Cover Story

Melissa McCarthy: The New Queen of Comedy

''Bridesmaids,'' ''Mike & Molly,'' and a winning ''SNL'' gig have turned the funny lady into a red-hot star, as well as the cover girl for our 2011 Comedy issue -- and that is no joke

''I think a drink is needed,'' says Melissa McCarthy as she settles into a booth at her local steak house in Los Angeles. After a long and fabulous day at an EW photo shoot, the actress calls her husband, Ben Falcone — who plays the ultimately game air marshal to her lascivious Megan in Bridesmaids — to ask after their daughters, Vivian (4 years old) and Georgette (19 months). Falcone assures her that the girls are tucked into bed and he'll wake up with them in the morning if she wants to enjoy a rare late night out. ''Okay, it's on!'' the 41-year-old McCarthy laughs, stray sparkles from her scrubbed-clean drag-queen makeup glittering in her dimples. And so, over the next three hours, there are martinis and wine and rib eyes, much laughter and some tears as she talks about not just the recent breakthrough that made her a star but also the decades of frustration and diligence leading up to it.

How to pick the most glorious moment from such a bravura year? Maybe it was when her Bridesmaids character declares of a gentleman at an engagement party, ''I'm gonna climb that like a tree.'' (Buoyed in part by raves over her performance, the movie grossed more than $169 million.) Or when she cried out ''Holy smokes!'' after winning the best-actress-in-a-comedy Emmy for her quieter but equally endearing work on CBS' Mike & Molly. Or perhaps when a bottle of salad dressing exploded in her face while she hosted the Oct. 1 episode of Saturday Night Live. After the show Judd Apatow tweeted, ''I think Melissa McCarthy in the office with the balloons on SNL'' — a bit she first came up with several years ago while a part of the L.A. improv comedy troupe the Groundlings — ''made me laugh harder than anything this year or decade.''

Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, can't talk about his friend on SNL without melting into a soggy lump. ''Right before they said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Melissa McCarthy...''' He pauses to collect himself. ''God, I get emotional when I talk about this. That was the moment of 'Holy s---, she's getting everything she deserves right now.''' Feig is almost through the first draft of a script for McCarthy and hopefully Jon Hamm called Dumb Jock, and unlike in Bridesmaids, this time she won't be the eccentric friend, but rather the star. ''Obviously Melissa is gorgeous and appealing, but she's not the usual Hollywood romantic lead,'' says Feig. ''Which is why this is so important. It just gives you faith in the industry.''

What makes this sudden rush of recognition even more moving for McCarthy is the sense that hers are shared triumphs. The success of Bridesmaids put a shine on six gleefully funny actresses. And when her name was called at the Emmys, McCarthy was up on stage in a most righteous display of wit and solidarity alongside five other talented comedians. ''Smart, funny women making smart, funny work,'' she says. ''We have female characters who aren't just saying 'Oh, Jim! Oh, Larry! Oh, Curly!'''

Raise a glass to that.

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