Balance Summer 2008

Ready for Prime Time

I’m winging it. It’s been an insane week and somehow I mixed up the time of my phone interview with Molly Shannon. There’s barely a dent in the towering pile of research on my desk about this fabulous actress and comedienne. I’ve spent countless hours laughing my way through her brilliant performances on Saturday Night Live, her movies, her cameos in everything from Will and Grace and Sex and the City to Seinfeld (where her unusually long arms had a cameo all their own).  I’d planned to spend several hours learning what’s brought her to the top of her comedic game—but now I have exactly five minutes before our phone call.  I rush through the pages, furiously highlighting. How can I do her justice?  How will she believe she’s one of my all-time favorite performers if I’m caught with my interviewing pants down?

Five minutes later, she’s on the line, and I just decide to up and tell the truth.

“I’m crash researching you right now,” I blurt out almost immediately. “Ha!” she hoots, clearly a busy woman who can appreciate the bottom line. Oh, man; I just made Molly Shannon laugh! Superstar: 10,000+. Me: 1.

As I discovered during our interview and afterward, with all the research under my belt at last, Molly’s no stranger to winging it either. While filming last year’s acclaimed Indy hit, Year of the Dog, she neglected to inform her director Mike White about her pesky little pet allergies. “I adored him [he’d written the role especially for her] and didn’t want to worry him,” Molly explains. Well acquainted with some of the diva antics of SNL guest stars, she adds, “And I didn’t want to be high-maintenance.” Nor was she expecting that her co-star, Pencil, would give her a face bath with his tongue at their first meeting. Hysteria spread on the set after the star’s face broke out in florid hives. The insurance company wrung its hands and there was talk of having to halt the production while the makeup crew faced Molly’s face. “Thank God for allergy doctors and ZYRTEC, which you can now get over the counter!” she raves. Critics loved her performance as Peggy, an insecure, inept, animal-obsessed secretary whose dog’s death prizes her heart open to life’s possibilities in the human world, which can be painfully awkward yet powerful.

Down and Out in Hollyweird

Improvisation and staying open to a change in plans has been a theme in Molly’s life. Many young performers have found solace in learning of Molly’s pre-Saturday Night Live woes—back when the struggling comedienne could barely afford the gas needed to carry her to auditions.

“It says here that your lean period was really lean, is that right? I ask, scanning the printouts.

“Oh, yeah! Like nine years lean!” she says. “I graduated from college and was in Los Angeles waiting tables and hostessing and working in coffee shops before mySNL break came along.”  Slogging from one casting call to the next had netted her a handful of bit parts in films, commercials, and TV show walk-ons, but she was nowhere close to living by her SAG card. “I really needed that break, you know. I had been out there for a long, long time and didn’t necessarily see that it was going to work out for me.”

She’d cobbled together a tape of “greatest hits” of her comic performances, including some featuring characters she’d developed and showcased in stand-up acts around town, and sent it to Lorne Michaels Michaels, who had flown in from a taping of SNL in New York to look for a female comedienne to round out the cast. She wasn’t invited to audition. “I was so disappointed—devastated, really.”

“Were you one of those success stories we hear about where you get the gig five minutes before giving up? I ask.

“Pretty much,” she says. “I just didn’t know if I had the heart to keep doing it. I mean; I had little glimmers of hope, because I would get national commercials and think, ‘Well, this is good; at least I’m making money.’ But at certain points I would be auditioning and auditioning and the rejection would really hurt my feelings. I’d just drive around in my little broken down car. I didn’t have any money, and was so tired of being broke. I’d think, ‘You know, maybe I’m not cut out for this.’”

Five years later, Molly got a second shot with Lorne Michaels. This time she was far more prepared. “I was doing my own comedy show that a lot of people were responding positively to. Lorne flew out to see it, and then I was flown out to New York to audition. Looking back now, those in between years allowed me to create more characters, which was key.”

“The wait was definitely a good thing in the overall picture for me,” she says. “I believe that sometimes spiritually you can really want something, and even if it’s ultimately meant to be, it’s just not the right time. Yet.”

Creating Something from Nothing

Her hilarious creations, including Sally O’Maley (“I like to kick, strut, and kick some moreI’m fitty. Fitty years ole”) and Mary Katherine Gallager (the Catholic school girl who French kisses trees, constantly reveals her white cotton under pants, and chants: “Sometimes, when I get real nervous, I stick my hand under my armpits and sniff ‘em!”), were monster hits among SNL viewers, indelible characters whose popularity propelled Molly front and center stage for her six-year tenure on the show. Molly’s been honest in the press about the pressure of being on the hit show, revealing that people who’ve joined SNL without bringing with them their own characters “get eaten alive.” I ask if the birth of her characters is a speedy or deliberate process.

“I just kind of let them come to me,” she answers. “If I happen to be around somebody who’s doing something interesting, I’ll notice and will jot down the quirks, but I don’t seek them out. I’ll just naturally be living my life, and if I happen to see somebody who is doing something funny or interesting, I’ll make a little note in my mind or on paper. I naturally observe people without it being a very conscious process.”

Bringing her wacky personas from her imagination onto the stage is a stepwise, deliberative process, and Molly’s grateful that SNL gave her the right venue for tweaking her characterizations with feedback from viewers. “After thinking of one for some time, I’ll test it out by performing in front of an audience. That’s what was great about having my comedy show; I could develop characters in front of others and see what they responded to, what they thought was funny, and then take it further it in my head while going through life. For instance, if I’d be walking around the block thinking about a character, I’d start working out how they’d talk, how they’d walk, move their hands, shake hands—everything. Physicalizing them is a tremendous help. And, I’ve always been good at going into stores and looking for clothes. I spent a lot of years doing that—thinking about characters and outfits and putting them all together. It’s technical, like I imagine it is when you write something. And, it’s fun, too, but people don’t often realize how structured it is. There’s also a huge element of trust involved.”

