Monday, October 3rd, 2011

SNL Recap: Melissa McCarthy Enters

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.

What hit:

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.

What missed:

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.

Sponsored Content
  • iamjustryingtolive

    The Hidden Valley Ranch sketch was one of the best in recent memory. That character was so bizarre and easily couldn't have "hit." But McCarthy has that essential spark that makes all her characters likeable. Great ep!

  • Niall Robb@facebook

    I think you found a lot more 'hit' than I did. Weekend Update was poor again this week and all-in-all I disliked the show. Too much physical humour from a guest host kept the show average and watch-able but I still feel this is a really weak cast who will have to do more to impress me.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Niall Robb@facebook I admit I'm very forgiving to the show and tend to grade it on a curve. A live sketch show with a new host each week that's created in such a short amount of time deserves a more patient critic, in my opinion. For a sketch to "hit" it doesn't have to be the most hilarious, original piece I've seen in a while; for me it simply has to be a clear, interesting premise that's executed well. If that makes me more cheerleader than reviewer, I don't mind.

      If you think this cast is really weak, I'm curious to know if you've ever enjoyed the show, and what cast in recent memory you think is so much stronger?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

    Taran Killam can do no wrong.

  • http://www.shawncomedy.com Shawn Miller

    Melissa McCarthy did a fantastic job. This is what SNL should continue to do with its guests – identify their strengths and build the show from there. Too often you see the guest uncomfortably jammed into a sketch and it hurts the overall product. Usually it takes them 2 or 3 times to get a feel for the host; I'm glad they were able to do it so quickly and aptly with McCarthy.

    Melissa's performance was a big reminder that there aren't many physical performers in this current cast though – which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it makes McCarthy's episode stand out that much more – but it is something that could be addressed.

    Taran is amazing and possibly the answer to that physicality issue in the cast. I can't wait to see the kind of cast member he grows into – he reminds of the best parts of Hader and Ferrell rolled into one.

    Pharoah should just be glad that he survived his season one stint. His impressions are phenomenal, but his timing needs a ton of work. I hope he's worked on this and has improved for the sake of the show, but it's hard to tell in those prerecorded sketches.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Shawn Miller Agreed. Hopefully they'll bring McCarthy back for future episodes.

      Taran has so much hustle as a performer, and that's what I remember from Will Ferrell when he was still a featured performer on the show. He didn't get a lot of memorable characters on the air but he was just all over the place, capable of playing multiple roles. None of Taran's characters particularly "stood out" this week, but none of the regulars did with such a powerhouse host. He just appears in a lot of sketches, and has yet to make a mistake. That's promising.

  • Justin Gentile@facebook

    How does Taran Killam remind you of anyone? He is totally unremarkable and I can't think of him standing out in a single sketch in recent memory.

  • fnumbers

    I agree with this assessment, except I would switch the monologue to "Hit", and the Lulu Diamonds sketch to "Miss". I'm liking Taran Killam, he's a funny dude, and his dancing in the monologue was cracking me up.

  • Robert Strawsburg@twitter

    Yeah I don't get everyone's love of Taran Killam. He plays a solid straight man but he has yet to stand out in anything. The one time I remember him being really funny was the weird love ride sketch with JT last season, did a very good robot.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Robert Strawsburg@twitter Give him time. He comes from the same Groundlings track as Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, and Melissa McCarthy. Right now he's paying his dues, but sooner or later they'll let him do some bigger characters.

  • thejasten

    Taran Killam? Really? No. He reminds me of the early years of Seth Meyers where they would shove Seth down our throats in hopes he would become a breakout star. They both have "the look" but neither are stand-out talented. Like Seth, Taran at this point is "serviceable" but I agree he adds little or nothing to the insane number of sketches he's in. Eventually Seth found his footing, but it's as far away from sketches as possible. Every member of the current cast adds a certain spark to each performance and to me, Killam is so dull, or trying way too hard in comparison. Luckily for him, all the big guns are probably near the end of their tenures…
    Seriously, look at Killam next to Paul Britain? Or Venessa Bayer? C'mon theres no comparison. Taran's better than Jay Pharaoh, but that's not saying much.

  • http://www.shutupshelley.net/ Shelley

    Great article, Erik!

    I didn't agree with all your hits and misses this time, but your recaps are always great reads. I love that you love the show and that it always comes out in these things.

    On a general note, I love Vanessa Bayer. She's always great! She's definitely my favorite of the newer cast members. I haven't heard anyone say anything bad about her, but I look forward to seeing her get the overwhelming praise I think she deserves.

  • Haisam


    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Haisam It's the size. Of the boobs.