Two minutes and 50 seconds: That’s how long Melissa McCarthy speaks, uninterrupted, at the start of her Sean Spicer sketch on this past week’s Saturday Night Live. Save an establishing shot at the onset, it’s just her in a medium shot. For comparison, here is Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton getting interrupted after 46 seconds, Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin having a walk-on at 70 seconds, and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump throwing to questions at 105 seconds. It’s not that Sean Spicer is such a captivating figure. Hardly. It’s that Melissa McCarthy is one of the most gifted physical comedians to ever live.
When most think of physical comedy, their minds go more Buster Keaton than Charlie Chaplin. Stunts and pratfalls are what most get associated with the form. McCarthy can do that stuff too, but what stunned me Saturday was the more minor, small-scale physical comedy that Chaplin pioneered. For the first three minutes, McCarthy just moved her arms and face and that was enough. She put on a master class by using the greatest tool a physical comedian can have: presence. Like the belief that a good actor can read a phone book and still captivate an audience, the truly great physical comedians can make an audience laugh without moving. After the sketch aired, Seth Meyers tweeted, “Melissa McCarthy has a 108 MPH comedy fastball.” To pull off those first three minutes, she had to throw that fastball, again and again, right down the middle. Will Ferrell in his prime was probably the last comedian who could do that at this level.
Of course, sketch comedy has changed a lot since the days when Ferrell could do a five-minute George W. Bush cold open by himself. After the sketch boom of the early teens, with shows like Portlandia, Key & Peele, Kroll Show, and Inside Amy Schumer, the aesthetic standards of sketch comedy increased exponentially. Now, a sketch is expected to move quickly and look like a movie. For the most part, SNL has adapted to the trend, pretaping more sketches than any other time in its four-decade run. That’s why the first three minutes of McCarthy’s performance were so staggering.
A comedian talking to camera in a wig and outfit is not supposed to work anymore, yet McCarthy held the attention of 10 million people with little else. (It’s worth noting the advantage of having non-cast do impressions: The likes of McCarthy and Baldwin can spend more time in hair and make-up because they don’t have to do nine other sketches.) The sketch escalated for five more minutes, in which McCarthy got to interact with the cast, use props, and move around. The fact that it lasted that long is a testament to just how much momentum McCarthy built with the first three minutes.
Much like the rest of SNL’s political coverage this season, the Spicer sketch was followed by a debate of whether it was effective satire, with some critics arguing that these types of sketches fail by being merely funny. Maybe SNL does spend more time making the Trump administration seem dumb instead of evil — I don’t know. What I do know is, with one performance, Sean Spicer no longer controls how people perceive him. The impersonation will likely supersede the real person, like Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush or Chevy Chase’s deeply inaccurate yet effective Gerald Ford. Every time Spicer flubs a word or shouts at the press, people will smile in acknowledgement of the impression. Melissa McCarthy owns him in a way that only the best impressions can.