A funny thing happened on the way to the oncologist

Julia Sweeney talks about her new movie, "God Said 'Ha!'" -- the feel-good cancer comedy of the year.

By Peggy Orenstein
Published February 11, 1999 4:30PM (EST)

Julia Sweeney had plans. It was 1994. She'd just left "Saturday Night Live"; her divorce was both amicable and final; her film, "It's Pat," based on her sexually ambiguous "SNL" character, was about to be released; and she was happily doing the Martha Stewart thing in her newly purchased dream house in L.A.

Then, as the title of the new film of her one-woman Broadway show proclaims, "God Said 'Ha!'"

"It's Pat" flopped. Far worse, two days after it opened, her younger brother, Mike, collapsed in a restaurant and was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. ("There is no stage five," Sweeney observes in the show. "Stage five is dead.") She immediately moved him in with her. Her parents, who live in Spokane, Wash., descended on her house as well, forcing Sweeney to replay the less savory aspects of adolescence: sneaking cigarettes, calling pasta "noodles with red topping" and muttering about how cool it would be when she got to college and would have her own dorm room. Finally, Sweeney herself was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. The situation was catastrophic, it was Job-like and, as portrayed in "God Said 'Ha!'" -- which opens Friday -- it was also absolutely hilarious.

So, Julia, you've made a "feel good" cancer movie ...

[Laughs] I know. It's so hard to convey. I went on "Roseanne" yesterday and she hadn't seen the movie, of course. She didn't even know it was a movie. It was a little embarrassing. She thought it was still a stage show. Or on "Regis and Kathie Lee" it was the same thing: They want to be very serious about cancer and be very sad and empathize with how horrible things have turned out in your life. And I'm like, "This is so not helping me." If I really felt that way about myself I wouldn't be out here talking to the world about it.

One of the things no one tells you before you get cancer is that it is funny. I went through treatment for breast cancer two years ago, and so much of the experience just felt patently absurd.

People say, "How could you find humor in this?" Well, how could you not? You're in such weird situations all the time, it's like you've gone to Mars.

Was it scary, though, to start making it funny, to make it from life into a routine?

It seemed really organic because I was performing on Sunday nights at this place called "UnCabaret" at Luna Park. It's like a cross between self-help and stand-up comedy. It has to be true stories, there can't be punch lines, it has to be the first time you've told it, it can't be part of your routine. I'd never been a stand-up, but I got involved with this group, and it seemed really natural to me. It was like I was talking to my friends and I had the floor for 15 minutes every Sunday. So that's how it evolved.

It's a very different thing than what you previously did. On "Saturday Night Live," you were a character in a sketch. You were wearing a giant amount of padding ...

Me in particular, yes. And I was kind of a little bit of a snob about being an actress that wasn't selling her personality. Like, "I'm an actress, and I play characters. I'm not Suzanne Sommers, whose going to tell everybody about myself." That's the part I had to get over the most. But now I don't know why I had such a big hang-up about it.

Is there a character of "Julia" now, though?

The way I relate to that idea is when I was on Broadway and I'd done the show for a year and I was really, really sick of it. I felt like I had to impersonate myself in order to get through the show. And it was almost like I had to impersonate myself as a younger person, because by then it had been two and a half years and I had different feelings about stuff and different attitudes. And some of the things I said in the show were much more flip than I felt about them later.

Like what?

Like about not having had kids. Although, I still partially feel that way -- that hasn't been enormously traumatic to me. If I were writing that now, I'd be more upset on a deeper level about it. But I still had to do the show where I had to talk like that, so in a way I was doing the character of Julia Sweeney. But it was me, a couple years younger.

The real question is how did your mother feel about the show. You kind of make fun of her a lot. In the end, you say how much closer you are to your parents, but still ...

Well, I didn't tell them when I was doing it at first. I'd just tell them I was meeting some friends at a club on Sunday night. I didn't say, "And while I'm there I'm going to get onstage and make fun of how you get on elevators." And it was true, because everyone at that club was my friend, and half the audience were friends. If it wasn't for that environment I never would have done it. It was like I was telling at a dinner party how much my mother drove me crazy.

So, then when it became a show, I thought, "Maybe this will just be a little thing." Of course, I pushed the limits as far as I could of not telling them. Because I wanted it to be critically successful before they knew about it. Because what could be worse than making fun of your parents and having it be a bomb?

So, you told them you were going to be on Broadway, but not why?

[Laughs] No, I told them when I was going to San Francisco. I told them that I was doing a show, and it's sort of about Mike, but I just was really vague about it. Then, apparently, people from Spokane have moved to San Francisco. And they sent my parents the reviews and they were like, "WHAT???" And they flew there and I almost had an ulcer. I was so overwhelmed. Even when I was at the Groundlings [an improv theater and troupe], I would do sketches of my mother and I would pull the sketches when they came to the show. It wasn't worth it. But finally there was a show where it was worth it, because I didn't want to stop doing it.

They were actually much better sports than I thought they'd be. In a way I saw them have real, true, unconditional love. Because they really just wanted me to do well. And they loved to hear the stories about Mike and remember Mike.

Is it weird to have total strangers know these intimate things about your life?

