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Will Forte Is Still Waiting for ‘MacGruber’ to Blow Up

To understand the duality of Will Forte, consider the following: This past July, Forte, the actor, writer and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, married his wife, Olivia Modling, in an intimate weekend ceremony they organized, in part, to surprise Forte’s parents, who happened to be visiting them.

That following Monday, Forte was back on set at “MacGruber,” his new Peacock series based on his recurring “S.N.L.” sketches about a reckless adventurer, shooting a scene that required him to be completely naked.

Despite his efforts to get in shape for this scene, Forte said, “I think I gained seven pounds from Friday to Sunday. I definitely had a little water retention. It was just the right amount of dad-bod.”

By all accounts, Forte, 51, is a gentle, soft-spoken person — considerate of his family, attentive to his 9-month-old daughter, Zoe, and excited by something as simple as an unusual pair of socks.

Yet something transformative happens to him when he assumes the role of MacGruber, an unapologetically crude action hero who has survived multiple explosions as well as a bomb of a movie, “MacGruber” (2010), that attempted to expand the comedy shorts to feature length.

Now — to Forte’s amazement as much as anyone else’s — MacGruber is back in a streaming series more than a decade in the making, which picks up where the movie left off.

The “MacGruber” series, which will be released on Dec. 16, once again allows Forte to show off fictitious combat skills, eviscerate evildoers and utter some of the most vulgar dialogue he and his co-writers could devise.

The show’s arrival also provides a moment for the button-down Forte and some of his most trusted collaborators to contemplate why he connects so fully to this outlandish character.

It is a question that Forte said he has occasionally pondered over a career spent making what he called “smarter things cloaked in dumb stuff,” and one that he finds himself no closer to answering.

“I’m not a complete sicko,” he said in a video interview last week. “But I’m pretty desensitized to everything. I’ve lived inside me for a long time, so I don’t think I’m especially perverse. Maybe I’m just used to me.”

MacGruber began at “S.N.L.” in the early 2000s, where the writer Jorma Taccone (who originally pitched the character as a role for the guest host Lance Armstrong) imagined him as the coarse, bumbling stepbrother of MacGyver, the inventive TV hero first portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson.

Forte instead played the character, in recurring sketches that aired between 2007 and 2010 and that he wrote with Taccone and John Solomon. In almost every segment, the character was shown attempting — and failing — to defuse an incendiary device before a timer runs out.

“It always ended with me exploding, but the journey to get to the explosion was different enough,” Forte said. Still, he was surprised the character recurred on “S.N.L.” as often as it did: “Every step of the way, it seemed like, oh, that’s the end of the road for it,” he said.

Instead, MacGruber was featured in a Pepsi commercial that was shown during the Super Bowl in 2009. The following year, Forte starred in a “MacGruber” movie that he wrote with Taccone and Solomon, and which Taccone directed.

The film moved beyond the character’s imitative “MacGyver” origins and made him more of a one-man army in the style of 1980s action protagonists like Rambo and John McClane. It also took full advantage of its R rating, utilizing a colorful vocabulary that would never fly on “S.N.L.” and, in one enduring scene, having MacGruber distract his enemies by strutting around nude with a celery stalk protruding from between his buttocks.

Ryan Phillippe, who co-starred in the movie as Lt. Dixon Piper, a friend and ally to MacGruber, recalled the experience of attending its premiere at the South by Southwest festival in March 2010.

“The response was uproarious,” Phillippe said. “People were hooting and clapping. I thought we had a hit on our hands. Maybe not ‘The Hangover,’ but a modest hit.”

But when it opened that May, “MacGruber” was a flop, receiving savage reviews and grossing barely more than $9 million worldwide. Forte said he and his collaborators were taken aback at first but remained “oddly proud of our disgusting little movie.” He found it meaningful that the movie’s creators stuck to their own strange sensibilities of what they found funny.

“Oh, I have bomb experience — that’s no ‘MacGruber’ pun,” Forte said. “I’ve been a part of things where you change things to try to make them more accessible to people and they still bomb, and that’s the hardest. This was an easier shellacking to handle.”

