AS A BILLY CRYSTAL CHARACTER might say, it ... looks ... mahvelous.
Flashing neon and video imagery overwhelm the night, a Monument Valley of advertising. A river of people runs through it, speaking in tongues. If you can make it here, goes the tune, you can make it anywhere. Towering canyons of brick, footloose vendors with Rolex-filled briefcases, drivers hunkering behind their dashboards, stomping on the gas pedal, not about to let a bunch of opportunistic pedestrians keep them from the dying green light.
Scenes from the big city, New York.
Hacking your way through midtown Manhattan in the wintry cold, past the myriad display windows offering the same portable CD players and Sega Gameboys, grand financial centers with billowing first-floor lobbies, hot-dog and gyro carts pungent with roasting chestnuts, coming to rest at resplendent Rockefeller Plaza, possibly unscathed, unless you have taken a taxi.
Elevator to the 17th floor. The doors rumble open and the logo greets you in lean, 6-inch letters, three words forming a circle, motto on a coin.
Saturday Night Live.
Outside there is madness, and in here you make fun of it. Roast the sacred cows. It's always something. If it's not one thing, it's another: Bill Clinton. Barbara Walters. Frank Sinatra. An assassination attempt on President Reagan: You know, the other day I was getting into my limo, and this guy shot me - I hate it when that happens.
"Saturday Night Live" is a late-night institution, known for making funny faces at the altar, famed not only for what it has put on the air but for who. The images line the SNL hallways like Stations of the Cross: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Bill Murray - and those were just the early days. Add names like Eddie Murphy, Martin Short and Billy Crystal, and what you have is a hall of fame in which you could be forgiven for acting with a kind of awed reverence, a team of players whose performances are outweighed by their place in history.
Which might remind you of the 12 apostles, particularly if you are a former Catholic schoolgirl from Spokane whose whiny alter ego named Pat has people wondering: Is it a him, or a her? A ma'am, or a sir?
This is it, when sketch comedy is your thing. This is top of the heap, A-No. 1.
Live. From New York.
It's Julia Sweeney.
OK, SO IN HIGH SCHOOL SHE got to play the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet." Drama teacher Jack Delehanty remembers Julia Sweeney at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane as a pep girl, someone who brought up those around her. She started at Marycliffe High, an all-girls school, then transferred to Gonzaga, an all-boys school that was going co-ed, when Marycliffe closed. "We went from doing `Stalag 17' and `Twelve Angry Men' to doing actual theater," Delehanty says.
You might say this co-ed thing has gone too far. Two paths diverged on the yellow brick road and she, she took them both. Achievement she can handle. Popularity is another thing.
"People send me pictures of themselves dressed up as Pat all the time. For a while my bulletin board was covered with them, and then I took them all down. Then I started opening my fan mail the other day, and it was like, the first 10 letters, I got all these pictures again.
"It's nice, but when you're answering the same questions constantly, it's hard. It's always interesting for them, though, because they've never asked someone about it. I think: `Now, this is more interesting for you, I think, than me.'
You'd be a little edgy, too, if you had to look like a drooling androgynous endomorph all the time. All Gilda Radner had to do was tie her hair into a bun, wear granny glasses and say "never mind" to do Emily Litella. Mike Myers just throws on a black cap and T-shirt for "Wayne's World." This Pat thing, on the other hand, is a production. Julia Sweeney is 31, and here she is in the city that never sleeps, sporting thick black glasses and a curly-haired wig and squeezing herself and practically an entire down comforter into an excruciatingly fashionless unisex ensemble, so ugly it must be polyester. And that - that thing she does, with her voice - so nauseating and whiny, you know, like an infant, you hear it spew this blubbering nonsense and next thing you know the kid's face is buried in the mashed potatoes - Pat does this every so often. The joke of the sketches is that no one can tell whether Pat is male or female.
