryan Phillipe's role as Lieutenant Dixon Piper that makes their antics work. Just as Margaret Dumont expertly huffed and puffed at the chicanery of the Marx brothers, Phillipe brings a mix of naivete, self-awareness, patience, and frustration to his role that saves "MacGruber" from feeling like a sketch that never ends and makes it a movie. When his "by the book" character has imitated MacGruber's iconic move with a stalk of celery, it brings closure to the conflict between their two characters that's surprisingly compelling for such a wacky film.

Phillipe did have help in the straight-man department, as the cast of "MacGruber" is rounded out by fantastic actors, including Val Kilmer and the late Powers Booth, but it was clear to everyone who had the hardest job. Kilmer himself told Movieweb "the really crucial role was Ryan's, and he does it perfectly."

The celery scene was historically weird

The most memorable image by far from "MacGruber" the film involves a stalk of celery. In the most extreme example of "MacGruber uses a household object in an unexpected way" taken to absurd lengths, Will Forte strips naked and puts the celery somewhere unmentionable to distract his enemies, and it's exactly crazy enough to work more than once. Filming the scene, it turns out, was also the most absurd part of the experience of making "MacGruber." Speaking with Rolling Stone, Forte revealed that between takes, while he was preparing to re-shoot the scene with a new piece of celery, he was chatting with a man who he assumed was part of the crew. "I just thought that he was part of the security team. Later, I found out he was just a random guy and he had collected all of the used celeries." Forte never found out who the man was, or what he did with the celeries.

As if that wasn't a weird enough vibe, Forte revealed to Vanity Fair that it was also the one day his mother visited the set, along with two of her friends. Apparently it wasn't weird enough to bother the mother of a veteran comedian: "She was fine. She was used to the kind of [stuff] that I do. Her two friends were just aghast."

Val Kilmer refused to do one explicit gag

Watching "MacGruber," it seems safe to assume that literally every gag that writers Will Forte, Jorma Taccone, and Will Solomon thought of made into the final film, no matter explicit or ridiculous. But apparently Val Kilmer, co-starring as main villain Diter Von Cunth, put his foot down and refused one especially graphic idea for the movie's climax. Several times over the course of the movie, MacGruber threatens his character and proclaims an intention to force him to eat a certain part of his own anatomy.

It turns out the "MacGruber" team wanted to do exactly that. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Taccone lamented "We pitched it so many times. I tried to tell him, 'It'll be beautifully shot.'... He's like 'Let me stop you right there.'" While landing an A-list movie star like Kilmer was a relative coup for a low-budget comedy like "MacGruber," it meant that at least one absurd gag was off limits from the get go.

MacGruber set a new bar for uncomfortable sex scenes

Not content to push the bounds of humor and taste in terms of dialogue and action, the "MacGruber" team set their sights on taking the art of the gratuitous sex scene to new, ridiculous heights as well. First, MacGruber and his sidekick Vicky St. Elmo succumb to their long-simmering temptation in a scene that starts glossy and glamorous in classic 80s style, and then abruptly switches to a sweaty, grunting awkward mess. Will Forte, appearing on Vulture's "Good One" podcast, described how awful he felt for co-star Kristen  Wiig: "...there were so many takes with these huge beads of sweat, like if King Kong was sweating on her. She would just get pelted with them and between every take there'd just be sweaty pieces of hair all over her!" To top everything off, the day they filmed the scene was also Wiig's birthday.

For most movies, even most comedies, one over-the-top sex scene would be enough, but MacGruber immediately rushes to the site of his dead wife's grave to confess his guilt at moving on. Maya Rudolph appears as the ghost of MacGruber's wife Casey, and another round of hilarious grunting and thrusting ensues. Because Rudolph was pregnant, Forte had to film the scene partially with a body double, and partially miming the scene with an invisible ghost, "thrusting into the open air!"

MacGruber was a critically reviled box office bomb

"MacGruber" was an immediate, total flop at the box office. "To a startling degree," wrote Brandon Gray for Box Office Mojo, "audiences either rejected or were indifferent to 'MacGruber.'" Though it performed slightly better than other "Saturday Night Live" sketch-inspired flops like "It's Pat" or "Stuart Saves His Family," "MacGruber" was stunningly unsuccessful despite receiving a much more massive rollout. At the time, it was the ninth worst opening for a movie that premiered in more than 2,500 theaters. It would eventually fall short of recouping its relatively paltry $10 million dollar budget. 

Movie critics were just as uninterested in "MacGruber" as the public. A. O. Scott of the New York Times called it "a film that poses a philosophical question fundamental to our inquiry here, namely: 'Why does this exist?" John Anderson of Newsday summed up "MacGruber" as "utterly tone deaf" and rated it a rare zero stars. Even though they were proud of the film, Will Forte told Rolling Stone the film's abrupt fizzling out did get to him: "A collection of un-fun things happen in your head when reality sets in." Fortunately, history wasn't done with MacGruber just yet.

