Why Melissa McCarthy Had to Play Sean Spicer

Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of the president as a squinty-eyed, bloviating man-child has gotten under Mr. Trump’s skin since before the inauguration. But for truly innovative political parody, look beyond the Oval Office to the briefing room, and to the comic genius of Melissa McCarthy.

As Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on last week’s “Saturday Night Live,” Ms. McCarthy guzzled gum, offered an apology “on behalf of the press, to me” and doused a reporter with a Super Soaker. She not only delivered a hilarious send-up of the Trump administration’s increasingly tortured relationship to the press, facts, and language itself (“when you use the words and he uses them back, it’s circular using of the word”), she set a new standard for cross-gender casting.

Casting a man in a woman’s role is a time-honored source of cheap laughs for sketch comedy shows. See, for instance, the classic Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese and Graham Chapman, both in drag, pay a visit to Jean-Paul Sartre and encounter his wife, Betty Muriel Sartre (Simone de Beauvoir is nowhere to be seen), played by Michael Palin, also in drag. The sketch is amusing and joyfully absurd (Madame S. employs a goat to eat her husband’s excess pamphlets), but it also rests, like much Python, on the assumption that men playing women are funnier than women playing themselves. Female members of the Python troupe, like Connie Booth, were given relatively little to do, and many Python sketches rely at least in part on the notion that men wearing dresses and speaking in high voices are naturally hilarious.

“Saturday Night Live,” too, has long put its male players in female drag, sometimes just for laughs and sometimes because it simply had too few female cast members to play all the necessary female roles. In 2013, Kenan Thompson announced he would no longer perform in a dress, tired of being the show’s go-to choice to play black female celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Maya Angelou. The show subsequently hired two black female cast members, Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones. But it continues to put men in dresses — Fred Armisen’s character Regine, a mean, sexually demonstrative girlfriend, cropped up most recently in 2016.

As Mr. Spicer, meanwhile, Ms. McCarthy makes cross-dressing almost beside the point. She wears a fairly convincing wig, and her ill-fitting suit feels more like a joke about the poor tailoring that plagues the president and his administration than about the incongruity of a woman in male garb.

Ms. McCarthy isn’t funny as Mr. Spicer because she’s a woman, she’s funny as Mr. Spicer because she’s made a career of playing aggressive characters who are often angry for no reason. As Megan, in “Bridesmaids,” she broke new ground as a tough, crude woman with bizarre ideas and no boundaries who nonetheless finds romantic fulfillment, and in subsequent films like “The Heat,” she’s established herself as a powerful physical comedian whose best weapon is her snarl. On “S.N.L,” as she lifts up her podium to attack the press corps, it’s clear she was born to play the mouthpiece of an administration already defined by outbursts of rage.

While her gender isn’t the center of her performance, it matters. There’s a bit of an extra bite in a woman lampooning the spokesperson of a president who once bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, and who was reportedly moved to rage last month when attendance at women’s protests around the world dwarfed attendance at his inauguration. Add to that the fact that President Trump reportedly wants his female staffers to “dress like women,” and Melissa McCarthy dressing like a man to play his press secretary feels like a particularly astute way to needle the White House.

Melissa McCarthy’s turn as Sean Spicer is a reminder that cross-gender casting can be a lot more interesting than just putting a man in a dress — and that when you’re trying to mock an administration that seems almost unmockable in its absurdity, it helps to pick the best woman for the job.

Melissa McCarthy impersonating Sean M. Spicer, the White House press secretary, on “Saturday Night Live.” Credit Will Heath/NBC

Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression Is an Instant SNL Classic

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.

Sean Spicer Fires Back at Melissa McCarthy’s ‘SNL’ Sketch

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is not well known for his sense of humor, but he tried to find the funny in actress Melissa McCarthy's buzzworthy portrayal of him on this weekend's "Saturday Night Live."

The "Bridesmaids" star made the cameo appearance in a sketch lampooning Spicer's combative press briefings, in which she portrayed him as evasive, petulant, emotionally unstable and a ferocious consumer of chewing gum.

In a interview Monday on Fox News, Spicer described McCarthy's spoof of him as "cute."

"I'd rather us be talking about the issues that the president is so committed to helping Americans on," he said "But you know, it's a part of American culture."

Spicer's remarks are the latest salvo in the Trump administration's public dialogue with America's longest running satirical television franchise.

Although President Donald Trump has appeared on the show in the past, and hosted it in November 2015, he's repeatedly lashed out at the program and the unflattering portrayal of him by actor Alec Baldwin, since this new season began.

On Twitter, Trump has called the show "unwatchable," "the worst of NBC," "not funny," and "really bad television." However, he has not explained why he continues to watch the program he claims to despise.

When pressed on this point by NBC's Matt Lauer in early December of 2016, Trump implied that the show — now in its 42nd season, would likely be canceled soon.

"The way the show is going now and you look at the kind of work they're doing, who knows how long that show is going to be on," he said. "It's a terrible show."

On Sunday, Spicer echoed his boss's view on the Alec Baldwin portrayal of Trump, telling "Extra": "There's a streak of meanness that they have kind of crossed over into."

But some critics have argued that the show's recent take-downs of Trump have helped it "reclaim its mojo."

"What makes 'SNL's' Trump material so brilliant is that, perhaps for the first time, the cast and crew are more than aware that Trump is watching," wrote Salon's Bob Cesca recently. "Rather than being deferential, 'SNL' is deliberately crawling up Trump's a--, and they know it's working, thanks to Twitter."

Ironically, during the show's inaugural season four decades ago, then White House Press Secretary Ron Nesson appeared to have been a better sport, hosting the show himself in April of 1976. That episode also featured a cameo from the sitting president -- Gerald Ford -- and some infamously risque sketches.

Meanwhile, Trump has been relatively quiet about "SNL" in recent weeks, preferring instead to lash out at the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, various news organizations and the federal judge who halted the enforcement of his executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

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