Give your chops and upgrade and land the gig.
Tuesday evening, former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney took the iconic Studio 8H stage to the thunderous applause of a packed house of admiring fans. But she wasn’t in New York; she was at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, on a replica of Studio 8H that is part of the touring exhibit Saturday Night Live: The Experience. During the “Conversations in Comedy” event, Sweeney shared her refreshing perspectives on life and her artistic journey.
When journalist Jen Weigel introduced her as a performer, writer and monologist, Sweeney admitted she isn’t particularly fond of the label writer. “I wish I hadn’t spent all those years writing,” the prolific comedian confided to the crowd. In addition to writing for SNL, Sweeney has penned books, memoirs, movies, sitcom pilots and autobiographical one-woman stage shows that have earned her a Broadway run and a Grammy nomination. She even contributed to a season of Desperate Housewives.
“On the page, all you have is the alphabet and punctuation,” she explained, but onstage, the artist is able to utilize all of the tools in her toolbox to fully express her personal story and create lovable characters.
After taking a decade off to raise her daughter, Sweeney returned to her love of performing with a solo show at The Second City, Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider. Her physicist husband came up with the title. “My husband, it turns out, is really funny,” she smirked, recalling his immense relief when his joke suggestion was met with approval.
It’s fitting that Sweeney chose Second City as a home to “reinvent” herself. She credits SCTV with helping her realize what she wanted to do with her life: when teen-Julia watched SNL, she thought, “those people are cool.” When she watched SCTV? She thought, “those people are funny.”
Sweeney didn’t initially run off to LA to pursue stardom. She ran off to L.A. to pursue a career in accounting, landing a job at Columbia Pictures. After four years and multiple promotions in her chosen field, she began taking improv at the Groundlings with teachers Phil Hartman and Randy Bennett.
“I was not good,” Sweeney admitted. “It’s hard when you like something a lot but can’t do it very well.” She even repeated the beginner level class. As she moved up in the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live representatives began scouting her. Rumor had it that the coveted spot was going to go to either her….or Lisa Kudrow. She recounted that when she got the call, she thought, “I really hope that Lisa gets some kind of work in Hollywood. She deserves some kind of part.”
From 1990 to 1994, Sweeney gave many hilarious performances with a stellar SNL cast that included Chris Farley, Mike Myers, David Spade, Adam Sandler and Phil Hartman. She is most remembered for androgynous anti-hero “Pat,” a role she still thinks of with affection and gratitude.
At the closing of the talk, the museum announced that Sweeney is loaning Pat’s costume to the Saturday Night Live exhibit. At the unveiling of the familiar blue button-down, khakis, curly wig and thick-framed glasses, Sweeney burst into giggles. She observed that the mannequin definitely looks like a man.
Perhaps the question has finally been answered.
Written by Stacey Lane.