The Julia Sweeney Interview
I’m thrilled to be featuring today’s interviewee on the site. She’s a former Saturday Night Live cast member who in recent years has been known for her funny, touching autobiographical monologues like God Said Ha!, about her brother and her both battling cancer, and Letting Go of God, wherein she discusses her Catholic upbringing and eventual relinquishment of her faith (both monologues are available on DVD.) She’s currently presenting live essays on parenting in preparation for her upcoming book, tentatively titled If it’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother. Catch her this Saturday at Space in Evanston or later this month as she performs stories with musical interludes from Jill Sobule. You can read more of Julia here on her blog. Oh yes, and she was also Pat.
How much input has your daughter had on your parenting essays thus far?
Well, if what you mean by input is that she gives me direct ideas, ideas she wants me to write down, I would say very very minimal. But many of my essays have been about her. For the last ten years, my life has been dominated by my job as a mother, and so naturally that is the source of most of my ideas for writing essays.
What have you wanted to add to the discussion of parenting that you think has been lacking?
Well, I think every single person - and not just mothers and those thinking of becoming mothers, but absolutely everyone - should read Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood. I have to say that reading this book has been up there with the books that got me to renounce religion - meaning, it has completely turned my head around about parenting. I guess I think most of the discussion about parenting - well, mothering, has been about these two erroneous ideas, that on the one hand the mothers who choose to stay home aren't really "doing anything that much." And those that go to work and further their career are cold and heartless and aren't putting their children first. The truth is that almost all women want to be mothers and they want to have careers. Almost all mothers want to stay at home for the first five years of their children's lives and then work part time until their children go to college. That is overwhelmingly what most women want. But our society and government here in the U.S. makes this very difficult. I guess it seems like the discussion has been steering towards women against other women instead of women uniting for better conditions in the workplace - more time off with pay, more support, more time for fathers to have off as well. That kind of thing. I feel I have only recently become enlightened on this topic.
Prior to God Said Ha!, what if anything in your career had prepared you best for the storytelling/monologue format in which you’ve been working since that premiered?
Well, it was all because of Kathy Griffin, actually. She made me get up and tell personal stories on stage. I hadn't done that before. I was at the Groundlings and she organized this night to get up and tell personal stories. Up to that time, I had only performed as an actress, in character, in sketches. But I began to talk about my personal life. It was fun. Then Kathy encouraged me to get involved with this group of story tellers organized by Beth Lapides called "The Uncabaret." That's when I began to go on Sunday nights and perform, again telling only personal true stories. That's how it all started.
In terms of improv or TV or characters, are there any forms of comedy you haven’t practice professionally in a while that you miss? Do you think you’d get back to them?
I really miss performing in character. I didn't think I did miss it, but after seeing Bridesmaids - which I think is just brilliant - they really hit a home run with that movie, I wanted to jump up on screen and start performing.
How did you come to collaborate with Jill Sobule?
I was a fan of Jill's for a long time before I met her. In fact, I had written a pilot and wanted her to do the theme song. Our lawyers had talked to each other and everything. Anyhoo - I went to this TED conference in Monterey, and Jill was there, and we met! We were so happy to finally meet, this was like 10 years after we had acknowledged our mutual admiration through our representatives. We hung out at the conference and then realized that we lived only three blocks from each other in L.A. So we started to walk over to each other's houses and hang out. At some point, Jill had a gig at Largo in L.A. and she asked me to come and do some patter in-between her songs. I did and the Jill and Julia shows began. We've done them for years now, like five years? Yeah, about that. We're sort of winding them down - we have a New Year's Eve show, our third in a row, at Space in Evanston. We've gone on the road in the summer. We've had a lot of fun.
What other music have you been listening to lately?
Oh, my god, I know this is not very unusual or anything, but I'm going crazy over the Black Keys new album and especially the new music video, “Lonely Boy.”
