In Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history of SNL, Live From New York, former staff writer Tim Herlihy had this to say about writing for Chris Farley:
Chris was such a great weapon in the writers’ arsenal. If you were like writing a sketch and you got to page six and nothing was happening, you would just say, okay, “Farley enters.” I did that so many times in so many sketches. It was a trick that always worked and never failed, especially in read-through.
Rarely has SNL been equipped with a performer who is such a physical powerhouse that his or her mere presence on stage can carry a scene. (And considering SNL's best years have been ones driven by strong ensembles, it’s probably better that way.) Melissa McCarthy’s performance reminded me greatly of Chris Farley’s contribution to the show: Both were performers willing to put themselves in physical danger for a gag — giving those of us at home a little excitement over watching a live broadcast — and both played characters who exhibit a great deal of vulnerability and who, at their core, are desperate to be loved.
McCarthy’s Groundlings-honed character work (a familiar west coast flavor to a show currently featuring Groundlings alums Kristen Wiig and Taran Killam), was a nice break from the premise heavy material we’ve come to expect from studio 8H, as well as a nice break for the writing staff, who allowed McCarthy a surprising amount of central roles for a guest host.
“Go to bed now,” McCarthy warned her children during the monologue, “Because mama’s about to get pretty inappropriate.” And then Melissa McCarthy entered.
Lil’ Poundcake.SNL answered the HPV-vaccines-for-girls debate with this hilarious commercial for a doll that ejects syringes out of its hands and vaccinates little girls. In true SNL style, the commercial neither condoned nor condemned the practice — instead the writers found a non-partisan, yet even more objectionable, angle on the issue.
Arlene. McCarthy played an office worker with the hots for her boss (Jason Sudeikis), rubbing up against him, dancing erotically, and doing a number of inappropriate things with a horse balloon. At first McCarthy’s “woman in heat” character (similar to her Megan in Bridesmaids) seemed a little out of pace with the standard hit-the-mark, read-the-card timing of the SNL format, but her raw, almost improvisational performance completely won me over, especially upon hearing her comment on Sudeikis’ Ukrainian and Polish ancestry.
Stomp Digital Short. The first digital short of the season featured Andy Samberg and Bill Hader as cops who transform routine office noises into a full-blown musical sequence straight out of Stomp. The shoot-out with the Blue Man Group was exactly the absurd, Lonely Island twist I’ve been missing all summer.
Internet Comments Talk Show. Jason Sudeikis played the host of a talk show featuring the freaks who write ridiculous comments on articles and videos online: the sarcastic xxxDeathByFartsxxx (Bobby Moynihan), the horny dork UltimateStud (Killam), and the political scattershot DaTruf (McCarthy), who once called Garfield the N-word. I applaud SNL for finding new, hilarious targets, but I wonder if there are sketch formats other than “talk show” to do it in.
Chris Rock on Broadway. Jay Pharoah is alive after all, and capable of doing more than delivering balloons. Here he played a convincing Chris Rock, who, after the success of Motherf**ker with the Hat, has moved on to other famous Broadway roles, just to simply pull out a microphone (which might be my new favorite physical gesture in sketches) and fall into his old stand-up routine. It was nice to see Pharoah in a sketch that relies on a solid premise other than the quality of his impersonation.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers’ jokes carried the Update segment this week. While Vanessa Bayer and Fred Armisen’s return as “Gaddafi’s Two Best Friends Growing Up” was a substantial improvement from their appearance last season, Kenan Thompson’s cameo as a smug Tyler Perry felt like a series of stale digs at the Perry’s uncanny popularity.
Taste Test. McCarthy again showed off her character skills with Linda, an enthusiastic salad dressing taste tester at a focus group. McCarthy’s Linda was a wonderful reflection of the proud, but fragile, lower class women of this country — the kind of gals who take their leadership cues from Survivor and for whom $50 can get them out of “a couple of jams.” Seriously, have you ever seen a person completely lose their shit over $50 like that? And kudos to the writers for the unique setting, never mind the product placement blood money they’re getting from Hidden Valley.
Lulu Diamonds. In a Turner Classic Movies segment, McCarthy gave us Lulu Diamonds, a Mae West-inspired sexy starlet of old Hollywood, with zingy quips and a seductive, if not slightly redundant catchphrase, “Why don’t you come upstairs and see me up there sometime?” What began as a lame gag of a heavy person falling down a flight of stairs transformed into an actual concept: Lulu Diamonds just doesn’t “get” stairs. And that’s hilarious.
Lawrence Welk Cold Open. By now we’ve seen the Lawrence Welk piece enough times to know that Wiig’s Dooneese, with her enormous forehead and creepy baby hands, will appear and freak everyone out. Without that element of surprise, this piece no longer has the shock value it needs to be effective. While McCarthy’s character, with biceps big enough to crush a pumpkin, was a perfect alternative, the decision to also include Wiig’s Dooneese was distracting and muddled the sketch with two competing sources of absurdity.
Monologue. We’re so accustomed to seeing guest hosts surprise us with actual dance skills (Christopher Walken and Catherine Zeta Jones come to mind), so it was a nice change of pace to see McCarthy intentionally not do so. But other than the silhouette gag, the stalling never felt very inventive, and Wiig’s appearance was unnecessary for the premise.
Complaints. McCarthy ended the night in a straight role to Samberg’s lothario who, it turns out, isn’t very good in bed. Once again, this week’s 10-to-one sketch followed a basic heightening pattern, but this time the details weren’t particularly funny.
And although it didn’t make it past dress rehearsal to the live show, NBC posted this sketch parodying the message from the CEOs of Netflix and Qwikster. It summed up everyone’s thoughts pretty nicely, I think.
While I’m normally a proponent of having the guest host act as more guest than host, while letting the regular writers and actors do their jobs, it was a wise decision by the SNL staff to let Melissa McCarthy play a more central role this episode. With a background in character-driven sketch comedy, McCarthy could have very easily been a cast member on the show herself, and fans would have cried foul if she had been forced to the sidelines as Bryan Cranston was in the second week of last season. The result was a delightful episode, both a joy for us watching and for McCarthy, who has earned every bit of praise she’s getting in her career right now.
What did you think? Did you find Melissa McCarthy’s unhinged energy and improvisational timing to be a little discomforting in the strictly rehearsed environment of SNL, or did it introduce the dash of danger that we need more of in live television? Are you as excited as I am that featured player Taran Killam appeared in more sketches than any other cast member this week? Did you feel as bad as I did for Jay Pharoah when, after getting that lone “woo!” from the studio audience when he walked on as the balloon deliveryman in the Arlene sketch, had to watch the horse balloon he delivered get more action than he has all season?
I’ll see you next week, when Ben Stiller will host with musical guest Foster The People.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.
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