Can Victoria Jackson return from the fringe?

After blasting gays, Muslims and Obama, can SNL vet Victoria Jackson really return to Hollywood? She hopes so

Published March 10, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

Actress Victoria Jackson takes part in a rally before a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla.      (AP/Chris O'meara)
Actress Victoria Jackson takes part in a rally before a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP/Chris O'meara)

Victoria Jackson's career was nonexistent. So when the daffy blonde comedian who sang and strummed her ukulele through six silly seasons on "Saturday Night Live" decided to embrace her religious roots and become one of the zaniest and most incendiary Tea Party celebrities, well, she didn't have a lot of other opportunities.

"I didn't have anything to lose," she says, from her home in the Miami area.

On "SNL" from 1986-92, Jackson starred with Jon Lovitz, Al Franken, Chris Rock, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman and Julia Sweeney, and was a quirky yet beloved member of one of the 38-year-old show's most enduring casts. But recently she's had more in common with Dennis Miller: In 2007, Jackson had a political awakening and "realized" then–presidential candidate Barack Obama was a communist. Radical Islam, she came to believe, was infiltrating and infecting America.

Suddenly the sketch comic best known for turning cartwheels on the Weekend Update desk was making headlines of her own by blasting gay marriage, Muslims and Occupy Wall Street on conservative talk-radio shows and creating goofy sound bites and song parodies that found a home on Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and, yes, Miller's shows.

Her friends and former castmates were confused. While they remembered her sincere Christian beliefs, some wondered whether Victoria Jackson, Tea Partier, was some sort of Andy Kaufman–style performance art. "A lot of people in show business think I'll pull off my mask and say, 'Ha-ha! I tricked you! Of course I won't be a stupid conservative Christian,'" says Jackson.

But now the joke might be on her. With the presidential election over and with her two children grown and her husband about to retire, Jackson tells us she wants back into show business. She's quietly stopped doing her web shows, curbed her right-wing outbursts and TV appearances, and wants another shot on the small screen. Will Hollywood welcome her back? Or have her fringe political positions doomed her to life on the margins?

"My biggest talent is playing an airhead -- a specific niche that can only be found in Los Angeles," Jackson told me.

Victoria Jackson cartwheels her way to a comedy career

Victoria Jackson grew up in Miami, raised by an exacting, religious father who was a women’s gymnastics coach and who drove home an intensive regimen: There was no television in the house and she attended church three times a week and gymnastics practice five times a week. She went to a private Christian school, where she “had to get straight A’s and be perfect spiritually, mentally and physically, which is a lot of pressure,” she says.

The discipline on the parallel bars earned her a partial gym scholarship to Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Soon she quit gymnastics and enrolled in theater classes, drawing laughs in her inaugural role as a Roman slave. “I was instantly addicted,” she says. As soon as the scholarship money dwindled, Jackson transferred to Auburn University in Alabama and became a theater major, where she developed her squeaky voice, limber athleticism and oddball persona -- traits she quickly discovered weren’t going to work for Shakespeare or Pinter.

“All the doors for serious drama were closing. But all the doors for comedy were opening, so when you’re stumbling through life, you go through the doors that are open,” she says. “You don’t want to see Goldie Hawn as a heroin addict.”

A boyfriend convinced her to move to Los Angeles and worry about college later. Once she got to L.A., Jackson -- a Baptist and a virgin -- quickly realized that to compete against women who were more glamorous than she was, or at least more willing to sink deeper into the casting couch, she had to distinguish herself. That meant standing on her head. Headstands, public poetry recitations and winging it got her commercials, stand-up gigs, movie roles and, six years later, a spot on “The Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson loved her immediately -- he asked her back to the show 20 times.

The fact that Jackson charmed Carson certainly didn’t hurt her when she auditioned for the cast of "SNL." But in New York, Jackson found she was outranked by a class of comics -- Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman -- who knew how to write sketches, create characters and improvise. Her comic persona was largely cut from her own life. Getting on air meant pretending to be someone else, which she says was difficult until her peers finally recognized her potential.

