June 16, 2006
By Sarah Kuhn
Melissa McCarthy would like to thank the producers of MadTV. After all, they inadvertently helped her land the role of Sookie St. James, klutzy chef and best friend to Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on the hit series Gilmore Girls. The part originally went to actor Alex Borstein, who is perhaps best-known for her wildly popular MadTV characters Miss Swan and The Gap Troll. MadTV wouldn't let Borstein out of her contract, and McCarthy nabbed the part. Quips McCarthy, "I should have sent all those producers flowers."
These days, it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing sweetly scatterbrained Sookie to life. Still, McCarthy found replacing Borstein a nerve-racking experience--particularly when Borstein showed up at the first table read. "I about had a heart attack, 'cause I thought, 'Oh, my God, they worked out her contract--she still has the part and no one called me,'" recalls McCarthy. "And no one really knew who I was, so I was just kind of standing there, having a bit of a meltdown: 'At some point they're going to start, and then I'm just going to, like, back out of the room.' But she got up, came all the way across the room, and introduced herself and let me know, 'You're not crazy, and I'm playing a different part'-she did some guest-star work on [the show]... She was the sweetest person to me." Incidentally, Borstein's real-life husband, Jackson Douglas, plays McCarthy's husband on the series.
Gilmore Girls returns this fall for a sixth season, but McCarthy is keeping busy in the meantime. She just finished working on a film called One Part Sugar, a comedy about "a little decrepit town that takes its power back from the bad guy."
"I wear a really, really pretty waist-length mullet in it," relates McCarthy. "[It's] just this side of playing a man. It's not my beauty role, but it was really fun."
She's also set to appear at "Achieve Comedy Greatness-From the Ground-lings Up," a comedy-focused Learning Annex panel/class on Tues., June 20. The panel features notable members and alums of The Groundlings, Los Angeles' legendary comedy/improv troupe that has launched such talents as Lisa Kudrow and Will Ferrell. McCarthy's fellow panelists include Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Mindy Sterling (Austin Powers), and Michael McDonald (MadTV). "There's a pretty good group going from kind of a variety of angles..." says McCarthy. "I think you get [together] a handful of funny people that have kind of been in the business long enough, and you'll probably get a lot of straightforward answers."
McCarthy is a current company member at The Groundlings and recalls seeking the troupe out when she moved to Los Angeles about nine years ago. "My sister, who's not in the business at all, sent me an article all about The Groundlings and all the people who had come out of there," she recalls. "It just piqued my interest, so when I got to town, it's the first place I went, and I saw a show, and I had never seen anything like it. I think Kathy Griffin was there, and Patrick Bristow and Mike McDonald. And I saw these people just slightly out of their minds in a delightful way. I thought, 'Gosh, that looks like fun.' So I went back and auditioned and started taking classes and that began a very long love affair with The Groundlings."
Before that, she started her career in New York City, doing standup comedy. "I had moved [to New York] with a friend of mine, and he said, 'You have to do an open mic-it's ridiculous. You're basically doing standup anyway at parties,'" she remembers. "I came home and he had open mics booked for me. I kind of had no choice, and I didn't really know what they were, so I just showed up and I just talked. I did...I guess what's now alternative comedy: stream-of-consciousness stories. I just did that because I've never really been jokey and I didn't really know what I was doing, so I didn't prepare. Things went well, so I kept going back. It wasn't for quite a while that someone was like, 'Your 10-minute set seems like it changes.' I was like, 'Changes? I've never written anything down.'"
From there, McCarthy started acting in plays. "I did years and years of very serious, depressing plays," she says, laughing. "I didn't do anything comedic again until Groundlings. So I spent a good five or six years crying all through little stages in Manhattan."
On Solid Groundling
McCarthy says having such a strong improv background has helped in all facets of her acting. "I think it's really easy to kind of prerehearse your stuff and anticipate how it's going to come out, and I think…as we're learning lines, it plays out a certain way in our heads, and that usually or rarely matches what happens on the day of shooting," she says. "So to not be thrown by that and kind of take it as a nice surprise is always good. It's always much more interesting-if you're thrown a little off balance, it usually works in your favor."
That said, McCarthy doesn't get to use her improv skills much when it comes to Gilmore's whip-smart, fast-paced dialogue. "There is absolutely no changing [of the lines]-not a preposition, not anything," she says. "It is a show that's done verbatim, and it's a rhythm and style show, so it makes sense. It's written at a certain clip and a certain style, and what [creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has] always wanted is for that to translate. That is our job: What she gets out on paper, we've got to get it out of our mouths."
Is that strange for McCarthy, given her extensive improv training? "It is, because I constantly think things are funny in the script and then I always want to elaborate," she says, chuckling. "I've gotten used to not doing it... There's no time for it-that show is so tightly, tightly packed. There's not an extra second that we're not trying to get four pages in."
And that, she says, is why she continues to be a part of The Groundlings. "That's where I write; that's where I get that great interaction with a live audience. That keeps me sane," she says. "If I didn't have Groundlings, I would probably be trying stuff at Gilmore all the time to the point of them wanting to kill me."
"Achieve Comedy Greatness-From the Ground-lings Up" takes place Tue., June 20, 7-9:30 p.m. in L.A. The price for the class is $49.99 for Learning Annex members, $54.99 for nonmembers; use coupon code GRD06 for a $10 discount. Go to www.learningannex.com
or call (310) 478-6677 for more information or to register for the class. Location for the class will be provided when you enroll.