How McCarthy got to play Spicer

The comedienne in character on a mobile podium (above)
The comedienne in character on a mobile podium (above)PHOTO: REUTERS
Sean Spicer.

Melissa McCarthy's take on White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer started with an airplane pitch about a monologue to Kristen Stewart

WASHINGTON • By the time actress Melissa McCarthy hosted last weekend's Saturday Night Live (SNL), she had already become a highly anticipated presence on the show for one reason: Spicey.

Her take on White House Press Secretary Sean "spicey" Spicer, which debuted in February, has become a standout moment for this season of the NBC show, helping to draw record viewers and even reportedly unsettling United States President Donald Trump so much that Mr Spicer's longevity in the job became questioned.

Considerable buzz built ahead of last week's episode when cellphone videos and photos emerged last Friday of McCarthy in character as Mr Spicer travelling along a busy Manhattan street on a portable podium.

So how did this year's big political comedy moment come to be?

It all started with an airplane pitch about a monologue to actress Kristen Stewart, McCarthy told The Hollywood Reporter.

McCarthy was headed to New York for a movie shoot, while Stewart was en route for her SNL hosting gig.

There was this weird, great delay, and first people figure out it's Spicer and then they figure out it's me. You could just feel it in the room.

MELISSA MCCARTHY on playing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live for the first time.

The comedienne in character on a mobile podium

"She has a reputation for not loving to be interviewed, which I think becomes very funny, so I shamelessly pitched her (this monologue idea where she's) doing the worst opening ever," McCarthy told The Hollywood Reporter for its cover story about SNL's huge year.

At the same time, SNL writers had been watching Mr Spicer's first few press briefings.

"They were just so insane," writer Kent Sublette told The Hollywood Reporter. "It was a Tuesday and one of our producers, Erik Kenward, told me that Melissa had flown out with our host and had a monologue idea. That's when I just blurted out, 'Melissa should play Spicer.'"

In that lead-up to that moment, many people had lamented that they wished Chris Farley was still around to play Mr Spicer, Kenward said.

"In a lot of ways, Melissa is the closest thing just in terms of sheer power and comedy physicality that we have to Chris Farley and I knew Lorne (Michaels) felt the same way," Kenward said. "I called him and he immediately was like, 'Absolutely. Let's make it happen.'"

Sublette, who is friends with McCarthy from the Los Angeles-based improv company Groundlings, knew the comedienne would be okay playing a man and being outrageous on camera.

In fact, McCarthy played Farley's famed Matt Foley character on SNL for the 2015 40th-anniversary episode. When she appeared on Weekend Update, actress Tina Fey introduced her: "Oh, it's just Melissa McCarthy doing her favourite character."

There was still a problem.

"I don't do impressions. I don't have the ear for it," McCarthy said. "But when I read the script, I was like, 'Oh, God, that is juicy, but I don't understand how we're going to physically make it work.' To which the amazing special effects person at SNL was like, 'Oh, yeah, that's not that big of a deal. That's gonna take me, like, 15 minutes.' I was like, 'Hey!'"

Sublette told her "it was more about the attitude - the bombast and the anger".

McCarthy said she was "so nervous" playing Spicer for the first time: "It was very quiet at first and I'm thinking, 'The audience is already turning before they even know what's going on.' There was this weird, great delay, and first people figure out it's Spicer and then they figure out it's me. You could just feel it in the room. And then I get off, and I have all of these texts, like 'Oh, my God, are you looking at what's happening?' I didn't quite know what to do with the reaction."

The sketch was a big hit, even overshadowing chatter about Alec Baldwin's Trump impersonation that week.

And while SNL writers worried that it would be too soon to bring her back the following week, there was more to tackle: A new controversy erupted over the White House response to Nordstrom dropping the Ivanka Trump apparel line.

The impersonation still draws viewers. An estimated 10.3 million viewers tuned in last Saturday, making the McCarthy-hosted episode SNL's highest-rated May edition in seven years, according to overnight preliminary ratings numbers from Nielsen released on Sunday.

For this season, only Baldwin's turn as host on Feb 11 had more viewers (McCarthy played Mr Spicer on that show too).

Amid rumours that the real-life Mr Trump may fire his press secretary, this latest Spicer sketch ended with her character receiving a mafia "kiss of death" from Baldwin's Mr Trump.

That, plus the logistics of working around a non-cast member's schedule, has left some wondering whether that was McCarthy's last turn as Mr Spicer. Sublette told The Hollywood Reporter that the show did not have a shortage of potential Spicers.

"If it hadn't been Melissa, it would have gone to Beck (Bennett). He has an amazing impression," he said. "In fact, he reads Spicer for the read-through because Melissa's not usually there."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2017, with the headline 'How McCarthy got to play Spicer'. Print Edition | Subscribe