'Brigsby Bear' And The New Face Of The 'Saturday Night Live' Movie

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.)

Colin Jost and Staten Island Summer

Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost was the first member of the current cast to put forth a passion project film in 2015. Staten Island Summer is perhaps the weirdest of the bunch, and not because the movie itself is odd or unexpected. Its existence is just downright puzzling.

Jost's screenplay is semi-autobiographical. Both Jost and the main character Danny Campbell (Graham Phillips) are Staten Island kids who eventually went to Harvard. In Staten Island Summer, Danny is trying to throw one last blow-out with his lifeguard pals before he heads off to college. He's also pursuing his former babysitter (Ashley Greene) while his friend Frank (Zach Pearlman) goes after twin sisters.

If this sounds a lot like Superbad, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and every other teen sex comedy, that's because it is. Staten Island Summer has no distinct voice and does nothing new with a well-tread genre, so it's curious why Jost was so determined to get this story out there. (A row of topless babes in a pool? How novel!) He wastes a bunch of his SNL friends in thankless roles, and forgets to give his avatar even a whisper of a personality. Staten Island Summer got the mixed reviews to match and failed to gain much notice as a digital exclusive.

This lack of distinction is a criticism that's followed Jost in his SNL career. He's fequently been called boring, wooden, or a lesser version of former Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers. (Decider dubbed him "Meyers without the gravitas or perspective.") Most fans are still lukewarm on his desk tenure with Michael Che, which has yet to mark itself the way Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, or Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler did. Given this precarious position, it's hard to imagine Jost attempting another film anytime soon.

Aidy Bryant and Darby Forever

Cast member Aidy Bryant was the next to follow with a 2016 short film Darby Forever. Bryant co-wrote and starred in the 20-minute Vimeo exclusive. It follows a bored shopgirl (Bryant) who spices up her humdrum existence in a fabric store with wild daydreams about the customers. In one fantasy sequence, she's the leader of a badass girl group that's all about "black boots, cigarettes, lipstick, and fishnets." In another, she's the absurdly perfect mother to perfect daughter Gardenia Rose. Darby's dreams are bright, vivid, and fun. They occasionally skew awkward, but rarely bizarre. Bryant revels in delightful whimsy, which should already be apparent to anyone who follows her Instagram.

Darby Forever had limited reach as a digital exclusive, but it did net positive notices in Entertainment Weekly, Bust, and this site. It also fit perfectly with Bryant's established personality. On Saturday Night Live, her characters tend to be either like Darby or dream Darby. She often plays children, but is just as comfortable taking on a brassy broad like Tonkerbell. The only major unifying quality to her humor is that it's rarely mean-spirited. By that token, Darby Forever could easily become her pitch for a charming feature-length romantic comedy. With any luck, her co-writer (and SNL colleague) Chris Kelly would join her.

Brigsby Bear

Kyle Mooney and Brigsby Bear

Mooney's Brigsby Bear is offbeat, to say the least. The titular "show" within the film involves a sci-fi Teddy Ruxpin with equally strong long division and rapping skills, and that doesn't even get into why it exists. Without giving too much away, there's a massive family trauma at the center of the film, and Mooney employs his muted humor as a coping mechanism.

It works. The resulting movie is imaginative and poignant, an outstanding display of Mooney's gifts as a writer. It's also a logical leap for an SNL player known just as much for his strangeness as he is for his sweetness. People who have only seen "Cool" or his saga with Miley Cyrus might write Mooney off as a weirdo – and he is. A stone-cold one, in fact. But he can also deliver in skits like "Christmas at Nana's," a cute holiday classic that'll make you hug your annoying brother. Mooney is the rare performer who can walk the fine line between odd and alienating, never losing sight of humanity even in his most experimental work.

Mooney received glowing reviews for Brigsby Bear. While he may want to stick around SNL for a bit longer, it's easy to imagine a future career for him as an indie comedy writer, possibly even director. It might look like Samberg's. It could also resemble NPR favorite Mike Birbiglia's. But either way, it's sure to be fascinating.