When she’s not conjuring her own characters, Molly’s a first-class mimic; who can forget her Monica Lewinsky playing against John Goodman, a bewigged Linda Tripp? Or her maternal Meredith Vieira. I ask her if she’s ever run into a person she’s publicly made fun of in her impersonations. “Heck yeah! One night when I was doing Courtney Love live on SNL. Courtney came by the show and was walking around asking, ‘Where is Molly?’ It was scary; she could have punched me, you know! But she was actually very nice.”

Good Little Catholic Girl

Knowing of her Catholic school background, I wonder, how much of quirky, clumsy Mary Katherine Gallagher springs from Molly Shannon’s psyche? I have to ask: “Were you ever devout, or were you always irreverent about your Catholicism?”

“No! Actually, I was very serious about my religion when I was little,” she answers, which makes me laugh as I think of Katherine Gallagher talking with Father Ritley inSuperstar about Sister Eileen (“I told her to move her big white butt or I would cold cock her honky ass!”). Understanding my disconnect, Molly’s quick to clarify. “Nowadays, I’m still spiritual, but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. But Mary Katherine came directly from my childhood, from me as a little girl praying and going to confession.”

It’s not hard to imagine what propelled those prayers. When Molly wasn’t quite five, she was in a horrific car crash that took the lives of her mother, three-year-old sister, and cousin. But rather than allow the accident to tumble her into grief, guilt, or despair, Molly found a way to process the experience that strengthened her zest for life. “It’s affected me in so many ways, and had such a profound effect on my life,” she says. “I think it gave me a real feeling of gratitude, for understanding the importance of not taking things or people for granted. That translated to making it in show biz as well. In the beginning, people would say to me, ‘Oh, I heard SNL is so hard.’ I was like, ‘Hard? I went through hell from the time I was little! This is NOTHING compared to what I’ve been through. This couldn’t be anything compared with losing my mom!’”

Happiness: It’s All Perspective 

Molly’s father raised her and her other sister after the accident, and despite his immense grief, he maintained a wildly silly side that inspired much of Molly’s later humor. “Dad was crazy with voices, personas, and costumes—and he encouraged me to be free and outrageous whenever possible,” which was all that much easier without a mother figure instilling feminine traits into her daughters. In one particularly vivid memory, Molly recalls that her father would ask her to pretend that he was blind in a candy store and, walking through the shop “looking” for chocolate, he’d bang boxes off the shelves, startling other customers and sending stocking clerks running. In another instance, he’d coach her on tricking people over the phone, and tell her to hang up when her voice wasn’t realistic enough in its deception. But her favorite was when he’d yank out his false teeth to make people laugh.

Friends of Molly’s say she’s her father’s daughter, always seeking out life’s positives. “At least I had 4 ½ years with my mom,” she says. “When my dad died, I couldn’t believe I had all that time with him—I was well into my thirties when we lost him. That was so great! At least I had all those years to enjoy him, and to say goodbye. Life goes by very quickly; it’s vital to enjoy it and make it what you want. Sometimes I think, ‘My God, I’m alive and my mom didn’t get to live. I’m fucking alive!’ No matter what, I’ve learned to enjoy life on earth.”

Every time I’ve ever seen Molly in an interview, her glee is over-the-top palpable (perhaps it’s not surprising that one of her SNL characters was a “professional joyologist”). While we, the viewer, may intellectually believe comedy to be a byproduct of pain—perhaps even in equal measure—Molly’s capacity for joy seems to surpass the constraints of any dark beginnings. She says that she still can’t always believe that Mary Katherine Gallagher, a character she thought up in drama school, was actually made into a movie (Superstar), and that it makes her “totally jazzed that surreal dreams do come true.”

And, that capacity for happiness only seems to have increased since starting a family.

“I left Saturday Night Live after six years, and when I did, I felt that I had worked so hard for so long that I really couldn’t wait to start to have a life. I didn’t want the husband-and-kid aspect of humanity to pass me by. When I left the show, my focus was to become a wife and mother—nothing else. I didn’t feel like writing anything anymore or creating anything career related. I was wholly motivated by the idea of working on my personal life and family.” Happily, her faith in this new life path was rewarded. Molly married Fritz Chesnut, an artist, in 2004 and they live in New York with their two children, Nolan and Stella, a boy and girl whom Molly says are “hysterical.” “They’re both under the age of five,” she says, laughing. “It’s nuts. It’s fantastic. They’re the biggest miracles of my life!”

Molly makes no apologies or excuses for having taken off a lot of time to relax and be with her family while we, her ardent fans, have to content ourselves with the occasional Shannon spotting, including her hilarious star turn as the drunk sister to Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock. But she also admits to being strangely excited now about getting back to work. Kath and Kim, her latest venture, is an NBC fall sitcom, adapted from the most-watched comedy in Australia. It’s a love/hate, mother/daughter sitcom, where Molly plays an often-inappropriate mother to Selma Blair’s outrageous daughter role. There’s great anticipation for the show, and Molly’s embracing this with her characteristic enthusiasm.

“I’m so excited about bringing this hit show here to America. I come out to LA to shoot in June, and I know it’s going to be so much fun!”

Molly Shannon’s mirth practically spills out of the phone. I hang up convinced that her huge spirit and sense of fun, not to mention her profound pleasure in becoming a wife and mother, will make Kath and Kim must-see TV for viewers eager to catch up with their favorite joyologist.

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