How Not To Destroy Melissa McCarthy's Career

This weekend, Melissa McCarthy reaps the rewards of her “Bridesmaids” breakout success by enjoying top billing in “Identity Thief.”  Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much when she’s become such a recognizable face, but it is, and it’s especially gratifying because her titular role was originally written for a man.  Jason Bateman, impressed with McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” asked the role be rewritten specifically for her.  When was the last time that happened for an actress in any genre? Yeah, who can remember?

But you can feel the extent to which Hollywood is absolutely desperate to typecast McCarthy into one ongoing punchline about her weight.  If you’re skeptical, simply look at McCarthy’s small screen debut, “Mike & Molly,” which has its heart in the right place, but relies so heavily on tired fat jokes that it’s depressing instead of life-affirming.  It’s telling that this is all the television industry could cough up for McCarthy after she’d turned heads on “Gilmore Girls” and “Samantha Who?”  You’re funny, lady! So why were you on the kind of show in which you fall and break a coffee table while doing aerobics?

McCarthy’s appearance on “SNL” was also an uneven and disquieting hour that overjoyed in mocking her appearance.  It’s an immense credit to her talents that she rose above the obvious fat jokes and subverted them into genuinely hilarious characterizations. Remember her Spock sweatshirt lady, desperate for Hidden Valley Ranch money? We’ve all met Spock sweatshirt lady, and that’s the joke, which otherwise might have simply revolved around “Look at this large lady eat something. Isn’t it hilarious!”

I’d love to be optimistic and hope that McCarthy can advance her career while dodging that cheap joke, consistently getting roles that allow her to express her actual comedic talent. Of course, that isn’t to say that Hollywood should avoid giving her physical comedy. She’s terrific at it.  But physical comedy isn’t about appearance. It’s about a dedication to imbue yourself with a character, Daniel Day-Lewis style, but with the hopes of earning a laugh instead of an Oscar. It’s an eagerness to engage in pratfalls and a willingness to embarrass yourself and make viewers cringe in recognition, to pull faces and sport ugly costumes. Lucille Ball did it. So did Carol Burnett.  Kristin Wiig and Amy Poehler currently do it. Even Sandra Bullock has been willing to get down, dirty, and unibrowed for a laugh. McCarthy relishes going full-on wacky, and Hollywood should keep on letting her do her thing without forcing her to build the laugh around her shape. None of the jokes in “Bridesmaids” were about her weight; they were about her character’s eccentricities. Poehler could have walked into Wiig’s living room with all  of those puppies, and it still would have been funny. She could have pooped in a sink, and we still would have laughed just as hard. The humor was in the role, and the willingness of an actress to improvise and commit to the craziness, not in having a large actress do it.

If Hollywood is smart, they will treat McCarthy as they would any other comedic actress, and offer her the same range of scripts they would to anyone else. She’s pretty. She’s smart. She’s funny. In real life, she’s married with kids. There’s no reason she can’t play the average wife, mother, lawyer, cop, doctor or newspaper reporter.  Let her tailor those characters to her own style as she sees fit. McCarthy isn’t going to put all of her characters in crazy wigs and Spock sweatshirts, but - given the opportunity - she’d undoubtedly make them real, hilarious, and sharp … and maybe just a little left of center, because who isn’t?

Hollywood doesn’t demand Leslie Mann or Kristin Wiig make jokes about being thin. Poehler isn’t forced to play nothing but dumb blondes. They’re allowed to play actual characters, both real and surreal, and McCarthy must be allowed to do the same. Let’s not force her into “fat is funny” roles, or offer her every dowdy housewife, lonely best friend, or horny secretary who exists for the handsome star actor to loathe and avoid.  Can’t she be married to Paul Rudd or Robert Downey Jr. without it being some kind of “How could he love her?” shocker?  In the real world, nice looking men marry cute women, and those women are not always a size 4. It’s not the basis of laughter or horror. It’s just life and chemistry, and it would be wonderful to see that reflected onscreen, and have the humor be focused on some other facet of McCarthy’s invention and talent.

Luckily, McCarthy seems to have gained enough success to shape her own projects with her husband, Ben Falcone, with whom she has launched a production banner.  If there’s one project of theirs that underlines exactly how her career should go, it’s “Just Do It,” an adaptation of Douglas Brown’s humorous memoir/sex-help manual, which recounted he and his wife’s attempts to rekindle their marriage with a 101-day sex marathon.  Brown’s book is the stuff of the awkward real world, where new lingerie and sex toys seem like a great idea, until someone gets the flu. It’s exactly the physical comedy McCarthy can rock (especially with Falcone), average audiences can relate to, and all without a single reference to a scale, diet, or size of any kind. A studio just needs to be brave enough to back such a project, and to realize McCarthy and Falcone visiting a porn convention is funny in and of itself without resorting to fat jokes.

So, Hollywood – can you do it? Can you let McCarthy’s comedy flag fly without subjugating her talents to the lowest common denominator? Believe us when we tell you there are only so many fat jokes one can make – and only a handful of times even McCarthy is going to make them work – before audiences stop buying tickets to hear them.  But if you let McCarthy be the actress we all find funny (the one that urged a “Fight Club” bridal shower, and insisted a gun could be put up a butt), then you will have comedies making enough money to leave “The Hangover” in the box office dust.   She is a powerful comedic gift. Use her wisely, respect her and the reasons we laugh at her, and you’ll reap the benefits of a long, popular, and profitable career.