Robert Downey Jr. Is the First ‘Saturday Night Live’ Cast Member to Win an Oscar. Here's Why It's Never Happened Before

NBC/Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr. won an Oscar over the weekend, as expected, for his supporting work in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Downey’s first Oscar win has an unusual bit of trivia attached to it: He’s now the only Saturday Night Live cast member who’s ever won an Academy Award. The closest thing to an exception is Adam McKay, who won an adapted-screenplay Oscar in 2016 for The Big Short, but he was a staff writer who occasionally appeared in bit parts, not a full-fledged cast member. It seems unthinkable that no one else in the show’s history has ever made it to the big podium, but it’s true.

After all, SNL has been on the air for nearly half a century, introducing a wide range of talent and launching the career of many enduring movie stars, on a level heretofore unthinkable in the area of sketch comedy. It’s not as if everyone leaves the show to do It’s Pat-level cash-ins and settle into obscurity. Just look at Downey—no one even remembers him as a sketch-comedy performer, and he’s never made a Saturday Night Live type of movie!

But maybe there’s a more complicated dynamic at work in the SNL-to-cinema pipeline, one that both expands the show’s influence and makes breaking free from it even trickier than it looks. While the number of direct SNL movie spinoffs has been relatively low (at least compared to the absolute litany of terrible recurring characters who might have potentially been awarded their own movies had A Night at the Roxbury made twice as much money as it did), there are other ways to make an SNL movie—including a new iteration of the form that’s in theaters right now. So let’s lay it all out, in a complete taxonomy of the Saturday Night Live film.

The “True Sketch Adaptation” SNL Movie

We’ll start with the easy stuff: There have been twelve movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches, including two sequels and Office Space, which technically speaking is a live-action version of a few shorts Mike Judge made for the show to little attention earlier in the ’90s. Almost all of the SNL-sketch movies are ‘90s movies, buoyed by the success of 1992's Wayne’s World (and perhaps lingering memories of The Blues Brothers.) Most of them aren’t very good, and their badness (along with the rise of the Internet) may have contributed to the show’s decreased reliance on recurring characters over the past few decades. Occasionally, however, SNL sketch characters really have expanded and breathed when introduced into more fully realized worlds, and the old sketches start to play, in retrospect, like previews of something bigger and better.

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers were kind of an oddball variety-show bit in their initial SNL appearances but became both funny and iconic in their first feature film, even if the movie offers nowhere near the laughs-per-minute of Wayne’s World (unless you find car crashes really, really funny.) The Wayne’s World sketches were largely Letterman knockoffs driven by the infectious performances of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey; in the movies, on a bigger canvas, their free-associative pop-culture riffs became more substantial and playful. And it was somehow perfectly perverse to expand the “MacGruber” sketches—minute-long pieces that were literally timed to a ticking clock—into a full 100-minute feature (and, later, an eight-episode miniseries.) Even Coneheads, much maligned during its brief 1993 release, feels very much in the spirit of the old sketches, which themselves could be more silly and overlong than laugh-out-loud hilarious; it’s a sci-fi movie that takes place largely in Dan Aykroyd’s possibly feverish brain. The degree of difficulty of the True Sketch Adaptation is high, however; movies like A Night at the Roxbury or The Ladies Man arguably spoiled any future nostalgia viewers might have for these characters.

The “Sketch Adaptation in Spirit” SNL Movie

Perhaps, if you’re on the older side, you remember a time when big studios would regularly produce broad comedies for release in movie theaters? And those movies would be reviewed? And those critics might say something like, “It feels like an SNL skit that goes on way too long.” (Not me. I would never say “skit.”) It became an irresistible critical cliché because there really are a lot of movies that feel like sketch pitches blown out to feature length. One of the ur-texts of these films didn’t feature anyone related to SNL, but Ace Ventura: Pet Detective still arrived just a couple of years after Wayne’s World, and featured a sketch comedian in a titular sketch pitch. Almost everyone who subsequently followed Jim Carrey down this path was an SNL guy: Rob Schneider (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo), David Spade (Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star) and Will Ferrell, with the form’s absolute peak, the one-two punch of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Ferrell tapped into a sense of deluded mediocre-white-male grandeur that previous joke-profession movies only hinted at, effectively killing off this sub-sub-genre (or at least this titling convention) in the process. (The title of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, also a Sketch Adaptation in Spirit, is a zen koan by comparison.)

