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The Saturday Night Live-based MacGruber hits theaters next Friday and with it will come a cavalcade of lists ordering the movies based on the sketch comedy show. Presents under the tree for Wayne's World, stockings of coal for Stuart Saves His Family. We get it. Most SNL films have blown. Turning a three minute sketch into a feature length film usually doesn't work. In fact, the proposition frequently fails abysmally from conception. How Mary-Katherine Gallagher got her own movie before the Land Shark is anyone's guess, but endlessly slandering The Ladies Man doesn't tell the whole story. Saturday Night Live has always been a stepping stone. Put in five or six years of writing and character work and Hollywood will come calling. From A-list stars like Bill Murray to reliable cogs like Bill Hader, SNL has provided the stars and featured players for hundreds of movies during the last three and a half decades. It's time we started celebrating those.
And why shouldn't we? Saturday Night Live may not have penned Elf, but would we even know who Will Ferrell was without it? Would it have been half the movie if it starred Adam Sandler? Err…I mean Ben Stiller? What about Chris Farley or Chris Rock or Chevy Chase or Jason Sudeikis or Phil Hartman or Robert Downey Jr or Anthony Michael Hall or Dan Akroyd or Eddie Murphy? Goddamnit. Would it have worked if it starred Jack Black? That's the dude I was looking for. No. Take away SNL and its cast members and the majority of memorable late 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s comedies would either not exist or require significant recasting. And its not just lighter fare. I can't think of a single genre which hasn't been affected. Lost In Translation, Iron Man, even Satan's Slay featuring Bill Goldberg had a Chris Kattan cameo. Here are 25 great movies we wouldn't have without Saturday Night Live.
Ghost Busters was more than a movie. In a way it stood for something. "Back off, I'm a scientist!" shouted Bill Murray's Peter Venkman. In the process he staked his claim as part of that new wave of 80s movies which said being smart was cool. Ghost Busters was a product of a brighter time; a time when science trumped everything and where, occasionally, being smart meant getting the girl. It's a movie, quite simply, about science kicking the supernatural's ass; blasting it to bits with homemade proton packs, turning the unknown into just a speed bump which can be easily conquered with the application of brainpower. Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler were the direct forbearers of rock star geniuses like Jurassic Park's Ian Malcolm and the inspiration for millions of nerdy kids pulling back the curtain on the superstitions of their parents with homemade chemistry sets in their basements while other kids wandered around worrying about black cats crossing the path. Thanks to Murray, Akyroyd, and Ramis, we ain't afraid of no ghosts.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
The first Austin Powers is brilliant, brilliant in a slap-happy, overly confident, cock-sure, zany kinda way, a byproduct of uniting ridiculous men drunk on their own goofy confidence and commanding they continually ask but how can we take this further?. The plot itself is ludicrous, an over-sexed, 1960's super spy frozen in time, laying in wait for a bald-headed evil genius frozen in a Bob's Big Boy crypt of delicious menace and solitude, so ludicrous, in fact, that it almost commands itself to push further, as if Mike Myers thought “well, we've come this far”. An angst-ridden son who attends counseling with his evil genius father, a ransom call for one million dollars, a cat who's mere irritation causes his owner to kill without mercy, a corridor not quite wide enough to turn vehicles around, and a nefarious henchmen deftly played by SNL's Will Ferrell who refuses to die quickly. Austin Powers, like Clue, like The Princess Bride, like so many other perfectly constructed comedies, grows more charming with each re-watch. It is an amalgamation of the absurd, a cross-every-line, pull-no-punches, tribute to what can happen when a brilliant comedian at the top of his game fully invests in material that works. Watch out for the mutated sea bass, I hear they're ill-tempered.
The number of A-list comedians Saturday Night Live has propelled to stardom is stunning, but perhaps more stunning are the scores of featured players who languished before ultimately finding success elsewhere. Chris Rock, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Dave Atell, Jeanine Garafalo, and of course, at the center of Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. Neither lasted more than a season, but the initial thumbs-up Lorne Michaels gave to their talent was spot-on. Who else but Robert Downey Jr could have pulled off blackface? Who else but Ben Stiller could have gone full retard? Throw in SNL's Bill Hader enthusiastically singing rap lyrics to a gyrating Tom Cruise, and you've got three wonderful comedic turns from former or current products of the variety show. Ben Stiller started the screenplay for Tropic Thunder nearly a decade before production finally began. He thwarted early offers before waiting on the perfect opportunity. SNL may not have made Robert Downey Jr or Ben Stiller, but its early offer set the wheels in motion to make opportunities like Tropic Thunder happen. It may not be Satan's Alley, but it's certainly funnier.
