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You can’t have a naked performer use a flamethrower.
This is what MacGruber co-creators Jorma Taccone, John Solomon, and Will Forte were told by the fun-killing higher-ups, in no uncertain terms, when they set out to adapt their popular Saturday Night Live sketch-turned-feature-film into a TV series at Peacock.
“We kept having these meetings where people would be like, ‘You know you can’t do this, right?’” Taccone says. “We were just like, ‘Yeah, but… we’re going to do it.’”
Being told to not do something and then doing it anyway is fitting for both petulant action hero MacGruber (played by Forte) and the unlikely franchise he sweatily birthed. The parody of problem-solving TV icon MacGyver was first conceived as a series of SNL sketches by writers Solomon, Taccone, and cast member Forte back in 2007.
Each of the 10 sketches stars Forte as MacGruber, the woefully underprepared special agent, who intends to use common household objects to defuse a ticking bomb and save his friends. Each and every time, however, he fails–the bomb detonates and everyone is killed. Still, MacGruber and his partner Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) somehow always return to try to defuse another bomb, usually accompanied by that respective episode’s guest host (some notable players include Betty White, Seth Rogen, Josh Brolin, Jonah Hill, and Charles Barkley).
MacGruber was a popular enough character to be spun off into a series of Pepsi commercials that featured original MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson. MacGruber then returned for his titular 2010 film. Directed by Taccone, MacGruber was a love letter to action movies, comedy, and just general absurdity. Like many other SNL adaptations, it was a massive box office failure, but became something of a cult hit. None other than Christopher Nolan (yes, as in Dark Knight Christopher Nolan) counts himself as a MacGruber superfan.
More than 11 years have passed since MacGruber last graced the pop culture landscape. And yet, the mulletted action hero’s creators couldn’t quite forget him. Taccone, Solomon, and Forte have been passing around a Google Doc for the better part of a decade sharing funny ideas for the character’s next outing.
“We had so many ideas for a sequel that it was just exciting to sort of put the pieces around and see where things fit based on dumb little one-off ideas that we had highlighted,” Taccone says. “Will (Forte) added triple asterisks to the phrase ‘Whoever smelt it, dealt it.’ It had to be in there somewhere.”
Now the final result of all that brainstorming is set to come to fruition in a sequel: not in the form of a movie, but a TV series. After rotting in prison for a decade (for the petty crime of beating his nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth, to near-death, then firing a rocket launcher at him, throwing him off a cliff, and pissing on his corpse), MacGruber is sprung loose by an American government desperate for his help. MacGruber assembles his old team from the film, Vicki St. Elmo (Wiig) and Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), to take down a mysterious villain from his past: Brigadier Commander Enos Queeth (Billy Zane).
“‘Queeth’ was a name that we had from the very beginning because we just wanted to say, ‘It smells like Queeth in here,’” Taccone says, before adding that their dream was realized by getting the line into episode six.
Like the film before it, which starred Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe in supporting roles, the TV series brings in some major dramatic star power to earnestly read some very silly lines. Zane follows in Kilmer’s footsteps by embodying a goofily-named villain with some surprising pathos.
“Billy, at one point, was like, ‘This is one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had.’ And it is that. It’s hard to get the tone of having to say the dumbest shit. Even saying his name is stupid,” Taccone says. “Billy brought this realness to these things. We would have these real actor conversations like, ‘Why do I feel this empty?’ Because it’s the fucking worst day of your life. And you feel it on screen.”
Meanwhile, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Elliott contribute with major roles as well to expand the MacGruber family. Fishburne plays General Barrett Fasoose, a highly-decorated military official who now just happens to be married to MacGruber’s ex-wife, Vicki. Elliott is Perry, MacGruber’s father, who has a fractured relationship with his son.
“It’s still crazy to me the amount of times I’d ask Laurence why he was doing this,” Taccone says. “With all these guys, they’re actually reading what it is and understanding what the tone is and believing in what we’re trying to do. Which is a very specific needle we’re threading, of a real action movie, but it’s an idiot as your main character and trying to get it all real enough so that it’s funny.”
Having the right actors to buy into MacGruber’s tone is crucial, as the series walks a fine line between sophomoric joke-telling and almost unspeakable violence. Many villains who come across MacGruber suffer a similar fate to Dieter Von Cunth–or worse.
“We were going to have MacGruber’s new move be skinning people alive. And then we were like, ‘That’s too dark,’” Taccone says.
Taccone might be misremembering things as MacGruber does, in fact, skin at least one character alive (or possibly posthumously) offscreen within the show’s first three episodes. He also frequently gets very naked and then stays naked, sometimes for as long as an entire episode’s runtime.
“(Will) has no shame as a performer,” Taccone says. “Whatever is the funniest version of something, he’ll do it. He is just always giving 150%, and oftentimes that means getting naked and having his testicles exposed, that have to be removed with CG later.”
To temper things a bit, MacGruber borrows a page from seasonal action movies like Die Hard, setting its story during Christmas. Like the movie, the TV series was filmed in Albuquerque so there is no snow to speak of, but the holiday cheer is present all the same, even as MacGruber crushes a henchman’s face in with a boulder until it’s nothing but a pile of bone, blood, and brains.
According to Taccone, he and the show’s producers always knew they wanted the series to take place at Christmas, continuing the tradition started by Lethal Weapon. Funnily enough, the show will premiere the day after the penultimate episode of another streaming action series set during Christmas.
“We’re just trying to go up against Hawkeye,” Taccone says. “So you tell (Jeremy Renner), you tell him, ‘We’re fucking coming for you.’”
MacGruber premieres its eight-episode first season on NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock on Dec. 16, 2021.