The Closest I’ll Ever Get to Being a Sweeney Sister: My Morning with Comedy Idol, SNL Great Nora Dunn
Like many of you, when I was a teenager, I tuned in every Saturday night to watch "Saturday Night Live." Looking back, I see the show represented so much: my first chance to be a part of adult humor, and the fundamental foundation for my life now as a performer and writer.
At such a formative age, I learned comedy from this world that was accessible and so damn funny.
You may remember Nora Dunn for her characters on SNL: Pat Stevens, the model-turned-talk show host who taught my sisters and I to “hail, girls -– don’t flail” while calling a taxi. There was also Babette the French prostitute, and Liz Sweeney of the Sweeney Sisters, whose sequined dresses and toothy, Vaselined smiles sang to the likes of Kevin Nealon and lost-too-soon actor Phil Hartman.
Dunn was on SNL from 1985- 1990, or the entire stretch from my 8th to 12th grades. Those impressionable years, when I saw Dunn, I saw someone on TV who looked like me. With her dark hair and those squinty eyes that disappear when she smiles, we could easily be related.
That’s the thing: I related to her.
So when, my senior year, she refused to do a show in which Andrew Dice Clay was hosting, it was one of the first times I felt truly indignant –- I didn’t know who Dice Clay was, but his misogynist routine roused in me a sense of repulsion and injustice. Her commitment to her stance impressed me.
When I learned recently that she was creating a one woman show, my interest was piqued. After all, it was her ballsiness that inspired me to create my own solo show post-college.
I titled it “Of Wonderbras and Haagen-dazs” and I put every impulse I had to write and act into that show. At 21, I had just started to find my bearings and my place in the world. So, when I made the fatal mistake of reading negative reviews that called my show “pedestrian,” I was crestfallen. I never attempted such a thing again.
Dunn was criticized harshly by other comics and actors for her decisions at the end of that SNL season, but she held her head high and went on to a sustain a successful career, and can be seen in everything from the TV series “Entourage” to the recent film “The Guilt Trip.”
Now, she is creating her own work in a new show called “Mythical Proportions,” to premier in Chicago this August. I had the chance to sit down and talk with her over breakfast in Beverly Hills. I learned we had a few things in common: We are both middle children, went to Catholic schools, attended art colleges. We talked about SNL vs. Primetime, why Alec Baldwin wins over Steve Martin, and why she’ll never wear a scarf.
On Saturday Night Live vs. Primetime
SF: Are movies and prime time different than SNL?
ND: SNL is a world unto it’s own. That was my first job – ever – in showbizness…I’d never been in front of a camera before. The first show I think I was in it for all of 15 seconds, and thank God – I was just shell shocked, because that lens is so big. Madonna did that show – and she was pretty much in every sketch – she played all these different things – thank God, you know, because I could barely make it through.
SF: How did you handle nerves on SNL?
ND: It’s like I’m on the ride that you said I’ll never take again – I tell myself this… I go out on stage and I’m out there by myself and I always go alright, this is the last one you’re ever going to do. Because… remember this moment! You are terrified! It’s horrible! Don’t do this to yourself again!
Then I go out there and hit the lights, and I’m perfect - never happier. I never feel more comfortable and more myself than when I’m onstage.
SF: Did you write for SNL?
ND: I also wrote on SNL as did everybody we didn’t get credit for it, we didn’t get paid for it – the show cannot afford that – it’s not a prime time show. If it were there would be 20 people on their writing roster. But you created your work and a lot of the writers facilitated that for you.
SF: Who is your favorite character?
ND: Liz Sweeney. Because there was an abandon with her. I could just let myself go. And she was so – I still do her, I do her now on my own and her name is Liz Sweeney-Todd. She got married and kept her husband’s first name – but there is a whole new whole story and I wanna do a show with her –
SF: You should! People will come.
ND: I can do that in Chicago. And it’ll be so fun. So that’s what I want to do next.
SF: You should do a dinner party, drinking!
ND: A supper club!
SF: I’ll be there!
On Steve Martin vs. Alec Baldwin
SF: What do you read?
ND: I like David Copperfield, Dickens, I think Dickens is the most influential writer coming out of Western Europe – I love him. I’m reading “Another Slavery” what happened when the slaves were so-called “set free.”
SF: Any memoir?
ND: I read Georgia O’Keefe, James Garner…you learn so much. I love his whole philosophy.
SF: Have you read Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up?”
ND: No. Was his good?
SF: I think so.
ND: Was it personal?
SF: Hmmm…no. Not really. Now that I think about it. Not for a memoir. More of an autobiography.
ND: That’s the thing about him. I never get the sense …I was in a movie with him, he was on SNL - I found him to be extremely private and extremely guarded. That’s the impression I get. I don’t know him. I don’t think anyone knows him.
SF: He’s on my short list of Hollywood crushes.
ND: He is extremely talented. He’s not just a comedian. But he doesn’t let me in. I really liked him in “It’s Complicated.” But Alec Baldwin? Hello? I mean, he opens up and that’s the thing.
[I wonder but don’t ask if she was making reference to Alec Baldwin’s interview-based podcast, “Here’s the Thing,” where he interviews the likes of Lorne Michaels and SNL writer Paula Pell. (If you haven’t listened, do it!)]
SF: Maybe that’s the difference between being an actor and a comedian?
ND: Even in the older movies- that whole stylized way of acting – they open up to you. You know something about them. I can’t say that I know anything at all about Steve Martin other than he’s really talented, he’s really smart, he’s gifted but I have no idea who he is.
On Guilty Pleasures
SF: What shows do you watch?
ND: I’m trying to get off of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Maybe methadone will do it for me. Like come on, Nora, you’ve got to stop this -
SF: Does it make you glad you don’t live here (in Los Angeles) anymore?
