Julia Sweeney's "SNL" backstage stories: "You could just watch how many more Adam Sandler and David Spade and Chris Farley sketches there are, that white-male energy that I wasn't part of"

Exclusive: '90s "SNL" star talks Phil Hartman, Pat, Victoria Jackson & what it's like to tell Lorne you're leaving


Kera Bolonik
May 6, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

Season 16 of “SNL” marked a seismic change, after five years of relative calm and stability amid the solid, ensemble-like cast. Lorne Michaels let Nora Dunn go following her boycott of the Andrew Dice Clay episode the previous spring. And because he wouldn’t oblige Jon Lovitz’s request to take a few months off to film a movie (“Mom and Dad Save the World”), the funnyman quit—though he would make several appearances throughout the season. Suddenly, Michaels found himself changing up the cast. To replace Dunn, he brought on Julia Sweeney, whom he scouted from the L.A.-based sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings (one of Michaels’ go-to spots, where he’d also picked up Lovitz and Sweeney’s mentor, Phil Hartman), and cast four new men: Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade—the latter two, promoted from the writing staff. In the second half of the season, he’d bring on two more guys, Adam Sandler and Tim Meadows. And with Jan Hooks leaving at the end of the season, the cast became very male-heavy, and with it, the show’s tone. And this would only continue throughout Sweeney’s four years on “SNL.”

And it made it hard for Sweeney, she told Salon, to get the kind of airtime enjoyed by her male colleagues, especially for her own sketches. And when she did get airtime, Sweeney found herself being relegated to supporting, often matronly roles, even when she was doing impressions, like her boobaciously vapid Loni Anderson to Phil Hartman’s mean-drunk-misogynist Burt Reynolds, and her dead-on Jane Pauley. Fortunately, she discovered an ideal collaborator and good friend in the writers room: Christine Zander (whom Salon interviewed, which will appear in the coming weeks), who’d worked closely with Dunn. “We were together in the same office and joined at the hip the whole time at ‘SNL,’” said Sweeney.

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And together, they worked on a number of winning sketches, including, most famously, "It's Pat"— which featured an androgynous character whose indeterminate gender unnerved everyone Pat encountered—which had everything to do with other people’s issues, and not Pat’s own. (Sadly, Pat was spun out into a feature film called “It’s Pat!”— infamously and nearly unanimously considered a box-office disaster.)

But even with the success of "It's Pat," and close friends like Zander and Hartman, Sweeney was often, understandably, frustrated. After Zander left following the 1993-94 season, Sweeney decided to break her contract a year early, despite the protestations of Lorne Michaels. It may have been a bold move, to leave a high-profile job like a spot on the “SNL” cast—but for Sweeney, it was the right one. Because, though her first few years were brutal—her marriage broke up, she lost her brother to lymphoma, and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer—she has found tremendous success as a writer (most recently, of the essay collection “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother”), an actress and a critically acclaimed monologuist. Her one-woman shows—“God Said Ha!”; “In the Family Way”; “Letting Go of God”—have appeared on and off Broadway, been adapted into award-winning films, and even earned her a Grammy nomination. Sweeney, who now lives just outside of Chicago with her husband and daughter, spoke with Salon about her friendships with Zander and Phil Hartman, and the weirdness of “SNL” reunions, and shared some insight into how to interact with a certain Tea-Partying fellow alum.

You spoke to Salon a couple of years ago about Victoria Jackson. You were honest, but as diplomatic as you could be. Did you have a good working relationship?

We did have a good relationship. One of the things that's so endearing about her is that there's no filter. That's one of the problems, too, but you don't wonder where you stand with her. If she's upset, she'll tell you. At the 40th reunion, we had a good time and we really kept off the topics where we disagree—which is every topic [laughs]. No, but we do have a lot of things we can talk about: how difficult it was for us at the time and how we wish we had been smarter. We spent a lot of time talking about what we wished we knew if we could do it again. We have a lot to talk about! I left, and then two days later I think I saw something like, Victoria Jackson says Obama is a jihadist! Whatever it was, it was just ... oh my God!

Sometimes I wonder, is she just being like an Andy Kaufman? Is this a lifelong art project?

No! So many people ask me that, like is this all performance art? But no.

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I love that people want to give her the benefit of the doubt, and want to believe she’s as smart as that.

No, she really must think that Obama is a jihadist militant.

What was it like being at the reunion? Had you been to one before?

I went to the 25th reunion and it was just a really bad experience for me.

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Why?

