Julia Sweeney

Friday, February 28, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2003, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is someone you’ve seen on “Saturday Night Live” and you’ll soon see all over America in her one-woman show. Her name is Julia Sweeney. Welcome.

Julia Sweeney: Thanks for having me.

Paulson: I am so impressed with your current work. We’ve been discussing what it is. I mean, it’s a narrative about your life. It’s a monologue. Currently, it’s a piece about your decisions about motherhood and raising a child. But you’ve also done another earlier piece about your battling cervical cancer.

Sweeney: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: It’s kind of a transition from Pat on “Saturday Night Live.”

Sweeney: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, the first monologue, “God Said, ‘Ha!’” was sort of everything from when I left “Saturday Night Live” up through about four years ago, and this monologue is about basically the next four years.

Paulson: There are not a lot of people out there doing that. I mean, were there people who inspired you, and you said, “I could do that on stage”?

Sweeney: Well, Spalding Gray inspired me. “Swimming to” — “Swimming to Cambodia” was a real influential work for me. And, yeah, I guess I kind of — I started doing this sort of alternative stand-up thing in Los Angeles, where people just kind of were more storytelling-oriented, less joke-oriented, and I just started doing it and getting involved with that and then watching other people like Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin and Janeane Garofalo who are stand-ups, but they kind of verge more into the storytelling area, kind of made me see how I could fit in that universe, sort of.

Paulson: Fascinating career path driven by professional and personal concerns. I was struck by an interview you did with the New York Times at one point, where you said, you know, you really didn’t intend to be a performer, but you kept hearing this voice —

Sweeney: [Laughs]

Paulson: — that said you needed to be. What is that about?

Sweeney: Well, I was a schizophrenic.

Paulson: Oh, I see.

Sweeney: [Laughs] And — no, yeah, I was an accountant when I first moved to Los Angeles, at Columbia Pictures, and I would drive to work every day, and I just — I felt like I had this little secret voice in me that said I wanted to be a performer, but I was too embarrassed to admit it. And, and I just thought I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t like those people. I wasn’t like the type of women that I thought were like that. I didn’t think I was pretty enough or young enough. It was too late. But it — that voice just kept at me, and then finally I just started taking classes at the Groundling Theater, and that’s when everything changed.

Paulson: And you were part of the Groundlings for how long?

Sweeney: Well, I got on “Saturday Night Live” in 1989, so only a couple of years, like 1986 to 1989 on the main stage. I still am associated with them and perform there. I’m going to do another show there soon, and I do improv there sometimes.

Paulson: That’s pretty much a classic American story: accountant —

Sweeney: [Laughs]

Paulson: — a couple years hangin’ out with an improv group, and then “Saturday Night Live.” How did you do that so quickly?

Sweeney: It didn’t seem very quick. [Laughs] It seemed like a long time, but, well, I don’t know. I guess I just started taking the classes. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, I think.

Paulson: How did “Saturday Night Live” find you?

Sweeney: Well, they — they’ve cast out of the Groundlings quite a bit. Laraine Newman and Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman were the three that had been on before I got on. And then since I got on, there’s a lot of Groundlings. You know, Cheri Oteri, Will Farrell, a ton of Groundlings, Ana Gasteyer, have all been on. So, it’s been a traditional place for them to look, so.

Paulson: I’m sure a lot of people are curious, when you join something like “Saturday Night Live” where all the existing cast members have, have a persona, and then you have to have one. You have to find something you can hang your career on. And, of course, in your case, I guess, it’s Pat.

Sweeney: Well, I guess, yeah, on “Saturday Night Live,” they all say that, you know, “You have to have a breakout character to get real — any real recognition,” and I remember Phil Hartman would always agonize over the fact that he didn’t have — he wasn’t identified with a certain character like, you know, Mike Myers was or Dana Carvey, but, you know, it was always — we would commiserate, and I’d always say to him, “It’s because you’re so good.” I mean, he’s so subtle, and he’s not hanging everything on one big broad character. But anyway, in my case, for good or bad, I made this character Pat popular, so —

Paulson: Where did Pat come from?