There are few pure comedic talents in history like John Belushi and never was he better than as John "Bluto" Blutarsky in John Landis' Animal House. The quintessential college comedy, it set the bar for raunchiness back in 1978 and has been a reference point for hundreds of comedy films and directors in the decades since. In many ways the film is an ensemble piece that gives all of its principals ample screen time, but it's hard to argue that the movie isn't Belushi's. Though his character is never fleshed out in the slightest – he might as well have been called Frat Guy #3 – Bluto steals the movie and creates some of comedy's most iconic moments. With scenes such as using a ladder to spy on sorority girls, filling his cheeks with mashed potatoes to imitate a zit, inspiring the troops with lessons about Pearl Harbor, and smashing a hippie's guitar, it is, simply put, one of the greatest comedic performances of all time. Landis' original choices for the characters Boon and Otter were Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, which would have made the film one of the more SNL-powered features of all time, but while the actors turned down the roles due to scheduling conflicts, Belushi provides all of the Saturday Night flavor needed.
Wayne's World is one of only two movies on this list actually produced by Saturday Night Live and based on one of the show's sketches. SNL's big contribution to entertainment has been in discovering and promoting new talent, without it we wouldn't have had any of the movies on this list. But in Wayne's World SNL made a direct contribution, helping Mike Myers and Dana Carvey break the bonds of late night television to create one of the best rock and roll comedies of all time. Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar are iconic characters, but the movie works in large part because Myers is brilliantly talented and Wayne's World is really just all about giving him a place to show that. Carvey, meanwhile, is the perfect sidekick and the movie's so good that even the sequel kind of works. It's unlikely that SNL will ever produce another cultural phenomenon like this one, but even if there were only this one, it's enough to justify the late night staple's contribution to movies.
Eight years after his debut on Saturday Night Live and after significant supporting roles in movies like Zoolander and Old School, it was Elf that solidified Will Ferrell as more than just comedic side character. Elf is brilliant, not just because Ferrell's funny, but because he's just as good at sympathetic and sweet. It's Ferrell and Ferrell alone who makes Buddy Elf work and in the process, with a little help from director Jon Favreau and Zooey Deschanel's soul-shakingly beautiful singing voice, Elf became an instant holiday classic. It's on the shortlist of movies we watch every holiday in my house alongside greats like It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and a healthy dose of Christmas Vacation. Like those movies it's timeless, the kind of film we'll all be watching twenty years from now; old and gray, huddled in a dimly lit living room on a snowy night with our children and our children's children, laughing as Ferrell battles angry elves and indifferent New Yorkers, and feeling Christmas chills in that final sequence where New York gets together and sings Santa's sleight into the air through sheer force of will. Thank you Saturday Night Live and thank you Will Ferrell.
Before Kick-Ass there was Mystery Men, an underrated and woefully underwatched comedy about real people with only minor talents becoming superheroes. “God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well.,” declares William H. Macy before grabbing his best spade and tromping out the door to fight evil. They're not your classic heroes, they're the other guys. From Ben Stiller's epic turn as the ticking time bomb of fury Mr. Furious, to Paul Reubens first attempt at a comeback role farting his way through as The Spleen, to Geoffrey Rush as the bizarre Casonova Frankenstein, to Hank Azaria's silverware obsessed Blue Raja, Mystery Men is packed with more genuine entertainment and more flat out perfect absurdity than any superhero movie before or since. It's more than just laughs, of which it has plenty, in a weird way it's more about camaraderie and friendship and people who've found a way to stay sane in an insane world by embracing whatever it is about them, no matter how mundane it might seem, that makes them special.
