‘SNL’ Review: Melissa McCarthy and a Farewell to Seth Meyers

Some episodes of SNL are bigger than the host. For example, this season’s premiere spotlighted the show’s record six new cast members, while host Tina Fey shone in serviceable roles, like her pep talk to Cecily Strong in the latter’s first time co-hosting Weekend Update. Similarly, last season’s finale focused less on Ben Affleck’s career comeback than it did on saying goodbye to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (and Jason Sudeikis, though his departure hadn’t been officially announced at that point). It’s an awkward position for the host to find him or herself in, because not only do they feel the pressure to satisfy viewers tuning in to watch them deliver the goods, they also have to dance around some other elephant in the room: favorites leaving, unknowns arriving, diversity controversies, national tragedies, etc.

Melissa McCarthy is an interesting choice to host Seth Meyers’ final episode. No host has been as formidable a presence on the SNL stage in the past few years than McCarthy – the actress has been the most electric performer the show has seen since Chris Farley. She doesn’t need her hand held… she just walks into a sketch and blows it up. However, on a night when many viewers’ minds are wrapped up in Seth Meyers’ run on the show coming to a end, it’s a little difficult to get on board with a Melissa McCarthy Variety Hour, as hilarious as it may be.

It’s not as though McCarthy’s performance was any less explosive than usual. She worked her ass off – flipping around on high wires, crashing through windows, smearing her face with barbecue sauce, even letting out SNL’s first expletive since the Jenny Slate F-bomb in 2009. However, the Groundlings alum is at her core a live performer who feeds off the energy from the studio audience, and from those of watching at home, the crowd seemed a little lukewarm. Of course, you should never blame the house (unless it’s filled with 14-year-old girls who scream at everything Justin Bieber says, in which case, yes, you should), but it’s fair to question the selection of a host known for being the most memorable thing about an episode on a night we want to remember for something else. If recent Golden Globe winners Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg are available for a cameo, it begs to reason that the show could have celebrated Seth Meyers’ swan song by booking an alum he has more of a history with, and saved ace-in-the-hole Melissa McCarthy for a week when Meyers is gone, when SNL will need her the most.

But it’s not fair to nitpick with hypothetical alternatives, especially when the show hasn’t even booked a host for its next episode on March 1. At the end of the day, this was another delightful, well-written episode, with a nearly flawless first half, a few nice pieces to close things out, some unforgettable moments from a golden Melissa McCarthy, and a fitting farewell for Seth Meyers.

Super Bowl Halftime Cold Open. The show followed up last week’s clever cold open with an impressive ensemble piece of Broadway performers doing the Super Bowl halftime show. The bit easily could have come across as one-note, but the cast – led by Taran Killam as a singer playing Peyton Manning – totally committed to the silly concept with performances that both satisfied the musical theater spectacle aspect and demonstrated how little about football these musical theater actors knew. While the cast provided the magic, it’s also worth mentioning the catchy lyrics, especially in the showstopping finale: “We’re all just strangers on the grass!”

Monologue. Melissa McCarthy has never been one to disappoint with the monologue segment – her past appearances have given us a cool silhouette dance routine with Kristen Wiig and a fun bit with McCarthy wearing ridiculously high heels. She brought the heat once again in a high-flying aerial battle with Bobby Moynihan, who was out for revenge for McCarthy dissing him during her last visit. The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon homage set the table for what was to be another full-contact episode from an actress known for her physical comedy.

CVS Commercial. Not since last fall has SNL given us a new fake commercial, and this Valentine’s Day ad telling men to get their women “some dumb little thing from CVS” was an amusing idea that seems so simple and relevant that I’m surprised we haven’t seen it before. Though if a woman doesn’t melt at a balloon that plays “Mambo Number Five” if you touch it (and if you don’t), she’s probably not the one anyway.

