From 1990 to 1994, Julia Sweeney was part of one of the most remarkable Saturday Night Live casts in the history of the iconic late-night comedy show. Sweeney performed alongside some of the most notable names in the game on the stage at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center: Chris Rock Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Tim Meadows, David Spade as well as the late greats Chris Farley and Phil Hartman. She is best known for her androgynous character “Pat” (which we get into later) as well as various TV roles. But after a bout with cancer, and the loss of her brother who also had cancer, she ducked out of the spectacle of TV and film and opted to take the stage for autobiographical monologues. She even stepped further away from the limelight to raise her adopted Chinese daughter named Mulan (we’ll get to that later as well) and live in suburbs of Chicago — something she goes into great detail and humor in her newest one-woman show Older and Wider which is currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles through Feb. 17.
Sweeney moved back to Hollywood from Chicago to dive back in the biz — and she wasted no time in doing so. She can be seen in the upcoming Hulu show Shrill alongside SNL peer Aidy Bryant and will appear on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which she says was “the most fun week” of her life. However, it was her move back to Los Angeles that was the inspiration behind her new one-woman show.
“I had decided to stop performing and I wanted to be a director, and I wrote a script, and I even had Connie Britton committed to getting a lead part in it,” Sweeney tells Deadline about the would-be film titled Fork (that is still sitting on a shelf) about marriage, monogamy and almost having an affair. “And then we couldn’t get the money together, and it was just devastating….it could have been great!”
She continues, “I had kind of a come-to-Jesus moment where I thought, ‘Well, I’m getting older. Should I really be trying to start this whole new thing of being a director? Maybe that’s too much.'” She told herself: “do what I know I can do, which is stage performance.” This was the initial spark for Older and Wider.
As her third autobiographical monologue, Sweeney turned to standup to tell her stories. She had been watching a lot of standup specials on Netflix from comedians like Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan. She admitted that she was a fan of standups but never really watched standup specials but when she watched these specials she learned that standup was different than she thought — and it was closer to what she was already doing with her monologues.
“I was tackling difficult subjects in my monologues, but I was still getting laughs,” Sweeney says of her shows. “I wasn’t getting 10 laughs a minute like Jim Gaffigan, but I was getting regular laughs. I thought, when I saw people like Mike Birbiglia, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m doing that. That’s what I do.'”
With Older and Wider, she wanted to challenge herself with personal storytelling. Her previous show God Said Ha! was an opportunity for her to talk about when she and her brother were diagnosed with cancer while In the Family Way focused on her adoption of her daughter. In Letting Go of God, she talks about her relationship with religion and how she went from Catholicism to Atheism. Older and Wider is a culmination of all of this and commentary on her journey back to Hollywood.
Sweeney says her new show doesn’t necessarily have a narrative arc like her previous shows and leans into standup territory. “I would say the first 20 minutes of the show’s kind of that,” she says. “Then, I just can’t help myself to tell a story so I pull all those threads through.”
Sweeney covers a lot of ground in the 90-minute show. She opens up about her daughter and how it was like raising a Chinese daughter with the name Mulan — a name that was not from the Disney movie. She already had the name when she was adopted and Sweeney tried to change it for fear that people would think that she named her after the animated feature. Despite her efforts, Mulan wouldn’t answer to anything but Mulan so Sweeney just accepted it. In addition, Sweeney covers topics like parenting, religion, her daughter and her boyfriend (a relationship that has a huge Trumpian twist), and overall, being a 60-year-old trying to get back into show business. Of course, she touches on her time at SNL.
After leaving SNL, Sweeney said she didn’t watch the show for a while, but it was still very much part of her life. Don Novello even served as the officiant at her wedding in character as Father Guido Sarducci. Her daughter didn’t even know that she was part of SNL until she found out from her friends at school.
As part of the ’90s Golden Age of SNL, Sweeney was part of a class that churned out some of the most memorable sketches that have remained embedded in pop culture: Wayne’s World, Church Lady, Ladies Man and for Sweeney, Pat. For those not familiar, Pat was a character whose gender was indecipherable. It may have been funny back then, but in today’s social climate, it might not sit well with audiences.
“My perception of Pat was that I never cared much about Pat being androgynous,” she explains. “The whole inspiration for me doing Pat was to make fun of this particular person. At first, it was really based on one guy I worked with that drove me crazy…who stood too close and drooled and asked me to go to lunch constantly, and I couldn’t get out of it.”
The character originated during her times at the Groundlings. She says when she dressed up as him, he was a frumpy fat guy who wasn’t androgynous at all. In the first sketch she wrote, Pat’s androgyny didn’t even come up till the end when they just threw in a joke questioning his/her gender. The joke received a huge response and that became the joke. “What was funny to me is that people needed to know so much — why did they need to know so much?”
While on SNL, Sweeney and writer Christine Zander wrote the sketches and the “man or woman” gag became their “Bible of a joke”. Soon it turned into a movie in 1994 (which Sweeney admits was bad) and became part of SNL lore. Since the early ’90s, the landscape of sexual identity changed drastically and Sweeney realizes that Pat wouldn’t be able to exist in today’s world without some backlash. But in the ’90s Pat was embraced.
