Nora Dunn: "SNL is a traumatic experience. It’s something you have to survive"

Salon exclusive: The comic talks Sweeney sisters, backstage pressures & her love/hate relationship with Jon Lovitz

Published April 7, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Nora Dunn       (AP/Chris Pizzello/NBC/Salon)
Nora Dunn (AP/Chris Pizzello/NBC/Salon)

Forty years ago this fall, on Oct. 11, 1975, "Saturday Night Live" premiered on NBC. It's the show that we love to love, and sometimes love to hate, and even at its most absurd, has continually changed and evolved our conversations about American culture. It has had us weeping with laughter at its searing political and social satire, inspired us to badly reenact skits with characters the comics have created whole cloth, and occasionally even dumbfounded us with glaring misfires.

For the rest of the year, Salon will be posting regular interviews with “SNL” alums—former cast members and writers, from every era of the 40-year show—who take us behind the scenes, and have generously shared their memories and insights about the politics on and off the stage, in the writers room and Lorne Michaels’ office.

We inaugurate the series by talking to Nora Dunn, who first joined the cast for the 1985-86 season, hired by Michaels when he returned to Studio 8H to save the floundering “SNL.” It was a brutal season: The show almost got canceled, and everyone on the cast was fired, except for Dunn, Jon Lovitz, A. Whitney Brown, Al Franken (a featured player and writer since the beginning) and Dennis Miller. But then along came Dana Carvey and Mike Myers, and the late Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, and the show got its groove back, and once again became an ensemble. Her official "SNL" video archive is here.

The Chicago native immediately broke out from the moment she arrived, armed with an arsenal of original characters like model-turned-talk-show host Pat Stevens; pretentious film critic Ashley Ashley;  the now-legendary lounge-singing Sweeney sister Liz, who, together with sister Candy (Hooks), had medleys at the ready; as well as a host of impressions from Joan Baez to Liza Minnelli, Imelda Marcos to Raisa Gorbachev.

She left in 1990, amid what then had been considered a “controversy”—she, together with musical guest Sinead O’Connor, boycotted the penultimate episode of her “SNL” career because she refused to appear with host Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian whose shtick was notoriously misogynist. Cast members, especially Lovitz, claimed that she was simply trying to draw attention to herself. But as the now-62-year-old actress and writer, who resides in Chicago, tells Salon, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We spoke at length about, among other things, her fraught relationship with Lovitz, her magical creative chemistry with Hooks, and the manifold joys and horrors of the job that forever changed her life.

What was it like to be at "SNL’s" 40th reunion?

It was incredible, because everyone showed up. I did not know what it would be like going back. I had been back for a special and I realized after that that I didn’t want to go back again, not just because I felt like Norma Desmond. I thought, I was on the show for five years and I have to answer for that for the rest of my life. I have someone asking about it on a daily basis. The reason the show lasted for 40 years really rests on the first cast, because they were so sensational, and they became these icons that I think that they really built that main stage. I think there were many cast members of equal talent, hilariously funny people who came later, but the iconic nature of the show was built by the first cast. I started watching the show in 1975. I loved Buck Henry and Elliott Gould and Madeline Kahn. You got the sense that they were the outsiders who became the in crowd. And it was so easy to love them. I loved Laraine Newman, I loved her newscaster. When I was on the show, I couldn’t put the two together because we were such a different cast. It was a different time.

Did you have fun?

Yes. I danced with Paul McCartney! It was just beyond star-studded. And yet the party was so accessible. To see that [reunion] show on Sunday was very old-fashioned. There were all these great sketches—the energy in the studio! Since the inception of "SNL," the sketches have been too long. Most of them didn’t work. People are still complaining about that. But they did Bass-o-matic. I didn’t have to do anything, I just caught that wave, and that wave just kind of rolled the whole night through. When you have a roomful of people whose whole life is about making people laugh, it’s pretty special. Marty Short was just great, and Jimmy Fallon. I really enjoyed it as an audience member. I was backstage and talked to a lot of people. Some people who I never met I got to talk to. I didn’t end up getting back to our room until 10 to 4 and I had to get up at 5:30. [laughs]

Do you like the new cast?

