Have you seen the Saturday Night Live sketch where Kristen Wiig plays a horrible person who gets on our nerves? Oh, wait, that’s all of them. Since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler left to do sitcoms, and SNL fired two of its other female comedians, Wiig has become the unchallenged leading lady of the show, carrying many sketches in every episode. She’s also building a movie career, which includes several Judd Apatow films and a supporting part in the new SNL spinoff film MacGruber (opening May 21). But she hasn’t created many characters who are likeably funny, like Will Forte’s MacGruber or Bill Hader’s Italian talk-show host. Instead, Wiig specializes in playing people who are absurdly unpleasant to be around, like a Target clerk who irritates customers by pumping her hands in the air and screaming things like “you’re buying a big bag of feces!” Not everyone would go as far as David Medsker at premiumhollywood.com, who wrote earlier this season that Wiig has “become wildly unfunny, and must be stopped.” But given enough horrible characters, they might.
Like most comedians, Wiig wants to have a lot of range; she told Vanity Fair she doesn’t have a style of comedy because “I’m always trying to change it. I don’t always just want to do the same thing.” But not only does she manage to use some of the same physical mannerisms in most sketches—tilting her head a lot—she seems to make most characters equally hateful. Among Wiig’s recurring sketches, the definitive one may be her impersonation of Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of the fourth hour of the Today Show, whom she portrays as a talentless drunk with a penchant for bad jokes and shameless mugging. Judging from Gifford’s reaction—“Everyone seems to enjoy it,” she said on Today, “but I don’t think it’s that funny”—the sketch hit its mark. But it’s completely malicious comedy; even Tina Fey made Sarah Palin a more sympathetic character, with her cheerful, almost innocent stupidity. Wiig seems to want her audience to feel pain at even watching her characters in action.
That’s because Wiig usually plays what Charlie Toft at film.com called “variations on the same character: a neurotic who is either overly talkative and/or inappropriately exuberant,” and who is sheer hell to be around. Take Penelope, a fast-talking woman who is always trying to one-up other people—she arrives at a wedding and says that on her honeymoon, “we went to the moon! Actually, it’s made of honey!” Wiig plays her as a borderline insane person who, in the words of another character, is “ruining” life for everyone else. Another Wiig character who ruins everything is Gilly, a frizzy-haired little girl who commits arson and murder and smirks about it. Then there’s the Lawrence Welk Show parody sketch she co-wrote, where a female singing group is wrecked by one member: a woman with deformed hands who won’t stop singing lyrics about how she ate a dead cat or put a squirrel in her bed. That member, of course, is played by Wiig. Her characters are always out to make things rotten for the rest of us.
Still, however nasty Wiig’s sketches can be, at least they’re relatable: these evil characters mostly seem like people we’ve known in real life. The Target Lady, a character Wiig created before she joined SNL, is the loud-mouthed retailer who keeps you waiting in line. Even Penelope, Wiig told Women’s Health Magazine, is based on real people she knew who tried to one-up her: “I’d say I was going to get a massage and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m getting a massage this week.’ ” Viewers might like Wiig because she uses comedy to take down the people we already know and hate; she’s like a sketch comedy counterpart to TV characters like Michael Scott on The Office.
But obnoxious characters, even true-to-life ones, are easier to take in small doses. After Wiig was chosen to host SNL’s Christmas special in character as the unspeakably awful Gilly, there were murmurs of online revolt against her overexposure, and earlier this season, in a list of ways to fix the show, Entertainment Weekly argued that Wiig needs to appear less often: “How can we appreciate the woman if she never leaves the screen?” Even the writer of a Wiig fan blog (kristen-wiig.blogspot.com) admitted she was doing too many solo sketches and that the producers “need to mix it up more.” If they don’t—or if Wiig doesn’t come up with a likeable character or two—there may be more people echoing the sage words of Kathie Lee Gifford: “Can’t she get another job? Go off and do something else?”