This category also includes a number of Adam Sandler vehicles, where Sandler is essentially (and for the purposes of keeping Lorne Michaels’ hands out of the cookie jar, unofficially) adapting a voice he did on SNL into a feature film: The Waterboy isn’t exactly Canteen Boy and it isn’t exactly Cajun Man, but it’s kind of both. Little Nicky isn’t precisely Gil Graham, the Weekend Update correspondent who would narrate his rock-concert misadventures in a twisty rasp, but maybe if Gil actually died and went to hell, he would be? Mike Myers, too; whether it’s beloved like Austin Powers or reviled like The Love Guru, much of his movie career feels like an exercise in cutting out the SNL middleman. Sometimes this can be a boon: Anchorman gets to indulge in all of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s merriest obsessions (absurdist one-upmanship; secretly childlike masculinity; tridents; bears) while Talladega Nights gets to go a little deeper and sharper in its satire. Both move beyond the constraints of sketch comedy while maintaining its rollicking free spirit. Sometimes, though, a little constraint can be a good thing: Imagine the pain we’d have been spared if Myers’ Guru Pitka bit had died at dress rehearsal.

The “Whole-Persona Vehicle” SNL Movie

These films aren’t miles removed from Sketch Adaptations in Spirit—and can, at their worst, play even hackier. They’re what happens when a Saturday Night Live cast member wants to indulge all their familiar habits and obsessions without thinking of an outsized character or funny profession, so they whip up a kind of catch-all role based on their work on the show more broadly. This particular SNL-movie sub-subgenre can probably be broadly blamed on the success of the Chevy Chase movie Fletch, or the success of Chevy Chase in general. Dana Carvey was the master of biffing this routine, in movies like Opportunity Knocks or The Master of Disguise, where he didn’t play characters so much as guys who could do impressions of people or things. (The Master of Disguise might be a Sketch Adaptation in Spirit, except that sketches have to make sense for three to five uninterrupted minutes, and The Master of Disguise never does.) Carvey’s ex-castmate Mike Myers tried his hand at the Whole Persona Vehicle once, too, with So I Married an Axe Murderer, where instead of embodying a character and/or slathering himself in latex, Myers plays a guy who kinda acts like he’s giving an insincere talk show interview at all times. (The best moments in the film feature Myers, slathered in latex, playing his character’s cranky Scottish father.)

Yet, as in these other categories, SNL alums who attempt the Whole Persona Vehicle can achieve transcendence. The same year So I Married an Axe Murderer came out, Bill Murray—the least chameleonic SNL star this side of Chevy Chase—starred in Groundhog Day, which is all about one type of Bill Murray-ish guy becoming another type of Bill Murray-ish guy. A different manner of transcendence is achieved in Step Brothers, where the vaguely adolescent masculine aggression of past Will Ferrell characters gets busted all the way down to an approximate mental age of ten, as Ferrell himself pushes past 40. (It doesn’t matter that it’s also a buddy comedy with John C. Reilly. They’re just extensions of each other. They become one, a singular preadolescent adult.)

The Whole Persona Vehicle can be a way of “graduating” from Saturday Night Live without letting go of the impulse toward juvenile silliness, or a way of being an adult man and still getting paid to act like an idiot in general; there’s certainly a demented purity to Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison, stemming from the fact that Billy doesn’t have a gimmick like Happy Gilmore’s violent fits, Bobby Boucher’s weird voice, or the guy from Click’s magic remote control. He’s just a dope who’s regressing to move forward. The Whole Persona vehicle can also turn more intense and psychological, as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on the Sandler gestalt in Punch-Drunk Love.

But for every Groundhog Day or Punch-Drunk Love, there are dozens of less-brilliant retrofittings of the Whole Persona Vehicle concept. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood, for example, isn’t intended as a Saturday Night Live vehicle—it’s intended as a horror movie about a bordello of blood and a private investigator who has to kill a bunch of vampires. But since the P.I. is played by Dennis Miller, the movie quickly becomes about his Whole Persona: a smarmy, disconnected jackass making obtuse references to the delight of a few and irritation of many. Even here, the Whole Persona Vehicle becomes instructive, informally reversing the ratio of delight to irritation that Miller presumably maintained through much of his tenure on SNL’s Weekend Update.

The “Cast Reunion” SNL Movie

The weight of a Whole Persona Vehicle can be intimidating; sometimes, instead of carrying a whole project on their own, SNL alums try to recreate the team spirit of their old job on the big screen. The original Ghostbusters films may feature only two SNL cast members—Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray—but their tone, a mix of the loose and the genuinely daffy (the Aykroydian and Bill Murrayan modes, in other words) makes them feel more of-the-show than, say, Animal House or Caddyshack. The 2016 Ghostbusters seems to know this—much better than the sentimentalized newer films, at least—and leans harder still on the SNL connection, roping in Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and frequent host Melissa McCarthy, plus a part for Cecily Strong.