And the response has been - well, nothing surprises her anymore, frankly. Kids, lesbians and gays, the rock bands who play on the show - everyone, everywhere, asks her to do Pat. She has done comedy shows, a gay-pride parade in Los Angeles, a trade convention in Anaheim where Disneyland-bound children mobbed her in the lobby like a giant squeeze toy. During one mid-season break she's in L.A. when the doorbell rings: It is The Outfit, which she has had Fed-Ex'ed to her for a photo shoot for the February issue of Spin magazine. The feature is a spoof of Madonna's overpriced book on sex (titled "Sex"), and Pat gets down with a few dominatrix types in various setups.
"I have to say, even with me, when you meet someone and you don't know what gender they are, it consumes your mind. In L.A. I met someone with long hair, but they had no breasts and this chiseled face... And I think everyone feels that way. If I can't tell, to me it's just a distraction. Some people find it really upsetting, because they think women should look like women and men like men, so they freak."
This is her third season on the show, but to see her in person, you wouldn't recognize her as Pat. Fine with her. It's hard to imagine, really, that she can so radically transform herself. She is smaller than expected, deep red hair sprung back in a ponytail, pouty face rounded and smooth, imperfect grade-school smile and proper, nearly stiff posture. She comes into the offices of "Saturday Night Live" on a windy December day, wrapped in denim, an hour late, having had yet another crisis. The week's been full of them - she's frantic, hammering out plans for a Pat movie, rubbing elbows by phone with the suits from Fox who deal with these things, trading ideas with the screenwriters, Steve Hibbert and Jim Emerson, who happen to be her husband of five years and her best friend, respectively.
More and more she finds herself having to say no to things, which she has trouble doing. She'll come up with excuses, offer off-the-wall reasons and insinuations, before giving a direct no.
The SNL headquarters are surprisingly orderly and businesslike, right down to the nameplates on the doors. The Washington Post and Newsday top a pile of newspapers on the floor outside the office of Kevin Nealon, who succeeded Dennis Miller as the latest in a long line of anchors of the show's hallmark "Weekend Update" segment.
The creation of producer Lorne Michaels, "Saturday Night Live" premiered Oct. 11, 1975, with host George Carlin and the legendary Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Aimed at the children of the Carson generation, it was risky and anti-establishment, even in the very fact that it was done live. It became a point of reference, a Monday conversation piece, for an audience that traditionally didn't watch television on Saturday nights.
More than 17 years later, the show is coming off one of its best seasons. An average of more than 20 million people watched the show weekly during the 1991-'92 season, including its largest opening-night audience ever when 22 million tuned in to see host Michael Jordan. Every wall in the SNL headquarters is lined with framed still shots of guest hosts from throughout the years. This is true even in the bathrooms (Tom Hanks, Rob Lowe, Fred Savage), equipped with shower and towels for those who end up staying overnight. Sweeney says that's encouraged. It's a life-consuming job. "I wish we all lived together," she says.
Laminated pictures of Catholic saints line the bulletin board behind her. Saint Rose of Lima is her favorite, and she knows all about her: canonized in 1648, first in the New World. Lived as a recluse in her parents' house, never left the upstairs room. Rubbed pepper on her face lest she succumb to the sin of vanity. Slept in a coffin, flogged herself, starved herself until she fainted. Wore iron girdles. She finally went mad.
"So they made her a saint," she says, laughing. "Which is my favorite thing about the Catholic Church."
Arms folded, she sits in the office she shares with writer Christine Zander, desk lamp illuminating her as she looks out over Manhattan.
JULIA SWEENEY, THE OLDEST of five children, comes from an Irish Catholic family known for the anecdotes traded over the dinner table. "She was always great at telling stories," says friend Jim Emerson, who reviews films for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. "She could make me laugh like nobody else."