I don’t know this new cast. For the past several years, I’ll go on YouTube and see the sketches. I watched the cast right after me—that was a very good cast: Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon, I love their NPR reporters, the Delicious Dish. Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond. That guy is such a chameleon I don’t think people know all the impressions that he did. But "SNL" is a traumatic experience. You don’t go camping once a year with your cast. It’s kind of something you have to survive and you really have to learn. I made a lot of mistakes. That was my first job in showbiz. I had never been in front of a camera. I didn’t know showbiz. And to do a show live like that and follow these great people that had performed before a live camera—it was real hard. We had a really good cast, a really good combination of writer-performers. We had people who had really good improv and comedy backgrounds, so all that worked.

And you came in at a time when the guard was changing, and you survived the bloodshed.

Yeah, and that first year was highly critiqued. They really wanted to kill the show forever, and I didn’t think the show was going to survive. But when I came back, I saw people I knew: Dana Carvey, Whitney Brown. Dana came on with all of these amazing characters and I think they really won the audience over and then the audience got to know everyone else because they fell in love with the Church Lady.

I just wanted to say, I’m so sorry about Jan Hooks. You two were amazing together.

Yeah. I was disappointed to see there was no tribute to Jan at the 40th. I know that the reunion was presented as a variety show, for the reunion, but she died so recently—she wasn’t featured in anything. Mark Shaiman wrote music [to honor all the music that was on "Saturday Night Live," and they asked if I wanted to do Liz Sweeney in the tribute. I thought it was very awkward, because Jan died and so Candy Sweeney also died. Still, I thought they would do some kind of a Sweeney sisters tribute, but they were not featured at all. I thought I had false memory syndrome: We were very popular. Pat Stevens was a very popular sketch, and that wasn’t featured. The show had so many elements to it, and so many stars and so many guests. The guest hosts were there. But there were a lot of people they had to satisfy.

Jan came on your second year on the show. Did you guys immediately hit it off and start working together?

Yeah, because we had the same kind of style. She was very much a character actress, and was very driven by that. She really had a lot of different characters that she’d invented and had a lot of people she did impressions of. The Sweeneys came about the year she came on, pretty early on. We had been working on a commercial parody and she started singing classics, and we started doing a medley. She came up with this idea for the Sweeney sisters.

And then you opened the Emmys with them one year.

It was so much fun because not everyone knew who the Sweeney sisters were, so they didn’t know what the heck was going on.

I watched a clip of it online, and so many people in the audience looked very confused. It was like performance art, because not everyone was in on the joke.

We had so much fun doing that. Lorne Michaels produced that show and it was really one of the best Emmys ever because it was an ode to great television. There were clips to the "Dick Van Dyke Show," and Mary Tyler Moore was there. You know she hosted "SNL" and played the third Sweeney sister, which was just the pinnacle for me and Jan—we did not do any more after that.

When Jan passed away, my entire Facebook feed was filled with clips of the two of you, and I was reminded of your brilliant chemistry—as performers but also as creators. You two invented some incredibly memorable characters.

You know, Jan never thought of herself as a writer, but when you get up to improvise together to write something, you’re writing. And that’s what we did. We would improvise those sketches, and we worked with [writer] Christine Zander. When I was on the show, it was a different time, it was the ’80s, and heavy, heavy male writers. And when we pitched the Sweeney sisters, it was completely brushed aside. “No, Bill Murray already did that.” They didn’t even want to hear about them, but we went ahead and wrote the sketch and our medley and we sang it at read-throughs, and we played it at the table read and it was a huge hit and that was it.

Plus you gave these sisters a back story. I remember when Liz announces she’s engaged to William Shatner, and Candy gets wistful and admittedly jealous.