“I was the Grand Marshall of four different gay pride parades!” she says with a laugh. “I’ve had people come up and say, ‘I’m so glad that I have a name for how I feel.'” And that name is “Pat”.
“Pat is not trying to present as non-binary,” Sweeney explains. “Pat’s not going out of Pat’s way to not look one way or the other. Pat just doesn’t happen to look one way or the other to most people.”
She continues: “I don’t like how people look super-masculine or feminine, frankly. I think that that’s a sign of a sick society — when people are too married to their gender. I like people that you can’t tell if they’re a man or a woman. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t have made Pat so unlikeable.”
Sweeney still watches SNL and enjoys the show, but recognizes that the show has changed because of the introduction of social media and the fast-paced news cycle. But she attributes one person for a major change to the show.
“I feel like Tina Fey was the genius that broke open SNL and turned it into a much better place,” she says “She opened possibilities for women.” She also mentions SNL director Beth McCarthy Miller who came in and changed the game.
When Sweeney was at SNL, she says there were only three women and there was never gonna be more than that. She also points out that there were fewer parts for women and that a lot of the time, guys were playing women. “I think it took Tina and Beth for people to see that women could be just as funny and that you could have lots of women and find lots of things for them to do.”
She gushes about Fey, comparing her to Groucho Marx and how she is a specific kind of person who changes everything and in the case of SNL, she changed the culture of the show. She admits that she was sad that she wasn’t there during the Tina Fey era. “I probably would have liked it… maybe they’d say I wasn’t good enough, but I think I would have had a better time later.” She declares, “SNL, to me, is now pre-Tina Fey/post-Tina Fey.
In addition to SNL, Sweeney flows in and out of topics that she has covered before but adds her own special flair to make it even more timely. But there is one topic that is fairly absent from Older and Wider: the #MeToo and TimesUp movement. As a feminist, it may come as a surprise that Sweeney doesn’t take a deep dive into such a relevant topic. That’s because Sweeney already has a show dedicated to that called I, As Well — it just isn’t ready yet.
Her idea for I, As Well happened around the same time as Older and Wider. “I had wanted to do a show about my comments on the #MeToo movement because based on me being kind of horrified about what happened to Al Franken, which I thought was really unfair — but I am still a big supporter of #MeToo,” she says. Sweeney is a huge advocate but admits that there was collateral damage along the way with some accusations. “That’s okay in the grander scheme of things, but it’s painful when you think it’s wildly unfair.”
Stoking the fire for I, As Well was an interview she did with what she calls a “very young, strident, feminist” journalism student who countered her “seasoned feminist and realistic” point of view.
“We really didn’t agree about things,” she recalls. “She thought some things were horrifying that I thought were more complicated.” Sweeney says that she saw things in more “black and white” and that she saw men are horrible. “I was like, ‘Yes, men are horrible, but women can also be horrible’,” she says. She then calls back to Al Franken and how it was a big part of how she felt during the conversation. She also says that during the interview, she wanted to share her #MeToo story about assault, but since it wasn’t a celebrity-filled, it didn’t pique the interest of the journalist. “I was pissed off that she wasn’t interested in that story.”
Sweeney remembers one night while workshopping I, As Well she spent an hour and 15 minutes going through each allegation of Al Franken’s, saying why it was wrong — and the audience was too fond of that. “I realized that was a disaster,” she says. “I cried all the way home after that one.”
Considering the content of the show, several people told Sweeney that she shouldn’t do the show and that a lot of things she said on the show would get her in trouble. “I didn’t know if I could actually crack the nut of it, and so I just decided to put it on hold while I did Older and Wider,” she said. However, I, As Well isn’t totally dead. Sweeney admits that she is kind of falling in love with it again and that after her Geffen run she might revisit it because if she waits too long it may no longer be relevant.
As an experienced performer on screen and stage, Sweeney says that she doesn’t prefer one over the other, but feels that bigger spectacle type shows like SNL are out of her hands and that she has more control over intimate performances in small theaters. She is always looking to what she can and can’t control as well as what her body of work will be “in the very end.”
Sweeney would like to commit to performing a show in a small theater like the Groundlings and do “weird” shows that she know she can pull off. She pictures herself doing a Saturday matinee for the next 30 years “and just keep developing little shows” as she goes along while being available in Hollywood for other projects based on other people’s ideas.
“I turned 60 in October and somehow that’s a really big deal,” she says. “I don’t care about being older — I’m happy to be older. Every big number I change to, I’m always so happy it’s coming. But it also makes me think, ‘How much time do you really have?'” She prefers to look at things in a positive light and says she’s going to be like Betty wife and have 30 more years of work.
“Last night, I thought, ‘I just enjoy making people laugh so much’,” she says. “I get so much out of it…I just love it. I’m trying to just enjoy that without having to have a heavy message about something.”