|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
Although Julia Sweeney lives only blocks from the civic triage of Hollywood, her Larchmont neighborhood resembles the bungalow-and-bougainvillea idyll of old Los Angeles; the comedian’s compact home, built in 1921, is the California dream made wood and glass. Its earth-tiled living room is filled with religious icon ography, while Marx, Jung and Chomsky coexist on bookshelves with Butler’s Lives of the Saints and volumes on film noir. A large Gronk painting dominates the dining room, and beyond the French windows lie a small yard and pool, and past these, a studio. “I love this house!” Sweeney says in a voice filled with both wonder and gulpy laughter.
Best known for her androgynous Saturday Night Live character, Pat, Sweeney turned her back on every comedian’s dream when she quit the show in 1994. There were compensations for returning to Los Angeles: her cats, Sunday mornings spent listening to Harry Shearer on the radio, and time to move on from a divorce. And there was the movie, although when It’s Pat came out the reviews were summary and scalding. “It’s Pat, It’s Bad and It’s Going Straight to Video” ran one typical headline. Sweeney would have felt like a critic’s piñata were it not for the fact that a far bigger tragedy was unfolding.
At the same time It’s Pat opened, Julia’s younger brother Michael was stricken with lymphoma. She spent a month in Rochester, New York, helping him get back on his feet, then brought him to her home, from which they would drive to UCLA for his punishing program of radiation and chemotherapy. Michael didn’t have health insurance, so Julia quickly went through nearly every penny she’d saved from SNL.
Caring for a critically ill brother would have been traumatic enough, but when Sweeney’s vexing mom and dad also moved into her bungalow for nine months, a lifetime of resentments erupted. Her house — now threatened with foreclosure — was no longer a home, and she spent long hours holed up in the backyard studio, trying to maintain her equilibrium. Then, in the middle of all this, Sweeney was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer and began treatment herself. And then Mike died.
Perhaps the only way she could have grappled with her loss and the events surrounding it was to work the experience into a performance. The result was God Said, “Ha!”, which Sweeney premiered in January 1996 at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. “I opened up there,” she confesses, “because if I got bad reviews I didn’t want to have them appear in L.A.” She needn’t have worried, for the show was a smash and continued its success over the next year at L.A.’s Coro net Theater and on Broad way at the Lyceum. Last year she made a “concert” film of two intercut performances, produced by her friend Quentin Tarantino; it opens this week at the Nuart Theater (see New Film reviews).
The film captures Sweeney’s ordeal as well as her personality — a rueful blend of irony, determination and guilt. She proves herself that rarest of monologists, the one who speaks of personal tragedy without taking out a copyright on it, who recounts its bloody moments without tears. “Julia has a real eye for the absurdity of life,” says Sweeney’s friend Al Franken, who met her on SNL. “She has a dark sense of humor with a sunny sensibility. She is not a sappy person.”
The most striking feature about Sweeney onstage and in person is her unconditional candor — a handshake-and-eye-contact kind of honesty that feels vaguely antiquated. Like Lynda Barry’s cartoons, her anecdotes are both exotic and universal, quiet moments of shared revelations. “When I first started doing the show, I thought it was this underground, alternative comedy, and I saw myself as a rebel,” she says. “I didn’t realize it would have such mass appeal. In San Francisco audiences were half-filled with people my parents’ age who were loving it.”
If Sweeney seems to impersonate a character from the guileless 1950s, it is probably because she was coughed out of the psychic time tunnel of Amer i can Catholicism. Al though she enjoyed much about her parochial-school days in hometown Spokane, Washing ton, and still marvels at the mysteries of the Church, she inevitably came away with chronic feelings of remorse and zero self-confidence.
“I felt almost paralyzed for years,” she says. “At times, even when I was in my 20s, I could hardly leave my room because of guilt, and I didn’t even know what it was about. I’d berate myself for being fat — not merely because I felt unsightly, but because I was literally taking up too much space in the world.”
Sweeney’s search for her own identity never seems to end. Six months ago, she wanted to speak to Camille Paglia and e-mailed her through the online news magazine Salon. Contacting the author of Sexual Personae hadn’t seemed that big a deal; after all, the maverick feminist had gamely appeared in a scene in It’s Pat, so it wasn’t as though they were strangers.
fcBut then Sweeney was e-mailed back by Paglia’s assistant, who announced that she couldn’t put her in touch with her boss. “How can we be sure you are who you say you are?” glared the reply on Sweeney’s computer screen.
It’s difficult to predict how God Said,“Ha!” will change public perceptions of the creator of Pat. This bizarre character, with her unisex attire and Brillo coif, had been a quantum departure for SNL, a show whose attitude toward non-heterosexuals had devolved from a Monty Pythonish tolerance in its early years to the frat-boy loathing that continues to this day. That is because Sweeney’s sketches touched on something far deeper than fear of sexual “others” — they tapped into the vertiginous unease of not knowing a person’s sexual orientation, or even the person’s gender. It is the same kind of social dis orien tation that gripped Sweeney as a teenager in Spokane.
“I had incredibly wonderful experiences at an all-girl high school with about 10 nuns,” she remembers. “It was like a man-free zone where no one judged your looks or sexuality. You were judged solely on what you had to say and how much you comprehended. I couldn’t relate intellectually to my mother, who was telling me how cute and thin I had to be to get a guy. The nuns had chosen to ignore that aspect of life, which to me gave them an enormous freedom, from the bondage of heterosexuality.”
But Sweeney lost her compass when Marcliff High School went coed. “Sud denly the most popular girls weren’t the smartest but the prettiest ones,” she says. “The rules had suddenly changed, and it was very traumatic — I gained about 40 pounds after that. I joined the debate team, never talked to guys and was never asked out on dates.”
Sweeney’s sensitivity to male sexual politics was to play a critical role in her leaving SNL. “The only way I could get a sketch on was to cross-dress and become a guy,” she recalls. “Mostly the Saturday Night Live women were there to service the guys’ comedy vision. Christine Zander and I would write a women-friendly sketch that was, say, about shopping. We’d read it around the room and the men would just go, ‘Huh?’ Then Adam Sandler would write a sketch about someone pooing in their pants and it would get enormous amounts of laughter.”
Sweeney, who believes the current SNL has reformed its ways, found the old regime’s open gay-bashing even more oppressive than its unconscious misogyny. “There was a constant telling of compulsive, almost Tourette’s syndrome–level jokes whose point would always be how horrifying it was that a man would be attracted to another man. Norm Macdonald was the king of homophobic jokes — it was literally one every 15 minutes.”
Today Julia Sweeney is busy working on, among other projects, the upcoming Baby Blues, an animated version of the comic strip to air on the WB, and a screenplay about her old character, Mea Culpa, a timid and guilt-ridden office drudge she created with longtime friend and collaborator Jim Emerson at the Groundling Theater in the late ’80s. With her brother’s death behind her, she has settled into the domestic tranquility she sought four years ago. As she fantasizes in God Said, “Ha!”: “I figured after a few years my neighbors would look down the street and they would say to their friends, ‘There lives Julia Sweeney. You know, she never married after a brief, early liaison, but we’ve never known anyone who was happier and more full of life than that Julia Sweeney!’”