Yes, and we had so many great guests. I was marrying William Shatner, and then later Candy was involved with Robert Mitchum. And I thought he was wrong for my sister, and then we went to sing in a prison, and then in a lobby—we couldn’t even sing in a lounge we had to sing in a lobby! And then Mary Tyler Moore came, and she didn’t want to sing, and then she pulls a microphone out of her purse. There was nothing more fun than being the Sweeney sisters because, in their minds, they were very successful.

I know things tensions ran high as time went on. Jon Lovitz and Victoria Jackson were known to have said some unkind things. What was going on there?

I think we were a dysfunctional family. He and I had a love/hate relationship. I found it very hard to work with Jon because I came from theater when I first started, and you don’t fuck with somebody before they go on. You actually take your rehearsal seriously. Jon was the guy banging on the piano while you’re trying to rehearse. He was like that disruptive brother that you say, “Please just get out of here!” When John Malkovich did the show, he obviously comes out of theater, and he and I were trying to rehearse an “Attitudes” sketch, which he had written with me, and Lovitz was banging on the piano, and Malkovich asked me, “Is that what goes on here?”

So I would get very irritated with Jon, and we’d have arguments. But I loved him and I realized that going back to the reunion. I’ve always found Jon Lovitz very funny. His humor is this kind of crazy throwback, the way he uses his body, it’s like he’s a puppet, you pull the strings and his arms go flying and to see him. He’s like a vaudevillian comedian.

The cast has grown exponentially since you were on, which I would think would make it even harder to get airtime for sketches. How hard was it when you were on?

We were lucky because we had a really stable cast. And I think as maybe three seasons went on, Lorne added a couple people, but we weren’t introduced to those people as new cast members. It was very strange. Suddenly there was just another person there. And I think it was very hard for those people. Like, Who are you? What are you doing here? Are you a visitor? Or are you in the cast? Then we got Adam Sandler, and he was pretty much just doing his own thing. A lot of these people came on and just did their standup routines on News Update. We had been an ensemble-type cast, and I think we were at our best when we were working together, and the show started to become solo performances and I started losing interest. That last year I was on the show. I thought, I can’t write another sketch, I really did not want to be in another sketch. I just wanted to be on a show where somebody hands me a script. But in retrospect, everything was so up-to-the-last-minute, writers were changing and editing and trying to give you a funnier line. And it was live and there was nothing more exciting than that. And every week we had a host, often a major movie star or someone that you always wanted to know what they were like. It was such an exciting job.

Which host were you most excited to meet?

Mary Tyler Moore. And I loved her history and I watched her show religiously. And Dolly Parton—we got to know Dolly Parton, and she was amazing and accessible and fun and funny. And I loved Robert Mitchum because he told us stories about Marilyn Monroe. He’s worked with some of the great icons and he is an icon, a great movie star when movie stars were movie stars. And we got to see great musical acts. I got to see Roy Orbison sing “Pretty Woman,” and Annie Lennox. The music was just so good. Tom Hanks became like a family member. And there would always be guests dropping in. George Harrison dropped in one night, and Lorne couldn’t rustle up anybody but Jan and me, so we went in there, drinking wine, listening to music, and neither one of us said a peep, we were just in shock. That guy was just so smart—and his stories! People who are really famous like that, great songwriters and great musicians, they’re incredibly intelligent people, they’re very well spoken. Like you think, I wish I could explain myself that way. He had that great aura about him. And Warren Beatty came one night and I was like, “I’m going to go peek and see what I can find.” I had to hide under a desk because they came out of [Lorne’s] office, and I go, Oh my God, I hope he doesn’t see me under this desk. It’s not going to be a Goldie Hawn moment. It’s late in the morning, and they’re just gonna go, “Who are you?” But he didn’t see me, and I went back to report to Jan that I’d seen half of him. [Laughs.] I didn’t get to see his face. Lorne Michaels knew everybody. And they came up there to schmooze with Lorne—he had to be there so much that he conducted a lot of his life there. It was like life on another planet.