I was listening to an interview with Penn Jillette last week and he provided one of the most lovely rationalizations for being an atheist that I’ve ever heard, which is that his own mother’s love could not be surpassed by the love of a god because his mother’s love was provable. It altered the way I used to generalize atheists as being know-it-all killjoys. I wanted to know, who are some other atheists (aside from yourself) who you think also provide gentle, optimistic explanations for their beliefs as opposed to the “If you believe in God you’re a gullible yokel” tone?
Well, I actually think Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are gentle - okay maybe not gentle, but optimistic. I find them to be kind and filled with awe at the fact that we are all alive and that we evolved and oh my gosh, here we are. I would include Steven Pinker too, he is an atheist, but he is very gentle and kind and optimistic. I loved his book "The Better Angels of our Nature" which just came out.
Do you do anything for Christmas (or the winter solstice?)
We totally celebrate Christmas, which I think is a secular holiday. We have a tree, and lots of old decorations that mean a lot to us. We have stockings on the mantle and we jump up and open presents. Some years we even attend Mass, in fact this Christmas we will definitely attend Christmas Mass since my mother will be with us. I love it all. I love the church and the ritual of the Mass.
How often do people you don’t know either try to convince you there is a god or tell you your beliefs are wrong?
Never. Really, it never even comes up.
When you were working on Letting Go of God, did you have any inkling of how much and for how long you’d be associated with atheism?
Well, am I? To me, that is only known by a small number of people. Most people I meet and know - parents of kids at Mulan's school, for example, have no idea and think of me mainly as the girl who played Pat on “Saturday Night Live.”
Why do you think it’s so newsworthy when a person of note declares they’re an atheist?
I think it's less so, now. Thanks to people like Seth McFarlane, and Kathy Griffin, and Roseanne Barr, and Dawkins and all the rest. It's not such a big deal now, I think.
Which of the monologues you’ve brought onstage were the most difficult to put together and perform?
Without a doubt, Letting Go of God. That was the most difficult task, putting that show together and then putting the show up. It's the thing I'm most proud of, I think it's my best work.
Have you found Chicago audiences to be very different than those in L.A. (or other cities?)
I love Chicago audiences, in fact, I think - if I may generalize - that Chicago matches my own point of view the best. To me, they laugh when it's funny and they don't when it isn't and they aren't entering the theater with an agenda or a chip on their shoulder. I say that because I felt in New York, where I did love to perform, that when people walked into a theater they had a very skeptical "show me what you've got" attitude In New York, I felt the audience wanted to laugh, but it was most important to be moved - to have something deeper happen. In L.A., people flat out just want to be entertained (again, a gross generalization, but still --) and L.A. audiences feel uncomfortable if you are trying to take them farther than just the laugh. Of course not all of them, I would find my audiences. But my monologues would all start out the same - people would show up wanting to laugh and then i could feel them squirming in there seats - a feeling of "don't get too serious on us, now..." feeling. But in Chicago - I have to say it, it's just friggin' normal! They don't have some preconceived attitude about the show (my sense anyway) except they want it to be good.
Has living in Chicago or on the North Shore inspired you as an artist in any particular way?
Well, I am in love with the city. I am suddenly in a very women-central environment, as a mother and seeing so many other at-home mothers. That is really different. And it is what I'm writing about now in my book - oh yeah, did I tell you I'm writing a book. About being a mother. So, yes. It has inspired me.
What live shows here have you seen that you’ve enjoyed?
I really loved Esperanza Spaulding, who I saw at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a couple of months ago. I love the Looking Glass Theater. I really loved The Last Act of Lilka Kadison.
What are some of your favorite post-SNL projects of your former castmates?
Well, of my castmates? Hands down, it's Al Franken becoming a Senator.
What’s the workday like for the consultant to a TV show?
You go in and talk through story lines, give suggestions, hear people's pitches, and pitch ideas. It's a really fun job.
Looking ahead, what do you think your next monologue or one-woman show would be about?
Ohmygod, I don't know. Maybe about how I fear for the future apocalypse. (Hilarious! Funny!) Or about how we should respect the work of care taking more than to assign it a minimum wage. (Again hilarious!!!!)
What’s your favorite thing to order at Union Pizza?
The lamb pizza. So good, so fantastic.
How does it feel to be the 299th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?