Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2003
By James Verini
Julia SWEENEY’S unassuming bungalow on the southern fringe of Hollywood is lined with books. Walking into her living room, one wonders if Sweeney, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, is planning on becoming an adjunct professor or opening a stall at the Fairfax flea market. She’s not, it turns out — she just likes to read.
“I’ve reorganized,” she announces, showing me around. “Here is where I keep my favorite novels now,” she says, motioning to a 15-foot-long wall. Sweeney has just begun work on “Letting Go of God,” her third one-woman stage show. Like the long-running hit “God Said Ha!” (1996), which dealt with sickness and death, and to a lesser extent “In the Family Way,” a chronicle of her journey to China to adopt her daughter, which she’s just imported to the Groundlings Theater from New York, “Letting Go of God” is an exercise in gallows humor. So Sweeney’s taste in fiction, not surprisingly, tends toward those great but misanthropic postwar Brit-wits, like Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. “If they’re stacked horizontally it means I take them out a lot.” Half the books on the wall are stacked horizontally.
“Here’s the religion section,” she says, moving into a hallway. “I’m trying to get rid of those.” Sweeney, a onetime devout Catholic who’s been flirting of late with various forms of non-belief — currently she’s calling herself a “naturalist” — is wearing jeans and a purple turtleneck and no shoes. She has probing blue eyes and strong Irish features that have dimmed just a bit with the onset of middle age (she is 43). She recently cut her unruly red-brown hair short, partly out of I’m-a-mother-now sentiment (her impossibly cute daughter, Mulan, is 3 1/2).
Sweeney, who for much of her childhood wanted to be a nun, claims to be done with the church. But its influence still makes itself felt, and in her need to find a meaningful narrative in her life. A journey of loss and realization. Indeed, this need is what her shows are about.
“And here,” she says, moving onto a few shelves of philosophy and science books, “is my ‘the world is screwed’ section.” There are occasionally those performers who don’t really perform, who seem as though they’d just as soon sit down and have a drink with the audience as entertain them, whose unrushed humanity spills over into their stage persona. If you’ve ever seen Tom Waits in a small club, you know. David Sedaris does it on the page. Among professionally funny women, Julia Sweeney is this way.
“I never felt that I had to be an actor,” she said, settling into an overstuffed reading chair in her living room. “I read all these acting books that said, ‘You have to want to be an actor so bad that the thought of not being an actor fills you with dread.’ I never passed that test. I love being an actor, but I could see myself working in, you know, a bookstore.”
She spends a lot of time in bookstores. She got the idea for “Letting Go of God,” a light romp through the history of science and religion, while perusing the “spiritual” section at an airport bookstore. For several years, she’d been growing disenchanted with Catholicism and looking into alternatives, finally finding herself a kind of moderate atheist (“I can’t stand the atheist outfits — I won’t wear a beret!”) heavily informed by quantum physics and Darwin. But she noticed that all the books in the airport bookstore went the other way.
“They were all like ‘How I Found God.’ And I thought, why isn’t there a book about someone losing their faith and it being this beautiful experience?” So she decided to do a show about it. (She’s workshopping it for now at the Knitting Factory).
She insists that she’s not particularly fond of the one-woman show format. But the stories she wants to tell just seem to end up that way.
“After ‘God Said Ha!’ I swore I’d never do another monologue as long as I lived. I hated working in nonfiction. I felt guilty every time I did it because of my parents, like I was using them to get a laugh — which, of course, I was. But then I went through this experience, and it was so profound.”
This time around, she’s decided, she’ll only perform her shows once a week. “Doing it every night is just so ‘Here I am! I’m a single woman with an adopted baby! And I’m telling you all about it!’ ” said Sweeney. She is still close with her ex-husband, the writer Steve Hibbert. Sweeney remembers getting her first laugh, in the second grade. “There was a rumor going around that one of the fast-food restaurants was serving horse meat. Some of the kids asked the sister about it, and she said it wasn’t true. And then I said, ‘But if you hear a bugle and your hamburger runs off, you have to wonder!’ It was such a bad joke — but everybody laughed.
“That was powerful,” she said. “That was like doing heroin.”
Sweeney discovered acting in high school. In one of the few conventional episodes in her life, it was during a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I wanted to play Juliet. I mean, my name is practically Juliet anyway.” The drama teacher suggested she play the nurse instead. “It was like saying, ‘I know you’re 16. But you’re really 50.’ And I still pretty much get the nurse parts.”
Despite getting big laughs as the nurse, Sweeney didn’t act at the University of Washington, where she studied European history and economics, or during her first few years in Los Angeles, where she moved in the early 1980s initially to take a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures. Then one morning she found herself crying on the 101. “I wasn’t feeling fulfilled,” she said. So she signed up for an improvisational comedy class at the Groundlings Theater.
“It was like a religious experience,” she said. “It was like, ‘This is it. I have to change my whole life now.’ ” From there it wasn’t long before she was cast on “Saturday Night Live,” where she made her name with Pat, the whining franchise character of uncertain sexuality (remember the theme song? “It’s time for androgyny!”). After five seasons on “SNL” and an ill-fated Pat movie, she left to remake her name. But then, in little over a year, she got a divorce; her brother Mike, who also performed with the Groundlings, was diagnosed with terminal cancer; and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. (She fully recovered but was left unable to bear children.)
As a performer, there was no question in Sweeney’s mind that she had to tell this story. But how? How to make cancer funny? The answer, she decided, was not to perform it at all but to talk about it. Like one of the priests of her youth, teasing meaning out of an inexplicably gruesome scene from the Old Testament, she would just talk and trust what came out.
At first, she wasn’t even sure if people would laugh at “God Said Ha!” “I think people expect me to be funnier than I am,” she said. But they did laugh, and a filmed version of the show, produced by Quentin Tarantino, followed, as did an offer for a television series. The series was not picked up, but Sweeney has managed to always keep one tap shoe in television since, consulting on “Sex and the City,” appearing frequently on sitcoms and talk shows. Her dream, she said, would be to host, as she describes it, a ” ‘Daily Show’ for science and religion.”
“I pitched it to a cable network and they said, ‘Not in a million years,’ ” she says, laughing.
Given the sweep of evolution and human history, which she’s getting paid to talk about on stage for the next few months, a million years is not so much. Sweeney, though she may be a “naturalist,” or a modified “atheist,” or whatever title comes next, still has that faith in the narrative of her life.
“I get to think up my own shows and make enough money to live. I get to meet amazingly talented people. I get to get on stage and say what I think. I ….” Sweeney thinks for a moment, then says with just the slightest mock-theatrical earnestness. “I can’t imagine a greater life than the life I’ve had.”