“There was definitely a male bias to the comedy,” says her former castmate Julia Sweeney Blum, best known for her androgynous character “Pat” and author of the new book "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother." “When men write comedy, there are a lot of parts for ditzy blondes, and that was not to her disadvantage.”

But writer Robert Smigel recognized her strengths. Convinced her nasal voice would lend itself well to a good Roseanne Barr impression, he started writing the gruff working-class mom character into every sketch he could: Roseanne meets Hans and Franz (Carvey and Kevin Nealon), Roseanne meets Harvey Fierstein (Lovitz) and so on. Other impressions followed -- Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sally Struthers, Cyndi Lauper, Cindy Brady -- and she always stepped in as the space-cadet mother, lounge singer and secretary, as needed. One of her best sketches was a commercial parody, “Victoria’s Secrets,” in which Jackson lounged about in a white silk teddy and purred, “A lot of people ask me, ‘Are you as dumb as you appear on the show?’ The answer is, ‘I don’t know. I never watch the show.’”

Victoria Jackson comes out … as a Jesus lover

But "Saturday Night Live" viewers might never have suspected that Jackson also wed herself to Jesus. Her relationship was personal and rarely, if ever, made it on air.

“Lorne Michaels hired me because he thought I was funny and I was professional and I didn’t proselytize,” Jackson says. “We were trying to make people laugh.”

Behind the scenes, however, was a different story. While she was hitting her groove on the show, Jackson found herself rubbing up against a group of peers who held beliefs directly at odds with her own. A milder personality may have remained quiet. But that's not Jackson.

"Victoria doesn’t do anything halfway,” says her husband, Paul Wessel, with a laugh. She engaged those around her directly because she felt comfortable enough around her castmates — never worrying she'd be marginalized. It worked.

“She was so honest. You never wondered where you stood with her,” says Sweeney Blum. “Because a place like 'SNL' is so competitive, there is a certain amount of vigilance about what people are thinking of you. But Victoria is one person you never had to worry about in that way.”

Writer and performer Al Franken, now a junior U.S. Senator from Minnesota, was a particular foil. “Al Franken said that when he grew up, his family discussed politics every night around the dinner table, so that’s what he’s an expert at. Our dinner table discussed the Bible and gymnastics, so that’s what I’m an expert at,” Jackson says.

Sweeney Blum recalls waiting for one rehearsal to start and walking in to find Franken and Jackson mid-argument: “They’re sitting there steaming a little bit, and all of the sudden Al leans forward and says, ‘Victoria, surely as a Christian you care about people’s health care, surely you would believe in that.’ And Victoria says, ‘Well, if people died sooner, people will go to Heaven sooner.’

"And I start laughing because I thought she was being funny, and she says, ‘No. They will meet Jesus sooner.’”

For Christmas one year, Jackson handed each cast member an audio version of the Bible with the idea that they could listen to it in their cars when driving home to their families.

“It didn’t surprise me,” says Nora Dunn, another former "SNL" cast member now doing theater in Chicago. Dunn says Jackson’s faith never got in the way of the work and that back then Jackson wasn’t political. But Dunn says she was often perplexed by the fact that Jackson didn’t seem to have a divide between on and off stage.

“I don’t understand anyone who plays a character in real life unless they’re having an intellectual discussion, which I never had with Victoria. When I met her, I was surprised that there was not much difference between what she did in front of the camera and what happened off camera,” Dunn says. “For me, it tried my patience.”

Victoria Jackson becomes a ukulele-strumming Tea Party mouthpiece 

As we're reminded every four years when Republicans trot out Clint Eastwood, Billy Baldwin and Charlie Daniels, there's not a lot of celebrity star power in the GOP galaxy. So when Jackson experienced her epiphany about Obama being a secret Muslim communist, she had a handful of high-profile venues available in which to make her case.