The movie was so offensive Will Forte's mother lost friends

The worst part of "MacGruber" failing at the box office to Will Forte was the feeling that he had really held nothing back and exposed himself, quite literally in some scenes. He told Rolling Stone, "I also had put myself out there quite a bit. I did that celery scene. There were a lot of things in there that embarrassed my family. My mom actually lost friends because of it." 

Apparently, Ma Forte is the kind of endlessly positive, supportive parent that not only encourages her son to follow his insane comedic dreams, but drags her friends to his projects with her: "...she will have her friends go see whatever {I'm in]. And there were a couple friends who she did actually lose." Mrs. Forte is probably better off without friends that can't take a joke, celery-based nudity notwithstanding, but it was a stressful marker of the fallout from "MacGruber" for Forte at the time.

The MacGruber movie has steadily built a cult following

In the decade since the movie "MacGruber" came out, the entire media landscape has changed. Even before the pandemic, the streaming landscape was shifting the priorities of studios from depending on selling movie tickets to capitalizing on nostalgia and seeking out original properties to win subscribers for streaming platforms. In the new, timeless landscape of streaming content, "MacGruber" began to find its audience at last. It stands out as something truly bizarre, original, and unfiltered as the years go on. Speaking with Vulture, Will Forte noted "[I'm] not saying a lot of people liked it, but the people who did like it knew it was because it was not compromised in any way."

Ultimately, the critics and fans that thought the movie was dumb missed the point entirely. Comparing the movie to another flop-turned-cult-classic "Tommy Boy," Lorne Michaels told Vanity Fair "dumb is a very important part of American culture and comedy—and what people say is dumb is often a code word for funny." As the revival series kicks off a fresh wave of MacGuber-enthusiasm, it's clear that it's stood the test of time better than, say, "Shrek Forever After," which trounced "MacGruber" in theaters more than a decade ago.

Christopher Nolan is a diehard MacGruber fan

If you're still on the fence about checking out "MacGruber," perhaps an endorsement from one of the most successful directors of all time will sway you: apparently Christopher Nolan is among the movie's biggest fans. Asked by Business Insider about what movies make him laugh the hardest, "MacGruber" is the first thing that sprung to the "Dark Knight" auteur's mind: "I have to say there are a couple of moments in that film that had me howling uncontrollably."

Word of Nolan's "MacGruber"-obsession eventually reached director Jorma Taccone, who invited the director to the first read-through of the pilot for the new Peacock series. Though Nolan couldn't be there in person, he sent an email to be read aloud to the cast and crew, which Taccone shared with Vanity Fair: "Though I can't be there in person to watch you take the first step of your odyssey—know that my spirit soars with you, and whilst it's perhaps unfair to add to the great sense of responsibility you must already feel, I am duty bound to tell you—the world is waiting, the world is watching."

The new Peacock series will be just as extreme

The revival of "MacGruber" on Peacock knows exactly what fans of the movie want more of: MacGruber nudity. Will Forte assured The Wrap "there were some full nude days, for sure, where I was nude from start to finish." Indeed, the Peacock series has all the nudity, crudity, and gore that the Forte and company didn't have time to fit in to the movie: early on in the series MacGruber punches a man's heart out through the other side of his chest. Billy Zane plays MacGruber's new nemesis with a hilariously not-quite-filthy name ("Enos Queeth"), and Kristen Wiig is called upon once again to perform awkward sex scenes.

Not that she'd have it any other way. Wiig summed it up perfectly, telling The Wrap "with 'MacGruber,' you know what you're getting into." The reviews from critics are overwhelmingly positive so far, especially compared to the 2011 film. It seems like critics have finally figured out what they're getting into as well.

The MacGruber team made a handy recap video

"But wait," you might be asking, "do I need to have seen the 'MacGruber' movie to dive right into the new series?" You're actually in luck: even though her character died long ago in the MacGruber-verse timeline, Peacock enlisted Maya Rudolph to reprise her character of MacGruber's dear, departed wife Casey to sing a hilarious catch-up song. It covers the events of the film with a catchy, fittingly profane and silly folk song about "the greatest man to ever walk the Earth: MacGruber."

In truth, the "MacGruber" feature film is available on Peacock in addition to the new series, and the song spoils the entire thing comprehensively in case you're tempted to watch it. It's best to start with the "Saturday Night Live" sketches and watch as MacGruber evolves from a one-joke character into a decade-spanning epic story of explosions, lovemaking, and saving the U.S. of A.