Sweeney: Well, it started at the Groundlings. There was a person that I’d worked with when I was an accountant who was similar to Pat, but he was a guy, but he stood too close to you, and he drooled, and he would ask you to lunch, and, if you couldn’t go today, could you go tomorrow or the next day or the next day. Like, you couldn’t escape this person. And I wanted to imitate him, but I couldn’t really pass off completely a gender change. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll just make a joke in it that you don’t know, and then that became the big joke. And then I sort of ended up evolving the character into a mixture of man and woman.

Paulson: In the long run, was that a blessing or a curse that that became the single most identifiable character for you?

Sweeney: I think it’s a blessing, but it’s a close call, [Laughs] I would say. Like, I, I think of other actresses that have been on “Saturday Night Live” who’ve done a much greater body of work who are really more talented at it than I am and aren’t as well known, and then because I did this one character, you know what I mean, I — I’m always associated with that, so I get everything that’s good and bad with being associated with it. People know me more readily, but then they pigeonhole me more quickly as well, so —

Paulson: At one point, there’s interest in a movie deal, and there’s — and actually, a movie is made eventually.

Sweeney: Yeah.

Paulson: And I guess there’s a question of how long America has a love affair with a character —

Sweeney: Right.

Paulson: — is one way to put it. The movie is made just after you left “Saturday Night Live” or somewhere in there?

Sweeney: Right before I left.

Paulson: Right before you left, and it’s called “It’s Pat,” continuing the story about whether Pat was male or female. Interesting, I went back and looked through some clips, and about three months before it’s released, you’re saying, “You know, this is offbeat, and I just hope America has the patience to go see it. This is — it’s something you have to see to get, you know?” And, and I guess the audience never gave you the benefit of the doubt with that film.

Sweeney: Well, I mean, I have two different ways of looking at it. You know, like, the defensive side of me says I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, just when everyone was getting sick of “Saturday Night Live” characters getting movie deals was right when “Pat” opened. It wasn’t produced by Lorne Michaels, so I didn’t have the protection of him. Um, it was kind of spearheaded by Michael Eisner at Disney, and there was a big falling out at that — I mean, it was, like, a lot of things. So, that’s the defensive side of me. The more objective side of me says it didn’t really work. Like, it, it really wasn’t enough for a whole movie, and, and it didn’t hold together, ultimately. You know, like, so it was fair that it failed the way it did.

Paulson: And that failure, unfortunately, I mean, tragically, came at a time when a lot of other negative things were happening in your life.

Sweeney: Yeah, well, actually, the same weekend that the movie opened in Seattle to universally horrifying reviews [Laughter] that continually kept being faxed into my hotel room was the same weekend I found out my brother had been diagnosed with lymphoma, stage four, and didn’t have any insurance, and he was in Rochester, New York. It was, it was, in a way, finding out that my brother was that sick in the same moment that the movie was failing so publicly really was a help, creepily enough, because it made you realize how unimportant a movie opening was immediately and that, that my concern was really mostly for him, and, and then I stopped everything and canceled everything and only took care of him and avoided all the rest of the press on the “Pat” movie. But, yeah, it was sort of, like, everything came down, the house all came down in one weekend really.

Paulson: And then your parents moved in with you. Is that right?

Sweeney: Yeah, well, to help take care of my brother Mike for about nine months.

Paulson: And then came news of your own illness.

Sweeney: Yeah, so then they had two kids with cancer in the house, so, yeah, yeah, that was a difficult time. [Laughs] I’m sorry to laugh; it’s just so horrible. I can’t believe we lived through it. I mean, it ended up, you know, in retrospect, being a really poignant, beautiful time, because, you know, it was my last time I got to spend with my brother. And my parents, in retrospect, it only being eight years ago, seem so young to me even now when I imagine them there, but, but, yeah, it was pretty intense, stressful time.