We never really know just how long Bill Murray's Phil Connors is trapped in Puxatawny and the great thing about Groundhog Day is that in the end, it doesn't matter. Groundhog Day is a movie smart enough to know when to stop asking questions, smart enough to know when to leave well enough alone. When it's over, after Phil has learned to become a brilliant piano player, after he's learned French poetry, after he's given Ned Ryerson his much deserved punch in the nose, after he's won the heart of Andie MacDowell, he walks away a better man. We walk away without answers, you never know why he was stuck there, but we're utterly satisfied simply to have been there to witness a beautiful, magical, one time only confluence of fate and filmmaking magic. After his start on Saturday Night Live, Murray went on to make a lot of great movies, many of them are on this list, but there's none better than this simple, mysterious tale in a tiny, dead-end town on a single, snowy day which went on forever and ever. And even though Phil Connors finally got out of town, I like to think that whether or not he's there, it's still snowing in Puxatawny.
The first time I saw Step Brothers, I thought it was a B- at best. The story too frequently devolved into goofing off, the father's alcoholism came out of nowhere, and the ending was absurd. I remember Roger Ebert's review asking when comedy became so mean-spirited, a fair critique considering the audience is expected to laugh at an attempted drowning and a botched buried alive scheme, but you know what, Step Brothers is hilarious. (Boats and Hos) It's goofy, it's fun, it never pretends to be anything more than it is. Take Horatio Sanz's turn as the lead singer of a 1980s Billy Joel cover band who refuses to sing anything not released in said decade. Take Rob Riggle's performance as Ferrell's coworker who screams “pow” unnecessarily loud during business meetings. (Boats and Hos) And take the amazing improvisational work of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Everything may not work, but there's fifteen or twenty laugh out loud moments, thirteen or eighteen more than your average, run-of-the-mill comedy. Besides, like Chewbacca masks, it's okay if things aren't always movie quality. (Boats and Hos)
If Chris Farley hadn't been taken from us before his time, then it's possible that he'd have topped Tommy Boy and we'd be talking about some other film. But Chris flamed out too fast, too soon, and what we're left with is a very funny movie called Tommy Boy in which Chris Farley is at his best. Together, Farley and David Spade are like a modern day Abbott and Costello at the top of their game. Chris is the floundering, sweating, master of physical comedy and accidental absurdity. Spade the sarcastic straight man forced to endure his antics. Tommy Boy would deserve a place on this list for Farley's Fat Guy in a Little Coat bit alone, or for his hilariously resonate “Take a Dump in a Box and Mark it Guaranteed” speech. But the film is carried by the amazing comedic chemistry between Farley and Spade, of the kind that just hasn't been duplicated by anyone else since.
When Charlie Chaplin first began his comedy, his whole body was a performance, often set up to achieve one laugh. He had no dialogue to supplement his movements—after all, in the beginning, there were no talkies. It's funny how audiences now barely tolerate montages lasting more than several seconds before scenes get buried in quick dialogue. When SNL started, there was an entire sketch to get to a single laugh, but now, like most comedy, SNL has evolved into quick and pithy punchlines, often regurgitated to loving familiarity. The film Chaplin fails when it plays out like these jokes, focuses on personal failings and broken relationships that would now be splattered all over Entertainment Magazine. But when it works, when it focuses on Chaplin's legacy, on the lasting images of him evolving from Charles into Charlie, tramp into director, pantomime into sound, it leaves little doubt why Robert Downey Jr. became the first former SNL cast member to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Aykroyd's great, too, as Mack Sennett, turning a furrowed brow and a straw hat into a trademark as apt as Jon Lovitz's characteristic cigar in A League of Their Own. The film is good because the acting is excellent, and because Chaplin leaves us with the greatest punchline of all: the world still waits for the tramp to speak, and in keeping that secret, the tramp becomes immortal.
Punch Drunk Love
Barry Egan is the role Adam Sandler was born to play. Adam takes what he's best at, quiet timidity mixed with insane, mind-bending rage and uses it to create one of the most realistic, touching portrayals of a social anxiety and shyness ever seen on screen. Your heart aches for Barry as you watch him, struggling to deal with a life that keeps kicking him in the balls, letting the frustration build up as he internalizes everything until he at last explodes in a boiling cauldron of rage. It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for, and Barry is the quietest. Amongst all the complexity of Barry there's a love story too, one that seems unconventional only because we've seen too many bad romantic comedies. Barry's struggle to find his own voice in a life full of disappointments is brilliant and affecting, one of Paul Thomas Anderson's best films, and who'd have thought it would star the guy from SNL who used to sing songs about pudding cups.
