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Melissa McCarthy steals the show on her 5th ‘SNL’ hosting gig

HOST and MUSICAL GUEST Bumper PhotosMelissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).

As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.

McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).

The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.

McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.

But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.

Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.

The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.

Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.

The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.

Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.

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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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