It takes a special kind of talent for a performer to star in a syndicated CBS sitcom for six seasons and 127 episodes, win an Emmy in the process, and still end up with a wannabe comedy writer claiming that the genre was beneath them. But that’s exactly where we are with Melissa McCarthy as we start this retrospective of the first phase of the comedy dynamo’s illustrious career.

Melissa McCarthy got her television start in sitcoms, and the career she made for herself on Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly would be impressive on its own for any comedian. However, the restrictions of the medium meant that Melissa wouldn’t truly shine until she made the jump to film. The Bridesmaids star and perennial Saturday Night Live superhost’s massive talent was underutilized and underappreciated in a genre where her bold choices, boundless energy, and striking intensity had to be toned down to fit the sitcom formula.

Melissa McCarthy’s first appearance on the small screen was a guest spot courtesy of her cousin, model and TV personality Jenny McCarthy, on her short-lived sitcom Jenny, which ran for just ten episodes from 1997-1998. After spending the entirety of the ‘90s honing her craft for standup and improv at the most esteemed theaters in both Los Angeles and New York, Melissa was ready to unleash her skills on a wider audience, starting with bit parts on shows like Jenny and in movies such as the Cameron Diaz Charlie’s Angels reboot franchise.

For the younger contingent of millennial readers, she also voiced the minor villain DNAmy in Kim Possible.

But Melissa wouldn’t have to wait long for her big break – she landed the role of Sookie St. James in The WB’s flagship sitcom/drama Gilmore Girls. The comedian who would go on to become the world’s greatest Sean Spicer impersonator appeared in all 153 episodes of the hugely popular mother-daughter feelgood sitcom as the best friend, confidant, and later business partner of the most beloved single mother of the early 2000’s, Lorelai Gilmore.

Gilmore Girls was a massive success, and it wasn’t just watched by its target demographic of precocious, perpetually amorous white women in Connecticut, as people from all walks of life were drawn to the smartly written, softly sentimental sitcom. There was even a marine sniper unit stationed in Iraq who became the show’s most unlikely superfans – after the marines wrote in to complain about the lack of male clothing items in the show’s gift store, WB sent them five boxes of Gilmore Girls branded jackets.

As for Melissa’s part on the show, Sookie St. James was a perfect sidekick to the leading lady Lorelai. Sookie was an affable and occasionally klutzy cheerleader whose purpose on the program is to support every decision made by the main character. While the show does give Sookie her own romantic arc and her own career ambitions, Sookie's role on the show is defined almost entirely by her relationship to Lorelai. Thankfully, over the show’s whopping seven-season run, Melissa was given ample opportunity to play comic relief, but only in that muted WB sitcom style that discourages big choices and solely emphasizes the writers’ impeccably endearing dialogue.

Gilmore Girls ended in 2007, and, over the next few years, Melissa landed supporting roles in a couple short-lived sitcoms, most notably Samantha Who?, which was not, in fact, a female-led Doctor Who spinoff. In the ABC original and Christina Applegate vehicle, Christina played Samantha, a woman suffering from retrograde amnesia who is trying to put together the pieces of her forgotten life, while Melissa played Dena, Samantha’s socially awkward childhood best friend. 

The show made it through two seasons with mild ratings, but it didn’t do much for Melissa’s body of work besides sticking her in another Sookie-type situation, only with a less adorable relationship to the lead and a premise that sounds like it was devised by an 8th-grader for a creative writing assignment. 

Then, in 2010, Melissa joined the Chuck Lorre-verse in what would be her first starring role on Mike & Molly, a multi-cam sitcom about a Chicago couple who meet in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The wacky cast of supporting characters and the warm, sanitized, quippy cadence that is ubiquitous among all Lorre projects made Mike & Molly a modest success for the king of sitcoms until CBS decided to move on from the program in 2016 after six seasons.

Melissa’s character, Molly Flynn, was a departure from the Sookies and Denas of her past – Molly was smart, self-assured, caring, quick to anger, and flagrantly financially irresponsible. As the Chuck Lorre-patented  “voice of reason” in the show, Molly was the anchor to a diverse cast of charming jokers who all ripped one-liners and made small, slow steps towards character development in Lorre’s signature sitcom formula for maximum syndication potential. 

Melissa’s role as Molly won her an Emmy in 2011, the same year a certain film came out that would shift the trajectory of McCarthy’s career towards movie stardom – Bridesmaids would be McCarthy's thunderous arrival in the film world, and her portrayal of Megan, the confident, chaotic spark plug for every one of the film’s funniest scenes was one of the most memorable performances of Melissa’s career.

Bridesmaids showed what was possible when Melissa was allowed to make big choices, to be loud, to be crass, and to be the limitless performer we all now know her to be. In her supporting role, Melissa stole every one of her scenes despite the absolutely loaded cast around her. She even landed an Oscar nomination for the performance, a rare feat for a purely comedic role.

Also, for those not in the know, Air Marshall John was played by Melissa’s real life husband and creative partner Ben Falcone.

Melissa’s film career exploded post-Bridesmaids, leading to her taking starring roles in projects like The Heat, Tammy, and the criminally underrated James Bond-style parody, Spy. All the while, she still appeared on a CBS soundstage every Monday night in Mike & Molly. While Melissa has only ever spoken fondly of her time on the show, we’re thankful that her contemporary body of work has evolved past the zingers and laugh tracks of a broadcast sitcom into more daring, more uninhibited projects.

Since the end of Mike & Molly in 2016, Melissa’s career has only continued to track upward, the highlights of which include her legendary run as Sean Spicer during the Trump years of SNL and an Oscar-nominated performance as the real-life literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. 

The sitcom formula is one that comes with restrictions – programs written with an end-goal of syndication tend to follow familiar beats, and the characters on these shows usually become predictable when their essential traits get more exaggerated as seasons progress. For a performer like Melissa McCarthy, this means that there is a ceiling on how far she can go with a certain character before the writers chain her to a few defining characteristics. Talent like hers was wasted on roles where she’s only ever allowed to be supportive, likable, and occasionally awkward. Melissa is not a sidekick, she’s a star.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. There is still room in the sitcom formula for such performers to be given full reign and really explore how far a character can take them. Melissa and her husband Ben costar in the apocalyptic workplace comedy God’s Favorite Idiot on Netflix, and we hope the show will continue to let one of the greatest comedic performers of this generation show us just how funny she can be.

Top Image: Broadway Video

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