Melissa Villaseñor has starred in some of Saturday Night Live’s most memorable sketches of the past few years, including “Murder Show” and “Hoops.” A gifted comedian and impressionist, she’s made waves for her spot-on portrayals of Sarah Silverman, Dua Lipa, and her beloved Dolly Parton. Now, she’s been tapped to host the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards, which airs Thursday, April 22, on IFC. Though she says the show was mostly pre-taped, hosting anything during the time of tiny audiences can be daunting. The toll of COVID on comedy is something Villaseñor is also keeping in mind as she loads into a van and heads out on a stand-up tour in May. Dubbed the California Girl tour, the route has Villaseñor headlining shows in comedy clubs all over the U.S. before heading home to California, where she’ll tape her first stand-up special. The A.V. Club sat down with Villaseñor to talk comedy, COVID, and how she’s approaching her first big hosting gig.
The A.V. Club: First thing’s first, you’re hosting the Film Independent Spirit Awards this year. How do you think you’re especially qualified for this role? Are you a big indie film lover? Do you have an independent spirit?
Melissa Villaseñor: Both. I’m a very independent girl. I have a backpack and I think I’ve always loved indie films. There’s something real special and sweet about them.
AVC: What’s the first indie film that you remember making a really big impact on your life?
MV: Oh man. Oh boy, I don’t know off the top of my head what impacted me. Eternal Sunshine? Is Focus Features independent?
AVC: Either way, Michel Gondry is fully independently minded. Speaking of independent minds, when you got the call asking you to host the show, was it hard to wrap your head around it? You of course have some experience doing comedy during the pandemic, but figuring out an award show without an audience could be a different animal.
MV: You know, I don’t know any different with the hosting gig. I mean, with the audience, obviously, it’d be way, way, way more fun, but I felt like I did a really good job because it’s pre-taped. There are a lot of scenes of sketches where I’m doing impressions, and then the monologue was my favorite, because I’m being myself and going through my jokes. There was just a night-and-day difference between the first few rounds I filmed, though, and later when, once I got more familiar, we brought in the camera crew and they spread out in the audience. It was a blast and we got great laughs on that. So I hope they use [those takes]. It was like, “Wow, imagine if it was a full room,” but I felt really good about everything. I feel like I could be hosting more. I was very proud of myself because I can share so many impressions and acting and singing and being funny on my own. So it’s pretty cool.
AVC: Did you have to learn any new impressions? Did you have to figure anything out?
MV: Well, I felt like I got a little bit of Carey Mulligan from Promising Young Woman. There was a little scene where I’m playing her and I didn’t start feeling how her mannerisms were until I got in the suits she wears in the bar in the first scene. I don’t know why I started feeling like I was learning it then in that moment. Most of the impressions I did for the show are of past hosts, because there really weren’t a lot of impressions that I could do from the movies this year that are nominated. I wanted to work on Frances McDormand, but then they had this other angle, which is also really funny. I think we’ve got a good, good mix of impressions in there.
AVC: And then you got to work with Carey Mulligan on SNL. Did that enrich your experience?
MV: It was really cool. And you know what? We’re the same size because [the costumers for the awards show] brought me the same suit she physically wore in the movie, and they had me try it on.
AVC: Speaking of SNL. I follow a number of the cast members on Instagram, and I’ve noticed there’s an ongoing storyline involving the doll that they made for the show that looks like Joe, the protagonist of the animated movie Soul. People are always posing with him, loving on him, and so on. Does he live in Heidi Gardner’s dressing room? What’s going on there?
MV: Heidi got to keep him. It’s tricky. Sometimes I go in there to see Heidi, and I see the body and I’m like, “Oh, my god, that’s not a real person.” It’s amazing. He’s so warm and cuddly. You have to wrap his arms around you.
AVC: You recently announced your stand-up tour. I know it’s been hard to do stand-up during quarantine. Have you done Zoom shows or remote shows? How have you been working on your set and building what’s going into it?
MV: Well, this hour is from my past eight years of material. I’ve had this hour ready and actually I was going to tape it last summer, but then the pandemic happened, so I had to hold off. I’ve been doing outdoor gigs in L.A. when I’m home. Zoom shows are a little tough. I kind of put a pause on those ones, but now that everyone’s getting vaccinated and things are opening up again, I’m going on tour. I’ll be doing comedy clubs, which will be great, because there’s going to be so many shows, so I’ll feel brushed up again. I’ll feel better about the hour and I’ll get a lot of practice, and then when I get home to L.A., I’ll tape the special, which is exciting because I’ve been wanting to do it for a while.
