It was the kind of moment Saturday Night Live history was made of: an unannounced guest appearance so perfect that it took even the live audience a few moments to register what was actually happening. “Next, on C-SPAN, the daily White House press briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer,” a voiceover announced. Then, a person who looked uncannily like Spicer walked onstage to a makeshift podium, presumably causing many viewers at home to squint and look more closely at their televisions. Is that … ? Could it be … ?
It took a few insults delivered in a trademark shriek to hammer home that this really was Melissa McCarthy, in drag, capturing the unquestionable essence of a political figure whose public image so far has largely revolved around belligerence, alternative facts, and cinnamon gum. As soon as the assembled audience figured it out, they began cheering, causing McCarthy’s Spicer to berate them once again. “Settle down, SETTLE DOWN!,” she screeched. “Before we begin, I know that myself and the press have gotten off to a rocky start. And when I say rocky, I mean Rocky the movie because I came out here to punch you. In the face. And also I don’t talk so good.”
It was the particularly genius kind of casting only Saturday Night Live could have dreamed up, with McCarthy’s physical resemblance to the White House press secretary coming off at first as a little unsettling. But beyond that, her interpretation of Spicer—half preschool bully, half unhinged authoritarian caregiver—instantly seemed to stick, joining a list of memorably spot-on SNL performances. Like Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house!” as Sarah Palin and Alec Baldwin’s pursed mouth and beetling glare as Donald Trump, McCarthy’s scene wildly exaggerated the characteristics that Spicer has thus far displayed while nailing the fundamentals of his id.
From the beginning, the fusion of reality and parody was remarkable. “I would like to begin today by apologizing on behalf of you, to me, for how you have treated me these last two weeks,” McCarthy said, “and the apology is not accepted. Because I’m not here to be your buddy. I’m here to swallow gum and to take names.” At which point she chugged back a container of gum, chewed frantically for a few seconds, and then stuck the wad on the podium, for “later.”
McCarthy’s Spicer parodied the White House’s delivery of questionable facts to members of the media during briefings, announcing of the rollout of Trump’s Supreme Court justice pick, Neil Gorsuch, that “the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation which lasted a full 15 minutes, and you can check the tape on that. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was happy. The men all had erections, and every single one of the women was ovulating left and right. And no one, no one was sad.” She engaged in a hostile battle of wills with the press, bullying Bobby Moynihan’s reporter and going on a knotty rant about the language of the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration that left Moynihan’s character cross-eyed. “I’m using your words,” she shrieked. “You said ban. You said ban. You just said that. He’s quoting you. It’s your words, he’s using your words, when you said the words and he’s using them back, it’s circular using of the words and that’s from you.”
The scripting of the skit was brilliant on its own (really, all that was missing was a reference to Dippin’ Dots), but McCarthy’s energy and weaponized hostility took it to another level. Twice, she physically attacked reporters with her podium, threatening to stick other wrongdoers “in the corner with CNN.” When one reporter asked a question about the omission of Jews from the White House’s Holocaust Memorial Day statement, McCarthy shot him with a water gun. “This is soapy water, and I’m washing that filthy lie right out of your mouth,” she yelled.
It was a performance that appeared to have its roots in many of McCarthy’s past roles (the unpredictable Megan in Bridesmaids, a deranged parent in This Is 40, a disgraced Martha Stewart type in The Boss) but one that also seemed immediately part of the pop-culture canon of the Trump presidency. McCarthy’s Spicer may or may not return, but in one eight-minute scene Saturday Night Live reminded viewers that there’s no more potent institution when it comes to political satire.