The funnier the story the better, but what Sweeney really took from those family nights in Spokane is a sense of belonging and ritual, a definition of her role in the group. America scares her sometimes. Rituals are disappearing, crumbling under socioeconomic pressures, and when those break down, responsibility isn't far behind. OK, she says, she's an avid Democrat, but there, if nowhere else, is where the Republicans had a point.
In grade school, she was voted "Most Humorous" year after year. "I never thought of it as a career choice," she says.
Catholicism introduced her to other rituals: the Mass, for example, which she and her younger brother re-created in the back yard. All the kids did it. Why wouldn't they? The nuns encouraged it. This is the first theater she ever saw, costumes and ritual. The Missal was the script. Peace be with you. And also with you.
"I always wanted to be the priest. I was desperate to be an altar boy - I was, like, 7, and I went to speak to the monsignor and tried to convince him, and he laughed me right out of the rectory. And I was so angry - that's the first time I believed I was the victim of a sexist system, and the thing that made it worse was that he didn't explain it. He just laughed like I was a child, and I was. `Oh, it's because I'm a girl' - that was my first time thinking that."
Her parents sent her to Marycliffe, then to Gonzaga. She and her father Bob, a retired U.S. attorney, paged through the college catalogs, picking out her favorites: Marquette and Cal-Berkeley. But the family's finances offered only two real options: Washington State, where most of her classmates were headed, and the University of Washington.
She decided she wanted to make a break. She chose the University of Washington in Seattle.
"I wanted to be part of the big city," she says.
HER MOM WANTED HER TO TAKE a history class, so she signed up for one during her freshman year at the UW. Professor Jon Bridgeman exposed her to the darker history of the Church, completely changing her perspective. "It would be so devastating that I couldn't even go to my next class," she says. Later in her career, this conflict would be tempered with humor: a play she co-wrote with her husband featuring a character named Mea Culpa, an SNL sketch about an enamored schoolgirl confessing to a gorgeous priest with guest host Alec Baldwin, who also grew up Catholic.
At the UW, she earned a double major in economics and European history. A friend introduced her to Emerson, who ran a student film series and persuaded her to see "Nashville," a film both describe as a religious experience. From then on, she knew she was headed for show business.
She signed up for film classes, started watching the Canadian comedy show "SCTV," and accumulated nearly enough credits for another degree. In the meantime she earned extra money working concessions at the Varsity Theatre on University Way.
But the most important thing she says she learned, from a UW film instructor, was this: Acting is a business; treat it that way. This stayed with her even as she moved on after college, again to the big city, to Los Angeles, for an accounting position with Columbia Pictures.
Entertainment, a male-dominated industry, offers only so many parts for women. They want you to be young. They would like for you to have stepped out of a Guess ad. Sweeney processed all this, told herself she was so many years old, not particularly an ingenue. She learned to specialize in comedy. There, she figured, she could excel.
A few years later, she saw a notice advertising classes offered by the Groundlings, a Los Angeles comedy troupe that had produced SNL performers Laraine Newman and Jon Lovitz. She signed on, and a Groundling named Phil Hartman eventually became her mentor. Every Sunday she called Emerson in Seattle to talk about the previous night's episode of SNL - what worked, what didn't, why a particular sketch needed a different ending. But it wasn't until Lorne Michaels plucked Hartman away in the mid-1980s to help form the nucleus that revived SNL's sagging popularity that Sweeney began to see the show as a possibility.
She joined the troupe in 1987 and married former Groundling Steve Hibbert. SNL was the star in the East, the holy grail. Characters concocted over drinks, ideas bounced off friends. Write and perform, write and perform: The two go hand and hand and cannot be separated. Make it sound like somebody really said it. And when it happened, she was ready: Michaels attended a Groundlings performance that was a Julia Sweeney showcase, including a new character based on annoying co-workers who don't leave you alone, always peeking over your shoulder.
Emerson says they were hashing out ideas one night when he suggested she make the character male, but she wasn't sure she could pull off the appearance. "So I said, `What if you make that part of the joke, that you can't tell?'
