Cover Story: Beyond a Joke

24 November 2013 Sophie Quick

Cover Story: Beyond a Joke

Photograph by Chris Floyd,

Sophie Quick, Ed#445, November 2013

Kristen Wiig's comedic smarts have held her in good stead across TV and film, and now her broader abilities – as an  everywoman, – are finding favour in Hollywood.

For an R-rated movie that featured an extended scene of projectile puking, there was a surprising amount of delighted hand-clasping across the United States when Bridesmaids became a box-office hit in 2011. The film, starring Kristen Wiig and produced by bromance comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, was riotous and vulgar, cleverly scripted (and partly improvised) with an ensemble cast of very funny females doing things women don’t normally do in Hollywood movies. The film opened with a slapstick sex scene and featured women suffering explosive diarrhoea and engaging in screaming matches about anal-bleaching. The screenplay was co-written by two women (Wiig and Annie Mumolo). Bridesmaids was an international hit (including in Australia, where it was rated MA) and was seen by many as a victory for women in Hollywood: ‘female-driven’ comedies could draw audiences and comic actresses could be much more than cutesy. In Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a review entitled ‘Bridesmaids: A triumph for vomit, and feminism’. 

But perhaps the delighted reception of Bridesmaids says more about the low bar for tales of female triumph in Hollywood than anything else. Bridesmaids was hardly radical, and it wasn’t trying to be. In her first starring movie role, Wiig played Annie, a Bridget Jonesish type whose non-threatening career (as a baker) was in freefall and whose loser status was partly defined by the fact that, while her best friend was getting married, she herself didn’t have a man. 

Nevertheless, Wiig emerged as a fully fledged movie star while eluding the standard comic actress categories. Only very slow learners could have been surprised to discover, in 2011, that women can do lewd humour. What was fresh about Bridesmaids was it showed that normal women – leading ladies as opposed to their caricature sidekicks – can do lewd humour. Except for in the most outlandish slapstick sequences, Wiig played Annie pretty straight. She looked and talked like a woman you might actually know.

For those who only knew Wiig from her work on the US sketch-comedy institution Saturday Night Live, this capacity to play the everywoman seemed to come out of nowhere. Wiig was an unknown when she arrived at SNL in 2005, aged 32, via the Los Angeles improvisational comedy troupe The Groundlings. She quickly became known for a series of absurdist, often grotesque, recurring characters. These included Penelope, the hair-twirling queen of surreal conversational one-upmanship; Shanna, a Monroe-esque sexpot with a tendency to make repellent disclosures; Dooneese, a freaky young lady with creepy, baby-sized hands; Target lady, a terrifyingly eager retail assistant; and many more. Wiig was able to work her lankiness (a huge advantage in physical comedy) and uncanny capacity for nailing vocal tics and mannerisms to great effect. The characters she played tended to be weird and deluded, but also excruciatingly enthusiastic – usually to the point of derangement. This was true not only of her made-up characters (most famously the Target lady) but also often with her celebrity impressions (see her absurdly vital Katharine Hepburn). In an interview with The New York Times in 2011, legendary SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels ranked Wiig among the “top three or four” SNL performers in an alumni that includes Tina Fey, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. 

In her SNL downtime, Wiig appeared in various minor roles in film and TV productions, including Knocked Up (where she stole a two-minute scene as a TV network middle-manager, cementing a friendship with Judd Apatow in 2007), Whip It (2009), Adventureland (2009) and MacGruber (2010). Outside SNL, Wiig was often cast as the kind of offbeat characters who made her famous, with pitiful delusions and misplaced enthusiasms. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) she played a yoga teacher who couldn’t conceal her attraction to Russell Brand’s character; in Ghost Town (2008) she played a colonoscopy surgeon who couldn’t conceal her own total self-absorption; and in the web series Portlandia (2012) she played a crazed, potentially homicidal fan of an obscure band.

Along the way, however, Wiig was also quietly making efforts to extend her range beyond all the kookiness. In an interview with Alec Baldwin on his Here’s the Thing podcast in 2012, after she’d just left SNL, Wiig was asked if she planned to try her hand at dramatic acting. Wiig’s response: “Absolutely… The audience very quickly puts you in a folder. They know you how they first knew you, I’m Kristen from SNL – a comedic actress… People are so surprised when I want to do dramatic stuff.”

Films like Extract (2009) and Friends with Kids (2011) might have been flops, but both showed Wiig looking completely at ease in the skin of conventional characters. For a comedian – especially one who has made her name in the broad school of sketch comedy – Wiig is surprisingly effective in conveying emotional states that call for reserve: weariness, malaise, disappointment. 

This is what made audiences care about Annie in Bridesmaids, even at her most unlikeable. And these were the muscles Wiig was again able to flex in her second starring comedy role: this year’s Girl Most Likely. Wiig, who was also the film’s executive producer, plays a character very similar to Bridesmaid’s Annie: a thirty-something woman who has hit career and romance rock-bottom. Reviews, while mixed, praised its star: “Kristen Wiig is a triple threat – pretty, funny and poignant,” Liam Lacey wrote in The Globe and Mail. “It’s impossible not to root for Kristen Wiig,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times. Next year will see the release of Hateship, Loveship, a dramatic indie film based on an Alice Munro short story, in which Wiig will appear alongside Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte.

There isn’t going to be a Bridesmaids sequel, at least not one starring Wiig. Turning it down wasn’t hard, she told Harper’s Bazaar in June. “We knew during the first one, this was it. We would have made a lot of money if there was a second one, but that’s not my goal in my creative life.”

While Wiig might be branching out into some more dramatic roles, that doesn’t mean she’s entered the dreaded I-demand-to-be-taken-seriously phase. This year she appeared in the fourth season of cult TV series Arrested Development, showcasing her spooky gift for mimicry as a younger version of Jessica Walter’s matriarch, Lucille. And she’s in two comedies coming out in Australia next month: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (with Ben Stiller) and Anchorman 2 (with Ferrell)

Having made some powerful friends in Hollywood thanks to SNL and Bridesmaids, Wiig now enjoys twin luxuries: she can be selective in the roles she picks, and she can write the kind of roles she’d like to play, with some expectation of them making it to production.

If Wiig can build a career on her own terms, it will be interesting to see what terms she chooses. She seems like something new because Hollywood tends to like its leading comic actresses goofy and adorable. America’s assorted sweethearts (the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Rachel McAdams) are cute, pretty, relatable and/or charming first; decent comic timing is a bonus. With Wiig as leading lady, it’s the looks and likeability that constitute the bonus – she’s funny, first and foremost. And in moments that don’t call for comedy, there’s something naturally slightly detached, almost jaded, about Wiig that reads as a much truer-to-life form of vulnerability than the cutesy conceits loaded on rom-com heroines. Maybe Wiig is the person to prove the leading lady doesn’t have to be adorable to be vulnerable. She’s already shown that a woman doesn’t have to be crazy to be crude. 


» Sophie Quick is staff writer/editor for The Big Issue. Follow her on Twitter, @squickens.  Anchorman 2 and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are in cinemas in late December.