Will Forte: He's Criminally Underrated
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An SNL alumnus’s return to the venerable show as host is always a special moment, but Will Forte’s Studio 8h homecoming felt particularly well-earned (even if it was slightly overshadowed by Kristen Wigg and Willem Dafoe).
The California born-comedian, actor, writer and master of the tasteful mustache has been exceptionally prolific since leaving the long-running sketch show’s cast in 2010.
Since departing, Forte has starred in hit comedy series such as The Last Man on Earth, guested on multiple comedy shows including I Think You Should Leave and Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show: Great Job and even took a pass at a crusty Bruce Dern-driven Hollywood drama with 2013’s Nebrasaka.
And if the recently released MacGruber series on Peacock is any indication, Forte shows no signs of slowing down.
You’d think that over a decade’s worth of projects would net at least a few SNL hosting gigs, but the January 22nd show was actually Forte’s first as host.
“Save the best for last right?” said Forte during the show’s opening monologue. “Save the best for way last.”
While the joke was all in good fun, it did touch on something that, much like the impending climate disaster, microplastics and the fact that there might not be an afterlife, has kept us up at night.
Will Forte is all over the place, so why is he so underrated?
YouTube commenter SJ Black puts it best, saying that Forte is “always the bridesmaid and never the bride.”
Getting Off The Ground(lings)
Born Orville Willis Forte IV (no, seriously) in 1970, Will Forte grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco. He moved to Los Angeles after High School to attend the University of Los Angeles, where he earned a history degree.
Forte’s plan was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a financial broker but quickly realized it wasn’t for him.
“I hated it,” said Forte in a 2010 interview with Diablo. “I was miserable there.”
With support from his friends and family, who had always encouraged him to take a shot at comedy, Forte joined the the L.A. based Groundlings, and spent much of the early 90s making his way up through its hierarchy.
The grind paid off when Forte landed a writing job with the Jenny McCarthy Show (where's the project detailing that experience, Will?), which eventually led to writing gigs at 3rd Rock From the Sun, That 70s Show and a brief tenure on The Late Show With David Letterman.
When SNL creator Lorne Michaels himself finally spotted Forte during a Groundlings performance in 2001, the comedian was in his 30s and had nearly given up on getting in front of the camera. Michaels invited Forte to audition, and a few months later he joined the cast for the show’s 28th season.
As is the case with many of the greats, SNL didn’t quite know what to do with Forte in his early seasons with the show. Will Ferrell left SNL the previous season so Forte was handed “W. Bush” guy duties. Succeeding the guy lampooning our nation's 43rd president was maybe like succeeding him IRL. We'll have to ask Obama the next time we see him.
Early on, Forte cranked out characters like the ultra-soft spoken senator Tim Calhoun and a Halloween sex offender, Jeff Montgomery, setting a precedent. Forte’s tenure on SNL is marked by a seeming fascination with comically inept and deeply disturbed middle-aged men.
Both characters were early proof that Forte also had a knack for weird and unconventional comedy. Take this 2005 sketch about a school spelling bee:
What begins as a seemingly typical set-up quickly turns into a tooth-pulling endurance game as Forte painstakingly lists off dozens of letters at molasses-like pace. And just when you think it’s over, Tenacious D enters from the left and start playing a somber ballad about the spelling bee. It’s a sketch comedy odyssey, perfectly punctuated by Forte’s stone-cold performance.
Forte was a much more established SNL cast member when he finally picked up the mullet for what would become his signature character, MacGruber, in 2007. The idea for the MacGyver-inspired character didn’t come from Forte, but from SNL writer and Lonely Island member John Taccone, who felt that Forte was perfect for it. Forte was initially skeptical, (solid instinct) but eventually relented after a devoted Taccone convinced him.
The first MacGruber sketch was an immediate hit and quickly became a staple of late aughts SNL. Prior to the death of SNL movies, the character’s popularity earned a silver screen adaption in 2010’s MacGruber, which was also directed by Taccone.
The hidden genius of a MacGruber sketch is its structure. Instead of one long “episode,” MacGruber is split into three short segments that mirrors the commercial breaks of the original MacGyver. All three segments focus on a different MacGruber crisis, whether it be his age or his racial sensitivity. Things escalate all along until MacGruber has thoroughly embarrassed himself, shocked the audience and done just about everything but disarm a bomb.
MacGruber is, in many ways, the ultimate example of a man too inept to accomplish anything but too narcissistic to admit it. When MacGruber made his triumphant return to the show during Forte’s hosting episode, it only made sense that the character had become radicalized by the alt-right.
Though the MacGruber film and series are a cut above the normal scrap heap of SNL sketch adaptation movies (the MacGruber movie is worth watching for Val Kilmer’s performance alone), something definitely gets lost without the tight formula of the original sketch’s bitesize chunks.
Dunk the Skunk
2013 saw Forte take a starring role in Nebraska, a black and white character drama (which always adds 78% more mood) that examined the relationships between fathers and sons. Forte was chosen for the film over heavy hitters like Casey Affleck and Matthew Modine for the character. The film was nominated for six Oscars, and took away the Palme d’Or at Cannes. MacGruber can really act!
Three years earlier, Forte starred in a sketch called “Fortin With Will” on the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It once again focused on similar themes of toxic relationships between fathers and sons. Between Nebraska and “Fortin With Will,” one is… a bit more subtle.
Whether it’s a dramatic critical darling or a throw away sketch with a lot of pants-pissing, Forte excels at adding layers to his characters that make them well-rounded and interesting to watch.
Take underrated 2015 series The Last Man on Earth, produced by Forte in partnership with Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The show follows Phil Miller, played by Forte, who would be considered completely unremarkable if it weren't for the fact that he was one of the few to survive a world-ending pandemic (not a fun watch now, we’ll admit).
Phil is a jerk. He constantly lies to his wife, Carol (Kristen Schaal) and the other survivors. He even tries to kill on more than one occasion. Things only get worse when Phil’s brother Mike, played by fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis, reignites their sibling rivalry. All the stuff Phil does just might get him cut up and eaten in a real survival situation.
And yet, Phil remains incredibly sympathetic, if not likable. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he’s also a devoted husband, friend and later father when he needs to be. When it’s later revealed that Mike has contracted the virus, the brothers travel to their childhood home so that he doesn’t have to die alone. When they reach the house, we learn that it was Phil who cared for their parents in their final hours, and later buried them. Good job, Phil, we wouldn't go cannibal on you after all.
The Last Man on Earth wasn’t the first collaboration between Forte, Lord and Miller. Forte appeared as the voice of a teenage Abraham Lincoln in Lord and Miller’s cult classic animated sitcom Clone High, which revolved around a high school for clones of historical figures. Like The Last Man on Earth, the show struck an excellent balance between heart and snark.
Will Forte brings a uniquely eccentric comedy energy to every project he’s a part of, whether it’s a movie, sitcom or Saturday Night Live. Even when he’s not even playing a character, that weirdo-ness still manages to leak in.
As for why Forte seemingly slides under the respect radar, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason why we might have had to wait so long to see him get the recognition he deserves. One reason might be that his projects, while beloved, have never exactly been grand money-makers. Yes, that's sad and stupid, but that's show business, baby. Great as it was, The Last Man on Earth was not renewed for a fifth season, leaving the series on a cliffhanger.
At a minimum, we know Forte's a survivor, and in Hollywood, that's pretty much the whole battle. And we've seen enough from him to know he'll take chances with roles and not just show up in whatever Ted Lasso ripoff comes down the pike.
But a Will Forte parody of Ted Lasso? That'd we'd sure take.
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Top Image: Universal Pictures