Brigsby Bear

The demanding Saturday Night Live schedule leaves cast members with little time to themselves. A typical week is consumed with all-night writing sessions, lengthy table reads, marathon rehearsals, and a million last-minute adjustments. So when the players do have some down time, they better use it wisely.

Since many SNL players harbor dreams of being the next Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell, a lot of them spend their breaks filming a new stand-up special or a role in a mainstream comedy. But not Kyle Mooney. Last week, his movie Brigsby Bear opened in limited release. The quirky Sundance comedy is about a young man obsessed with a children’s fantasy show that was made only for him. Mooney co-wrote the screenplay and stars as James Pope.

It would be safe to call Brigsby Bear a passion project – countless publications already have. But Mooney isn’t alone in his pursuit of passion projects. A few of his colleagues have also written and starred in their own films, ones that were never destined for a wide audience or a big payday but that clearly meant a great deal to their creators. How did we get to this current wave of SNL indie auteurism? It seems to have started a few cycles back.

A Growing Movement

Mooney obviously isn’t the first SNL cast member to write his own movie. But it’s a combination of factors that makes Brigsby Bear unusual. The first is that it features wholly original characters with no SNL roots. James is no MacGruber, Ladies Man, Superstar, or Blues Brother. He exists completely outside the SNL universe, and offers no easy marketing synergy for Lorne Michaels. A script from a current SNL player that has nothing to do with the show isn’t unheard of (see: Mean Girls, Billy Madison, etc.), but that brings us to the other X factor: Brigsby Bear is not a wide studio release. Sony Picture Classics might’ve snapped it up at Sundance, but realistically, it cannot serve as a star-making launchpad that allows Mooney to exit with multi-million deals in hand. It is, in every possible sense, a weird indie passion project from a guy who just happens to be on Saturday Night Live.

There’s a pretty direct link here to another weird indie passion project from a guy who happened to be on Saturday Night Live. When Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone got their hands on Hot Rod, it had been written specifically for Will Ferrell. But the trio turned it into something else entirely.

Andy Samberg and Hot Rod

Hot Rod was never supposed to be a strange little movie that made no money. It was originally a Paramount production designed for Ferrell, scripted by a South Park writer. But when Ferrell passed, Lorne Michaels convinced the studio to give his rising wunderkinds a shot. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone were already a viral sensation thanks to “Lazy Sunday” and their other popular Digital Shorts. Michaels presumably assumed their YouTube success would translate to big screen box office.

It didn’t. Hot Rod bombed in its wide release, grossing just about $14 million. But it became a cult comedy, and served as an important piece of the Lonely Island brand. As Hot Rod proved, the group was more interested in being aggressively silly than catching any cast-off Ferrell fans.

Here’s the interesting part: The Lonely Island was almost rewarded for this flop. Although those box office returns likely stung, Michaels certainly didn’t fire the trio. They enjoyed five more successful years on the show, becoming the face of the new, young Saturday Night Live. They were the cool dorks who understood the internet and had all the more comedy cred for it. Future cast members like Mooney were clearly inspired by their example. His taped segments are the most direct spiritual heir to the original Digital Shorts, and it’s no coincidence that The Lonely Island produced Brigsby Bear.

(While Portlandia is not a film, Fred Armisen probably also contributed to this recent indie entrepreneurial spirit. Helming an IFC show with a little-known costar was a direct challenge to the notion that you should be landing your own series order at NBC. But Michaels liked Portlandia enough to produce. And seven seasons later, Armisen obviously pulled it off.)

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