Julia Sweeney, who starred on Saturday Night Live from 1990 to 1994 and since then has created brainy, brilliant one-woman shows about topics like surviving cancer and becoming an atheist, is coming to Seattle on February 1 with her latest comedy monologue, Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider.
She creates shows by workshopping new material in very small theaters, to see what works and what doesn’t. The earliest experiments for Older & Wider took place at Second City in Chicago, and while she was there, another comedian, Abby McEnany, was workshopping a one-woman show of her own called Work in Progress, which just so happened to be about how her life was ruined by… Julia Sweeney. In college, Abby was endlessly teased and harassed for looking like Sweeney’s most well-known SNL character, the ambiguously gendered Pat.
“We met, we loved each other, and it was just so funny and weird that we were both there at Second City at the same time,” Sweeney said in an interview the other day. McEnany’s friend Tim Mason, a director, tossed out the idea filming a few vignettes from Work in Progress, Sweeney agreed to be in them, and Mason turned that material into a TV pilot, which they submitted to Sundance. “Because Sundance now has TV, because TV is where everything is happening,” Sweeney explained. “They take twelve pilots, Sundance does, and Work in Progress got to be one.” Sweeney flew to Sundance a year ago, “pounded the pavement like crazy for this show, and Showtime bought it! So I became an executive producer, but I don’t write it. I’m just in four episodes.” In one of them, "Weird Al" Yankovic plays her husband.
Over the course of an interview that was supposed to take 20 minutes but lasted two glorious hours, we talked about comedy, Pat, the Democratic primary, Al Franken, Sweeney’s role on Shrill, the future of the planet, and her years as a University of Washington student 40 years ago. The Q&A below has been edited and condensed. Tickets for Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider are still available.
After being off television for years, you are everywhere suddenly—on Work in Progress, on Shrill. How does it feel?
Part of me feels like I’m this flower—you know how flowers, just before they die, they have this last bloom? OK, that’s how I feel like I am. Like, I just had this amazing year—I’m going YEEEEAHHHH!! [She reaches out her arms like she’s growing.] And then I’m just going to go: GRRUGHGHGH. [She scrunches her face and wilts as if she’s dying.] So I had this gangbusters year, but I have no idea what the future holds.
I was just catching up on Work in Progress on Hulu. It’s so good.
Isn’t it good? That was like a gift that walked into my life. A complete gift to me. I think Abby is one of the funniest people on the planet. I love the story. It’s a perfect way to talk about Pat. It’s really funny what happens with me in the season. And the whole idea of me playing kind of a cartoon character of myself is hilarious.
In the first episode, Abby sees you in a bar, and whispers to her date that Pat ruined her life, and then there’s a confrontation. Do people come up and confront you about Pat a lot?
No. Because I guess they don’t come up. And back when I was playing Pat, I got a lot of letters from people who looked like Pat, who were happy that I was doing Pat. The androgynous icons of the time were David Bowie or kd lang, and I thought, you know, that’s not regular androgyny. Regular androgyny is people who have five kids and a minivan. That’s the true androgyny of America. Pat was heterosexual, and a man or a woman, but just didn’t present one way or the other. And because Pat was so annoying and self-obsessed, Pat wasn’t aware that people were uncomfortable. That was my idea. And we kept to that. But of course there is this whole other group of people, like Abby is one, who feel like Pat was this derogatory thing.
Is there anything about Pat that you regret?
You know, I was thinking: If Pat was cool and androgynous, no one would care about it. What they’re upset about is that Pat is unattractive. Pat’s overweight, and Pat drools, and Pat’s annoying. But androgynous people run the gamut, like everybody does, and some are weird and drool and are fat, and some are thin and beautiful and blah blah blah. So what you’re upset about is that Pat’s unattractive. And that makes me mad at people who are saying that I’m being derogatory towards a group of people that are oppressed, that I’m punching down. I didn’t think of it that way. But I do feel bad that Pat was used to make people feel bad. Abby did make me understand that. What happens in Work in Progress is real. She told me how terrible it was to be called Pat. And I was sad that she had to go through that.
If you were creating that character today, would you do anything differently?
