McCarthy flew to New York with $70 in her pocket. “It’s what you do at 20. You just jump in,” she says. She moved in with Atwood, who immediately signed her up to appear at a comedy club’s open mic night. McCarthy dressed in a costume that she says “made me look like a drag queen,” went onstage and told stories rather than jokes.
It worked, and she was hooked: “I thought, If this is in any way an occupation, I’m in.” She soon graduated from stand-up to acting, taking classes and performing in Off-Off-Broadway plays. To pay the rent, she juggled three jobs, working mostly as a waitress and a nanny.
In 1996 she headed for L.A., where she joined the Groundlings, the acclaimed improvisational comedy theater and school that launched Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, Maya Rudolph and many others. There, she found not only inspiration but also Falcone. In her very first class, McCarthy introduced herself by saying she’d attended college in Carbondale, Illinois, declaring, “No one on earth knows where that is.” Fellow student Falcone volunteered that, ahem, he hailed from Carbondale. The two teamed up as writing partners and soon were lingering over drinks at weekly Groundlings gatherings at a bar. After a year of platonic imbibing, “we decided if we don’t start dating, we’re going to become alcoholics,” recalls Falcone. They wed in 2005; daughter Vivian was born in 2007, and Georgette followed in 2010.
The couple clearly adore each other. “I got hit with the lucky stick with Ben,” says McCarthy. “We got hit with the same lucky stick,” says Falcone. “From the very first time we spoke, we were on the same page. We love each other, respect each other and try not to sweat the small stuff. And we really make each other laugh.”
“They are a perfect match,” says Spencer, who has known the couple since they were courting. “I’m like, ‘When will I find my Ben?’ And Melissa always tells me, ‘He will find you. The right one will come along.’ ”
McCarthy gave herself a deadline of age 30 to make it as an actress and squeaked in just under the wire when she nabbed the role of accident-prone chef Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls. “The minute Melissa walked in the door, the casting director and I were, boom, that’s it,” says Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore and ABC Family’s Bunheads. “Melissa is such a great comic and she’s uniquely funny, but like Lisa Kudrow, she can do very, very real moments. Underneath all the insanity that she brings, there’s a reality. You can feel for her.”
Gilmore is revered to this day for featuring strong female friendships, smart cultural references and fast-paced witty dialogue, a Sherman-Palladino hallmark. “I learned how to memorize 10 pages in 10 minutes,” says McCarthy. “You had to be letter-perfect on the dialogue. It taught me how to focus.”
Just as she had done on Gilmore, McCarthy played the heroine’s gal pal on her next show, Samantha Who?, a critically acclaimed ABC comedy starring Christina Applegate that, hampered by the 2007 writers’ strike, barely limped through a second season. “I loved that show! I was with really funny, nice people,” says McCarthy, who remains friendly with castmates Applegate, Jennifer Esposito and Jean Smart. And she fondly relates an aha! moment during an early meeting with Samantha cocreator Donald Todd: “He said, ‘Well, you’re a writer, so if you come up with a funnier line, funniest wins.’ It’s the first time I remember someone in power saying, ‘You’re a writer.’ ”