Most “SNL” cast members cannot lay claim to having contributed an indispensable word to the American lexicon. But Rachel Dratch is one such talent: “Debbie Downer,” her instant-classic character, not only offered a more evocative descriptor for that mood-killer in your life, but also occasion to invoke the sad trombone.
The Dartmouth graduate was only one of two new people joining one of the few casts that had returned in its entirety from the previous season, arriving on the Oct. 23, 1999, episode, which reunited her with her former Second City alum Tina Fey. Which was a crucial alliance for a new cast member: Fey—who’d joined “SNL’s” writing staff two years earlier—had just been promoted to head writer, making her the first female head writer in the show’s history. (She was not yet in front of the camera—Fey would land on the “Weekend Update” desk opposite Jimmy Fallon on Season 26.)
Dratch and Fey shared a seamless comic chemistry that dated back to the mid-1990s in Chicago, which you can see in “Wicked,” an early iteration of the Boston teens sketch Dratch famously performed with Fallon (“Sully”) casting Fey as the mother to Dratch’s teenager “Denise.” (Offstage, the duo were critically praised for their two-woman show, “Dratch and Fey,” first performed at Second City and then at Upright Citizens Brigade in 1999.) Dratch tells me—as every castmember before her has—that at “SNL,” you absolutely need to have a collaborator in the writers' room to survive. And who better than the person running it?
In her seven years at “SNL,” Dratch proved her versatility, with a long string of memorable characters that were male and female and ranged in age from babies to senior citizens, playing them with ease. She had the honor of inheriting the Barbara Walters mantle that began with Gilda Radner, to being a Masshole makeout queen with Fallon (Boston teens) and sexaholic adult with Will Ferrell (the Lovahs), to a drooling, um, entity with a baby arm sprouting from the top of her head and an unpronounceable name (Qrplt*xk), and an elderly movie producer with the worst track record in all of Hollywood (Abe Scheinwald)—and these are but a small handful of her creations.
Since leaving the show in 2006, Dratch has published a memoir entitled "Girl Walks Into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle," and has appeared on numerous TV sitcoms, most recently, “Inside Amy Schumer,” and of course, "30 Rock," in which she portrayed a new character each week (though she was originally cast in the pilot as the lead, Jenna).
She spoke with Salon about her inspiration for Debbie Downer, her audition for Lorne Michaels, and the secret to getting sketches on the air.
When you came to “SNL” from Second City, did you arrive fully armed with an arsenal of characters?
Most people who come out of Groundlings and Second City do come with a bunch of characters, but they don’t all get on the air once you’re at “SNL.” So I did have a bunch of characters. The Boston Teens (a working-class teenage Boston couple, Denise and Sully, played by Jimmy Fallon) made it on, but not much else. The stuff I did for my audition, not much of it ever really got on the show.
You and Jimmy Fallon jumped right in, with the Boston Teens.
That actually came out of—Tina and I were together at Second City and we had done a scene there where we were mother and daughter shopping at the mall, and Tina has a really great Boston accent too, even though she’s not from there. Anyway, when we both got on the show, Tina and I would write those for me and Jimmy.
There have been times when Lorne has scouted out cast members at Second City and Groundlings and brought them to the show together at once. You and Tina and Amy Poehler were all at Second City together, but didn’t come over together.
Yeah, we definitely were staggered. When I came, I was the only new cast member, so I definitely did not feel like, Hey, I’m here with a group. I wrote with Tina, and it helped to know someone there already, but I didn’t come in with a matched set like The Lonely Island—Andy Samberg and company. It used to be that they would only, for the most part, take from Groundlings and Second City and then they kind of opened up to Upright Citizens, and the Internet changed everything, so I think they cast a wider net now than they used to.
Tina and I had this two-person show the summer before I got hired. Shoot, this is so boring; I’m boring myself [laughs]. But it definitely helped for writing, because when you get there—I don’t think people realize how much you have to write for yourself. Some people that were there for like a year or two ended up getting fired, and it wasn’t because they weren’t funny; they just never found how to write for the show. They’d have really funny characters but they just couldn’t manage to get them on or they never found that writing partner. But Tina knew the ropes by then. A scene that would kill at Second City, I’d put it up at the table at “SNL” and it wouldn't get picked to get on the show. I’d be like, I know this works! But it’s just a whole different animal because the stage and the TV makes it all different. At Second City, you could take your time more, you didn’t have to have punchline, punchline, punchline. But at “SNL” you had to get right to the jokes pretty quickly for the most part.
I have heard over the years that the writers' room is typically dominated by men—did women have a harder time getting sketches on the air when you were there?
We didn’t deal with the super male ego stuff that I think you hear about from the earlier years, but just by whatever reason, the women tended to write together and just with a couple of women writers.
Debbie Downer is part of the lexicon now. I think we all have a Debbie Downer in our lives, and thanks to you we have a name for her. But who, or what, was your inspiration?