That would be surreal. You were on during Reagan and the beginning of the Bush era, with jokes that wrote themselves, as they were easy to caricature, with “Star Wars” and family values. But this was also the height of the AIDS crisis and "SNL" became increasingly homophobic.

We were on the show when Reagan shut off any research for AIDS or HIV. It was a real homophobic era, that time. We didn’t have any gay writers. We didn’t have any gay cast members.

I recently rewatched Eddie Murphy’s "Raw" and "Delirious" for the first time in years—I used to know those monologues by heart, I loved him so much. But it’s shocking how obsessively terrified of gays and AIDS he was. Yet his jokes about race were so provocative, his cultural observations so searing and spot-on.

No topic should ever be off-limits, but on "SNL" in those days, we never made fun of the Catholic Church, we never made fun of priests raping boys. And all of those subject matters can be handled because satire is ridicule, and satire is smart. And if you’re really performing satire, you have to be intelligent. It’s how you do it. Look at "All in the Family"—they handled that material brilliantly. They handled racism, all of that stuff, and it was very smartly written.

That’s because Norman Lear was a wise social observer.

And then there’s Andrew Dice Clay, the character, who was an abuser of women and he was a homophobe. And his material was terrible. He just wasn’t smart enough to handle that material. And our writing staff was not the writing staff to handle that material either [for him to host the show]. Lorne said, “Andrew Dice Clay was a phenomenon worth examining.” And yeah, he was a phenomenon, but if you’re going to examine him, he shouldn’t be the host, you should write an article. We didn’t examine the hosts of "SNL." We supported them, we wrote for them, and we made them look good. Otherwise you’d never get a host. You’re there to make them look good. "SNL" was not capable of handling that kind of stuff and it was a sad moment, but whatever. I was well aware of that guy’s so-called “work.” He had been a comedian for many years, and he gradually became Andrew Dice Clay and he got more and more into it and he lost his way because he wasn’t smart enough.

Which is why you and Sinead O’Connor boycotted the show he was hosting. Why did Jon Lovitz get so angry about it?

I will never know what his problem was. He actually did an impression of Andrew Dice Clay. He used to play that shit on a big boom box. Don’t tell me something isn’t garbage when it’s garbage, because I know what garbage is. Actually, I don’t know because Jon Lovitz had said something to me in front of k.d. lang, on the stage. I was talking to her. She was our host and Jon comes over and says, “Be careful, she’s a lesbian.” She was our musical guest. I was like, “What is that? Is that a joke?” I don’t think that they understood where I was coming from there—I’m not going to perform with [Clay]. It was offensive to me to read [in the press] that I didn’t like him because he was foul-mouthed. My friends know me. I’m from Chicago. I’m a Bears fan, I’m a Hawks fan for my whole life. My brothers played football, my grandfather and my oldest brother were football coaches, and believe me when I watch a game, the language I use is not for the Disney family hour. I don’t have a problem with swearing. I enjoy it.

It’s one of life’s great pleasures.

My objection to Andrew Dice Clay was that his character was only about one thing: abusing women and laughing about abusing women. There was nothing else behind it. There was nothing else about it except to make him look harmless.

Did you and Jon make amends?

ND: We never made amends because we were never the kind of friends that had to make amends. I am not interested in what he has to say. I am not interested in what Victoria Jackson has to say. She has said Obama is a Muslim who has imposed Sharia Law on us—crazy stuff like that. Jon’s not like that. Jon is a good guy, he’s a funny guy, and he’s a strange guy. I was never angry about anything he said about me, so I don’t know where it came from. But it was his problem, not mine. I felt for Victoria because I don’t think she fit in on SNL. And I couldn’t work with her because we weren’t on the same page—ever. We weren’t even in the same book. We happened to be on the same show.

I know that Victoria has complained about not being understood, because she’s right-wing, but she was the only right-wing person ever to be on the cast. Dennis Miller’s a Republican, and he found his place among the cast well enough.

