Like her peer and de facto costar Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy presently occupies a very particular space within the Saturday Night Live universe: a star for the show who’s technically not on staff. McCarthy’s popularity at SNL — this weekend marked her fifth time hosting in six years — comes from her dependable skill as a slapstick, Groundlings-trained sketch performer. That dependability led to a second life as an SNL pinch hitter. Both McCarthy and Baldwin are no longer simply iconic players; each now has an irreplaceable character (Baldwin’s Trump, McCarthy’s Sean Spicer), a practice typically reserved for cast members who’ve had the time to cultivate them (Kristen Wiig’s Dooneese; Bill Hader’s Stefon). Viewers now anticipate McCarthy or Baldwin as much as, if not more than, a more permanent fixture like Vanessa Bayer or Kate McKinnon.
McCarthy’s hosting gig Saturday was a neat summary of the show’s 42nd season: an outing led by a star who occupies a uniquely contemporary spot in the SNL ecosystem. McCarthy’s episode wound up exemplifying a few season-long trends — McCarthy’s recurring presence chief among them.
SNL Is As Frustrated by Politics As You Are
SNL is at its best when it uses current events as a segue into comedy, rather than comedy as a means of commenting on current events. That speaks to a larger truth about Saturday Night Live: Often, the show appears to do political sketches more out of obligation than passion. SNL most reliably makes waves with its Trump-related work both in the press and in the ratings, which this season are the highest they’ve been since the 1993–94 season. But throughout the season, the true highlights (“Wells for Boys,” “Sectionals”) have left the real world mercifully offscreen.
This weekend’s show started with a topical cold open that felt as perfunctory as any from the comparatively boring Obama years; Baldwin’s Trump and Michael Che’s Lester Holt essentially repeated headlines (priming the pump! Nixon! Russia!) to each other in lieu of jokes. And while McCarthy’s Spicer impression was how NBC (heavily) promoted the episode, the game show sketch after her monologue felt like a much worthier — and almost totally apolitical — display of the physical comedy chops that make her such a compelling entertainer. There’s nothing clever or current about getting hit in the face with half a dozen pies, but McCarthy elevates the bit with her sheer commitment, bringing a gusto that’s notably missing from SNL’s more “I guess we have to talk about this now” political material.
Guest Stars Can’t Replace Homegrown Talent
SNL’s treatment of the 2016 presidential campaign required occasional outside help: Larry David as Bernie Sanders, for example, or announcer Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton. But what was a common occurrence during the election has become in 2017 a new normal. Following Trump’s upset win, SNL hasn’t merely retained Baldwin, whom it brought on just a month before Election Day in what was clearly intended to be a limited engagement. The show has doubled down by casting McCarthy as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, going so far as to make arrangements ensuring she wouldn’t even have to be in New York to keep up the part, and bringing her back to play the role three times since she debuted it in February. The main cast, meanwhile, is left with scraps like a subservient Paul Ryan (Mikey Day) and a conspicuously absent Melania (Cecily Strong, when her character’s around).
Neither Baldwin’s Trump nor McCarthy’s Spicer is a curiosity enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. They’re major figures of national interest, all but guaranteed to remain in the news for the foreseeable future. Ditto Jared Kushner, played recently by Jimmy Fallon, and Ivanka Trump, played most recently by Scarlett Johansson. (Unlike Baldwin and McCarthy, neither Fallon nor Johansson has signed on for more appearances, meaning two significant government officials likely won’t appear on SNL more than once.) Lorne Michaels has evidently decided he’s fine with treating guest performers as plain old performers even after he’s moved past the need for temporary help — in fact, he prefers it so strongly that he’s willing to sacrifice his writers’ ability to mock the first daughter whenever they want. The upsides are obvious: headlines, ratings, effectively prodding the hornet’s nest. But the downsides are also becoming apparent. What helps SNL in the short term might be undermining its cast’s potential, and therefore its own, in the long term. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford helped put SNL on the map in the first place; Will Ferrell’s Dubya (and before that, Janet Reno) helped keep it there.
The “backstage tour with mom” that McCarthy delivered in lieu of a monologue was winning enough (and along with Fallon’s Bowie tribute last month, a sign that writers are even more tired of the format’s confines than usual). But there was also something noteworthy about its structure: Of all the celebrities employed to dazzle lucky audience member Joan, only one, Kyle Mooney, was an actual SNL cast member — and two were essentially random famous people who had no reason to be there apart from the stunt. The faux-monologue felt indicative of a larger state of affairs: SNL has a clear shortage of homegrown stars, and that shortage has at least something to do with the increasing number of superstar drop-ins.