I was on a vacation and there was this communal dining table and someone was like, Oh, where are you from? and I said New York, and then they said, Were you there for 9/11? And everything just screeched to a grim halt. I didn’t think of it that second, but then a week later it just popped into my head, this character Debbie Downer. I wrote it with Paula Pell. I brought the idea to her and we were trying to write it and we set it in an office but it wasn’t really working, so we thought we needed to set it somewhere really happy and we put it in Disney World.
As we were writing we started going “Wah-wah” just to ourselves. And then we were like, what if we actually put the horn sound effects in there? That was just a joke we were doing to each other but we put it in and it did really well at the table. We started laughing on air but nothing can ever top that first one where we were all cracking up. I like when things go a little bit wrong on the show because it reminds you that it’s actually live. I would always try not to laugh.
It’s really hard, though.
It’s a cheap move because the audience loves it, but … There was that thing on the 40th anniversary show where Andy Samberg and Adam Sandler did a whole song about breaking to get the audience back on your side, so I would always try not to, but that was just so out of control. Then the term “Debbie Downer” just took off in a way I never expected. People think the sketch came after the phrase, but the sketch came first.
I can only imagine the sheer volume of depressing stories you and the writer had to sift through for Debbie—
I think there’s a Debbie Downer in me; I’m always up on the latest things that are giving me anxiety, so I never had to look anything up for that one. I had my own list.
Now all you’d have to do is look on RawStory.
I don’t even know what that is.
What was your audition with Lorne like?
I auditioned two times, actually. The first year I was at the end of the day and they say to get there at like 3 o’clock or whatever and you’re so excited you’re bouncing off the walls, you can’t believe you’re auditioning for “SNL”--but I didn’t do the audition until two hours later. They have you wait a lot and then you go through every roller-coaster. One moment you feel ready and then the next minute you’re like, I’ll never get this. I happened to get called in at a time when I felt really ready to go. I didn’t get the job that year but when it was over, I felt like there was nothing I would have done differently. I was told, “Well, maybe next year.” I wasn’t really banking on it, but then I got to go in the following year and by then I had already done my best stuff so I had my sort-of second-string characters—I didn’t feel like that one went quite as well, but I got it.
What did you do at the audition?
I did the Boston thing and I did this thing I had done at Second City, this former child star who’s now a grown person but still acts like a child star. That never got on “SNL.” I did a few impressions. I did this NPR lady—we had done this NPR sketch at Second City and then they started also doing it on "SNL," so it was kind of a branch of that, by coincidence.
Like a “Delicious Dish”-type thing?
It wasn’t like that but it was sort of a cousin of that. So I did that.
Were you already living in New York?
No, I was living in Chicago the first time and then I had moved to L.A. the second time. I had done Second City for a number of years, so I was working in comedy when I came in for the first audition. By the second one, I had moved to L.A. and nothing was really happening.
What was that first year like in New York, on the show?
It was kind of like getting thrown into the pool like a baby learning to swim, maybe because I was the only new cast member that year. There definitely wasn’t the new cast-member guide that you get handed. You just kind of figure everything out as you go because not a lot of information comes your way. I guess I didn’t realize how many points in the week your scene could get cut, for example. Like, your scene is in but then it could get cut after dress [rehearsal], it could get cut for time—just little things like that that you discover every week.
On the flip side, it’s so exciting because you’re living your dream. You pinch yourself every week—every day, for that matter—meeting the host and hearing Don Pardo say your name. Meeting the host, you get kind of used to that. But that first couple of years, it’s just crazy how many celebrities you’re meeting and working with and doing scenes with. Then the whole craziness of the live show and the after parties... It’s so exciting. There are sort of two levels it operates on. One is your bundle of nerves and just trying to think of ideas and get your scenes on, and that can be super nerve-wracking, and then there’s all the excitement.
You were there for seven years—a long time. Did it ever get easier?
You might have more of an idea of what’ll actually go and what might not—but you never know. Sometimes you have a scene that you think is going to be great, it’s going to be your next big recurring thing, and then it just tanks at dress and gets cut. That’s the kind of thing you never quite know. I’ve had a few characters where I’ve been like, This is it! and I’m already thinking of the second episode and then it just did not work at dress. There’s always a shock to someone’s system every week, I’m sure. Some people are getting on the show more than others, so if you’re one of the ones that’s not running every single scene, it means more to you. Most people never quite know if their scene’s going to go, but you have a better instinct about it by the time you’ve been there for a few years.
Was the reunion really fun?
Oh yeah. I was kind of nervous going in but just to go back felt like a high-school reunion. It turned out to be really fun. The fun part was seeing the people you were there with, but more amazing than that was just to be part of this thing, seeing all the years that happened before I was there; Steve Martin and Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. It was almost like watching a comedy scrapbook.
Had you met some of the “SNL” vets before?
Some of them. I hadn’t met Eddie Murphy or Jane Curtin or really Bill Murray. Most of them you’ve seen or met over the years. It’s not like I’m hanging out with Martin Short, but I’ve met him. Just to be part of this thing that’s part of everyone’s childhood or early adulthood.
Was there a guest star that you were beyond excited to work with during your time on the show?
