Maya Rudolph: The Funny Girl Next Door

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Some funny women are supernovas–Kathy Griffin, Leslie Jones, late-1980s and early-1990s-era Roseanne—filling any space with their massive energy, leaving behind crater-sized imprints carved out by the force of their comedic audacity. I’m forever fascinated and a little terrified of these women. I want to know how they handily gut a room with laughter that scatters the seeds of startling truths. These women don’t just say the quiet parts out loud, they bellow them. We are all better for them.  

And then there’s another kind of funny girl. She’s embedded, like a war correspondent into a squad. She’s the girl who sort of sidles up to your group at parties, standing there quietly until she drops that devastating one-liner or clever observation at the perfect moment to crack everyone up. Timing is not just a real thing, it’s everything. And the annoying part is that it feels like she’s not even trying to be funny. She makes it seem effortless, organic, as natural as blinking, as ordinary as a traffic light. This kind of girl is reliable; she comes with a giggle guarantee. She is the funny girl next door. We are all better for her.

When Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick I was thrilled for what this selection means for the country, for our collective stress level, and for comedy, specifically, for one of my favorite funny girls next door: Maya Rudolph. Within minutes of Biden’s announcement, social media shifted into gear as people excitedly speculated about seeing Maya Rudolph return to Saturday Night Live to reprise her impression of Harris. Emmy-nominated Rudolph was on a Zoom panel discussion for EW when news dropped about the pick. “That’s spicy!” she said archly, channeling a little bit of the serious-but-cheeky attitude she brought to her performance of Harris on the last season of SNL. Politically and satirically speaking, I think we’re in good hands.

When Rudolph joined the SNL cast in 2000, she quickly became the one to watch. Any sketch was immediately funnier with her in it. She proved she could command the center, bringing heavy weight laughs with her impressions of Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Michelle Obama, and Condoleezza Rice. She also showed how adept and comically facile she could be on the periphery. Ironically, Rudolph often holds the most power from this position, slyly siphoning comedy from whatever or whomever occupies the focus of the scene to create moments that are indelibly funny.

It is pure delight to watch Rudolph add texture in supporting characters such as the bubble-gum snapping Jodi Dietz in the “Bronx Beat” sketch or in roles meant to be purely atmospheric and unremarkable. One instance (and there are many) that stands out is an SNL sketch with host Alec Baldwin who plays an obnoxious playboy hitting on women in a Brazilian nightclub. Ruldolph and Fred Armisen play a singer and guitar player duo performing quietly in the background. Armisen plucks a soft, generic bossa nova melody, Rudolph keeps time with a shaker. The two sing nonsense lyrics meant to sound Portuguese-ish. Their whole demeanor is laid-back, chill to the point of seeming stoned.

Rudolph and Armisen as bossa nova duo

The soothing lilt of their meandering tune that doesn’t seem to have a beginning or end, like the most deadly kind of Muzak, punctuates each of Baldwin’s pathetic attempts to score. It doesn’t take more than Rudolph or Armisen stressing one of their nonsense lyrics or drawing out a sound at the end of a line to elicit laughter. Rudolph is someone who commits fully to the comedic reality she creates, whether that’s in voice-over work for an animated series, as a character without any lines who is one half of a Brazilian bar band, or as, suddenly, one of the most prominent women in America.

The 2019 debates were bottle-necks of candidates trying to land a sound bite or coherent policy statement in broadcasts that felt like reading Proust would go much faster and be more enjoyable. For all comedians tapped to play any of the candidates on SNL there was no shortage of physical, vocal, or personality characteristics to exaggerate and lampoon. Kate McKinnon turned Elizabeth Warren’s mid-western inflections into a nearly South Carolina drawl. Larry David played an even more crotchety and belligerent old-man version of himself as Bernie Sanders.

Without any pronounced tics or stand-out public gaffes, Harris was always going to be difficult to satirize. Enter the funny girl next door. Rudolph painted Harris as tough and sharp, but breezy, even longing a little to, like, just be liked, you guys! “I’m also America’s cool, aunt,” says Rudolph in one debate sketch, “a fun aunt. I call that a Funt.” Rudolph bypasses the goofy, elongation of Harris with comic elasticity to, instead, play her measured and contained; she’s serious about this presidential thing, y’all, but she’s also not above breaking open the bag of cookies in her shopping cart to snack on while she shops. It makes the way Rudolph mugs for the camera or swans onto a debate stage as Harris sporting a martini glass refreshingly funny.

It’s the brush strokes of authenticity Rudolph applies to her take on Harris that reminds us: this is still a very real person and, all joking aside, attention must be paid. Satire is vital to any civil society. When it’s aimed at public figures and those in positions of power and influence, satire is a potent leveler. It realigns the person with the regulars, you know, the commoners from whence they came. But more importantly, satire help grease the wheels of critical discourse. And we are going to have to be critical of Harris. I know we’re all riding a bit of a high from seeing an intelligent, poised person on the national stage, sorry to cold water the mood, pals. Harris doesn’t get a pass because we’re excited to see someone who doesn’t look like they just stepped off the Mayflower rising through the ranks in public office. She doesn’t get a pass because she’s a woman, or because she’s smart, empathetic, can find Belgium on a map and, I don’t know, crystal clear on the whole Nazis not being very fine people thing. Harris is stepping into a role with massive amounts of unseen responsibility that will cause reverberations for generations. We need to keep accountability in the mix.  

But we also need to laugh. Good God, Lemon do we need to laugh. We need the Funt and, fortunately, the funny girl next door is ready to deliver.

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