The Blues Brothers
Virtuoso musicians, lifelong best friends and steadfast devotees on a mission from God, Jake and Elwood Blues destroyed more cop cars than Ice-T, ate more chickens than the Fantastic Mr. Fox and negotiated to buy more women than Genghis Khan, all to save an orphanage and beat the shit out of some Illinois Nazis. In an age when unfettered lawlessness, glorified obscenity and the independent spirit were being stamped out like union autoworkers, the Blues Brothers carved out their own path of seedy autonomy, unwilling to compromise for an uptight society both fearful and incredulous of their behavior. It had to be the bedraggled, decaying road less traveled for these two outlaws. Some men nobly side with the law, others chart their own course of mayhem. Had they been born in a simpler time, they would have been bootleggers or Mafioso or buccaneers. Instead they'll go down as miscreants, two guys who just don't give a fuck about what you have to say. Heroes are bound by codes of honor; legends take what they want by any means necessary. Jake and Elwood Blues may not be heroes, but for at least one inner city orphanage, they'll always be legends.
City Slickers is one of those rare movies which, if it shows up on your television, you have to leave it on. It sticks with you and even all these years later it sucks you in and won't let you go. Billy Crystal had a career before SNL as a stand-up and on sitcoms like Soap, but it wasn't until he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live that he became a film star. He's had a career of great moments, maybe his best is as Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, but City Slickers is without a doubt his biggest achievement in a starring role. It's a film that send thousands of middle-aged suburbanites running to Texas looking for cattle drives, moving audiences with genuine humor against an amazing backdrop. Crystal's love for the material is obvious and the film won Jack Palance an Oscar. Maybe unlike a lot of the connections on this list Billy Crystal would have been Billy Crystal even without SNL. His kind of talent can't go unnoticed forever. And maybe not. I don't want to find out. Hey look, City Slickers is on.
Beverly Hills Cop
Eddie Murphy entered SNL as an unknown and left the cast as one of the world's biggest movie stars. He's never been better than he was in 1984 as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. In an era were all cop movies seemed to be buddy cop movies Eddie stepped up and carried his own film as a fish out of water Detroit detective stuck dealing with the Beverly Hills police department. Eddie Murphy's so good here he makes Judge Reinhold seem talented, proof that Beverly Hills Cop must be something truly special. Axel Foley's laugh alone is iconic to say nothing of the character, whom audiences loved so much they paid to watch him in two more films, even though neither of them was ever as good.
This is Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap features four former or soon-to-be Saturday Night Live cast members, five if you're counting band leader Paul Shaffer, twelve if you get bored and start counting deceased drummers instead. It would probably make more sense if, like their amps, they'd given up at eleven, but apparently, people are less concerned with common sense and rationality on the sex farm. Who knew? Probably anyone who bothered smelling the glove. Lead singer David St. Hubbins and lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel certainly aren't self-aware enough to understand these implications, which is maybe why they have more brilliant and documented quotes than anyone since Oscar Wilde. It's such a fine line between stupid and clever. This Is Spinal Tap never even brushes against the median.
Perhaps the only major comedy to ever truly feature four evenly-billed leads, Caddyshack is a clusterfuck of altering comedic styles. Like an episode of 30 Rock, it traipses from Rodney Dangerfield's motor mouth schtick to Bill Murray's insane irreverence to Chevy Chase's brash aloofness to Ted Knight's white collar elitism. Yeah, it occasionally falls apart when it stops to develop the plot, but unrestrained mayhem is no good. You need a few short breaths on occasion before you plunge back into gopher-killing, grass-smoking, candy bar-crunching, pregnancy-scaring chaos. Regardless, the true test of a film like Caddyshack isn't how well its plot holds up; it's how many scenes you remember with near absolute clarity thirty years later. I count at least 5 I always laugh about in retrospect. Bill Murray caddying for the Llama. Chevy Chase ad-libbing dirty songs about women being born to rub him first. Ted Knight explaining he sentenced teenagers to the gas chamber because he felt he owed it to 'em. Rodney Dangerfield barreling through an entire dinner service with rapid fire insults. And of course, the candy bar with the Jaws score. 4 brilliant dissenting comedians on top form and one shit-joke sight gag. Like I said, clusterfuck.
