I remember my first sleepover at Scott Maginnis’ house. Scott and I met in kindergarten, and have been friends ever since. Sleepovers were a big deal for me, because my house was under pretty strict rule, and spending the night at a friends’ house held the promise of late night dessert, no bedtime and other verboten pleasures. Scott was the youngest of several siblings, so his parents had relaxed a bit and allowed a fair amount of freedom. This made going to his house really fun. Scott’s room had a big bed that dwarfed my little twin at home, and his dad had helped him fashion a high jump bar at the foot of it. We’d take turns running down the hall (parent-sanctioned running in the house!), turning 45 degrees into Scott’s room, and launching ourselves over the bar onto the bed, Fosbury Flop style (the Olympics were a big influence on us in 1976). His older sister Patty was a high school junior, a cheerleader, and a beautiful blonde. After we set new records in the bedroom high jump we’d relax in her room with a glass of lemonade and try to act like mature kids, making conversation and staring at her breasts. She tolerated us, and even seemed to like Scott!
The Maginnises had a TV room, which closed off from the rest of the house by a sliding pocket door. Once Mr. and Mrs. Maginnis went to bed, the house was ours. It seems so innocent in retrospect, but I can’t describe how illicit and indulgent it felt to make a bowl of popcorn, follow it with a bowl of ice cream, and watch TV as late as we wanted! One Saturday, Scott said we had to stay up late tonight so we can see Saturday Night Live. I tried to play it cool but the truth was I had no idea what that was. I just assumed maybe it was like Johnny Carson or something.
Well, my 10 year old mind was blown. All of a sudden I was watching Dan Aykroyd put a fish in a blender, and I was liberated! A scientific approach to a totally absurd invention, pitched with a salesman’s flair. I was home. I was glued to the screen absorbing a totally adult and completely forbidden world of comedy. I didn’t understand half of it, but whatever it was, I knew my parents wouldn’t like it, and wouldn’t like me watching it, so it had to be good. When “Weekend Update” came on, I tried hard to understand the dynamic between Jane Curtain and Dan Aykroyd, though I missed most of the references. And then came Mr. Bill. This was insane – the laziest, most homemade thing I had ever seen on television, and Scott and I were dying with laughter. Sluggo came along and raked poor Mr. Bill’s head off with a comb. Oh noooooo! We did the voice for months afterward. A light bulb went on in my head. This is subversive TV! This is a group of crazy people who have somehow convinced NBC to let them do whatever the hell they want for 90 minutes a week.
Like being at Scott’s house, Saturday Night Live made a huge impression on me, and was the beginning of my independent education. I realized there was a whole big world out there beyond my parents and their views, just waiting for me to discover it.
For weeks after, I worked references from the show every chance I got. Besides my incessant Mr. Bill voice, I made my own little Bassomatic-esque speeches about whatever I found around the house. I tried to learn how to say “Besse-boll ben beddy beddy good to me,” and I absolutely loved saying “nevermind” like Roseanne Rosannadanna. My self-taught SNL immersion course backfired one day on the way to Polly’s Pies for dinner with my family. In the restaurant’s parking lot, my 5 year old sister Eliza asked my mom a question. Doing my best Dan Aykroyd, I chimed in, “Eliza, you ignorant slut!” I immediately got whacked by my dad, though it took me a few years to figure out why he was so mad. I had no idea what “slut” meant; I just knew it got a big laugh on Saturday Night Live.
I’ve never stopped loving the brand of subversive, absurdist humor introduced to me by Jane Curtain, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase. It fueled my curiosity, shaped my perspective, and got me in trouble more than I care to admit (sorry about the duck pond and the mess in the library, Fullerton High School).
When Will Forte came to Off Camera, I had to resist the impulse to focus the entire interview on Saturday Night Live. For me, he embodies the best qualities of SNL’s particular brand of humor in his own highly original sketches: “The Falconer,” “MacGruber”, “The Potato Chip”, “The Spelling Bee”, “Jon Bovi”, and countless other absurdist, brilliant, out-of-the-box ideas. Throughout his SNL tenure, he wrote and performed an oeuvre of highly creative work that has a pure bloodline to the original show. And then just as he’s firmly established himself and his celery butt plug in our pantheon of extremist comics, he does a complete 180 to land at the heart of a subtle, dramatic and nuanced Nebraska, a film that is as funny as it is sad and human. I realized that as much of his work that I have watched, I didn’t know Will Forte at all. And even now, after the truly intimate conversation with him that you’re about to read, I get the distinct sense that he will continue to surprise us all with what he does next.