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Anatomy of a Sketch: How Will Forte Made Dance-Magic With Peyton Manning

This is how one of Will Forte’s favorite sketches of all time came together.

The gifts of sports stars don’t always translate on Saturday Night Live. Michael Jordan, for instance, is definitely not the Michael Jordan of comedy. In 2007, though, Will Forte unleashed a corker of a sports sketch unto the world, helping elevate Peyton Manning to the level of SNL all-star, along with athletes like George Foreman and Charles Barkley.

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On the surface, the sketch in question is about a struggling basketball team, but what it’s truly about is zany, loose-limbed dance moves and a completely mood-inappropriate song. The premise doesn’t scan as very funny on paper–a coach musically rousing his team during halftime–but what works about it defies description. It’s the situational silliness of this particular song, and especially the body-undulation that comes along with it. How does a sketch whose success depends on two factors that have nothing to with the script even come together? When Co.Create recently talked with Forte about his career, we asked.

“It was that rare time when a sketch comes across exactly how you want it to,” the performer says. “Over my eight years there, there are probably five or six sketches that turned out even better than I had hoped for. I wrote that one with John Lutz, who’s on Seth Meyers’s show now, and was a writer at SNL. And he had found that song, “Casino Royale,” by Herb Albert. We’d just talked about writing something together and then he played that song and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve always had this idea of a coach who wants to motivate his team by playing them a stupid song. This would be perfect.’

So we wrote this sketch together and at the very end we were about to turn it in, and he said, “You know what, you should just dance during the song, just start dancing.” I said, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” That dancing, it was almost just gonna be me just listening to the song the whole time.

There was no real planning. I mean there was a plan for how we got into it, and after the first little bit just slowly getting into the dancing. But everything else was just, let’s wing it and see what happens. I remember the same week during rehearsals, the dance was just kind of off a little bit. And then we did it in the dress rehearsal show and it just was okay, but it wasn’t exactly right. There were probably a lot of the same moves but Lorne said “Maybe less dancing in the live show.” But then when I got out there somehow I got locked in.”

“The version that aired was the best the sketch had ever gone,” Forte continues, “which is so exciting because a lot of times you’ll have that curse of a great dress rehearsal where you’ll do the sketch really, really well and in your head it kind of messes with you, because you’re like, ‘Oh, just do it like you just did it!’ And the good thing was I didn’t do it that well in dress rehearsal so I could only go up and for some reason, it just was going well and I ended up going longer than we did in the dress rehearsals. Looking back if I had to pick a favorite thing in my time there, that’s probably the one I would pick.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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