Sheila Kelly II. Melissa McCarthy’s Sheila Kelly, who we last saw as an abusive women’s college basketball coach, was one of my favorite sketches from last season, so I was stoked to see her now as a violent congresswoman in this take on New York Rep. Michael Grimm’s threatening a reporter. This is the kind of recurring sketch that I love – a standalone sketch that works on its own and unleashes the character in a new context, rather than just rehashing the same beats and jokes from before. I also appreciated the structure here, with Kelly attacking each of the different witnesses recording her latest tantrum – though I was surprised she didn’t show up in the TV studio at the end.

Women’s Group. There were several things I loved about this sketch about a women’s group setting modest personal goals for the new year, starting with Melissa McCarthy’s perfect timing on the twist reveal: “This year, I want to avenge the death of my father.” While McCarthy could have afforded to go a little darker with her delivery, the gory details were horrifying enough to women who aim to take more photographs and set up their Kindles: “I consider my body a tool, not unlike a Swiss Army Knife… that’s a nice sweater, by the way.” The sketch was also a nice ensemble piece for the women in the cast, and although it didn’t technically pass the Bechdel Test, at least the men in the conversation weren’t romantic partners. Best of the Night.

Guess That Phrase. The first of Melissa McCarthy’s big characters of the night was Kathleen, an eager contestant on a Wheel of Fortune-like game show who prematurely guessed answers that aren’t common phrases – “Pass the mash!” or “Give the golden goose a gander!” The strict game show structure was an awkward fit for McCarthy’s wild character-work, which is better paired in loose contexts like taste-testing ranch dressing or applying for a loan. Still, McCarthy was often very enjoyable, especially through the lens of Beck Bennett’s straight-man host: “And… Kathleen is reaching up for balloons that aren’t falling.”

28 Reasons. With this being the only SNL episode in the month of February, it seems appropriate to address black history. This music video began as an innocent grade school students’ rap about the 28 reasons black history is important, with reasons 2-28 being… SLAVERY. The sudden pangs of guilt were hilarious, and the video could have used even more of them. Bobby Moynihan’s sad attempt to respond was a nice touch.

Weekend Update. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night was Seth Meyers’ final time hosting Weekend Update. After going through the regular headlines and an amusing cameo by Taran Killam as a Southern-gentlemanly Atlanta driver, Meyers was visited by Bill Hader (as Stefon, his “husband“), Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, and, briefly, Fred Armisen, who all came to wish the guy farewell. I enjoyed hearing Hader and Poehler describe what it’s like on “the other side” – especially when that other side sounds a lot like one of Stefon’s clubs, complete with human DVRs (“that thing where a midget sits on your DVR and tells you what happened on Scandal“). Seth Meyers’ teary eyed remarks at the end of the segment gave the night a nice moment of sincerity.

There has been a lot written about Seth Meyers leaving the show. By all accounts, the guy was responsible for bringing a warmness and civility to the SNL writers room, which has been such a big part of the sketches we’ve seen in the past decade. Hopefully that sense of support will be something Colin Jost and Rob Klein will carry on as they assume his responsibilities over the coming month. When it comes to what viewers have seen on screen, Meyers oversaw arguably the most creatively exciting era for the show since the 70s, building on the snark popularized by Tina Fey in the early 2000s while connecting with casts in ways Fey seemed to fall somewhat short, and helping usher the show (finally) into the digital age. Meyers has been less a reformer than a faithful servant – a leader with a fresh outlook, helping SNL stay true to itself while slowly adapting to a changing world – and that’s just what the show needed.

Art Exhibit. The weakest sketch of the night cast Melissa McCarthy as an IT employee trying to run an ethernet cable through a “living pictures” exhibit in a museum. Audio issues at the top crippled the energy of McCarthy’s schtick – obnoxious character who repeats nonsense, in this case, her boss’s name, Danny Tranz – which wasn’t helped any by the completely static image of the frozen actors. I did enjoy McCarthy’s argument with Nasim Pedrad’s character over whether or not her cousin worked on Avatar, and whether there was an Avatar named Rufus… but the studio audience wasn’t really with me on that one.