"It was funny, because she did Pat that night, never thinking that it would be more than one joke, which Pat basically is. One joke. But people like to have that joke repeated."
Michaels added Sweeney to the cast of "Saturday Night Live" for the 1990-'91 season, the show's first new female repertory member in four years.
LIFE IN THE BIG CITY. Monday is spent brainstorming, and at 6 o'clock you meet with the week's host to trade ideas and start a working relationship. Afterward you start writing, well into the night and all day Tuesday, polishing and concocting until 9 a.m. Wednesday, when it's time to turn in everything you've written. About 3 o'clock that afternoon everything is read through, usually between 30 and 40 sketches, and that takes about four hours. Then you wait around to see which dozen or so sketches make the producers' first cut.
On Thursday blocking begins - running through sketches with the director, then for the cameras, staking out camera spots, figuring out who needs to move here or say what at such-and-such a time. This is so no one goofs up when the action goes live and sets need to be in place by the end of a two-minute commercial break. That continues all day Friday, then Saturday, when all the sketches are run through again. Then it's dinner at 5, any needed updates around 6, and collaborative work on the host's opening monologue at 7:30. At 8, a dress rehearsal with a guinea-pig audience, conducted as an actual show complete with cold opening and sketches and musical performances.
At 10:30 you meet with Lorne, who has decided what's in and what's out, what needs to be changed, and sometimes you'll be in three or four sketches up to this point only to find out that only one will be on the show and it's the one where you have only three lines. You get out of there around 11 with a half-hour to rewrite or cut something in half, making the necessary changes with the cue-card people, and it's a madhouse. And then it's 11:30 and you're on the air, and even during the show, sketches can change or be rushed for time or end up discarded altogether.
And then, on Monday, you get up and do it all over again.
"It's a great job," Sweeney says, "but it's still a job."
AT 8,000 SQUARE FEET, STUDIO 8H is the largest studio in New York, but it seems small in comparison to what viewers imagine. Home to the show since the beginning, this for 20 years was the setting for Christmas Day radio broadcasts of NBC Symphony performances. About 250 seats look down over eight sets, the view obstructed by hundreds of stalactite lights. Another 50 or so wooden swivel seats are below, the audience that appears just in front of the host during the opening monologue.
The people who have been here. It's hard not to think this. Running through their names again, one by one, trying to picture them all here at once. Did they know what they had, when they had it? Does anyone, or is it only on Monday morning, when it's over?
"Saturday Night Live" picked up where Monty Python's Flying Circus left off and captured whatever spirit it is that keeps cultish enthusiasm alive for the defunct British comedy troupe, another assembly of players that in hindsight seems almost miraculous. Modern American comics who taste celebrity through other channels are still measured by the question: Have they hosted SNL? Not everyone on the show has "made it" - dark lulls of entirely forgettable names during the '80s tempt parallels between national mood and loss of spirit - but the elements that have defined success remain constant:
Irreverence, unpredictability, good writing and the talent to pull it off.
Today is the second day of blocking for the Dec. 3 show. The host is Tom Arnold, star of "The Jackie Thomas Show," a new NBC sitcom. In a hallway where a table waits with coffee, popcorn and aging morning waffles, Kevin Nealon, tall, unshaven, newspaper under his arm, banters with the show's ultimate utility performer, Phil Hartman, both six-year veterans. Writer Al Franken, one of SNL's true godfathers, is telling a New Jersey reporter how much he liked her review of his latest book. In black from cap to toe is Rob Schneider, Schneid-O-Rama, the Robmeister, Schneid the Glide, known for his much-imitated "copy guy."
First on the schedule is a sketch involving Bill Clinton visiting a McDonald's restaurant after a morning jog in Little Rock. Sweeney has only a bit part, as a college sophomore whose sandwich Clinton samples while passing on tuition-fund ideas. Chris Farley, earnest, rotund, uncombed, scarfs a box of McNuggets before the first run-through even begins and has everyone rolling with exaggerated facial contortions, a live cartoon figure.
