Melissa McCarthy should just go ahead and join the cast of ‘SNL’

After watching last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live, viewers got to see Melissa McCarthy pull a Steve Martin on her third go as a host. What’s does it mean to pull a Steve Martin? Well, Steve Martin was such an incredibly successful host of Saturday Night Live and his “King Tut” song is so integral to the history and lore of the program, that many casual viewers get confused and assume that he was once a cast member. John Goodman also shares a similar distinction, blending seamlessly into the cast whenever he hosts (or just pops by, usually in drag). Alec Baldwin and Christopher Walken also approach this sort of achievement – they are the kind of host that really “gets” SNL and its brand of humor. Justin Timberlake has also charmed audiences and has become a key figure in the 2010s with his exemplary work. But very few women has achieved the kind of success hosting like the guys – both Drew Barrymore and Candice Bergen are members of the Five-Timers Club, but Barrymore’s appearances have been too spotty (some great highs, but some awful lows) to make much of an impact, and Bergen hosted when she was primarily known as a glamorous model, so her latent comedic talents weren’t really put to good use.

But Melissa McCarthy can change all that if she keeps up the level of skill and commitment that she’s shown in her three appearances. Last week’s episode didn’t disappoint. It’s no surprise when assessing her performance on SNL that McCarthy is an alumna of the Groundlings, and has done improvisation, sketch comedy, and standup. She seems like a natural for the format, which explains why she dominated all of the sketches and did so without a hiccup.

The cold open was interesting because it wasn’t a political sketch. Instead the show goosed the Super Bowl by having a showboaty Broadway-style half-time show that featured McCarthy. It wasn’t laugh out loud funny, but it was amusing especially since the writers and cast “got” how ridiculous Broadway performing can be – Taran Killam, especially gets into the spirit of things as the fey, Robert Goulet-styled Payton Manning, performing with just a soupcon of effeminacy; McCarthy appears as the Ethel Merman-like Mama Pass and does well too. Again, the skit isn’t great but the actors really sell it – especially Ben Vareen as Richard Sherman (a pretty obscure Broadway geek reference). And I love the reimaginging of a football game as a Rent-style musical – complete with a showstopping ballad at the end.

Because her first two monologues were so great, McCarthy had a lot to prove with her third – and she doesn’t disappoint. I love the idea of the sunny, smiley McCarthy being a temperamental diva (as sunny as she is, she’s great when she’s playing pissed off – and the flashback of her barging out of the studio with an attitude, before stalking off with a llama). Bobby Moynihan and McCarthy then engage in some Matrix-style fighting (with suspension cables  and a somersaulting McCarthy delighting the audience). It’s all stylized like a martial arts movie, but then collapses when McCarthy attacks Moynihan with a bat and wins the battle.

This week’s episode fake ad is brilliant – “Some Dumb Little Thing from CVS” – a hilarious joke on dummy guys who get their girls the sorry, ditzy little Valentine’s Day gifts one can find in the aisles of CVS.

McCarthy brings back her abusive Sheila Kelly, now a congresswoman in a spoof of Congressman Grimm’s violent outburst on camera. McCarthy seems to revel in playing outlandish over-the-top characters, but is strangely appealing in her appalling behavior. The skit goes on a bit too long (I think it should’ve ended at her chasing down a passerby who filmed her on a cell phone – but we still have to watch her running amok in a parking garage, shooting out security cameras and beating up a couple of cops before stealing their squad car). Despite its length, it’s a high point for the show’s writers.

Another great skit has McCarthy play PJ, a mordant member of an inspirational women’s group. Among the giggly Suburban housewives who tack things like pictures of angels and dream kitchens on their inspiration boards, McCarthy’s PJ is a misfit whose goal is to avenge the murder of her father. Now normally a skit could collapse on itself because of the sheer absurdity of the premise, but McCarthy sells it because she wisely chooses a subtle approach to her acting – what also works as a counterpoint are the other comediennes’ right on performances, as well – the lunacy of PJ’s goals counteract sharply with some of the other women’s goals (“Take more pictures!”) And McCarthy, a master at physical comedy, gets a boffo pratfall at the end when she crashes through a window to avoid getting shot. The costumes and wigs are brilliant in this piece – though McCarthy’s outfit is funny – a nondescript gray blazer with her greasy hair slicked back, but the middle-of-the-road outfits of Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer are especially wonderful – the clothing ages these young ladies and flattens them into inoffensive yawns. (and I hate that  Under the Tuscan Sun is a punchline for a self-indulgent and silly woman because I loved that movie).

