Beware, David S. Pumpkins: How ‘Saturday Night Live’ ruins its best sketches
By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS | The Washington Post | Published: September 29, 2017
The short David S. Pumpkins sketch on “Saturday Night Live” was a perfect example of anti-comedy, something that’s funny because it’s both absurd and inherently unfunny.
NBC thinks it can stretch that joke into a half-hour animated Halloween special, set to air in October. But fans of the wildly popular 2016 sketch should pause before devouring five pounds of candy corn in celebration.
“SNL” has a long history of turning its most popular skits into longer programs, usually movies. And they often bomb. A funny joke is not always a funny, full-length show.
So is David S. Pumpkins doomed?
In the sketch, a young couple boards a haunted elevator on Halloween to see 100 floors of frights, such as ghost brides and chainsaw-wielding zombies. Confusingly, among the horrors is Tom Hanks sporting a silly grin and wearing a black suit covered in orange pumpkins.
“My name is David S. Pumpkins,” he says in a goofy voice. “And I’m going to scare the hell out of you.” Then he dances with two skeletons.
The puzzled couple wonders: Who is David S. Pumpkins? Where did he learn to dance? Why are we supposed to be scared of him? None of the questions are ever answered.
Critics called it 4 ½ minutes of wonderful absurdity. It was a hit, but is it enough for a half-hour show? Hanks will reprise his role, voicing the character of David S. Pumpkins, who shows two children “the true meaning of Halloween, answering none of their questions along the way.”
If it works, it will be among the few such “SNL” breakouts that have. The first installment of both “Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World” were successes, but most other attempts tanked, ruining the original sketches for fans.
Here are five of its biggest bombs.
1. “It’s Pat: The Movie” (1994)
“It’s Pat: The Movie” was based on a simple sketch. Julia Sweeney portrayed an androgynous person named Pat. In each iteration of the sketch, characters desperately tried to discern whether Pat was (biologically) a man or a woman, but no one ever solved the mystery. In the movie, that joke fueled a 77-minute plot that introduced another androgynous character named Chris.
For now, let’s set aside the transphobic overtones of the premise — which Sweeney recently addressed. The movie was a spectacular disaster. On the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews, the movie had a zero percent “fresh” rating, meaning not one positive review was written about the film. “I can’t even dignify this film with a review,” wrote one reviewer.
Those who think critics don’t matter should look to the box office: The movie cost about $8 million to make, according to Rolling Stone, and its total lifetime gross revenue was barely more than $60,000, according to Box Office Mojo.
At the time of its filming, Sweeney told Rolling Stone one of her biggest priorities was “to keep it low budget so that we could make it as offbeat as we wanted to without having to appeal to a mainstream audience.”
She certainly succeeded.
2. “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995)
Before he was a Democratic senator from Minnesota, Al Franken was an “SNL” writer and cast member. His most popular character was arguably Stuart Smalley, a self-help guru who hosted the fictional television show “Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley.” He opened each episode by looking in the mirror and repeating his famous catchphrase: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggonit, people like me!”
The movie dove into Smalley’s backstory, adding a dysfunctional family filled with depressed alcoholics. It was a dark turn for what was generally a light sketch that did a little better with critics, netting a 30 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and reviews such as “Not as bad as you’d expect.”
But the crowds didn’t think it was good enough or smart enough. And doggonit, people didn’t like it. Its box office return was a mere $912,082.
3. “A Night at the Roxbury” (1998)
In the recurring “SNL” sketch, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan played two dimwitted brothers who loved donning silk suits and bobbing their heads to Haddaway’s “What Is Love” at the clubs about town. The jokes are mostly derived from their misunderstanding of social situations, usually when it came to hitting on women.
It was a thin premise to stretch into an 84-minute movie. While it fared better than other “SNL” spinoffs at the box office, making a middling $30 million, critics shredded the film. On Rotten Tomatoes, it scored a dismal 11 percent fresh rating. Roger Ebert called it a “one-joke” movie in which “the characters are the joke.”
The movie “probably never had a shot at being funny anyway, but I don’t think it planned to be pathetic,” Ebert continued. “It’s the first comedy I’ve attended where you feel that to laugh would be cruel to the characters.”
Ferrell once said in an interview that he and Kattan “didn’t necessarily have this in our heads as movie material.”
4. “The Ladies Man” (2000)
Tim Meadows’ most popular “SNL” character was Leon Phelps, a late-night radio host who in his trademark lisp offered advice — and personal anecdotes — on how to seduce women.
The movie version of the sketch finds him fired and rethinking his priorities. A Washington Post review called it “another cheesy, overdrawn and witless ’Saturday Night Live’ takeoff.” It just wasn’t funny.
“Leon, like the androgynous Pat and the perky Mary Katherine, is funny for about five minutes (this, of course, is no reason to stop the presses),” the review said. “Alas, the movie runs for another 82 minutes, most of them devoid of laughs because Meadows, also the writer, doesn’t know what he’s doing when it comes to creating a full-length script rather than a comic vignette.”
The audiences seemed to agree. The movie was a $10 million dollar disappointment, making a little under $14 million, even though it had a production budget of $24 million.
5. “MacGruber” (2010)
The last attempt from “SNL” to transform a sketch into something meatier was a failure so great that the New York Times’ A.O. Scott posed the question, “Why does this exist?”
The movie was derived from sketches in which Will Forte played “MacGruber, “ a knockoff of TV’s “MacGyver,” a secret agent. Sporting a blonde mullet, a beige vest and a plaid shirt, Forte’s bumbling character would have to rely on luck when attempting to save those in danger — when he wasn’t distracted by his weight gain, hair loss and general aging.
One reviewer called it “an absolute waste of time and easily the worst movie of 2010.” The film, which cost $10 million to produce, lost money, earning only $9.3 million worldwide.