A 2007 appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show "Real Time" catapulted her into the conservative media orbit, and she became one of the emerging Tea Party’s most unexpected ambassadors of outrage. Gay marriage, Islam, the war in Afghanistan, the Occupy movement, even a kiss between two men that aired on “Glee" -- it all became grist for Jackson's comedic commentaries, which found a home on many of the mainstream conservative shows -- Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Dennis Miller -- and Florida Christian radio network ReachFM. Her voice particularly took flight via the booming blogosphere, including the Patriot Update and the Liberty Alliance, which produces her own web series, “The Victoria Jackson Show.”

“Coming out with these very extreme opinions felt like it had no context; that’s why she got the reaction she did,” says Kelly Leonard, executive vice-president of the Second City, the Chicago sketch comedy theater that launched the careers of dozens of "SNL" talent, from Bill Murray to Tina Fey. “But Victoria Jackson also hasn’t been working and not because of her outrageous political views. I’ve seen people blow themselves up at every stage of their career, from just at the beginning to well past their prime, so the armchair psychologist in me says she’s blowing herself up to justify she hasn’t been working. Because the whole political thing doesn’t jive.”

And with that sudden activism, a puzzling picture emerged, not just for the predictable vanguards of the far left to figure out, but also for her new support network on the far right. Watch the clip below from the online series “Politichicks” as Jackson -- her hair wrapped in her trademark bow -- bangs on her ukulele and sings about radical Islam. “They like beheadings and pedophile weddings/And then they pray five times a day!” she sings, while the rest of the panel, composed of demure conservative women, strain to make sense of it all. The performance could either be a stealth "SNL" sketch, or it could be the unintended collision between a flagging political movement desperate to align itself with star power, even a comic actor whose political agenda falls second to a deep-seated desire to get a laugh at all costs.

Victoria Jackson singing about radical Islam on "Politichicks":

Her ideas seem so far-fetched that you have to wonder: Is Victoria Jackson an unsuspecting media innocent caught up in a humorless political movement? Or is she a shrewd satirist of said movement?

“The No. 1 question people ask me about Victoria is, ‘C’mon this is an Andy Kaufman performance-art thing, and she is suddenly going to reveal it as a living art project,'" says Sweeney Blum. "I say, as far as I know that is not true. When you see her on TV, that isn’t an act. That is really her.”

Sweeney Blum says she is the subject of Jackson’s song “Atheist,” which lampoons her recent one-woman show about falling from Catholicism. “She’s telling everyone she sees/she’s got the cure to our disease/of ignorance she shouts with zeal/there is no God, he isn’t real!” sings Jackson. Sweeney Blum says the arrows didn’t sting. “I feel a lot of affection for Victoria. I thought it was funny,” she says. “Even though my friends thought it was so awful, I found it really endearing,” because, she says, Jackson “gushes over other people’s success.” So Sweeney Blum is often baffled by her former castmate's radical right positions, which are often couched in the guise of comedy.

Jackson espouses the usual Tea Party dogma, but even spoken in her tiny, sweet-sounding voice, the words read like hate speech. Here is a selection:

On the gay kiss on “Glee”: “My grandchildren are not going to watch ‘Glee.’ I love this show, and then they started kissing. This is way past what TV immorality used to be. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah, and it’s frightening.”

On Islam: “Islam is dangerous. The Muslim brotherhood has infiltrated the higher law of government. Islam is a greater threat than Communism in our country. I wish people can know the truth.”

On Obama’s alleged Communism: "Television is afraid to say it. (White House Senior Advisor) Valerie Jarrett’s grandparents were in the Communist Party, but you won’t see that anywhere … Obama is stirring up racial conflict and class warfare.”

And on her blog, she advocates for white history month: "White people can’t talk about racism. I was being sarcastic. The New York Times said that the white race will soon be a minority in America. I didn’t say that was good or bad, but that maybe we’ll get a white history month. I think it’s patronizing to treat one group ‘special’. Every month should be for a different group of people if we want equality. There should be a Spanish history month, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese. Why is the black thing always so touchy? It’s like, relax people, we’re all equal.”