Paulson: What’s most impressive is, out of that horrible time in your life comes “God Said, ‘Ha!’” and — which is a powerful work. How did you pull that together? How did you take this horrible experience and turn it into this meaningful work?

Sweeney: Well, Kathy Griffin actually had encouraged me to start doing this thing called the Un-Cabaret on Sunday nights, which is that alternative comedy thing, where you have — the rules are, you have to — you can’t have said it on stage before ever. It can’t have any punch lines in it, and it has to be absolutely true. Those are the rules. People don’t always follow it, but that’s the rules. And so every Sunday night, I would kind of go and be part of this group, and I would report what was happening in my life, which was that my brother had cancer and my parents were living with me and I was going out of my mind. And my parents didn’t know, really, where I was going. They just thought I was seeing friends on Sunday night, and my brother Mike, I’d always tell him, the next day, what I said on stage, and he would laugh and stuff. And, and then I just sort of ended up having a following of people who really cared about what was happening with the story. And, so, when it was all over, I just got up at the Groundling Theater and did, like, an hour of it as an audition, really, to try to get on a sitcom, like, sort of as a showcase. And I remember, at the end of it, people came up to me and said, “Don’t go try to get on a sitcom. This is what you should be doing. This isn’t an audition. This is it,” you know? And then that changed my whole focus, and I started performing it.

Paulson: What did you find connected with audiences from, from that experience? What worked in a stage setting?

Sweeney: I think, even if you haven’t experienced cancer, everyone, you know, for the most part, has parents that they’re dealing with and, and sort of being in a gender generation gap in their 30s dealing with their parents and maybe more provincial parents from a smaller town and the frustrations and the wonderful things and the funny things that come out of that. So, I think a lot of people related to that part of it.

Paulson: And the critics were very positive. This was not a repeat of “It’s Pat.” You had a tremendously warm response.

Sweeney: No, it was very — it wasn’t — yeah, it was very positive.

Paulson: You took, you took it to New York.

Sweeney: Uh-huh.

Paulson: That was your first time on Broadway?

Sweeney: Yeah, it was really intense. It was really — I would have to really think twice before I’d go on Broadway again.

Paulson: Why would that be?

Sweeney: Because, you know, as a — you know, you’re in a 700-seat house that you have to fill eight times a week. Um, the show was an hour and 45 minutes, so, you know, I was just exhausted from performing it, and there was something about doing it so much. In L.A. and San Francisco, I was just doing, like, five or six shows a week, and something about jumping to eight shows a week really took a little of the fun out it. And I — and it was hard getting houses in, although we did pretty well. But I used to have a joke where I would act like I was a tourist going to the ticket center in Times Square and saying, “Should I go see ‘Cabaret’ or that monologue about the girl who had cancer?” [Laughter] You know, like, who’s going to go see my show? I had no — the show had to go on word of mouth. There’s no way I could go out and say, “Come see my show. My brother gets cancer. I get cancer, and it’s a laugh riot.” Like, I — it was just very difficult.

Paulson: And this idea of sharing your life on stage kind of morphed into a desire to do more of that?

Sweeney: Well, actually, I did — after I finished “God Said, ‘Ha!’” I thought, I don’t want to do this ever again, because, in a way, you’re kind of selling your soul a little bit, you know, when you do that. I mean, you’re — I mean, it’s great, because you’re relating to people, and you’re expressing your own personal life, but when I finished “God Said, ‘Ha!’,” I thought, “Why can’t I just be a screenwriter like everybody else and take their personal life and then fictionalize it and not have to be worried about what you say about people or how people come off or how much people know about you now?” So, I really told everyone I would never do another monologue again. And then I actually went through this time where I, I went through this time where I ended up losing my faith, and I — and it was such a unique experience that I hadn’t heard people talk about that I decided I wanted to do a monologue again talking about that. This is — this monologue isn’t that, but I went to New York prepared to do that monologue, and then for a whole bunch of reasons, it got changed completely to this monologue about adopting my daughter and about struggling with whether to have a family in your late 30s and early 40s.

