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‘SNL’ Review: Melissa McCarthy Breaks the Rules

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” – Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

When it comes to SNL, we rarely delve too deeply into a host’s delivery. There are so many moving parts to the production of an SNL episode — last-minute rewrites and prop construction and wardrobe quick changes — that a host has but a narrow range within which to succeed or fail. They either fit nicely into the machine, like Alec Baldwin or Justin Timberlake, or, like Justin Bieber or Jennifer Lawrence, they clatter around within it like a forgotten wrench under the hood.

Then someone like Melissa McCarthy comes along. At first it’s a mystery why the Groundling never worked on the show as a regular cast member, but upon second thought it becomes clear. She breaks the rules. Whenever McCarthy enters a scene, whatever governing premise from the moment before is now forced to merge with the catastrophically insecure human being who is making a mess all over the room. (I say human being, because to describe McCarthy’s fully realized and nuanced work as a character seems like an understatement.) Melissa McCarthy is the scene. Her sketches have structure, patterns, and jokes, but they are all rooted in the psyche of Sheila Kelly, Casey Battersix, Jean Corerra, Barb Kelner, Veronica Shanks, or Nanelle. Hell, McCarthy even subverted the monologue — usually the most composed segment of the night — milking it near the band for several minutes before eventually hitting her mark (somewhat wobbly) downstage.

A Melissa McCarthy episode doesn’t feel like SNL, which is why I love her so much as a host, if not a cast member. She’s a tornado. Fellow Groundling Kristen Wiig was occasionally (unfairly) accused of hijacking the show with her characters, and viewers even tired of Chris Farley’s overwhelming energy. The show needs a little danger every now and then, and that’s what McCarthy does best.

Even in high heels.

What Hit:

Kim Jong-Un Cold Open. Last week on Late Night, Melissa McCarthy recalled to Jimmy Fallon the harrowing quick change between the cold open and monologue the last time she hosted the show, so it made sense they would keep her out of the cold open this time around. Bobby Moynihan played the North Korean leader (with Nasim Pedrad as the voiceover translator) in an address about his support for same sex marriage, perfectly accurate NCAA basketball bracket, and superior sexual feats. Despite the low energy format of the press conference, the jokes were strong (I particularly liked that he executed his gay nephew anyway), and Bobby managed to score a few laughs just by speaking fake Korean… which is pretty impressive. I enjoyed the Dennis Rodman cameo at the end, but I could’ve done without him doing the “Live from New York…” line.

Monologue. McCarthy brought her unpredictability to the monologue, which she suffered through due to severely uncomfortable shoes with absurdly high heels. As McCarthy awkwardly limped past the band, we all shared in the discomfort — Something’s wrong! The monologue isn’t supposed to start until the host reaches the X and the crowd quiets down! — but as McCarthy proceeded to attempt jokes and a song-and-dance number in the heels, the bit took off. I was amazed at how much mileage she was able to get out of such a simple concept.

Outside the Lines: Sheila Kelly. This sketch was the funniest of a night full of strong pieces, even a front-runner for the best sketch of the season. In the wake of the Rutgers basketball abuse scandal, this episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines documented the rage-filled college women’s basketball coach Sheila Kelly, played brilliantly by McCarthy, who beat her players with bats, bricks and toasters. The direction and editing of the found footage of Kelly’s reign of terror was perfect, giving us several hilarious images, like McCarthy outside the window staring menacingly at her assistant coach to keep him quiet, or bulldozing her players with a golf cart. I had to pause my DVR recording when she aimed a t-shirt gun at her team — huddled in fear in the corner of the bleachers — and screamed: “You can’t fucking hide from me!”

The Voice. In this broad parody of the reality singing competition show, McCarthy played Casey, a U-Haul trailer hitch replacer and amateur singer who bizarrely captures the adoration of all four judges. Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Jay Pharoah, and Jason Sudeikis all scored big laughs as Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher, and Blake Shelton, respectively, but I was more curious watching McCarthy as Casey. One minute, she was clearly the sketch’s absurd character, singing “Don’t mess with my tutu!” and confessing that she lives in a “basement without a roof,” but she shifted to the straight point of view when she reacted to the judges’ praise. The fact that McCarthy pulls off both makes her sketches difficult to analyze… which is exactly why she’s such an exciting host to watch.