As host, McCarthy dominated the night in terms of screen time. Baldwin, in Studio 8H as a guest, still managed to appear in four segments: the cold open, the backstage walk-through, the Spicer sketch, and the Five-Timers Club jacket ceremony. Conversely, featured players Melissa Villaseñor and Alex Moffat were barely present; ditto main cast member Sasheer Zamata, apart from a decidedly half-hearted Lupita Nyong’o impression. Even without special guests, SNL has only 90 minutes each week to divide between hosts, musical guests, and its own cast. Introducing new centers of gravity means the cast has less space to assert itself — but not being known because you don’t get air time turns into not getting air time because you’re not known. Breaking through the white noise on this show à la Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, or Andy Samberg is already notoriously hard. Competing with the likes of Baldwin and McCarthy is even harder.
Personalities Are More Successful Than Characters
A few cast members do seem to be making themselves heard, albeit in atypical fashion. Rather than establishing themselves through sketches, much of the current class of rising stars — including Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney — has emerged by presenting fully formed personae. (“Brands,” if you will, and they probably would; both Davidson and Mooney are savvy millennials.) It’s a style more typical of stand-up comedy than sketch — which makes sense, because both Jones and Davidson are stand-ups who haven’t adapted to sketch so much as made it work to their advantage.
McKinnon is the obvious exception. But the rest of SNL’s sketch-dominant performers, including Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, and Beck Bennett, seem unlikely to outgrow their utility-belt status and break into the show’s stratosphere. Jones and Davidson, meanwhile, have made an outsize impression during their relatively short stints on the show, in large part thanks to their Weekend Update appearances doing what amounts to a tight five from behind the desk, speaking to their real-life experiences with dating (Jones) and rehab (Davidson, in Saturday night’s standout appearance).
And then there’s Mooney, brought on with partner Bennett and director Dave McCary in 2013 — writer Nick Rutherford, the fourth member of the Good Neighbor sketch group, was added a year later — to replace the Lonely Island as a semi-autonomous video production unit. Rutherford has since left the show and Bennett has assimilated into the main cast, but Mooney’s humor — often expressed through stuttering, bashful man-on-the-street segments — remains spiky, strange, and utterly distinctive. Saturday’s show included the latest update on Mooney and Jones’s fictional relationship, a bit I initially found grating (it’s funny because she’s tall and sexually aggressive!) but has gradually elevated into something far better and more bizarre. Sketch-universe Kyle and Leslie are now married, have a kid named Li’l Lorne, and suffer from serious jealousy issues, culminating in a shocking act of violence. The bit works, playing on our perceptions of its stars while also entrenching them further into our brains. It also indulges in the absurdist melancholy that’s marked successful, memorable sketches like “Diego Calls His Mom” or even the pre-taped interlude in the Spicer sketch where Sean drifts the streets of New York on his podium. The whole point of SNL being on late is the freedom to get weird, and “Kyle and Leslie” takes advantage.
Strange Beats Predictable
“First Birthday” gets weird, too. The penultimate sketch takes Get Out’s (and Hot Fuzz’s, and The Stepford Wives’) penchant for horror-tinged suburban comedy and runs with it. The sketch is technically pegged to Mother’s Day, though it could have run at any time: A young mom learns that mom-ness — you know, Purell key chains and using your iPad as a camera — is conferred via an occult ceremony where every mom gets a totem animal. (“No more, ‘What music does she like? What are her hobbies?’ Now I’m just pigs. I’m done!”) McCarthy is in the sketch, but it’s not a starring vehicle for her or anyone else; Villaseñor gets a rare opportunity to lead, but the comic lifting is evenly distributed among the rest of the female cast members.
Watching the sketch proceed toward its delightful twist and rewatching it a few times after, I finally realized what I’ve found so frustrating about SNL’s political comedy of late, and what makes political comedy so hard for SNL to pull off right now: It’s been predictable, and unpredictability is exactly what makes this show so fun to watch — after all, McCarthy’s first Spicer parody wasn’t announced in advance. Knowing not only that Baldwin’s going to show up, but exactly what he’s going to be riffing on, and being able to guess about half the content of those riffs: It’s just not exciting, at least not in the way watching a new talent bloom in front of you or being blindsided by a great joke can be. The dirty secret of SNL’s present moment is that there’s still excitement to be found — just not where everyone’s telling you to look.
An earlier version of this piece omitted the first reference to writer Nick Rutherford.