AVC: Going back into clubs, are there stipulations you’re putting on the audiences or the promoters? Are you asking that people are vaccinated, or are you doing outside where possible? How is it working?
MV: I feel fine. Look, I tell every place, “No one in the front row.” If they’re far enough, I feel okay. There’s no meet-and-greet, though. I’m getting warmed up. I actually did a show this weekend in Palm Springs and everyone was so spread out. I felt good. It’s lovely to have the connection with the crowd again, that’s for sure.
AVC: There’s a lot of comedy specials out there. How do you envision your special in a way that’s going to make it stand out, or make it yours?
MV: Last summer I got the idea for the special, but this year I started performing in people’s front yards and backyards and I performed in my friend’s tree house in the backyard for kids. I went up there in the top part and my comedy became funnier because all my jokes are pretty silly and childlike, so I felt more like a kid. I felt really strong up there because I was really high up and really powerful.
So then at the beginning of this year, I was like, “I can write comedy that could totally work outside in front of a tree house.” So, my dad is a fence guy. He builds a lot of stuff. So he’s going to make a little tree house and I’m going to perform in front of it in a backyard. That idea came from this whole past year. Then I’ll intercut little moments, too, where there’ll be little interviews with my family because the core of the hour is my family and my personal life. So it’s cool.
AVC: I know that you started doing stand-up when you were very young, like 16 or 18, and you’d ask your parents to drive you to clubs. How does your family feel about the material you do about them, and about your whole career?
MV: When I first started doing comedy, they really didn’t like it. They had no faith in it. It wasn’t until I started getting those first few payments, like 20 bucks for a set, that they said, “Okay, maybe you could make a living,” but then it grew. And then thankfully, America’s Got Talent happened pretty early in my journey, and I started headlining and then it changed a lot.
The bits about my parents I didn’t really start working on until, I don’t know, six years ago? The first part of the journey for many years was just celebrity impression bits, and then I got to this really sad place in my soul where I was like, “I can’t do this. I can’t be just a puppet or a parrot. People need to know me. I’m funny.” I really had to work on my own voice and bits that didn’t include impressions, so I have a nice mix of that now.
My mom still has a hard time with the bits about her. She’s like, “I don’t know, I didn’t say that,” and I’m like, “You did.” But they love it. They support me so much that they try to go to any show. If I’m home in L.A., they’re like, “Can we go?” I’m like, “Just please just stay home for this one show.” They love it so much, and it’s cool because they’ve been through it all. I mean, even the early years when I would have them take me to open mics in Hollywood or some bar in the middle of nowhere. They got used to comedy early on with really vulgar, dirty comics. They’ve seen it all. Now they have so many favorite comedians. My mom loves Marc Maron and Bill Burr. It’s just so funny to see them be edgy now. And it’s awesome. I’ve transformed them.
AVC: You did an impression of Dolly Parton earlier this season and I read that it came from you getting super into Dolly over the pandemic. How did you get into her? What were you doing? Were you listening to the Dolly Parton podcast?
MV: Yes, I got into that for a bit. I think it started with, you know, I love classic rock and just feel-good songs. I stumbled upon some of her songs on a playlist, I think. I mean, I always knew of Dolly Parton, but I then I went deep because I was like, “Wow, her songs, they make me feel really good and calm.” And then I was like, “I wonder if she has an audio book.” And then I found Dream More, and it’s just pure positivity and love. I felt like I had a best friend because I was alone and it felt so nice to hear someone just be saying things like, [does Dolly Parton voice] “You’ve got to believe in your dreams! I always knew I was going to be a star. My family said no, but I knew!” She had so much faith. I think I was spiraling, so she made me have hope again.
I didn’t really figure out how to get that impression in the show until December, when I realized that she was everywhere. She made that Christmas special and a Netflix movie and there was a holiday Christmas album and she was performing. She became the new Christmas queen, so I was like, “I’ve got to get Dolly in the show somehow.” And it wasn’t until the week when that Update premiered where I felt like, “Okay, I nailed it,” but it took me some time for sure.
AVC: Is there anyone that you have tried to figure out an impression for, but you just can’t quite figure it out?
MV: I haven’t given a lot of time to it, but I’d really love to learn Eugene Levy. Heidi brought that up. She said, “I want to do Catherine O’Hara, and I think you could do Eugene Levy.” I think I can because there have been times where I’m dressed up as a guy for the show, and it’s like, “God, I look just like my dad,” who kind of has a Eugene Levy look in a way. I get excited to do male impressions. I want to learn Martin Short too.