If I had been smarter I would have made Pat more of an enigma and a blank, and concentrated more on everyone’s uncomfortableness. But because it was fun to me to play an annoying character, I made Pat really gross and annoying. Actually I think now there was a better way to do it. I was watching a Charlie Chaplin movie with my daughter, I forget which one it was, but I was like: “Oh, if Pat had been more like this Charlie Chaplin character, kind of silent, and it was barely about Pat, Pat didn’t even have any lines, it was just everyone confused by Pat—that’s what should have been done.” So I regret that I didn’t have that foresight or insight or maturity.
What is it like being on Shrill?
Shrill is funny and lovely and important and I think the second season [which comes out today, January 24] is even better than the first. I love Aidy Bryant. And I adore Daniel Stern [who plays Sweeney's husband] and we always laugh our heads off. When I came home from one shoot, I said to my husband, “Today I smoked weed with Daniel Stern in bed.” And my husband said, “So you’re doing things with your TV husband in bed that you’ve never done with me.”
What can you tell me about Older & Wider?
I love this show so much. It’s my most mainstream show. It’s funny. In my other shows, it’s like, “Oh, I’m going to talk about religion,” or “I’m going to talk about cancer,” or whatever. This one’s just: “I’m just going to be funny!” It was a relief to not be worried about a big topic, to just try to be funny. It is about launching a kid, and it’s about my daughter’s boyfriend who voted for Trump and we lost our minds over it…
Launching a kid?
Launching a kid, yeah.
Yes. Into the world. You know, sending them out. So it does have sort of a theme. But mostly, if it’s in the show it’s because I got laughs on it. That was actually this huge relief. I thought, “God I should have been doing this all along.” When I moved back to LA recently, I thought, “I’m going to come back to LA and show people I can be funny. I’m going to get a comedy special out of this. But it’s going to be hard to be an actress.” And then the opposite happened. I came to Hollywood, I couldn’t stop being cast as an actress, and no one was interested in my comedy special. Zero. I couldn’t get anyone from Netflix to come. I couldn’t get assistants to come. Well, no, I had a couple assistants to people at Netflix come, and they were like 22 years old, and their response was, basically, “Somebody that’s my grandma’s age is doing a show?”
So then I thought, “Okay, I’m making all this money as an actress now, I’m just going to film it myself.” So that’s what I’m going to do, at the Fox Theater in Spokane, where I used to be an usher. This April, we’re going to film Older & Wider. But I’m excited to do it in Seattle first, because I have so many friends here, and Seattle is my place. It’s my hometown, in a way.
I just learned from Wikipedia today that you went to the University of Washington.
Oh my god, it was the greatest part of my life. My life began at the University of Washington.
It's snowing today. Did you ever slip in the snow at Red Square?
I didn’t do that, but I’ll tell you what did happen. I was student body vice president, and we had a day of awareness of disabled students, and in honor of the disabled students I said that I, as student body vice president, would go around to all my classes in a wheelchair. And then I lost control of my wheelchair in Red Square.
And because it kind of slopes down toward the fountain, and I couldn’t stop it, I was going to burn my hands if I grabbed the wheels, I crashed the wheelchair and it hit the fountain and ejected me into the fountain.
What?! You're kidding.
No. It was terrible. No one saw it, thank god.
Do you think Harvey Weinstein really needs that stupid walker?
Oh I don’t know, but man, the whole idea that he can’t let it go. He can’t just say, “Yeah, I had a good run.” Read the Stoics, man! Nero tossed them out, they went to some island and had to learn to be farmers of grass, and they carried on! The whole idea that he’s complaining and still wants to be in the industry—just incredible.
What do you make of what happened to your old SNL cast mate Al Franken?
I didn’t sleep for a month after that happened.
Because it was so wrong! It was so wrong. Every single thing that happened was so wrong. I could see how there was a madness of crowds. They could get whipped up on evidence that really was no evidence. I wouldn’t say that I’m a close friend of his, but I did work with him very closely for four-and-a-half years. He’s the most wonderful person, of all the people who were at SNL, the most feminist. The whole idea that he was brought down over those things, when I know what kind of person he is, is such an outrage to me. I am still outraged about it. So I decided I wanted to do a show about it. I just finished another twelve workshops of a show about it.
