Reigning queen of comedy
The critical reaction to Bridesmaids, and its box office success, might make you suspect that no woman has ever demonstrated comic flair before. But Kristen Wiig sees herself as just the latest in a long line of successful female comic actors, she tells T
HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the funny woman? The moment Bridesmaids, a raucous gal-pal riposte of The Hangover, sailed past its first $100 million at the US box office, there was no avoiding the patronising pseudo-feminist claptrap. Newspapers and professional chinstrokers duly appeared – exclusively across all newspapers and media outlets – to trumpet the late arrival of the Funny Woman.
Long-time consumers may well have felt a frisson of recognition as the same fetid thought-pieces once attached to Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman reappeared in recent weeks with Kristen Wiig’s name parachuted in.
Hours before the film’s Dublin premiere, screenwriter and star Wiig, a dainty sylph of a woman, puts her head in her hands.
“Oh God, that stuff makes me want to poke my own eyes out,” she sighs. “I think if you look at newspapers and magazines from 20 years ago, you’ll find that same article except it’s about The Mary Tyler Moore show. I don’t know where these people have been. I grew up watching SNL with Carol Burnett and also Madeline Kahn and Dianne Wiest and Catherine O’Hara and Gilda Radner. Maybe what they’re seeing is that women have more platforms now; Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have their own shows now. But even then, they’re ignoring The Mary Tyler Moore Show and all kinds of stuff.”
Many other commentators have dwelled on the film’s significance as a Judd Apatow production; the perennially whiny shrew-women who have previously populated Team Apatow’s comedies – Leslie Mann, anyone? – are rarely tolerable let alone funny. But Bridesmaids’ fresh, innovative screenplay avoids traditional chick-flick tropes in favour of a structure that looks and feels like a bromance picture, a sort of hos before bros comedy. Wiig nods in agreement yet insists that any similarity to the Seth Rogen milieu is entirely coincidental.
“The bromance thing keeps coming up, which is funny because when we wrote it we didn’t think about any of that stuff,” says Wiig. “Now that the movie has come out we’re suddenly getting questions about this
whole female/male thing. We were like ‘let’s write a comedy’. We need something with a lot of funny women because we know a of lot of them. Annie [Mumolo] – my writing partner – has a very similar sensibility. We finish each other’s sentences. We wrote something we thought made us laugh. We didn’t think through the other stuff. But a lot of people have noticed it so there must be something to it.”
Bridesmaids is a huge deal for Kristen Wiig. Long identified as the funniest thing in any TV show or movie to bare her name on the credits, she routinely wipes the floor with Saturday Night Live co-star Tina Fey and has swiped scenes from under the noses of Ricky Gervais ( Ghost Town), Ellen Page ( Whip It), Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie ( Flight of the Conchords). Just minutes into Knocked Up she walks off with the picture when she informs Katherine Heigl’s character that she cannot legally ask her to lose weight. “We would just like it if you go home and step on a scale and write down how much you weigh,” she says. “And subtract it by, like, 20.”
Her sudden elevation to headliner and boxoffice attraction has, she says, taken her entirely unawares.
“I did feel pressure coming up to Bridesmaids in that it was a first leading role, and it was a movie I have co-written. I laughed but I didn’t know if anyone else would. It’s always a little scary when you create something and you feel it represents your humour or style or whatever you want to call it. You don’t know what people are going to think. We had no idea whether people were going to like it or not. So this has all been a nice surprise.”
Wiig’s most notable gifts as a comic performer derive from the art of self-defence.
At their most hilarious, her characters lie, obfuscate, backtrack and squirm convincingly as they attempt to maintain their dignity. (“You died but just a little bit,” she mumbles inaudibly at Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town.) She is equally adept at the sweetly delivered passive-aggressive barb: “I do believe in you,” she tells her husband in The Dewey Cox Story, “I just know you’re gonna fail.”
“I don’t know where it comes from,” she says. “Maybe just from observing people in the world. A lot of performing just basically comes from looking at people in the world and then in movies and books. Family and friends are usually the best place to go. But the thing is I don’t see it when I do it. I’m not aware in real life at all.”
Her SNL colleagues have often marvelled at the sheer variety and number of people to which Kristen Wiig has been exposed. A professional nomad, she’s worked as a florist, as a fruit seller and as the computer-imagining person showing pre-op cosmetic surgery patients what they’ll look like after the procedure.
“I was a little bit of a drifter,” she says.