I don't know. I feel I'm so different now than I was then: How I see myself in show business and my petty self-pity about whatever—it's hard to know if it was different or if I was so different. I went by myself—which I did to this one, too—and that was a whole thing. They told me right away that I was just getting one ticket and I was like, I just don't believe that Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy can't bring a spouse with them. The last time it was so hilariously terrible: I wasn't mentioned in it at all. I left the show not under the best circumstances so that's OK.

A person with more dignity might just not go to [the 25th reunion], but I went. I was in the limo by myself—being in a limo by yourself is not good—and then they opened the door on the red carpet and no one recognized me because I looked different, and the limo behind me opened and it was Mick Jagger and I was literally trampled over. I came up to the stage area and there was this green room with literally every celebrity you can imagine. Steve Martin even tried to push his way into this room filled with celebrities and I looked at it and thought, I'm not even going to try. Steve Martin can't get in there!

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So then I just thought I would go and sit down in the studio, and I walked in and the entire studio was completely empty. I sat down for an hour and a half, read the address book I had in my purse. The only thing that was good was that Al Franken sat next to me and he was also alone and he was also not mentioned in the show. We just sat there and went, Wow, according to "SNL" we were never here. I love Al Franken so much; I'm so happy for him. We just kept glancing at each other like, This is a really specific view of the history of this show. Even though that was still true with the 40th, I'm in a completely different place now. Now, I feel like being on "SNL" was this weird, crazy fluke. I'm not saying I didn't deserve it, but I see it in the context of my whole life and career, and it's sort of a bane. I still go places here in Wilmette (a Chicago suburb) and people will call me Pat.

The 40th was really fun, though. I called around to people beforehand and made dates. Christine Zander, who I wrote all these sketches with and went on to work with in L.A. She didn't get invited to the 25th but she got invited to this—I especially loved that we reconnected. There's another guy, Dave Mandel, who wrote on the show and who I'm now in contact with, and we had such a great conversation. I guess when you're younger you think you're going to live so long but then you're older and you realize that these are the people and this is it. There's not going to be anyone else like Dave Mandel or Christine. So that was really meaningful to me. It was really fun to see the crew, the cue cards department—many of them are the same people—and going into the control room to see the producers. That was just heaven. Everyone was so happy. I danced until 4 in the morning!

You were at “SNL” just as the cast was changing over from Lorne Michaels’ newly remade cast—arguably his best cast since the Not Ready for Prime Time Players— Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn and Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz—to a very dude-heavy crew, like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley.

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When I was there, it was a big shift. I love Adam Sandler in that he's made me laugh maybe harder than any other person. He's just funny to be around, and I have so many memories of him just joking around and making prank phone calls where I laughed so hard I thought I was going to throw up. But they didn't feel that way about me—that was not reciprocal! They didn't get me comedically. I would only get cast as the example of the ugly girl and then they would say, We have to hire a model to play the pretty girl because there's no girl here who could play that.

Oh, how nice!

Yeah. I was only five years older, but they saw me as so matronly— probably because I am that way— and couldn't even write me in any part where I wasn't the old lady. As they got more power and more popularity, unless I had written the sketch myself with Christine, there was no way I was getting cast anymore. It was just hard with them there, even though I liked them, and we got along. But I did not exist in their comedic worldview. I existed in a very specific way, which didn't show up very often.

The show wasn't particularly political anymore. And it also seemed to lose its ensemble feeling.

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Yeah, I would say that's true.

I see that Lorne was trying to appeal to more young male viewers—the jokes frat-boyish and scatological, and with it, more homophobic and sexist. Women’s voices got lost there for awhile.

Yeah. The “SNL” photographer at the time was Edie Baskin, and I went to the website. I looked up every episode I was on, and every sketch I was in, instead of just relying on my vague memories. I could actually see the evolution of my four and a half years there. I've had a lot of self-reproach about quitting before my contract was up. Lorne was unhappy about it and everyone said I was making a mistake. From a traditional career point of view where you're trying to make a lot of money and make a good name for yourself and be more popular, it was a mistake. I, personally, am happy with my life but when I want to be mad at myself, I'll say, that's another example of why you didn't become bigger or more successful. But when I looked at all the pictures, that whole last year that I was on, there were many shows I wasn't in at all. Lorne didn't want me to quit, but I totally understood why I quit. You could just watch how many more Adam Sandler and David Spade and Chris Farley sketches there are, that white-male energy that I wasn't part of. I just wasn't in that world. There really wasn't enough for me to do.

I think a lot of people would have understood that.