Jackson admits that she’s well aware of the Andy Kaufman question. And her husband Wessel says his wife does “the classic blonde airhead very well because that is pretty much who she is. What you see is what you get. One minute she will dazzle you with brilliance and insight -- and the next second she’ll floor you with something so irrational you can’t comprehend it. She is who she is. She is generous, loving, kind and very direct. She can alienate people, but her heart is always in the right place.”

“She seems to take it seriously while not taking it that seriously," says Sweeney Blum. "She clearly likes the laughs and she likes getting the laughs enough that she doesn’t mind being laughed at, while at the same time, she truly seems to like the things she’s saying. Every time I have an encounter with Victoria, I have so much thinking to do afterwards.”

Can Victoria Jackson return to being funny for a living?

But these days, so does Jackson. She says working for four years as a quasi-political pundit became “a burden,” and not just because she became vilified for her views by tabloids and Internet trolls. “I wish the message would get overexposed and not the messenger. My takeaway is, it’s more fun to by funny than to talk about serious stuff,” she says. “It’s not popular to tell the truth anymore. Truth is hate speech. If you tell people what the Koran actually says, you’re called a hate monger.”

In a year, Wessel, a former SWAT team officer for the Miami Dade County Police Department, retires from his current position flying police helicopters, which means the couple, who married in 1991, can use his pension to decide the next phase in their lives. Her biggest hurdle: perception. Jackson says if people could see her true self, they would understand she’s not a xenophobe. The paradox to understanding Jackson is that -- unlike other prominent Tea Party types like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann -- when Jackson espouses anti-Obama rhetoric, she spews her rhetoric without venom. She almost sounds, well, sweet, if a bit wacky.

Yet it may be difficult for some to reconcile political insight from someone who says she’s only quoting facts from research mostly culled from those right-wing media outlets that commonly sling debunked conspiracy theories or connect invisible dots that are barely credible: World Net Daily, Patriot Update, the Drudge Report, Brietbart, TheBlaze.

“When you express the need for a white history month, that would be a hard sell for any audience, unless the audience is very limited and doesn’t read or doesn’t know anything about American history,” says Dunn. “You can certainly find that audience, but I’m not sure you can write comedy for them.”

Jackson seems to acknowledge this and is letting her political life fade. Her online web series is currently on hiatus, she no longer has a radio show and she says she is no longer a Republican because even that camp is distancing itself from its Tea Party fringe. Last fall she published a memoir, “Is My Bow Too Big?” (White Hall Press), with the subtitle “How I Went from 'Saturday Night Live' to the Tea Party,” but Jackson suggests that journey is turning back: “My ego is not on the throne anymore. Jesus is on the throne.”

She tells me that the one thing she wants readers to come away from this article — “God is real. Jesus is God. And read the Bible all the way through before you dismiss it.” — is a message that is no different from what motivated her all those years ago when balancing herself on the high beam and hearing Johnny Carson chuckle from the wings. Can she get back there one day?

“It’s up to God. God can do anything,” she says. “If God wants me to be alive or dead, an airhead on a sitcom, or a fat grandma, it’s up to God.”

Kelly Leonard, the Second City executive, suggests something more grounded. “Talent wins out. If she has talent, Hollywood will let you do anything.”

Sweeney Blum believes she has that talent. “She should be on a show. She is a fine actress and has charisma and she is funny,” she says. “And she would deliver. She was not somebody who didn’t show up and didn't know her lines.

And Leonard says being political won’t tarnish her prospects of finding work. That's not the issue. What is likely to make casting Jackson a challenge is that -- unlike Dennis Miller, the former "SNL" host of Weekend Update who is now a conservative pundit -- she “had never been a political comedian at all.”

So who is Victoria Jackson? She tells a story from her "SNL" days about Lorne Michaels calling Kevin Nealon into his office to ask, "Is Victoria really stupid? Or is she really smart and just playing stupid?"

"They concluded that they couldn't figure it out," she says. "And you know what? I can't either.

"When I find out, I'll tell everybody."

By Mark Guarino

Mark Guarino is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Chicago.

MORE FROM Mark Guarino