He added: “We certainly had a couple weeks where we questioned every decision we made. After two weeks we realized, you know what? We wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

Lorne Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “S.N.L.,” said that “MacGruber” and the kind of comedy it stands for were important to defend, even when the wider public has not come along for the ride.

“I think it’s truly funny, but it’s not something any legitimate critic is going to praise,” said Michaels, who is also a producer of the “MacGruber” film and TV series.

“It pushes so far beyond the acceptable,” he said. “It embraces dumb in a way that most people are embarrassed to admit they like. People like better-behaved comedy, but comedy is disruptive and can be annoying. It’s freeing. Maybe it’s adolescent boy stuff. It can’t be justified, so it needs somebody to speak up for it.”

Over time, the reputation of the movie had nowhere to go but up. As Phillippe recalled: “I would run into comedians and filmmakers who said, ‘This is my favorite thing to watch when I’m depressed.’ I heard that there were college drinking games based on ‘MacGruber’ — you take a shot every time somebody says ‘Grubes.’”

Forte went on to star in films like the comedy-drama “Nebraska” and on the Fox series “The Last Man on Earth,” for which Solomon was a writer and producer. Taccone directed films like “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” (with Akiva Schaffer) and TV shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

Yet they never gave up on the idea of a “MacGruber” sequel. “We had a ton of ideas on a Google doc that we had been adding to for 11 years,” Taccone said. “A lot of entries like ‘Whoever smelt it, dealt it,’ question mark, four asterisks.”

Although the writers were told that their proposed follow-up wasn’t financially viable as a movie, a new window of opportunity opened when NBC introduced its Peacock streaming service, where “MacGruber” was picked up as an eight-episode series.

Given this new lease on life, Taccone said, the goal of the “MacGruber” creators was not to alter the character or fix perceived flaws in the film but rather to provide “the enhanced version” of the movie — still violent and obscene, but otherwise played like a straight-ahead thriller, never winking at the audience or acknowledging its own outrageousness.

“That’s part of the joke to us,” Taccone said. “We’re creating an action-movie world to then destroy it, and the more real it is, the funnier it is that it has this incorrect lead.”

The “MacGruber” series finds its hero once again drawn into dangerous situations with global implications and facing off against a villain from his past. Its cast includes several veterans of other authentic, non-satirical adventure films, including Laurence Fishburne, Billy Zane and Sam Elliott, as well as returning franchise regulars like Phillippe and Kristen Wiig.

Wiig, who has played MacGruber’s love interest, Vicki St. Elmo, since the original “S.N.L.” sketches, said that whenever she has worked with the show’s creative team she has felt the freedom to be as ridiculous as the material requires.

Often on comedy projects, Wiig said, “You tend to doubt yourself or wonder, is this going to be funny? I don’t have that with those guys. I just fully trust them. What did you write? I’ll say it.”

And no one embodies that spirit of over-the-top absurdity better than Forte himself. “There’s just no self-awareness, in the best of ways,” Wiig said. “He’s just like, I’m going for it. And you’re like, what is on the other side of that brain of yours?”

Solomon, who has known Forte since they were students together at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that playing MacGruber offered his friend a place for creative expressions that don’t otherwise fit within his happily quotidian life.

“It is the perfect outlet for him to get everything out,” Solomon said. “Will really cares about listening to people and making them feel comfortable and heard. There’s a lot of intense stuff going on in his brain, and MacGruber is opening a valve. He loves to commit, and he feels comfortable with the positions that MacGruber has to take.”

Forte himself said he identified with the character only up to a point: “I try to be a nice and respectful person. I don’t rip anybody’s throats out in my private life.”

He added: “We do a lot of dirty things in this series, but believe it or not, we self-police ourselves. There are times where we go, ‘No, that’s too gross, that’s definitely over the line.’”

Forte said he awaited the release of the “MacGruber” series with a certain glee to see how some of its raunchiest jokes would be received. But in perhaps the surest sign that he does not share the callousness of the character, he also expressed concern for how the show might affect his mother’s social standing.

“My mom had a couple friends who had gone to see the movie in 2010, and they really dropped her because of the movie, which is so crazy,” he said. “And there were a couple of friends on the fence, and we got those friends back with ‘Nebraska.’ This is going to sever it again. The ‘MacGruber’ series is going to get her into trouble.”

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