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I have empathy for Lorne, too; it's amazing that he's been able to keep this boat floating for 40 years! I have such a respect and appreciation for that, and such an appreciation that he included me. I remember Christine and I writing a sketch that wasn't particularly feminist-minded, but the females were the drivers of comedy in the sketch and it had a point of view that wasn't scatological. We would work on that and we'd have a read-through and our sketch would get a lot of laughs. When you're in a room with all these men and you're basing it on how many laughs you get from the room, it's hard to prove that what you've written is funny. There were times even when Christine and I wrote a sketch, people would say, Oh, that's hilarious! Of course, it'll never get on. That was funny but it was also true and it just became very dispiriting.

What would it take to get something on?

You'd have to be really broad. Sometimes I think it's not a mistake that Pat was the only way I could get on; basically by being in drag. That was all I felt like I could do. Later, when I watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and other people succeed, I felt mad at myself that I didn't try harder. Of course, they were there at a different time and they were different people.

The political tide had changed, too.

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Yeah, but I wish I had stayed. I wish I had quit feeling like I had tried as hard as I could. I mean, I wrote stuff every week. But when I look at Tina Fey—she says she likes competition, she does well in arenas where it's competitive. I had some inhibitions about being openly competitive, but I now wish I had been just more comfortable out-and-out fighting for my sketches. Those guys would march into Lorne's office and put up a fight and maybe he wouldn't give in, but it had an impact. I wouldn't do that.

It seems to be true in all industries, which is really painful if you're a person who just wants to do her work, and not get entangled in the mishegoss.

Right? I know! I don't know if I could have changed that about me, because that's something I like about me. When I read Amy Poehler's book, her attitude is such the right attitude. She really had the right combination of aggressiveness and being willing to suffer through the nights of boys' shenanigans and being also really funny and hardworking. That is really the right mix for succeeding in that place. When I first got onto the show, I went into the office that Nora Dunn had vacated—I was absolutely taking Nora's place, that's why they hired me. Christine Zander had written all this stuff with Nora, and she and I became absolutely joined at the hip. She left and I stayed, and that was the year I was unhappy. I not only didn't have this wonderful person who really knew how to write, but also just being more than one person is a formidable look, even. You're there together, you take up space, you need to be heard.

Were there other cast members you were friends with?

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Phil Hartman, because he'd been my teacher. Phil was such a homing pigeon for people; he had people at his house all the time. The year before he died, I realized I had spent Thanksgiving Day, Easter and the Fourth of July at their house. That was this enormous rupture— for obvious reasons— and it was so upsetting and disturbing and it was almost hard to see the people I used to see there all the time. No one stepped in to fill that role and no one wanted to. It was like we all scattered and then I never really hung out with anyone. I would sometimes see Mike Myers somewhere, but it wasn't like people wanted to get together. I think there was this nexus of Rob Schneider and Adam Sandler, a group of guys who were working so much together that they would see each other. But once Phil was gone, I didn't have any contact with anyone but Christine.

People speak so lovingly of him; he seemed like such an amazing person.

Christine was having drinks with Brynn the night it happened! She had just met her somewhere for an early drink, and then Brynn was going off to meet other people. We were really tight. I remember Brynn calling me and I was getting on a train to go to visit another couple who were friends of ours and told her I couldn’t. You know, Brynn was troubled but we were in the mix of people who you'd call to say, Let's meet for a drink at 5. When I got off the train, my friends are standing there saying, They're dead.

Oh my God.

That was like a bomb that got planted on the edges of “Saturday Night Live” to me. After that I never saw anyone and didn't really want to; it was too hard, it was too sad. How many nights were we around the piano at Phil Hartman's house with Jon Lovitz doing funny characters? Phil Hartman doing Sinatra singing something inappropriate? Like a million memories of that and then it was just totally gone. I kept thinking at the 40th reunion how much Phil would have loved it and how the older-brother relationship I had with him would have made it so much better. He was always including me or inviting me over or calling up to give me shit about a picture of me in the paper; he was always there. He made me feel connected to “SNL” because there was nobody who didn't love him there. Even though I wasn't as beloved or as successful or as part of the inner circle, my friendship with him pulled me toward that. Once he was gone, I was really on my own.

Did Phil bring you to Lorne’s attention when you were at the Groundlings?

No, Lorne was coming to the Groundlings anyway. Phil never said he recommended me, but I think if Lorne had asked about me he would've given me the bill of approval. Once I got on the show he really was like an older beloved cousin. He felt upset that he couldn't get a recurring character that was really popular; everyone loved him as the straight man but he had his own, goddammit, how could they cut this? This was my chance! So that was just such a rupture.

I was thinking about your gender-ambiguous character, Pat, who must have inspired countless academic papers—queer theory was really hitting its stride around that time.

Yeah. I even went to NYU a couple of times to speak in classes!

Would you have ever imagined that?

