The Melissa McCarthy Problem
I’ve been having something of a Melissa McCarthy problem for the last few months. I loved her as Suki of Stars Hollow, and so was excited to see her elevated to prominence in pop culture by way of Bridesmaids, but ever since that movie, I’ve experienced the dawning horror of realizing that Melissa McCarthy is overrated. I started to have serious doubts after the rage-inducing Identity Thief, but SNL sealed it for me. She’s a perfectly fine actress but isn’t as good a comedienne as Bridesmaids made her look. And why—WHY—is all of her humor based on fat jokes?
Take McCarthy’s opening monologue (which was long and slow), which revolved around her inability to do a song and dance number with Taran Killam because she was wearing comically tall platform shoes (stripper heels by Brian Atwood). She picked her way down the steps at the back of the stage, used a chair like a walker to make her way to the front, at one point falling as the chair slid away from her, and “danced” from her knees because she couldn’t stand. As far as I can tell, because the monologue was pretty brutal and joke-deprived over all, the fat lady falling was the punchline.
Wearing too-tall heels is a universal experience among women (and some men, we’re not judging), so I would think the better joke would be McCarthy linked up with other ladies from the cast, doing the chain-walk we’ve all done when we’re out with our friends wearing shoes entirely too big for us. Or that overly careful toe-first step/glide that signals a too-tall heel. I just don’t get why she had to fall. I think it’s because of Chris Farley.
Farley, a legit comedic genius who specialized in physical humor, made falling down look easy. He made it look like a big dude taking a tumble was all you needed to get a laugh. But as McCarthy’s stilted monologue proved, there’s more to it than that. Go back and watch Farley’s “Matt Foley” sketches, which usually ended with him taking a header through a wall or coffee table. It isn’t the fall that’s funny (although they were each pretty spectacular pratfalls), it was the TIMING. And that’s what was missing from McCarthy’s bit—no timing. It was just a terribly paced sight gag that had no set up and relied on “fat lady go boom” shorthand.
Of course, fat jokes can be funny. Rebel Wilson proved this in Pitch Perfect with her “Fat Amy” character. But the reason Wilson’s fat jokes work when McCarthy’s consistently don’t is that for Wilson fatness isn’t the punchline, it’s the setup. When she says she calls herself “Fat Amy” we don’t laugh at that, we laugh at how uncomfortable the girls, who would have dubbed her that if given the chance, are at having their own narrow-mindedness thrown back in their faces. We laugh at their discomfort, not her fatness.
I expressed disappointment in McCarthy after Identity Thief, and with this SNL and taking her sitcom Mike & Molly, which is just as degrading as Identity Thief, except on a weekly basis, into account, I’m feeling less charitable. If this is going to be her schtick, I can’t be down with it. But McCarthy now has, for better or worse, producer power in Hollywood. She’s selling TV shows and pitching movies and they’re getting made. If she surrounds herself with people who really are good comics, who can develop and write material for her, she is capable of delivering solid comedic performances.
The first step is going to be admitting (to herself, if no one else) that she can’t do this on her own. She isn’t a one-woman show—she isn’t Rebel Wilson. The second step is going to be approaching a project—any project, I don’t care what it is—without the crutch of fat humor. Get through an episode of Mike & Molly without a fat joke, or play a character in a movie whose size is incidental. Just stop with “big lady go boom”.
Click here for Sarah’s review of Identity Thief.