Ham Contest. Another unapologetic character vehicle for McCarthy was this sketch about a ham baking contest, where she played Jean, a fiercely competitive contestant who spices up the excitement for her ham with a pumping dance number. Taran and Bobby played numb background dancers in pig costumes. Overall the piece was more “fun” than “funny,” though I enjoyed McCarthy pulling a slab of ham out of Bobby’s chest and tying both their feet together. Watch the video here.

Bathroom Businessman. At first I was a little let down to see what seemed to be a poop-joke reliant commercial for a bathroom stall office, but the sketch took a delightful, cautionary-tale turn in the second half, with Kenan dragging a bulky suitcase and fumbling to set up shelf anchors and connect his phone line, just to find himself pinned and unable to reach the toilet at the worst possible moment.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers had some great jokes, particularly the line:  “If there’s one thing you don’t expect to happen when you’re in a Walmart, it’s for things to get worse.” Vanessa Bayer returned as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (II), whose corny kid jokes and awkward, stick-to-the-script interactions with Seth were a big improvement from the first appearance. Kenan’s appearance as Charles Barkley had a few good jokes but was overall pretty forgettable. Bobby Moynihan returned as the hilarious Drunk Uncle (VI), who saved the best lines for when he was joined by “Peter Drunklage,” who managed the bit nicely: “You know what’s in my Tumblr? Regret.”

Million Dollar Wheel. Melissa McCarthy returned after the episode’s host-less musical and Weekend Update segments as Nanelle, a ditzy replacement letter-turner for a Wheel of Fortune-type show. One of the many attributes to McCarthy’s character work is that she often plays very grounded, innocent, almost sweet people. Even though they make a mess, they’re still trying to make the best of the situation. Nanelle was such a character, who tried valiantly to remain composed while flipping over the wrong tiles, with the occasional hilarious outburst: “Why isn’t anyone talking to me?”

Pizza Business. This character sketch echoed the McCarthy vs. Sudeikis setup from the Arlene sketch two seasons ago. This time, McCarthy played Barb Kelner, a woman asking for a loan for a “business” wherein she eats people’s leftover pizza. While it was a bit of a slow burn at the top, the energy started to pick up as the actors doubled down in their characters, so that the callbacks of the slow motion run and the pen grab hit in a well executed frenzy, culminating in a (rare) great out. I also love the throwaway aside of Barb saying “Excuse me” to her chair.

Art of the Encounter. These poor-production-value-humor sketches seem to do well later in the night (Swarovski Crystals, Exercise Commercial), when Lorne assumes viewers who are less likely to respond to nuance have dozed off anyway. Although the studio audience was less explosive with its laughter for this 90s-era dating advice video, I enjoyed the stilted deliveries and glazed-over expressions, with lines like “Have you ever been at a party and dropped your steak because you were so nervous?” McCarthy delivered once again with some great physical work with her Groundlings buddy Taran Killam — the third time the two of them appeared side by side this episode.

With the exception of Kenan’s Charles Barkley appearance during an otherwise solid Weekend Update, this episode contained no true “misses.” Some sketches hit harder with the studio audience than others, but they were all hits nonetheless. It goes without saying that this was one of the best episodes this season, ranking up there with Seth MacFarlane’s season opener and Martin Short’s Christmas episode, as well as an improvement on McCarthy’s last appearance on the show. I imagine the writing staff was delighted to have a talent like Melissa McCarthy, who can execute more complicated scripts, spin gold out of even the smallest throwaway bits, and surprisingly make us actually care about her characters. I don’t talk too much about comedic delivery, because either a) most hosts don’t give me much to talk about or b) like several critics, I want to actually do this stuff, and I know dissection kills the frog. But there’s something magical about what Melissa McCarthy does, and while she builds her star power by taking on less inspired material like Identity Thief and Mike and Molly, it’s fun to see her goof around in a more comfortable setting. Even if the high heels aren’t.

What did you think? Am I suffering from the same syndrome of the judges from The Voice sketch, where my adoration for Melissa McCarthy is blinding me from accurate criticism? Do you think any of the sketches missed? Would you want to see McCarthy every week on the show, or is she better in more confined doses? Does this make you excited for a potential Kristen Wiig episode?

I’ll see you next week, when Vince Vaughn will host with musical guest Miguel.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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