Halfway through his last season on Saturday Night Live in 2010, Will Forte wrote and starred in one of those end-of-the-show non-sequitur sketches that had him berating a Colonel Sanders-looking Jason Sudeikis for stealing a potato chip. Those six absurd minutes (which neither NBC nor Hulu has online) perfectly encapsulated Forte’s eight-year run on SNL—bizarre characters, unexplained jokes and a relentless commitment to a goofy premise. A dozen or so episodes later, Forte left SNL for what looked like a future of bit parts in broad comedies and questions concerning a MacGruber sequel. But then Nebraska happened.
Out this month, Alexander Payne’s much buzzed-about drama about a deluded old man and his annoyed son stars Forte alongside Bruce Dern. And this movie has people saying something about Forte that would have seemed utterly impossible when he was playing Greg Stink: The guy could get nominated for an Oscar.
Forte’s ascent from underrated SNL player to best actor contender is as unlikely as his casting in Payne’s film, especially considering that George Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Jack Nicholson were the leads in the Oscar-winning director’s last three features. Payne’s no stranger to helping lesser-known actors get some Oscar shine, though. Thomas Haden Church was best known for his role as the doofus on Wings before he landed a supporting actor nomination for Sideways. Perhaps Will Forte is the next Thomas Haden Church? A lofty goal indeed.
If Forte does somehow defy the odds and land an Oscar nod, he won’t be the first to go from toiling under Lorne Michaels to thanking his agent; the path has been traveled five times already. But those who did time at 30 Rock before making good in the movies fall into two distinct camps: members of SNL‘s notorious 1985-86 cast and the show’s legends—neither of which Forte belongs to.
Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr. fall into that first group. Michaels brought the two on—along with previous Oscar winner Randy Quaid and a handful of unknowns—in an attempt to add youth to the show. The gambit failed, and most of the cast was replaced the next year. But not that it mattered to Cusack or Downey, who both went on to receive two nominations. For them, SNL is a resume curiosity, not a career-defining opportunity.
The same can’t be said of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, who made their names on SNL. That they received Oscar nominations for dramatic roles (in Driving Miss Daisy, Lost in Translation and Dreamgirls, respectively) is surprising given their comedic roots. But their stars were shining bright by the time they left the show, so critical recognition wasn’t a total surprise.
And that brings us back to Forte, a comedic actor whose two biggest roles so far are as idiot MacGuyver and a cross-dressing waitress on 30 Rock. If he gets recognized by the Academy, he’ll blaze a new trail for under-appreciated SNL goofballs who go on to win Hollywood glory. That’ll give Bobby Moynihan something to strive for.