Girlfriends Talk Show V. In the fifth instance we’ve seen this sketch (the third this season alone), Melissa McCarthy played Donna, the divorced woman Morgan (Aidy Bryant) talks about all the time, joining the girls on the show and, surprise, hitting it off with Cecily Strong’s Kyra. As much as I enjoy a recurring sketch expanding its inner universe, this sketch did everything that Sheila Kelly avoided – namely, drag us through the exact same structure while tweaking the jokes just enough to feel new. It also feels like a bit of a crime to force McCarthy’s characters – which have such an improvisational feel to them – into the tight structure of a recurring talk show sketch. That said, McCarthy made the most of it, describing her sexual exploits with her Hawaiian boyfriend, Pua: “He’s given me five O’s so far.”

Summer of Diane. While this late-in-the-night sketch was light on hard laughs, I nonetheless appreciated the different format, with Bobby Moynihan’s wistful voiceover narrating an encounter with a crass woman in a park. The image of Melissa McCarthy smearing barbecue ribs all over her face was less comedic gold than, say, a blast of ranch dressing, but Moynihan’s clash-of-context descriptions of McCarthy swatting at nothing (“Oh, she could dance!”) and choking (“I almost lost her”) were enjoyable. This sketch also gets points for earning SNL its first bleep in years, with McCarthy saying, “Watch my shit, I gotta pee.”

Kyle in Times Square. While the image of Kyle Mooney’s confused, nervous interactions with people on the street is nothing new to anyone familiar with his work, his gibberish interviews with football fans in Times Square gave Mooney his first resounding success on SNL. I mentioned last week that the Good Neighbor videos on the show have been enjoyable, but they have yet to cross over with some big, broad laughs. But Mooney scored them here, and it’s nice to hear the crowd finally give him the recognition he deserves. With any luck, SNL will start unleashing other characters out on the street, away from the protective cage of a studio in 30 Rock.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The New York Times ran an article last weekend that profiled SNL’s exclusive and legendary after-parties. It’s worth a read, if for no other reason than it gives Splitsider a shout-out and implies that my “dogged reviewing” of episodes and “data-crunching of airtime for cast members” is somehow responsible for the after-parties becoming tamer over the years. I’m glad to know that we here at Splitsider are doing God’s work ruining the SNL after-parties, and that my pie charts are the one thing keeping Kenan Thompson away from the blow. Stay safe, kids.
  • Speaking of data-crunching, Taran Killam topped the screen time leader board this week, which seems to happen when his Groundlings chum Melissa McCarthy hosts the show. Meanwhile, Brooks Wheelan came in at the bottom, with two silent appearances in “Sheila Kelly” and “Art Exhibit.”
  • Best - “Women’s Group.” Worst - “Art Exhibit.” You’ll See It On Facebook - “28 Reasons,” “Weekend Update.” Worth It For The Jokes - “Guess That Phrase.”
  • Vanessa Bayer had some fun moments in supporting roles throughout the night, first as a “Guess That Phrase” contestant who teaches dogs how to dance – “They hate it!” – also as one of the horrified women in “Women’s Group”: “How do you feel about gunfire in your home?” “Well, I asked you to take off your shoes, so…”
  • I have really enjoyed the running gag of the Update characters having a cold apprehension toward Cecily Strong, shown before in Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy’s suspicious glares, and tonight in Stefon’s furious response to Strong complimenting Seth Meyers: “YOU BARELY KNOW HIM!”
  • Despite the problems I had with “Girlfriends Talk Show,” I’ll admit that the lines written for Aidy Bryant are enough to keep this sketch in the “worth it” column for me. Specifically, Aidy’s Morgan asking Donna what happened to her “beautiful, thick gray braid,” and her perfectly pathetic delivery of: “I’m dating the woman I’m becoming and I’m loving every moment with her!”
  • Melissa McCarthy is the only SNL host I’ve had the chance to review three times. It’s a testament to her genius as a performer that I still have new things to say about her.
  • I’ll see you March 1, when the show returns after NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

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

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