Paulson: Well, you raised the point about losing your faith, which has got to shock people.

Sweeney: I know, it makes people very upset.

Paulson: I mean, as we talked about, if you’re sitting and watching television and, you know, you hear the story of this woman who suffered a terrible disease, her brother died, and she’s come back in this extraordinary way, and she’s telling her story with passion and touching people’s hearts. And you know, people want to believe that what that’s done is make you absolutely full of faith. I mean —

Sweeney: Right.

Paulson: That’s a sign of grace if ever there was one. And yet you say it’s taken you to a different place.

Sweeney: Well, when I did “God Said, ‘Ha!’,” almost every interview I did asked me where my state of faith was, and I could tell that — by the way they framed the question — is that they wanted me to have found God, because they want me to have something. Sort of like, “Oh, a terrible thing happened to you, but what you got is this greater spiritual awareness and connection with a deity,” you know. And I — even at the time — didn’t know how to respond to it, ’cause I would say — even though I was a believer then — I would say, “Well, I had great faith in God before I had cancer and my brother died, and I have great faith now,” and it didn’t really change. Like, I almost felt like it was cheating to God, like, to say that I would be more in connection with Him because I had gone through a traumatic experience. It’s like, well, no, I felt like that connection was made, and it was important to me, and it was the same before and after. But, yeah, then later, I went through another time where I totally lost my faith in God, and it was a beautiful, I think, deeply spiritual experience for me. But I think it’s incongruous for a lot of people that I would have gone through that other experience and then have this experience. Like, they don’t want that for me. They want me to believe.

Paulson: Right.

Sweeney: And so, like, I’ve even gone — I remember, I went to a therapist once, and I kind of said, “Oh, I’ve gone through this big year, and I’ve lost my faith. But I think it’s the greatest thing, I think. And — but I can’t stop thinking about it.” And he said, “Oh, you believe in God.” He just said that. And I go, “Really?” And he goes, “Yeah.”

Paulson: [Laughs]

Sweeney: And then I — and I, you know, in retrospect, I feel angry about that. Like, you know, I really didn’t. And, and it wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was a real adult-making, eye-opening experience, so — but I can feel how much people don’t want to hear that.

Paulson: And recently, you went to the Freedom from Religion Foundation convention, an event that also drew the gentleman who challenged the Pledge of Allegiance in California. This is a, this is a very distinct audience for that message and for that performance. I’m sure they received it well.

Sweeney: Yes, well, I mean, that’s a very specialized audience. [Laughs]

Paulson: Which brings in my next question. You’re an entertainer. You’re raising a daughter. You, you need a career.

Sweeney: I know.

Paulson: And I would think a monologue about not believing in God would be, like, the least commercial thing anyone could possibly do.

Sweeney: Yes, I think so. I know. Part of me thinks, “Save your money. Save every penny,” because, well, I mean, I have other projects and other ways to earn money. I hope that, you know, I don’t think I’m such a well-known person that it’ll be, like, some big sensational, horrible thing. But I am writing a book about it, and I do intend to do a monologue about it, and because I have some celebrity about me, a limited amount, but some, it’s going to get more attention than someone else maybe. So, that will naturally make me be more of a spokesperson for that point of view. And, you know, I’ve already had people write to my website and stuff and say how I’m going to hell. And you know, I don’t know. I just feel, I feel compelled to do it. Like, I can’t stop it. It’s such a — it’s like a born-again Christian who finds Jesus. That’s how I feel about not finding Jesus. [Laughter] And I feel so overwhelmed with happiness about it that I want to run and tell people about it.

Paulson: I have this terrible feeling lightning’s going to strike the set at any second.

Sweeney: You know what, though? It won’t. [Laughs]

Paulson: Thank you for that reassurance. And it, it illustrates an important point. You say you’ve gotten hate mail and anger and people saying you’re going to hell. But the whole thing about freedom of religion in America. People sort of say, “Well, that means you can be a Methodist, you can be a Presbyterian — ”

Sweeney: Right.