The set is cluttered with bit actors, cast members, floor directors, prop people, camera operators. Three run-throughs in all - lines are repeated, massaged, molded for situation, added or cut to aid movement. Hartman, playing Clinton, has to get from here to there and needs a reason; he suggests having Schneider offer his barbecue sauce. Bingo.
Director Dave Wilson, with the show since it began, is somewhere watching this through the lens of the cameras. He defines what viewers will see and interrupts constantly on a loudspeaker, barking directions, all the more annoying because he is invisible. This goes on throughout the afternoon. Legend or not, the gravelly voice gets on their nerves. Hold on a second. Do that again. Let me adjust. Go back to the line where you did this. You don't have to turn so much. Look, guys, can we walk and chew gum at the same time?
The cast members talk back, become bratty, irreverent and unpredictable. Not exactly good-natured, but it's normal around here.
A number of things get cut between Saturday night's dress rehearsal and the live broadcast - a Mike Myers solo monologue, an Amy Fisher interview and a few too many Somalia jokes during Kevin Nealon's "Weekend Update." Also gone are most of Sweeney's sketches, except for the McDonald's sketch and another bit part. Maybe it's because writer and counterpart Christine Zander, with whom she compiled the Pat book, has had the week off. Who's to know?
Sweeney considers herself an artist, and she won't theorize on it; she says her job is to write funny sketches and characters and perform them to the best of her ability, which she does. The show is nothing more than that: a show. You have to think of it that way in this business - and, after all, it is a business. Over and over she says she always feels as though the job she has is her last, and she won't say exactly what she'd like to do next, an answer steeped in allegiance to the SNL family, in which she has carved out a role.
On the Oct. 3 show, musical misfit Sinead O'Connor tore up the pope's picture, an act that stunned the audience and offended Sweeney, but not for the obvious reason. The thing is, during rehearsals, O'Connor had been tearing up pictures, none of them of the pope. "I had been watching on the monitor, making comments about how boring it was, and I was asking Lorne, `Lorne, did you tell her this was a comedy show?' And when she did that Lorne goes into the control room and says, `I don't want this to made into a big deal.' And the next day it's all over the papers. It was a huge deal. It made me laugh really hard.
"I'm not a big fan of the pope myself - I mean, I wouldn't tear up a picture of him, and I think people should show him respect. But I don't think you should come on the show and say you're going to play by the rules of the system, and then break those rules."
Though, she admits, if it had been a picture of George Bush, everyone probably would have applauded.
SHE SHARES A HOUSE NOW in Brooklyn with two friends, former UW film instructors. Her husband writes for a cartoon show in Los Angeles and they trade visits every couple of weeks. Sometimes her parents come to see her perform live. "It's fun for us," says her mother, Jeri. "Of course, I'm glad I'm not the celebrity. She says she doesn't think she handles it as well as other people."
Sweeney wants to raise her someday-children in a small town, but after performing for college students in Tallahassee she has decided they will achieve higher education anywhere but at a small-town state university, where attitudes incubate without interaction with the outside world. At UW, she says, she had friends from Africa, and so on.
When she was with the Groundlings in Los Angeles, a fellow cast member passed on another nugget of advice that she remembers constantly: Make it sound as though somebody really said it. It is a matter of intonation, inflection, the way your voice rises or falls, the speed with which you deliver a line. The word you stress changes the whole meaning of a sentence. Suppress the inclination to pick a word from a seemingly banal line and shower it with attention. Make it sound like somebody really said it, the way the writer imagined it. Otherwise you twist reality, and the person will be misunderstood.
A few days after one conversation she is thinking, oh, no, she shouldn't have ragged so much on state universities, now everyone will hate her.
And she says she'll never do another print interview, because you can't tell the inflection.
Marc Ramirez is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is the Pacific photographer.