No, because it started out as a complete joke; I wasn't trying to make a statement about sexuality or anything, I was really trying to figure out how to make this character. To me, the most interest part of it was that Pat was so oblivious to how other people were reacting to Pat. I was basing it on a couple of people, but mainly an accountant I knew, who asked you to lunch and wouldn't take no for an answer and was completely oblivious to how he was coming off. And that's what was interesting to me. Then I added these jokes on that you can't tell if it's a man or a women. I wasn't trying to make a statement about sex but once it became popular, the people's reaction to Pat was really fascinating. I didn't think it was that interesting that you didn't know if Pat was a man or a woman; to me, so what? But people felt very uncomfortable not knowing. People would ask me to tell them but I didn't have an answer, and they couldn't stand that. Then I met this friend who asked if I'd do appearances as Pat, so I came to Chicago and I did the St. Patrick's Day parade—and made a lot of money, too! Then I started being Pat and he would pitch me to mall openings. We still have some of these letters that said, We find it immoral to have a character that you can't tell if it's a man or a woman. There was this response from people who thought it was subversive and the truth is, it is kind of subversive but I only came to that as I experienced while being Pat. It wasn't something I thought about before I did it.

I was dating this woman in college who was very androgynous—let’s call her Jane—and we went to go buy beer. The person behind the counter carded her and said, I've never met a man named Jane before! People are determined to see what they want to see.

Matt Lauer asked me to come on the "Today" show because he loves Pat. I hadn't done Pat in 20 years. I feel like the trans community wouldn't like it. The truth is, to me the joke is that Pat is not transgender—I think on the Wikipedia page it says Pat is transgender and I have to go on there and take that off (but I don't know how to)— but identifies as a man or a woman but you just don't know which. That's the joke of Pat. It isn't transgender, but I could see for obvious reasons why people would make that association and that it wouldn't be cool to do that. You would have to go around and constantly explain that, no, I am not making fun of transgender people.

The reactions would be different now. It would be about making fun of people for caring about whether Pat is a man or a woman.

Yes! So Matt Lauer was like, you should write a sketch! So I called Christine— because we wrote every Pat sketch together— and I said we should do something about a gay pride parade and Pat's there and people are confused. You'd put Pat in that arena and then have Pat be sort of homophobic... Like, oh, that's disgusting!

Have a trans guy try to welcome him and Pat's like, what are you doing?

Exactly! Anyway, but then it got way too complicated and we ended up not doing it. But I was worried about explaining Pat. I feel like you'd have to let people know the point of view. It just seems too complicated; people like Pat but not enough that they're willing to invest a lot of thought in it. I really loved Pat. When I got in the Pat outfit for the first time in a hundred years when I did it on Halloween, I loved being in the outfit. I really felt like I could do this and play this again. I don't think anyone wants me to do it and I don't think I want to do it but I could do it.

It would be interesting to see if Pat's gender reveals itself as Pat gets older.

Right! My favorite thing is older people who are androgynous now. I think it just happens biologically and it makes sense that it does because in your prime reproductive years you're trying to advertise and distinguish yourself to attract a mate and all those things. You can totally see how after you're in that game you just relax and now it doesn't matter. I almost want to do a photography book of older couples who have just relaxed into their true selves. It's almost like seeing the real soul emerge out of these almost carcasses of reproductive drive and I love it so much! I've thought, what would Pat's partner be like? I'm older now and I have really short grey hair and I've gained some weight and I have really broad shoulders, and every few months somebody will say, Excuse me, sir and I turn around and they go, Oh!

What was the whole controversy about your Chelsea Clinton impression?

I didn't even say one word! All I did was have braces put in and not wear makeup and have the wig. And people were like, She was portrayed so unattractively. But I didn't do anything but be myself. If you say that's unattractive, you're saying I'm unattractive.

So you were on Hillary’s radar.

I do think Hillary probably knows who I am in some vague way. It's weird to find out who knows you. That's something about being on the show. Tom Hanks was on the show a couple times when I was there and he was always great and wonderful but that's when he was just a comedian. Now, he's Tom Hanks, so at the reunion when he came up and said, Hey Sweeney! I'm thrown. Like, how does Tom Hanks know me? Oh, that's right! I would think if you become that big of a star you erase all those people out of your memory from that long ago. For a while you refer to these people like you would refer to anyone that you knew and then after a while I would start getting looks from people like I was name-dropping or something. I realized I was name-dropping but I was just telling an anecdote that was pertinent to whatever the discussion was. There was this moment where it was unseemly to say those names, and also because the distance between me and those names was getting bigger. I started questioning my own memory, like whether I had exaggerated those memories. It's just easier to think maybe you didn't remember it right.


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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