When Tina Fey decided to adapt the nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes into a movie, it would have puzzled everyone if anyone cared at the time about the bespectacled SNL head writer. But not only did her movie help launch what could now fairly be described as the Cult of Tina, it also became one of the sharpest, most hilarious and honest high school comedies we've ever seen. You can watch it for the one-liners-- "I will keep you here until four!" "I want my pink shirt back!" "You go Glenn Coco!"--you can watch it for the weirdo characters-- Tim Meadows' downtrodden principal, the "I just have a lot of feelings girl," Fey's math teacher who moonlights at the cosmetics store-- or you can watch it for the painfully true insights it has about how awful we can be to each other, whether we're high school girls or not. It's got Lindsay Lohan's last great performance, and Amanda Seyfried's first great one. It gets funnier every time you watch it. No offense to 30 Rock or the Palin impression, but Mean Girls may be the best thing Tina Fey ever gave us.
The Wedding Singer
Some might argue Happy Gilmore is funnier or Spanglish is more charming, but for me, The Wedding Singer is the best example we have of Adam Sandler playing the immature, charming, loveable Adam Sandler character an entire generation learned to laugh with. Penned by SNL scribe Tim Herlihy and featuring Kevin Nealon and Jon Lovitz in brilliant supporting turns, the retro-80s comedy is formulaic, sure, but also crass and heartwarming with enough Puerto Rican prostitute jokes to satisfy the Billy Madison demographic and enough Buddy Hackett references to entertain ignorant forty-somethings who mistakenly thought this was a J-Lo movie. It's not. J-Lo movies don't have Billy Idol cameos, nor do they have jokes about nipple twisting or wannabe transsexuals who only know the words to one song. Those are lowbrow moments reserved for the likes of Adam Sandler and his buddies, and goddamnit if those of us without sticks up our asses don't love them for it.
Easily the most critically-despised film on this list, Dirty Work is shoddily-acted, hastily-put together and downright awful on every conceivable level, save one. It's really fucking funny. Like Norm MacDonald's tenure as Weekend Update host, Dirty Work is unpolished and arrogant, a cocky grin which evokes home movie more than motion picture. If Mike Myers' total commitment to Austin Powers and Dr. Evil is on one end of the spectrum, Dirty Work most assuredly bookends the other flank, an embankment of shit-eating grins and we're-too-good-for-this-shit shoulder shrugs. Take Chris Farley as a YMCA border whose nose was bitten off by a Vietnamese prostitute. Take Chevy Chase as a doctor with a gambling problem telling a patient's son he should bet everything on death. Take Don Rickles as a movie theater manager who tells employees to buy a horse and go live in the mountains by themselves. Take SNL writers Fred Wolf and Jim Downey as homeless guys, philosophical about losing the will to live. These are men who know they're funny, know they're in a B-movie, but perhaps seasoned comedians and writers with tongues in check in their cheeks are better than those with delusions of grandeur. Some people hate the cocksuckers who goof off and fly by the seat of their pants; I love them; especially when they're all mocking each other in the same film.
Iron Man would probably have been made with or without Robert Downey Jr., but it's hard to imagine anyone else getting the character of Tony Stark right. In a superhero movie world full of angsty brooding characters and whiny teenagers, Downey's hard-drinking, hard-living, stripper-banging superhero is a breath of fresh air. He's a man's man, mustache, flaws, foibles and all. Even in Stark's most excess driven moments there's a layer of brilliance and complexity to him that another actor might not have captured. In some ways Robert Downey is Stark, right down to his own battles with excess and addiction. It's been the comeback role of a lifetime for an actor who rose to greatness after a soon forgotten stint on SNL, only to plummet into the darkest depths of addiction. But most of all, thanks to Downey, Iron Man is a lot of fun.