Some things, maybe. I'm embarrassed about the Karl part of it. [Sweeney sleeps with her brand new boyfriend.] Even though I knew it was a good enough story to put in there, but I feel like such a slut, you know? That embarrasses me that people know I would do that. But, on the other hand, I feel like, "Oh, so what."

The one part I do like, well I don't like talking about it, but I always try to make a point of talking about the hysterectomy because I just feel like people should be more open about that kind of stuff. Because there's a lot of women who've had that. Not that I'm trying to be the poster girl for it, because I'm definitely not. But even in the show, I thought, "Good, somebody's at least going to talk about it!"

Well, yes, because we've been talking a lot about cancer, but the movie isn't just about cancer: It's about family, and it's about growing up and it's also about a woman trying to find her way in the world where you're in your mid-30s and you're divorced and you have no kids and you're infertile and you're living alone and you're ... happy! It's that last little bit that's the twist.

There was a New York Times article that came out about me yesterday and in the interview he said, "The things in your house, do they have memories for you? Is that painful or is that good?" And I said, "It's good. I can think of Mike sitting on the sofa, or Mike in the Jacuzzi, because when he lost so much body weight he was cold all the time so he was in there all the time. I like being in a place that has lots of memories in it." So you know how the article ends? "She doesn't mind the memories, it makes her feel less alone." [She bursts out laughing] I never said one thing about feeling alone while I was living here alone! It's like, "I don't think you understand how much I love this! This is not bad! It's good!"

I started joking with my friend Wendy that the idea that women are really sad to be alone is put out by women who don't want too many other women to do it because then there'd be no more procreation. Because if women were really honest about how much they like to be alone no one would ever couple up with anyone! It's like a secret we're keeping. But we know the truth: We know it's the best!

Do you ever worry about becoming the cancer queen?

A little bit. Part of me thinks, I don't want to be a person that the first thing they think of is cancer. Now, fortunately I was Pat before I had cancer. It's not like I came from complete obscurity and got cancer. I was this really weird character on this show and then I got cancer.

I was trying to think of how to relate this to Pat but I couldn't.

[Laughs] There's no way. I told you I did "Roseanne" yesterday. And she said, "How would Pat react to your cancer?" On the show! What is that supposed to mean? Are you trying to get me to say something funny Pat would say about me having cancer? How fucking weird is that? Like Pat would say, [switches to Pat's voice], "I don't know if it's cancer of the cervix or the testicles. Heh-heh-heh."

I thought a lot about the film in terms of humor and women. On "Saturday Night Live" it's always so hard for the women to break out. Pat aside, women don't get the movie deals, and the cult status.

I always feel reluctant to talk about it, because the only way I can is for me to sound resentful and I don't -- well, I do feel partly resentful. But I wouldn't change anything. It's not like I'm just having a pity party about it, and I feel really happy with what I've done since I left. But, God damn. Sometimes I think, if I could go back to those days when Chris Farley and me and Adam Sandler and David Spade all were starting at the same time together and say, "Look around you. See these guys? In about five, six years, they're going to be making millions" -- I mean if they're not dead -- "millions and millions of dollars. And you're going to work on quality things. Make some. Be fine. But the guys who think the funniest thing in the world is to make a homophobic joke and then to slide their pants down a little bit? The ones that you had to get up and leave the room not because you were offended but because you were bored? Those guys are going to make millions and millions of dollars. Arrgh!"

Do you think it's something about the nature of the way audiences respond to women in comedy?

I don't know. 'Cause I kept thinking, I just believed I would change all that. Not that I think "Pat" was the greatest movie, but to me "Pat" was just as funny as "Waterboy" is. And I don't know if that's a case where it's because I'm a woman -- I don't know. I had this idea that I would show that you could do just as well. And now I think maybe I just don't have what it takes. Which is possible. Or maybe I don't have the energy or drive that it takes, which I know is true. Because I just have other things that are more ...

But also, I think it has to do with power. Because being really funny is really powerful. And I think that in general, people feel more comfortable with a guy being really funny. It's not like you see movies or screenplays where the way the screenwriter lets you know about the person falling in love with the other person is that the girl is so funny, knowingly funny -- not a character, not Darryl Hannah with glasses on playing the cello -- but truly funny. Witty. Then the guy's falling in love with her because of it. You never see that. Yet, the way that all the guys convey how sexy they are is because they're funny, and then some beautiful girl goes, "Oh, you're so funny, therefore you're sexy."

Did you have role models of funny women?

I love Lily Tomlin. I love her career, that she's worked with these great directors, like Altman, and had these great parts, but still can do characters.

But now I'm thinking about Albert Brooks, because I'm writing a screenplay based on a play that I did, and I think I might be able to get financing to direct it, and I'd star in it, too. And at first I was really nervous about doing both, but then I thought, "I love Albert Brooks. Why isn't there a female Albert Brooks?" And that just fueled me, and I thought, "I'm going to try to do that." I don't know if I can, but I'm going to try it.

So your health seems good now -- and it sounds like you still make plans.

Oh, I do. So much. In fact, it's compulsive. But at least now I know I don't even expect 90 percent of them to turn out. You have to enjoy the making of the plans, and then just laugh when they don't come true.

Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and author of "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap" (Anchor Books).

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