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With “Grow-A-Guy,” SNL saved the weird stuff for James Franco

In SketcHistory, The A.V. Club gets the story behind some of our favorite comedy sketches from the people who made them.

The sketch: “Grow-A-Guy” from the 40th season of Saturday Night Live

The story: Several high-school students chat around a lake house campfire. When resident bully Clint (Beck Bennett) calls out Trevor (Mike O’Brien) for not having any friends, the timid high schooler has a week to prove him wrong. Trevor secretly orders a Grow-A-Guy kit, and after adding the special Grow-A-Guy powder to a bowl of water, watches as a small, amorphous blob gradually grows into something resembling an adult man (James Franco). Trevor names his Grow-A-Guy “Chad” and teaches him basic human interaction. The following weekend at the lake house, Chad wins everyone over—including Clint the bully—with his charm, only to accidentally out himself as a Grow-A-Guy when he asks what hashtags are. Having humiliated his owner, Chad self-destructs in a gooey orange explosion. Moments later, the other students reveal themselves to be Grow-A-Guys as well. They self-destruct, leaving Trevor alone and friendless. A #GROWAGUY hashtag appears on-screen above the dejected teen.


The people:

Mike O’Brien, writer and performer for Saturday Night Live

Matt Villines, Saturday Night Live director

Oz Rodriguez, Saturday Night Live director

Mike O’Brien: [The idea for “Grow-A-Guy”] was the first thing I wrote down when I started brainstorming for the new season in August. I had the note, “Like Sea Monkeys, but a dude.” And I think that’s why Matt [Villines] and Oz [Rodriguez] had some of the early beats of making him pretty Sea Monkey-ish, with the powder in the water.

The original concept had Beck [Bennett]’s character dumping a girl for a more popular girl. So in her embarrassment, she decides to grow a guy. She grows him and brings him to Beck’s lake house to show off in front of his new, more popular girlfriend. And the Grow-A-Guy’s doing great until he gets tripped up on hashtags. Which was a real-life hang-up of mine at the time, where I’d keep asking people at work to explain them and they’d be like, “Quit asking that!”

Matt Villines: Oz and I don’t use Twitter very often, and I don’t think we use hashtags that often either. So I agree with Mike’s sentiment.


MV: I remember laughing at it a lot at the read-through. It had a really different ending at the time, but I remember it playing very well in the room.

MO: It originally didn’t have much of an ending. But between me and [co-writer] Tim [Robinson] and [James] Franco, we came up with the idea of the blowing up. There was a point where we were kind of like, “Well, maybe I should be left with the two girls, but neither want to go out with me.” And Franco was like, “Let’s have the girls blow up too!” And we ended up liking that suggestion better.


MV: So basically everybody was a Grow-A-Guy, which was a fun idea. We knew the initial blow-ups were going to be done after the fact, but then suddenly on set we were like, “Oh, we’re going to blow everybody up now?” It was daunting because we were like, “Well, I hope we pull that off in post!”

Oz Rodriguez: There’s an amazing effects team we use—Edmond [Hawkins] and Manny [Morales]—they work really fast. They get asked the impossible every week. They didn’t start until probably noon on the day of the show.


MV: But it ended up working really well; they did a great job with the ballooning and the exploding. And then we had practical crap flying everywhere as well.

MO: The [explosion goo] was some kind of food and orange coloring. Oatmeal and water or something.


MV: Carrot juice was an ingredient in there.

MO: The art department was so great with that. It was pretty unpleasant, and it was very nice of Vanessa [Bayer] and Sasheer [Zamata] and everyone to get several cups thrown in their face.


MV: I definitely want to use the forum to apologize to Sasheer. She asked us to not get it on her hair because she was heading right back to the show and wasn’t going to have time to shower. And we unfortunately had a very low-fi way of doing it, which was just a guy offscreen with a cup throwing [the goo] at people. And we were like, “Just aim for her face, don’t get it in her hair.” And of course it goes right in her hair. She was such a good sport about it afterwards, but we all felt horrible.


MO: Some hosts can be not so enthused about a weird short that Tim and I have written. But there are certain people like Franco and Louis CK and alumni of the show, that when they’re hosting the writers can really let it rip. We’ll be like, “I don’t know if so-and-so would go for this—let’s wait for Franco in a couple of weeks.” And then all of a sudden you’ve got 40 of the weirdest sketches ever. Those are always my favorite table reads.

MV: James is totally game for anything. I think he likes Mike’s humor a lot as well. He came and did the “Monster Pals” short with us and seemed to have a really fun time with that. And I think he wanted to do something else with Mike, which led to this.


OR: We shot it Friday morning, the day before the show. It was tight: I think we had James from 7:30 to noon-ish.


MO: I thought Beck’s bully was so good. He was locked into that character. We really like those awkward moments. By the time you cut these down to short, punchy videos, you don’t get to sit in those moments very long. And this was a nice opportunity where we got a full minute of really good reactions. Where Pete Davidson and Sasheer and Vanessa are feeling bad for the bullied kid but not saying anything. We’ve all been put in that spot where we’ve just stood by. Especially in high school, where you don’t have the big picture to say, “Hey dude, shut up” to the bully—knowing that would be okay.

MV: It felt like Beck was channeling those 1980s movie bullies, like in Back To School and Karate Kid and Better Off Dead. But where he’s very real and very ridiculous all at the same time. I really loved his performance. Everything we do with Mike, our preference is to play it pretty grounded—have everybody play it as real as they can within the scene. We always find that funnier. It always feels like the straighter you play that, the more the audience can relate to it, despite how ridiculous the whole premise is.


OR: There’s always that chance your sketch gets cut between dress rehearsal and air. And this was a longer piece—around four minutes—so, we were afraid of it being cut, or having to chop it down. But it did well and Lorne [Michaels] liked it.


MV: It was fun to read the interpretations the day after it aired. The hashtag at the end of the piece made it much easier to see Twitter’s reaction. I was really happy with it: Mike’s very good at tapping into things that are awkward and melancholy and relatable, but also making them weird and funny at the same time. He does a great job of having things be super weird, but it never alienates people watching it. And that’s not easy to do. People seem to find an emotional undercurrent to his stuff, which you don’t always see in sketch comedy.

MO: I stopped reading online comments a while back because they’re always some the most cutting, mean things, even about the lightest sketch. The third or fourth comment down confirms your fears, like, “I wonder if it’s a little long?” The first two comments are like, “This rocks!” and then the third thing will be, “Sooooo long—fell asleep!” [Laughs.] And you’re like, “God, I knew it was too long!”


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