It’s a mullet ... it’s a paper clip ... it’s MacGyver!
For Will Forte, a seven-year veteran performer on “Saturday Night Live,” transforming into MacGruber is easy: All he has to do is slip on a mullet wig, look in the mirror and—bam—he’s ready to defuse bombs with a rubber band, a bottle cap and a thumbtack.
As a longtime fan of the iconic 1980s action-adventure series that MacGruber parodies, Forte knew the substance of his character intimately. He was just 15 when “MacGyver” first aired, and like millions of his pubescent peers, he watched it regularly growing up. Pretending to be the superhero—well, a crankier, incompetent, insecure, alcoholic version of him—was a natural leap. “It’s a tribute to our love of the show,” Forte says.
Most of us have had moments when we too put ourselves in MacGyver’s shoes, contemplating how to get out of a sticky situation, and Forte’s impression has resonated with the “SNL” audience. In the two years since the sketch premiered, the character has MacGrubered its way to regular status, appearing in roughly every fourth episode since its debut in January 2007. “SNL” rarely parodies prime-time television shows, particularly shows canceled in 1992—so the fact that a show so settled in the pop culture zeitgeist has embraced the adventure series is a testament to its unique powers over the human TV-watching species.
Which raises this question: While so many other once beloved 1980s television characters—from Magnum P.I. to the cast of “The A-Team”—now inspire the manufacturing of key chains, why does MacGyver so successfully play the muse to so many artists, writers, comedians and, now, even mainstream products like Pepsi? And why does he still seem to genuinely excite fans? It’s simple: MacGyver was the kind of hero we not only wanted to be, but could be. He didn’t live in an alternate universe, and he didn’t carry a gun. He wasn’t especially wealthy or handsome. He was just a regular, socially conscious guy who happened to be exceptionally quick with his wits and a tape dispenser. If we worked hard enough, the show seemed to promise, we could be MacGyver.
“You can’t be Superman. That’s just not possible,” says Alan Sepinwall, television critic for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. “You’re not going to become an alien from another planet.” But you might ride a bike or pick up a pine cone.
Indeed, MacGyver was a superhero for his time as well as ours: We all like to think that if called upon, we can save the day with our own mental agility and some duct tape—and that when resources are limited, we can make do with what we have. “There’s a kind of independence to MacGyver,” says Dale Dougherty, editor in chief of Make, a magazine dedicated to cool do-it-yourself projects. “In a way, it’s kind of anti-consumerist—you know, not buying all of your solutions.”
Years before “SNL” created MacGruber, Ira Glass, public-radio demigod and host of “This American Life,” recognized that MacGyver’s appeal extended beyond nostalgia. In 2003, he dedicated an episode to the character, elevating him to high culture. A few years later, Brendan Vaughan, a journalist, compiled and edited “What Would MacGyver Do?,” a collection that paid homage to the hero through tales of real-life MacGyverisms. Pop culture commentator and Esquire columnist Chuck Klosterman (who originally shared his story on “This American Life”) and best-selling author A.J. Jacobs contributed to the book, further elevating MacGyver. And of course, over the past decade, the character has achieved the ultimate status of becoming a verb: To MacGyver something is to fix or improve it in an exceptionally resourceful way.
The original ABC show had a wide fan base, especially among guys. After all, for most of its seven seasons (1985 to 1992), it aired right before “Monday Night Football,” fostering many a father-son-bonding moment. (It was the last successful show to air before the weekly game, Sepinwall points out—followed by flops like “Young Indiana Jones” and “The Martial.”) And the men who helped make the show a hit—Richard Dean Anderson, who played the title character, and Henry Winkler, who produced it—seemed very much guy’s guys. The Fonz, anyone?
In each episode, MacGyver, who works for the Phoenix Foundation, a fake government counterintelligence agency, is either assigned to or finds himself in the middle of high-stakes trouble. Sometimes he’s fighting Russian spies; other times he’s protecting an orphanage or other noble institution from being destroyed by heartless villains. The tricks MacGyver pulls off are typically more sophisticated than just using a paper clip to jiggle open a locked door—there’s often hard-core science involved. In the pilot, for example, MacGyver uses milk chocolate to stop a sulfuric acid leak. The creators and producers of the show hold that most of the MacGyverisms could actually work.
For Adam Tow, a 33-year-old digital media producer who grew up idolizing the character, MacGyver helped him generate problem-solving skills. “It all boiled down to how did he think his way out of a situation versus how did he shoot his way out of it,” he says. As a nerdy kid growing up in San Diego, Tow says that appealed to him. He even ended up writing his college application essays about MacGyver—recounting the time he applied skills he’d learned on the show to fix a broken projector at school—which got him into Stanford.
As with many fans, Tow’s childhood love for MacGyver expresses itself in his adult life. His cell phone voice mail message copies MacGyver’s answering machine: “Hey, this is Adam”—he swaps his name for Mac’s here. “We all know how these things work, so when you hear the beep, go for it.” Until recently, he carried a Swiss army knife (MacGyver’s signature tool) with him everywhere, and from time to time he wears a brown leather jacket similar to one MacGyver wore, which makes him feel a little like the hero. “You can’t wear a tuxedo everywhere you go” to feel like Bond, Tow says. “But you can carry a Swiss army knife in your pocket and wear a leather jacket. You can have a mullet—OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far.”