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"Some people thought I was a genius," Jackson recalls. "Some people thought I was retarded."
At age 22, Jackson met Nelson "Nisan" Eventoff. He was a fire eater and sword swallower who played the piano in blackface. She was smitten. Jackson claims Eventoff rolled the first joint she ever smoked. "It made me very creative, horny and paranoid," she says. Then he brought her to the Silver Lake home he shared with several other hippies, dogs, finches and a ferret. There she lost her virginity to the fire eater.
"I had a nervous breakdown," Jackson says. She flew back to Miami and confessed to her mother, who took her for her first visit to a gynecologist. Assured she was not pregnant, she then pondered her premarital predicament. If I married him, it wouldn't be such a bad sin, she thought. If I don't marry him, God will say, "She's a slut."
The couple wed in Los Angeles in 1984 and two years later had a daughter they named Scarlet. Soon, Jackson snagged a role on the sitcom pilot Half Nelson, playing Hollywood security guard Joe Pesci's ditsy blonde secretary. The show was canceled after six episodes, but she bought her first house — a two-bedroom Lookout Mountain bungalow in Laurel Canyon — with the paychecks.
She was a regular performer on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where in one of her most memorable bits she channeled Patti Smith, singing about being an "angry woman" while doing tricks on a balance beam.
In 1986, Jackson flew to New York to audition for SNL. Executive producer Lorne Michaels, she remembers, curled his lower lip and lamented her lack of comedic characters. So the next time she was on Carson's show, she continued the audition by doing impressions of Diana Ross and Edith Bunker and inventing a character: a glum boss interviewing Carson for a job. She joined the SNL cast that season. With a new baby in tow, she and Eventoff bought a four-bedroom Colonial in Weston, Conn. They split time between the two homes.
But Michaels' trepidation had been spot-on. Jackson's castmates included Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. She couldn't keep up. "I lived on pure adrenaline," she says. "You always think you're going to get fired. You're always competing with your cast members for airtime."
Coming up with characters and premises for skits was a supreme struggle. She confesses that one of her funnier sketches — "Victoria's Secrets," in which she wore lingerie and throatily fumbled at being sexy — was a product of begging castmate Jon Lovitz and writer Conan O'Brien for ideas as they walked down an office hallway.
Her nasal voice nixed nuanced impressions. Other than doing back bends and reading poetry on the "Weekend Update" news desk, impressions of Roseanne Barr and Zsa Zsa Gabor were her only recurring gags.
Critics and former castmates haven't been kind. Nerve.com recently ranked her dead last of 92 all-time cast members and wrote that her "cute-ditsy-idiot act got pretty thin, [and] it turns out it wasn't an act." And in the 2002 book Live From New York, an oral history of the show, castmate Jan Hooks sniped, "I just have a particular repulsion to grown women who talk like little girls. It's, like, 'You're a grown woman! Use your lower register!' " (Jackson, by the way, claims her weird voice is the result of a medical defect: a "congenital palatal insufficiency.")
Look, I'm not qualified for this, Jackson recalls thinking. Maybe this is my mission field. I'm supposed to tell my cast members about Jesus!
But Hartman didn't want to talk about the Son of God. And Lovitz asked how Jesus, "a grown man," could have fit in his mother's womb to be born again. When Jackson left audiocassette box sets of the Bible in each castmate's mail slot for Christmas, they were angrily returned.
Writer and performer Al Franken, now a Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota, cornered her once, Jackson says. He said he was "offended" by her "ditsy" act. "Maybe I'm overcompensating," she retorted, "because everybody here is dying and going to hell, and I'm supposed to tell them about Jesus."
Franken went white, she says. "He never talked to me again."
Jackson struggled to make the leap to film acting. Her biggest role was co-starring in 1988's Casual Sex?, an insipid rumination on sexual relationships in a post-AIDS world. It flopped. "The movie is exactly like the real thing," The Washington Post opined. "Kinda empty, kinda unfulfilling, and you feel just awful afterward." Jackson also played Weird Al Yankovic's love interest in UHF. Again, not a Brando-esque turn.
In addition to the film proceeds, Jackson was making $20,000 per weekly episode of SNL, according to divorce records. In 1991, her ill-conceived marriage to the fire eater finally came to an end. "He hated me more and more each day," she says. "One night he was fumbling around in the gun closet and he was drunk, and I thought, Is he going to kill me?"