Probably the people like Dan Aykroyd or Steve Martin, the people from that original cast. Like, I’m doing a scene with someone I used to watch, that kind of nostalgia thing. Those are the two that come to mind, I guess. I think I did a scene with Steve Martin and it’s not that my character was super memorable but just being up there with them...
What was your relationship with Lorne like?
To me, Lorne is the person that gave me my big break. I was always kind of shy around him, but I had a good relationship with him. He’s very hands-on with the show. As part of his job description, he was more directly in touch with the writers and producers than the actors, but it’s kind of up to you. You could go into his office and kick up your feet or whatever but that wasn’t really my style. “Friendly working relationship,” I guess you could call it.
You were on the show for 9/11—I think that was Amy’s first show. What was it like to have to do a show in the middle of such a solemn time?
I thought they handled it really well; they addressed it at the beginning and then we just went on with the show. You were just kind of on autopilot. I don’t feel any different about having done the show during 9/11 than having experienced 9/11, I guess. Everybody goes to work, so that’s what it felt like. It didn’t feel like, Oh my god, we’re saving the country with this show right now. It felt good to me trying to be funny, but as an actor, it wasn’t really up to me. Lorne and the producers came up with that opener, and they’re so great at coming up with stuff like that. I felt more like a cog in the machine on that one. It was just like anyone, just going to do your job. I loved the line they came up with for Rudy Giuliani—Lorne’s like, It needs to be funny, and Giuliani’s like, Why start now? A bit of release on the whole thing.
Being on a sketch comedy show during the Dubya years, and during a presidential election must be fun.
I liked watching it and I knew when the show was getting hot because of an upcoming presidential election, but as someone who doesn’t do a lot of political humor, it didn’t really change how I’d approach every week. There are certain writers who would write the political sketches and then there are certain people who would portray the politicians, but for me it didn’t change how I’d approach the week. I’d never be like, I’ve got this great George Bush sketch idea. I just don’t really think like that.
You got to carry on the long tradition that began with Gilda Radner of playing Barbara Walters. What was that like?
That was kind of handed to me because Cheri Oteri left. I kind of felt like I was just taking over Cheri’s thing.
Everybody who ever did it, you included, brought something new.
It’s funny, I’m not big on impressions but there’s some people, you just look at them and go, I could do that. I don’t have that about a lot of people, but she is one person. I actually did a show off-Broadway in the fall and I played all these different people but it was based on real transcripts, so I had to do her in this play. I like the kind of people that you just kind of channel them; you don’t have to think about putting your mouth a certain way, you just imagine you’re them and then you do them. It doesn’t happen with many people for me, but she’s one where that happens.
Did you know when you were doing Debbie Downer that it would be the next big thing on “SNL”?
No. We were totally cracking up when we were writing it but that’s happened with other scenes that don’t even get to air. That’s what I mean, you just keep learning to never think you’ve got the big thing, because then you might have a rude awakening. We were cracking up when we were writing Debbie Downer—big time—and also “The Lovahs” (with Will Ferrell,) so that was kind of an indicator that you had a good thing on your hands, but you still never knew. You certainly never knew it was going to take off; you just have no idea.
I can just imagine being completely slap-happy on that Tuesday writing night.
You completely are, but at the same time you know when something’s not going really great. There is a slap-happiness but then there’s also, I think this is funny—and those usually aren’t funny.
Who was the person you were most comfortable with as a comedy partner?
There’s so many. As cliché as it sounds, the cast really does feel like a family because whoever you’re with, you feel completely confident in their skills. It was just about who they were, their energy, what everyone brought to the table. That’s what was so fun about it, just being there with the funniest people. Off-camera, the way everyone makes everyone laugh is super fun.
It was always fun working with Will Ferrell, because he has always managed to have an extra level of spontaneity. You never quite knew what he was going to do, even if it was just reading a line differently than he did before. He’s just such a positive person. He’s always taking crazy risks. He would write on his own and come in with these wacky pieces at the read-through table that it never would have occurred to me to do. He was kind of inspiring that way, in terms of going wide with what you think of doing on the show.
And of course, the ladies: I’m still in really good touch with all of them. Just to be in scenes with those guys was super fun because we used to hang out a lot offstage, as well. There was a common language there.
It was definitely evident from watching it that there were genuine friendships and alliances on the show. There was just an effortless chemistry among you and Tina and Amy and Jimmy; you guys looked like you were having a lot of fun in a way that other casts didn’t always. Was it hard to leave?
Oh, yeah. I kind of thought I was going to leave either the year I did or the following year. I felt like I wanted to leave before I was burnt out, but then when you leave and you see the show and you’re not there it definitely feels weird. The first few months off the show are definitely a strange feeling; even the next couple of years, it’s always a little weird. Now, I’ve been off for so long that I still miss it but it’s not the kind of thing where I think I could still be on it—it’s just been so many years. And yet, people think you’re still on the show even when you’ve been off it for years. People are like, You still on that? I don’t want to shame them and say I’ve been off for years so I’ll just say, I’ve been off for a while, and they just say, Oh, I don’t watch much. It’s just funny; people have no idea you’re off. I should probably just run with that.