Paulson: ” — you can be a Catholic,” but it can — also means you don’t have to believe.

Sweeney: Exactly.

Paulson: And a lot of people don’t get that.

Sweeney: Yeah, in fact, Thomas Friedman, the — he writes for the New York Times, who I like a lot. He was writing, like, saying, you know, “Bush has to keep emphasizing that we are a nation, a multi-religious nation. You know, we have Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and everything.” And, and I, you know, I read that, and I think, “And non-believers,” you know. I think there’s a significant percentage of people. I mean, I’ve heard 18% is one — I don’t have the statistics exactly, but it’s not an insignificant number of people who really don’t believe. And so I, you know, those people need to be represented too.

Paulson: [Laughs] You’re the poster child now.

Sweeney: Well, I don’t, I don’t know if I want to be. I — it’s so funny, ’cause I remember, when I started doing “God Said, ‘Ha!’,” I was really close with Quentin Tarantino at the time. We were hanging out a lot. And he used to say to me: “God, Jules, you know, first you were Pat, and now you’re Cancer Girl.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to be Pat and then Cancer Girl.” And then I think now I’m going to be Pat and Cancer Girl and Atheist Woman.

Paulson: [Laughs]

Sweeney: Oh, no, that’s not what I want.

Paulson: There’s a career for you. Do you, do you have professional help who discusses these career moves with you?

Sweeney: [Laughs] No, just myself. I talk to my boyfriend a lot about it.

Paulson: The work you do, is this something you intend, I mean, this — do you think you have a, a long-term career doing monologues? Do you want to go to stand-up, or what’s your sense of —

Sweeney: Well, I’m flirting with the idea of doing stand-up. My producer in New York, John Steingart, keeps encouraging me, because, you know, to do a monologue, you have to be in a theater, and there’s lighting, and it’s a very certain environment, but to do stand-up, you really are a lot more mobile, and the, the publicity machinery of show business is a lot more geared to accept a stand-up than a monologist. But, so I’ve kind of — I’m flirting with the idea of doing stand-up, but when I listen to myself on stage through the lens of a stand-up person, I think I’m not a stand-up. I’m so far from being a stand-up I would just die a miserable death. But I might try it.

Paulson: Well, I, I enjoyed very much your current show. And it’s a remarkable piece, because it’s about an hour. I don’t know how you do it. I truly don’t understand how you can get on stage, no script, it all comes from memory or from the heart or a combination of the two, no hesitation, smooth, fluid. I mean, how many times have you done that now?

Sweeney: Well, I started thinking about it last May and then doing a few shows that are very far from what this show is last May and then August, I did it a few times, very — just with notes. And then I workshopped it in L.A. a little bit. And then I really opened it in New York and probably did maybe 20 shows of it, about 20 times.

Paulson: So, a lot of people who are watching this have not seen the show. Could you just give them a sense of what the show is about, what story it tells?

Sweeney: Um, it tells the story of me — it starts at me at 38, just having broken up with a boyfriend of four years, where I want a family, and he doesn’t. And so he leaves. And I feel like I’m 38. I have no boyfriend and no uterus, because I’ve had a hysterectomy, and I want a family. And feeling like it’s really too late and feeling like it’s really too late to think that I was going to run out and meet someone and then convince them to run and adopt a baby with me right away. So that I have to really just do it on my own. And then, it kind of takes me through the next four years, basically, through a few different boyfriends and how they react to the fact that I’m adopting and it — we’re not working out, ultimately. And then through the whole adoption process. And I adopt a baby from China and who I have now, who’s my daughter, so —

Paulson: And what’s also interesting is that it rings of truth. Is there a temptation to fabricate, embellish, rebuild the truth?