Happy Gilmore is Adam Sandler at the height of his comedic powers, which he uses to air hump a creative assortment of objects and yell at uncooperative golf balls. Any movie can take the most boring sport in the world and turn it into classic, almost violent comedy is worth of praise and that's exactly what happens in Happy Gilmore. We all know Sandler's great as the outburst prone Gilmore but he's not the only SNL alum on the putting green stealing scenes. Kevin Nealon delivers one of the greatest lines of the film as a random spectator (Doin' the Bull Dance. Feelin' the flow. Workin' it. Workin' it.) and Saturday TV Funhouse fixture Robert Smigel cameos. It's a comedy so packed with memorable quotes they're almost cliché. Mention Bob Barker to anyone and the first words out of their mouth are almost certain to be, “The price is wrong bitch,” and I'm sure at some point every golf course on the planet has had to deal with a mildly inebriated club member showing up on the course with a hockey stick. I've played putt putt just so I can stand next to the windmill and scream, “Why you don't you just go HOME? That's your HOME! Are you too good for your HOME?” People stopped laughing some time around 2003, but I keep right on yelling.
You know that moment when you realize your parents aren't really grown-ups? For some, it's patently obvious from the beginning, but for most, it's a slow realization that crescendos in watching your hopelessly inept father fail at a basic task. For me, it was seeing my dad, enraged at not being able to assemble Ikea cabinets, grunt, shake his head, and flick off my mother who was nagging from the couch. It was a moment both hilarious and sad, a defensive act from a bewildered man infuriated by his own incompetence. National Lampoon's Vacation is that moment, slowly played out over an hour and a half car ride to Wally World. Dead aunts, seductive fellow travelers, skinny dipping in ice cold water, the last cries of a desperate man zealously trying to maintain control over a family who no longer sees him as a superhero. All he wanted was one more family moment, a vacation to prove he could still make his children smile. It's a miracle they didn't end up in jail. Chevy Chase became famous playing smug and arrogant; here, he peaked playing out-of-touch and perpetually confused. Don't believe me? I'd like to see Dane Cook get laughs out of dragging a dog to death.
The only film on this list not featuring one of SNL's alums in a starring role, Grandma's Boy is here because its sole reason for existing is the mega-fame of its producer Adam Sandler. Long featured in memorable supporting turns in his best friend's movies, Allen Covert is the best and most reliable player in the Adam Sandler world, and after co-writing the script and enlisting the help of other Sandlerites, his buddy gave him a few million dollars to finish the project. The result may have been a commercial failure, but its willingness to let characters cum on people's moms, jerk off Abbott and Costello, behave like jealous robots and drunkenly lick their own boobs to Salt N Peppa guarantees its place in the sick, disgusting hearts of perverted cocksuckers like myself. High score? What's that mean? It means the witch doctor just farted, Jonah Hill just sucked on his first boob for 8 hours and Ray Barrone's mother just made ice cream sandwiches on whole wheat with lettuce. Tease David Spade's vegan waiter if you want, roll your eyes at Rob Schneider's bong-destroying landlord if you must, but do not, under any circumstances turn Grandma's Boy off at three A.M. when there's an hour and a half of fresh weed in the bowl.
Lost in Translation
I want to hate Lost In Translation. I want to hate its pretentiousness, its lack of plot, the aura of sadness which malaises over the entire thing. I get it. Lots of people can't connect with their spouses. It's sometimes easier to have fun with someone random than your significant other. It's about isolation, magnified by a language barrier, by age, by a lack of effort. These are the reasons I want to hate Lost In Translation; unfortunately, I'm writing about it on a best of list because it's somehow really good. I know. God, I want to hate it so badly. It's like going to some bullshit, trendy Vegan restaurant with new wave art on the walls, only to find out the soy pretzel you begrudgingly ordered is really good. Lost In Translation is a soy pretzel, its mere edible-ness an affront to common sense. Maybe it's Bill Murray. Maybe it's Scar-Jo. It's definitely not Anna Farris. Whatever the reason, Lost In Translation just works. Its creepy sadness is kind of endearing. Its muffled whisper ending is kind or romantic. I own Lost In Translation. I bought it almost seven years ago. I've watched it twice. Someday, I may even watch it again.
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