The moment that comedian and impressionist Melissa Villaseñor learned she'd be a cast member on Saturday Night Live, she didn't celebrate the way most people think they would.
"My brother picked me up [from the airport], and we went to go have pizza and we watched Dunston Checks In," Villaseñor says. "I love '90s movies."
That's not to say she wasn't ecstatic after scoring a seat on the sketch show in 2016.
"I was out of my body," she says. "There was a lot of emotions. It was amazing. I thought I entered a dream and I wasn't on Earth anymore."
Villaseñor has left an impressive mark during her two years on SNL. Her natural talent for comedic timing, sharpened from spending years as a road comic, and vocal mimicry that she first learned she could do when she could at 12 have made her one of the cast's most clutch comedians. Her impressive range has earned her spots in sketches in which she impersonates notable names like Arianna Grande, Celine Dion, Sarah Silverman and former SNL cast member Kristin Wiig and scored some serious laughs in memorable scenes with hosts such as Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover
Now that Villaseñor is on a break between SNL seasons, she's launched a new stand-up tour that started Monday with a weeklong residency at Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth. Friend and stand-up comedian Baron Vaughn, who writes jokes and provides the voice of Tom Servo on Netflix's reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, advised her to start there.
"For any comic, it sounds like a nice, low-pressure setup and that's kind of a really nice thing, being on SNL, and I always want to do my best with my shows and you're always under pressure to do well," Villaseñor says. "So this is like a safe place to try new jokes where they don't have to be perfect, and that's kind of the vibe. That sounded like a perfect place for me to work on this stuff."
Villaseñor's comedy pursuits started at a young age when she learned she could impersonate singers for her friends in her hometown of Whittier, California. Later, she joined a summer comedy camp at the Laugh Factory, where she got her first taste of the stage.
"I always knew that deep down that that's what I was going to do," she says.
Villaseñor started as a stand-up and worked her uncanny impressions into her act before scoring her big break on the sixth season of NBC's notoriously brutal talent show America's Got Talent, where she made it to the semifinals.
"That kind of put me on the map," Villaseñor says. "I was very unsure if I should do it or not, but it ended up being a really nice thing for myself."
She became a cast member on SNL after two auditions, the first of which took place at 30 Rock in 2009. Villaseñor is the first Latina cast member in the show's 50-year history, something she says she didn't realize until she started appearing on TV. One of her first appearances on the show cast her as the moderator for the 2016 vice-presidential debate, in which she describes herself as "the new Hispanic cast member and tonight, I'll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano
"It didn't even occur to me," she says. "I never thought of that until people pointed it out to me. I thought, 'Oh, sweet, that's really cool.'"
The impressions she learns
"It really just comes down to me loving someone and being a fan of someone, and eventually, I write a bit about the person," she says.
The sketches that don't require celebrity impersonations come from her own voice and personality. Villaseñor transformed one of her stand-up jokes into a sketch with This is Us star Sterling K. Brown in which the lyrics of Nickelback's "How You Remind Me" become the final words of a dying woman. She's also starred in a memorable run of sketches that show her attempts at talking dirty with a series of celebrity boyfriends in disastrous and libido-shriveling ways, an idea that came from fellow cast member Mikey Day's and SNL writer Streeter Slidell's impressions of Villaseñor's unmistakable voice.
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"I've always had bits where my voice ruins the sexiness vibe, and Mikey Day and Streeter Slidell write so many brilliant sketches. They had that idea with Aziz, and they imitate my voice all the time," she says. "They wrote it so fast because it's just like imitating me."
In fact, the main qualifier for Villaseñor's comedy, whether it's writing a joke or deciding on a celebrity to impersonate, is how much it amuses her. She says her genuine joy carries over to the audience every time.
"I think the main goal is just to make sure to make myself laugh," she says. "Whatever brings me joy, that's what I share. These days, the crowd's on board if I get as silly as I want to get. That's my main goal. Even if it's an impression of someone I knew, I was trying to find something that makes me laugh or have fun with it. I see a lot of the cast do that, and that makes it more fun."