Sweeney: Oh, yeah, and there’s parts in it that are untruthful. I’m not in this — not in spirit, but in the actual chronology of it. Like, with one of the boyfriends, I kind of create a scene of us waiting for our cars at a valet and me saying, “Come to breakfast with my daughter,” and him saying, “I’m dating you, not your daughter,” and me realizing that he is dating me and my daughter. And it — that never happened that way. But the things that I say that we said, we said, but it was over a two-week period [Laughs] here and there, but, you know, for the sake of drama, I condensed it all together. So, and that makes me feel guilty, ’cause now I’m terrified he’s going to come see the show and think, “You big liar,” [Laughs] and he’ll be partially right. But, yeah, you know, it’s like you’re taking real life, but then you have to make it dramatic, and you have to make acts. And things have to happen quickly and dramatically. So, you do have to kind of pick and choose.

Paulson: And yet you do not go for the easy laugh. I mean, people who come to see this show, it’s a — it’s heartwarming, and it touches you, but it’s not like a punch line every other sentence.

Sweeney: No. I, I prefer much more getting — I would much rather have a great laugh after 30 minutes of people really understanding all the nuances of different points of view than to try to just get laughs immediately. I mean, I’m not trying to put down people who can do that, because I think that’s incredible talent, and it’s really great, but to me, the bigger picture is the more important picture.

Paulson: Which is telling this compelling story.

Sweeney: Telling the story, not so much the laughs along the way, although people don’t want — they want to laugh, the people. [Laughs]

Paulson: You have some great observations about the challenges facing women. In that part of your life, it’s all about not getting pregnant.

Sweeney: Right.

Paulson: Another part of your life is desperately wanting to.

Sweeney: Right. I actually read a great line yesterday in something. They said, “If the ’60s was all about having sex without babies, the ’90s was all about having babies without sex,” [Laughter] which I thought is a really good line.

Paulson: Have you talked to audience members after they’ve seen this show?

Sweeney: Yeah.

Paulson: What kind of response do you get?

Sweeney: Well, mostly women in their 30s and 40s really respond to it. Like, I really have a lot of women and also a lot of, of the gay community is a big follower, too, I think, because they’re also making those choices about how to have a family, and they don’t have all the right combinations of equipment either, so I think they can relate. But mostly, I get women, and it’s really funny. My aunt came to New York last week and watched three shows in a row, and she said she kept watching the audience, and when women came in their 20s, they really — you could see their eyes movin’ around. And they couldn’t — you know, I just seemed like this much older person dealing with things so far away. But she said, “Man, when you saw the women — once they got to be, like, 35, they were locked in.” Because it is, you know, it’s, you know, our culture gives us so much opportunity, encourages women to build their own life and have their own career and be their own person, and that doesn’t happen quickly. You don’t do that when you’re 25. You know, for most people, it takes till you’re almost 40 to really do that. And then, and then you’re supposed to go off and have a traditional family. And, it’s really, you know, almost impossible to put it all together in the right way, so I think a lot of people are struggling with that.

Paulson: What do you think 35-year-old women take from the show?

Sweeney: I don’t know, but I know that I’ve seen a lot of women in their 50s bringing their daughters in their 20s to the show, which I think — I keep joking that they bring their daughters saying —

Paulson: [Laughs]

Sweeney: — “Look at her; if you don’t make the right decisions — ” like, I’m the cautionary tale. And then they say, “Look at her. That’s going to be you, only you won’t have a show.” [Laughter]

Paulson: What’s next?

Sweeney: Well, I’m working on this new monologue about my beautiful loss of faith story —

Paulson: I can’t dissuade you from that? OK, go ahead.

Sweeney: — in Los Angeles, called “Letting Go of God.” I’m going to start workshopping it there. And then I’m going to do the show in Los Angeles for 2 1/2 months at the Groundlings on Monday nights, this baby show.

Paulson: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sweeney: All right, thanks.

Paulson: It’s a great show. Deserves to be seen far and wide.

Sweeney: Oh, great, thanks so much.

Paulson: Our guest today, Julia Sweeney. Join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”