But I’ve really struggled about how to do it. I haven’t been able to make that show work yet. I became, like, the Perry Mason of Al Franken. I literally had six-by-nine cards on my bulletin board of every allegation and I knew every single thing. I did workshops that were 90 minutes of me going through each allegation, where people were getting up and leaving. Ten people in the audience to start, and three people by the end. And I was going, “Allegation number six!” And people were coming over to my house saying, “You can’t do this show. You’ll never work again.”
You went through each allegation?
Like, the picture of him with his hands hovering over the flak jacket of Leeann Tweeden. The joke is that she’s wearing a flak jacket so we know that he can’t feel her up because she’s wearing a half inch of Kevlar, and then he’s looking in the camera with a dumb expression like Bluto from Animal House, but we the audience know that he doesn’t realize he can’t feel her up because she’s wearing armor—that’s what that picture is. And the whole thing of the butt-grabbing? I’m only a little bit of a celebrity, but when you’re at a fair, and there’s 18,000 people who want a picture with you, and everyone wants to show how intimate they are with you by having their arms across you? You’re trying to go fast, and shit can happen. There’s many times when I’ve been in photos with people and I go, “I don’t know where my hand is. I don’t know what it’s touching.”
Were you working on this show before the New Yorker story about him by Jane Mayer?
Yes. This was right when it all first happened. I started doing this show and then people were freaking out. I was getting cast on things and people at the shows I was getting cast on were going, “I’d hate to lose you from the show for defending Al Franken.” And then I talked to my husband and said, “We have to look at our finances—what if I never worked again?” So then I was all Joan-of-Arc-y and was like, “Fuck it, I’ll never work again if it all comes down to this.” But then I couldn’t make the show work. I thought, “I’m not going to die on a hill of a boring show that no one even likes.”
Are you an Elizabeth Warren fan?
That makes me so happy.
Oh, I go insane for Elizabeth Warren. I’m crazy for Elizabeth Warren. I’m ready to get my heart broken, but I am doing what I can. I’ve gone to some of the meet-ups. I give monthly. I retweet everything I can, whatever that does. I wear my shirt around. I like Bernie too. I like her a lot better than I like Bernie, but if it needs to be some older white guy, can it please be Bernie and not Joe Biden?
I want a woman president.
I know it. It’s time! It’s so fucking time. And Hillary got three million more votes!
When you think about the future, what do you think about?
This is what I think. We’re in for a fucking shit show on climate. I’ve read Jared Diamond’s Collapse that looks at every society that’s had major climate challenges and how they’ve dealt with it one way or the other, and some have survived it and some haven’t. We’re not going to survive it. It’s too big and it’s too many people on the planet. What I think is going to happen is the climate, either in our lifetime or a little after, is going to get really bad, there’s going to be a huge culling of the population, there’s going to be some fucking pathogen that comes out of some ice permafrost in Greenland that’s going to kill 50 percent of us overnight, it could even get down to the 10,000 individuals that it was in Africa 150,000 years ago that created our species, and there’s no way to predict where to be and how it will be. I hope remnants of our civilization survive. That’s how dark my feeling is. I think people are going to get a lot more religious. It’s going to get bad.
More religious? Why?
Because when people are insecure like that—because of the climate changing—they become irrational, because they can’t stand how out of control they are, and religion provides certainty. There’s going to be a shitload of tribal warfare. And the thing that’s so heartbreaking is we have the technology to change it, and we know what we did, but we’re still these apes who are tribal and we also have nuclear weapons and we’re just going to have more wars.
And Facebook is not helping.
No, Facebook’s the worst! It’s really like, psychologically we weren’t ready for how technologically advanced we could become. Like, our human brains in a general way are not able to mature at the same rate as our knowledge and technology could go forward. And I think that’s what’s going to kill us all.
Do you think Trump is going to be a two-term president?
Oh god. I’m really mourning that America is being lost to Russia, and the oligarchs of America. Because the thing is they fucked up the voting so much. They’re suppressing the vote amongst people of color. And the gerrymandering. And the money. And the Supreme Court. I always say I don’t have any faith anymore, except in humanity. But that’s really on the edge. That’s almost the last faith I have that’s about to go. But I do think there’s such an energy of people who hate Trump that I feel like something good could happen this year.
Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider is a one-night engagement on February 1 at the Neptune.