Dennis Miller is very smart. He didn’t come to the reunion—I think he would have had a great time. When he was the head of News Update, he would have had a standing ovation because he brought back News Update. He wrote that— he was a great writer and he wrote great jokes.

What was a typical week like when you were in production?

Monday night the host showed up. We sat in a room and talked about ideas: The pressure was on to write for the host. If the host hadn’t done the show before, they were always freaked out, and wondering whether they made the right decision, so they came into the room and they had to hear that they were going to be in funny sketches, and it’s not going to be terrifying and everyone is going to be supportive of them. Sometimes things in that room actually happened, and most times it didn’t because it took time to talk to the host. It was hard to come in on Monday with ideas, though they did come in with ideas for the most part. I used to call that meeting “It’s about a guy who …” because every sketch they came up with was like, “It’s about a guy who …” They never came up with any ideas for the women. We had to go off in a corner and write our own material. The show had to be written in one night, and then the read-through was always horrible. By the time you got through Tuesday night you didn’t get any sleep. Sometimes you think you wrote a great sketch and then they would just die at read-through and you’d feel so unfunny, but it was so late you thought it was funny. And then you thought, Oh my God, I’m not in anything in the show. And every cast member was like, “I’m not in the show, I’m not in the show.” But the writing continued all the way up to air. I look back and I think, Why did we take it so seriously? If you got your sketch cut between rehearsal and air, it was like your mother died. It wasn’t that important. But every week, you wanted to shine. And you also wanted to have fun. It was no fun if you weren’t in a funny sketch. Sometimes you had great sketches you couldn’t wait to get out there. I remember when I’d have a great Pat Stevens or “Attitudes” and I could not wait to get in front of the camera, it was so much fun.

What was your audition for "SNL" like?

I had so many auditions. On the last day I was supposed to audition, I’d had it because they put me in a hotel, and I was waitressing at the time. I didn’t have any money to sustain myself. I wasn’t working. And they didn’t give us a per diem. Dennis Miller was staying in the same hotel, and we kept asking each other, “Did you crack open your mini bar?” And neither of us had done it because we didn’t know if we’d get charged for it.

Had you come from Chicago?

I came to New York to audition. They brought me here from Chicago and they wouldn’t tell me when I could go home. And so day after day, going into two weeks, I didn’t have any money—and I told them. They said, “Can’t you borrow from your parents?” And I was like, “No.” So that last day, there were going to be 30 people. There was supposed to be a hurricane that weekend, and it was very windy out and I was just sitting there, and I remember thinking, I’m not going up there. I was hungry and upset and I wasn’t being treated right. But Al Franken came down and said, “They’re ready to see you upstairs.” And I said, “I’m not coming upstairs.” And he said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because No. 1, I need a sandwich, and No. 2 I need a pack of cigarettes. And if I don’t get that, I’m not going up there.”

So he got me a sandwich and a pack of cigarettes. I ate my sandwich and smoked a cigarette, and went up there 40 minutes past my time. I would never today have the balls to do that but I did it that time, and I went in, in character, as Ashley Glen Ashley, a character I was doing at the time. She was a pompous actress. I just went in, I did her, and I left. And then when I came out, they said, “You got the job.”

I think I’d have been too tired to be excited by that point.

I knew that I had auditioned so many times that I was high on the list. They hadn’t sent me home, but I remember talking to some associate producer, and saying, “Look, I gotta go home,” and they said, “No, you’re hired.” And I never did go home. I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral—being raised Catholic, you know—and I just knelt down in front of the statue, and started sobbing. Because I was working as a performer, but I wasn’t making a living as a performer. I always had to wait on tables during the day and work at night, and I didn’t know how much longer I could do that, so that was obviously life-changing. I got an apartment, the show went into production, and that was that. It was pretty stunning. And you look back and you go, “Boy. I’ve been acting for 30 years.” But if I were as smart as I am today, I would have never gone into it. [laughs.] You gotta be stupid. You’ve gotta go, “This is what I want to do.” You’ve gotta love it, and say, “This is what I’m doing with my life, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be a fry cook.”

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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