Sometimes all you need, conceptually, for a Cast Reunion SNL movie is a buddy-comedy setup (Tommy Boy, Trading Places.) But the possibilities for expansion are endless. This is Spinal Tap (which actually predates Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest’s SNL stints, but we’re counting it anyway) is a Cast Reunion where the cast plays a rock band. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with Chase, Randy Quaid (season 11, 1985-86), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (1982-85) and Brian Doyle-Murray (1980-82) is a Cast Reunion where the cast plays a family. Here again, Adam Sandler takes the concept to its logical endpoint, with the Grown Ups movies; by the time you get to Grown Ups 2, you’re walking around a virtual world populated by Sandler and (deep breath; Don Pardo voice) Chris Rock, David Spade, Maya Rudolph, Jon Lovitz, Tim Meadows, Colin Quinn, Cheri Oteri, Ellen Cleghorne, the entire Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer), Bobby Moynihan, Will Forte, Taran Killam, Paul Brittain, and Melanie Hutsell. (Norm Macdonald and Rob Schneider are also in the first film.) The Grown Ups universe feels like a kind of idealized Sandler afterlife, where everyone he’s ever goofed around with can ascend into nirvana, like the better world he conjures in his stand-up act when he sings about wishing he and Chris Farley were getting on a plane to make Grown Ups 3.

This category is also where Robert Downey Jr. gets sucked back into the SNL orbit despite not being particularly associated with the show: Tropic Thunder is very much a Cast Reunion comedy in spirit, despite gathering a disparate group of SNL players (Downey, with his single ill-regarded season; Stiller, who was on the show for about a month; and Bill Hader, still a relatively green cast member at the time.) It even begins with a series of three parody trailers, and its all-star stylings (Jack Black and Danny McBride also have major roles, to say nothing of Tom Cruise under SNL-host-style makeup) harken back to movies like Ghostbusters. It's all the more remarkable, then, that Downey landed his second Oscar nomination for this, playing a performer who insists on performing some dicey race-bending for maximum stunt-acting grit. With further distance, it seems increasingly likely that it was exactly that stunt-acting that allowed voters to recognize such a broadly comedic performance alongside designated comedians like Stiller and Black.

The “Whole Sensibility Vehicle” SNL Movie

Perhaps the trickiest category of the bunch, and the one most open to creative expansion, is the Whole Sensibility Vehicle. This is distinct from the Whole Persona Vehicle because it’s more focused on a type of joke than a type of character, and distinct from the Cast Reunion because it’s typically more particular and often more peculiar than a simple fusion of a few different comic styles. One of the earliest SNL examples is Nothing But Trouble, Dan Akroyd’s sole directorial effort, a kind of nightmare-hellscape B-side to the A-side of Ghostbusters. Though it’s a grotesque sideshow of a movie with a gruesomely made-up Aykroyd opposite a Chevy Chase who is either treating the movie with contempt or simply disassociating, Nothing But Trouble does indicate how the Whole Sensibility Vehicle can take the SNL connection in a more experimental direction, something reflected in the most recent variations.

Other Whole Sensibility Vehicles like Norm Macdonald’s Dirty Work or the Lonely Island’s Hot Rod look familiar at first: Dirty Work resembles a snobs-versus-slobs comedy like Stripes, while Hot Rod was initially developed as an actual Will Ferrell vehicle, with a Ferrell/Sandler-style man-child at the center. Yet there’s something ineffably and almost magically off about them. Macdonald was almost too intentionally lackadaisical in his delivery to have a persona, at least by the standards of movie comedy; Dirty Work feels almost like a Sketch Adaptation in Spirit of Macdonald’s Weekend Update persona, complete with “note to self” jokes. Hot Rod replicates the Lonely Island’s tendency to flounder through imitations of popular culture with only a rickety sense of self to fall back on. That mode is also at play in Brigsby Bear, where Kyle Mooney plays a young man raised in unknowing captivity by cultists who’ve nurtured his obsession with an old TV show that turns out not to exist. It turns Mooney’s own obsessive recreations of junky youth culture into a kind of poignant coming-of-age purgatory.

The new Julio Torres film Problemista goes further; it’s the first SNL-sensibility movie from the beloved indie studio A24 (though Mooney has one called Y2K coming from the company later this year). Though Torres does stand-up, he didn’t actually perform on SNL, instead serving as the rare writer whose sketches were often immediately recognizable within the clanking machinery of a network variety show. Wells for Boys, chaotic Instagram captions, and design choices are typical fodder for a Torres sketch, and these bizarre acts of creativity and curation are a big part of Problemista, where Torres plays an aspiring toy designer pursuing a maddening freelance job in New York in hopes of securing his immigration paperwork. Like a lot of A24 projects, the movie bears the influence of brainy late-’90s music-video directors like Spike Jonze, as well as Jonze’s feature-film collaborator Charlie Kaufman. At times it also feels like Torres is shoehorning in some sketch that were too left-field to find a home at SNL. As with Dirty Work and Hot Rod, that’s somehow a feature, not a bug, and Problemista reaches beyond sketch-comedy disposability, towards something more emotionally resonant about the immigrant experience (and, for that matter, the twentysomething experience), without fully rejecting that original form. There will still be SNL projects like the Please Don’t Destroy movie, which is like a Whole Sensibility Vehicle in search of an actual sensibility. But movies like Problemista expand the definition of SNL Cinema, ensuring that this institution will find new and innovative ways to not win Oscars for years to come.

Originally Appeared on GQ