The next McCarthy starrer is “Guess That Phrase” – a fake game show in the style of Wheel of Fortune, with McCartney playing the sexually-frustrated sadsack, Kathleen. In “Guess That Phrase” the contestants are supposed to guess popular phrases, with Kathleen shouting out inane phrase (“Pass the Mash!” “Give the goose a gander!”). When Bayer’s Rebeccah wins a puzzle, Kathleen gloms onto her, hoping to gain some points through some coercion – this feels a bit like the legendary Hidden Valley Ranch lady McCarthy played in her first hosting gig – where McCarthy tried to convince Killam into sharing his prize money for coming up with the best slogan. Though a bit repetitive, it still worked because of McCarthy’s willingness to dive deep into this disturbed woman’s psyche.

The show’s musical skit had Jay Pharoah, Thompson and new SNL cast member Sasheer Zamata perform “28 Reasons to Hug a Black Guy Today” in honor of Black History Month. Starting off as a genial, educational rap, it becomes a darker, more  radical look at the history of race in the United States. The discomfort that comes from unbridled honesty is hilariously lampooned in this song – we love to honor the achievements of black heroes but we also like our history to be neat and tidy. It’s a brilliant piece that questions our belief that we’re somehow still “post-racial.”

Of course, the centerpiece of the show was the “Weekend Update” segment – Seth Meyers’ last. It was an emotional sketch – and while none of the jokes were especially all that funny, it was still lovely to see his co-anchor, Strong emotionally pay tribute to the guy. And for a great surprise, Stefan (Bill Hader) returns, along with a lovely Amy Poehler, who tell him what life is like outside of SNL. Andy Samburg pops up as well, and even Fred Armisten stumbled in as former New York Governor, David Patterson.

And very classy, guys for the tribute to Pete Seeger, very classy.

The only eh skit came after the “Weekend Update” with McCarthy, predictably stealing her scene as an irate IT worker at an art gallery. Nasim Pedrad plays a performance artist who is in a tableau vivant of a Frida Kahlo painting. The rhythm is a bit off and the jokes don’t always land, but McCarthy, as always, sells the hell out of this one-note skit (though both Pedrad and McCarthy have a great slap fight – though, I was always waiting for McCarthy to throw down and body slam Pedrad against a wall). Again, this shows McCarthy at her best because even with so-so material, she’s fantastic.

After that the show rebounded with an excellent “Girlfriends Talk Show.” This recurring sketch is polarizing – some love it, others find it grating and redundant – I think it’s hilarious and Aidy Bryant is really a revelation, with a multi-layered performance. Strong is also very good. Interestingly enough, McCarthy again walks away with the sketch, but she splays an adult. As Morgan’s (Bryant) adult friend who’s divorced, McCarthy is a wonder as Donna, a middle-aged woman who is finally exited from her mid-life crisis. There are some easy jokes, but the three actresses do very well, and this is probably the best-acted skit of the evening, even if it’s not the funniest or strongest.

Another strange skit followed with McCarthy playing Diane, the apple of Moynihan’s eye, who narrates a short nonromance of the two of them sharing a park bench, with Diane pounding ribs, oblivous to his stares.

Kyle Mooney gets a strange skit in which he awkwardly interviews folks in Times Square about the Super Bowl. Lots of viewers were unimpressed with this skit – I liked it. Mooney played the flustered, amateur interviewer very well, and I appreciated the low-fi production. It’s a weird skit, but a fascinating one.

All in all, another slam dunk for McCarthy. Now she needs to ditch the middling Mike & Molly and fully realize her potential as a major comedy star.

Some random/stray thoughts:

  • How nice would it have been to see Seth Myers in a skit or two on his last day?
  • For all the noise that Sasheer Zamata’s hire made, she’s given precious little to do.
  • Uh, somebody rescue Brooks Wheelan, because I feel really bad for the guy whenever he has to step on a set as an extra in a skit. Seriously, either do something with the guy or set him free – but making him into this season’s Janeane Garofalo is just mean…
  • Kenan Thompson, Taran Killian, and Kate McKinnon felt a bit underused this week.
  • Cecily Strong deserves some serious mad props for her solid work on “Weekend Update”
  • Seeing Amy Poehler made me a bit wistful and it was bittersweet – she’s tremendous on Parks and Recreation, and it’s obvious that she outgrew SNL – it felt a bit like the super-successful valedictorian returning to where she went to high school, only to see the current class as being slightly less awesome.
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