Saturday Night’s Children: Will Forte (2002-2010)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
When an actor’s first credited performance on IMDB is “Snow Shovel Murder Victim” on Late Show with David Letterman, you know he’s destined for great, or at least weird, things, and Will Forte lived up to that promise as a SNL cast member from 2002-2010. During his time on the show, Forte played red-faced politicians, stranded screaming falconers, surreal singing editorializers, and slimy registered sex offenders, and he brought to them all a unique mixture of the genuinely sweet and unflinchingly strange. Through it all Forte showed that he could radiate the uninhibited vibes of a genuinely nice guy while plunging head-first into even the creepiest of characters.
After earning a history degree from UCLA and working briefly at a brokerage firm, Forte (born Orville Willis Forte IV) joined The Groundlings in Los Angeles and eventually found work writing for The Jenny McCarthy Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Action, and 3rd Rock from the Sun in the mid to late 1990s. While working at 3rd Rock, he was offered a SNL audition. He joined the cast as a featured player in 2002 (alongside Fred Armisen), and was promoted to repertory player the following season. Forte’s success came early probably due to good timing; Will Ferrell left the season before his arrival, so Forte became the post-Ferrell go-to man for hosts and political figures from George W. Bush to Timothy Geithner.
Forte’s most popular recurring characters were MacGruber, the McGyver-wannabe whose segments always end with him dying in an explosion, and The Falconer, a former advertising executive named Ken Mortimer who, “for reasons known only to him, left his wife and career, and moved deep into the forest.” The sketches follow Ken’s falcon Donald as he flies off to find help, only to detour into nightclubs, expensive restaurants, and hookups with human women before returning to Ken with a crude tool or dead animal found on his way back to the forest. One of the most memorable Falconer sketches features Kevin Spacey as a time-traveling Ken Mortimer who miscalculates his time machine, and by the end of the sketch, the entire SNL cast is dressed up as The Falconer shouting the final line.
Forte shines most when he gets to sing, dance, or both, like as the spaceship and jar of beer-loving country singer Clancy T. Bachleratt, unnamed locker room coach-turned-dance instructor/motivator like in the “Fancy Pants” sketch with Michael Phelps, or on all of his Weekend Update segments – sometimes with Jason Sudeikis (as Bon Jovi opposite band Jon Bovi), sometimes with Fred Armisen (Wall Street bailout song, SARS song), and sometimes solo. Other popular Forte characters include the uncomfortably shy note card-reading political candidate Tim Calhoun, the creepy racist/stalker Hamilton, and registered sex offender Jeff Montgomery, known for his trademark glasses, mustache, and tan windbreaker. Forte also impersonated Willie Nelson, John Edwards, Lorne Michaels, and more, and both wrote and starred in the very first Digital Short, “Lettuce.”
While on SNL, Forte worked as a writer for several MTV Video Music and Movie Awards shows until 2005, and he also briefly wrote for That 70s Show and voiced Abe Lincoln in MTV’s Clone High from 2002-2003. He’s written and starred in both The Brothers Solomon in 2007 and MacGruber in 2010, the same year he left SNL. Since then, he’s appeared (or voiced) for many films and shows like Beerfest, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, Sit Down, Shut Up, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock, where he plays Jenna’s cross-dressing on-and-off boyfriend Paul. He’s got plenty of upcoming projects and performances – Rock of Ages, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Allen Gregory, and most recently Up All Night on NBC. He’s also currently filming Neighborhood Watch, directed by The Lonely Island’s Akiva Schaffer and starring Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughn.
Forte’s consistent ability to plum deep into the heart of American darkness and find some happy light there has been sorely missing on SNL since his departure in 2010, but who else could commit to the role of a sleazy sex offender with the same amount of joy and investment as an interpretive dance-loving basketball coach? Or let secret rooms, dams, and hideouts blow up over and over again while sulking in an alcoholic haze as MacGruber? Or waiting for his pet falcon to return with survival supplies while trapped under a fallen log as The Falconer? Forte was like Will Ferrell’s quieter, more-likely-to-go-postal younger brother/successor, and his ability to create humor from strange and often unnerving situations without condescending his own characters created new high watermarks in SNL‘s pantheon of deadpan absurdity. Snow shovel murder victim, you’ve come a long way, baby.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.