ND: Well, (Beverly Hills) is not a real world. It’s sad. It IS the world of people who are desperate to be somebody. None of those women actually know who they are. Maybe they do. They’re on a reality show and all they do it…my friends and I we laugh about it. We’ll sit down and like we’ll go:
Dunn breaks into an improv so convincing I feel like I am actually being called out (awkward).
ND: “I’m here to maybe talk to you about something. Umm…you called me up. You asked me to come over. You said you were decorating your Christmas tree. I came over, and I sat on that couch…and you didn’t even offer me an ornament. And I want an apology!”
She doesn’t skip a beat. So strong is her vehemence, I’m getting uncomfortable!
ND: “And then I ask if you wanted me to help you move the tree into the corner and you said NO. And I think I deserve an apology.
She breaks out of her improv.
ND: It’s like – it’s nothing! And then the friend will say, I”m sorry you feel that way. But you’ve been a bitch to me since - okay, should I leave now?
SF: You were startlingly accurate.
ND: Ok – I don’t know what this is are these people really friends? They seem to be genuinely hateful toward each other. That seems genuine. Also they are so unattractive.
SF: Any other guilty pleasures?
ND: I watch Hoarders I go oh my God! Then I go clean out my closet. Okay, Nora, you don’t want that to happen to you. Gotta have three bags to the Goodwill by the end of the day.
Los Angeles VS. Chicago
ND: Now (in Los Angeles) I know this: there are fake asses, fake calves. Why do you want a fake calf? In Chicago, if someone asks if you’ve had work done they’re talking about tiling the bathroom, not changing your face.
On Getting Her Shit Together
SF: If you weren’t an actor, what would you have been?
ND: As I get older I (realize).. this is my life’s work because I’ve… only ever been this I’ve only been a waitress and THIS. Those are my 2 choices. I’m a performer, I’m a waitress. I have no other skills.
SF: I always hear young actresses say that, I have to do this because I can’t do anything else.
ND: Well, you can do something else but it will drive you crazy. I worked for an insurance company right when I got out of high school and…I just couldn’t believe it.
ND: This is what I have to do? I file things? I was so unhappy. I started drinking “Bali Hi.” I was only 18 years old and I found this liquor store that would sell me this Bali Hi, and after my filing job I would drink that Bali Hi, and after about 6 months I’m just becoming addicted to Bali Hi! And I’m so unhappy that I can’t even I have to have a jug of this pink stuff that gets me really high then I just pass out.
SF: God that is miserable.
ND: That made me change. I thought - I can’t do this anymore. I got my portfolio together and I went down to the Art Institute (of Chicago) and presented my portfolio, I got accepted and I got a (painting/art) scholarship.
On Creating Characters
ND: I had a deal with (a major “female-driven network”) but they always wanted these stereotypes. None of these characters really exists! A character to me is someone I meet with some voice, it’s a feeling, it’s something I want to say about a certain subject. I improv it out with my friends.
On Family And Friends
ND: My criterion for friendship has always been humor.
SF: How did growing up/your family shape you?
ND: My family is always been very funny,…I’m lucky. ..to be in my family, you had to know how to tell a story. It had to be funny and tragic at the same time, you had to hold the floor, by knowing how to tell it, not making it too long, and all that stuff.
if you’re talking about politics, it’s going to be tragic and funny; if you’re talking about your life, it’s going to be tragic and funny, I mean, what isn’t?
Having a great sense of humor… it’s a language for something that goes on..under the surface.
On Life vs. Death
ND: I think I was like a traffic controller in a past life. One time I was coming out (to L.A) on Jet Blue we had to go thru this severe turbulence…they made everybody sit down, they told us we were going to see all these planes out the window because everybody had to fly up north to avoid this storm in the south, that we had to around a thunderhead that was 47,000 ft., so there was no…
SF: Did you feel like you were going to die?
ND: People were crying. The plane flew sideways thru this turbulence… 40 minutes of almost feeling G-force, like the place was just vibrating.
SF: Were you traveling alone?
ND: Yes. But the man sitting next to me – well, his little boy was sitting between us, asleep, and he looked at me and said, “Gimme your hand – he held my hand the entire time.
SF: The guy or the little boy?
ND: The guy – it was just petrifying –and I looked at my screen and we were going 795 MPH- and I also know that in severe turbulence, if a plane goes to slow it can break apart – so you have to go really fast.
SF: Did you feel like you were going to die?
ND: I thought we were going to be okay I just felt like when you get on a ride, and think – I should not have gotten on this ride.
SF: That just happened to me! On a waterpark ride in Ohio. It’s pitch black. So the first few seconds I was like this is fun! Then you reach a point where you almost panic.
ND: Like why did I do this?!
SF: Oh my god then it switches from like this ride - whoosh! – this toilet bowl looking thing where you circle around –
Nora Dunn laughs. I am secretly thrilled I have made Nora Dunn laugh!
SF: And then I hit my head and though oh my God – I’m going to die of a concussion like Natasha Richardson!
ND: I’ve done that! And I just – I get that sensation of, why did I do this, and I don’t want to be here now and I want this to end. I can also see my article in the paper – this fluke death –
SF: It happens!
ND: People do die of weird things, you know.
SF: And that’s how you’re going to remembered – this person who died this awful death – like – who? Chanel? Or was it Isadora Duncan?
ND: Oh, yeah – on her own scarf?
SF: I think about that whenever I put on a scarf.
ND. I don’t wear scarves for that reason.
SF: Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
We sip our coffee in agreement.
Dunn is currently at work on a one-woman show, “Mythical Proportions,” to open in Chicago this August. For more information go to www.mythicalproportions.com and www.theaterwit.org