December 9, 2019, 5:42

Jane Curtin Is Playing It Straight

Jane Curtin Is Playing It Straight

Jane Curtin was twenty-eight when, in 1975, she became one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” along with such talents as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi. Curtin had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spent four years in the improv troupe the Proposition, but nothing prepared her for the breakout success of “S.N.L.”—or for its aggressive, drug-filled atmosphere, which could be unfriendly to women. (Belushi would openly declare his belief that women aren’t funny.) When Chase left the cast, she became the first female anchor of “Weekend Update,” and her droll, straight-woman persona earned her the title Queen of Deadpan.

Curtin went on to star in two hit sitcoms, “Kate & Allie” and “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and she currently appears in the Oscar-nominated film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” in which Melissa McCarthy plays the real-life author turned scammer Lee Israel. Curtin plays her literary agent. But it was her wish for 2019, delivered with plenty of deadpan and aired on CNN on December 31st, that made her a viral sensation: “My New Year’s resolution is to make sure that the Republican Party dies.” Fox News convened a panel, and conservatives fired back on Twitter. I met Curtin recently, at the apartment she keeps in the East Village (she mostly lives in Connecticut), and we talked about her experience going viral, the early days of “S.N.L.,” and keeping a straight face. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

How is your New Year’s resolution going?

Pretty well, don’t you think? Did you hear what happened last week in the H.R.8-bill committee meeting? It was all about gun safety and background checks, and Matt Gaetz, from Florida, turned it into “build the wall.” And two Parkland parents whose children were killed were standing up in protest, because this was about gun violence, not immigration. And Gaetz was just commandeering this whole thing. What have they done for anybody but themselves, these Republicans?

So when you said that on CNN—

I didn’t say it on CNN. I said it on Andy Cohen’s show. I think it was in October. I’d had it.

Did you know it was going to appear on New Year’s Eve?

I had no idea, but I knew I probably should have held back a little. I was very careful not to say I wanted to have Republicans die. God forbid that should happen. I wanted the Party to die. But I think they’re doing a pretty good job themselves.

Where were you on New Year’s Eve?

I was up in the country, so I wasn’t doing anything. But, on New Year’s Day—and I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or any of that stuff—somebody said, “You’re trending on Twitter!” What did I?—Oh, I know what I did. I know exactly what I did! (Laughs.) So I thought, Good for me.

But it also brought out the troll hive.

Anything anybody says is going to bring out the troll hive. And the thing I find really interesting about the troll hive is that if you don’t see it the tree doesn’t fall in the woods, you know what I mean? If you’re not on Twitter or Facebook, it doesn’t happen.

What has your experience been over the past two years? How have you personally responded to the Trump era?

First of all, I didn’t watch the election. I had a feeling. And the next day I had to drive into the city to do some recording, and my husband, as I was getting up, said, “There’s no easy way to tell you this.” I thought, Oh, shit. I knew who Donald Trump was. I was in New York in the eighties and the nineties. I knew what a blowhard he was, how he was a liar and a fantasist. How could people have fallen for that?

What did you think when he hosted “Saturday Night Live”?

I didn’t watch it, but I thought it was kind of bad form.

How did you get involved in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

I wish I could say that they cast me because I was the best person available, but my agent’s husband had the rights to the book. So I was lucky enough to have connections to the production. I had never worked with Marielle Heller before, and I had never worked with a female director. The few days I was on the set, it was so Zen. There was no shouting. There was no anxiety. There was no bullying. So that was a very eye-opening experience. I’d worked with Melissa a couple of times before, and I just think she’s awesome. It’s not just her talent: it’s who she is.

You play Melissa’s agent, who’s kind of an industry gatekeeper. I was wondering if you drew on anyone you had dealt with, or if the character reminded you of anyone you’ve known in show business—agents, managers?

I had met a literary agent once at a book party that a friend of mine was throwing, and she was pretty much who I was channelling. There’s a sense of control; they’re always pleasant and direct. That’s how they get through life. But then they can turn on a dime, and if they need to they will eviscerate you. They will disembowel you with a phrase. So I did her.

Do you think she knows?

I don’t know. I used to do my aunt when I was doing improv, and she always thought I was doing my other aunt.

There’s a really funny scene when Melissa’s character, Lee Israel, tries to get through to you on the phone and can’t, because you’re supposedly out to lunch or something, and then she poses as Nora Ephron and the assistant patches her right through. Have you had an experience like that, seeing the hierarchy in action?

I was with Sam Cohn for a year, the agent at I.C.M. He never called me, and I never called him. For an entire year. I kept waiting for him, and I guess he waited for the actor to call him.

When you were growing up, were there comedians or character actors you admired?

I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid, so I was exposed to people like Lucy, Eve Arden, Cara Williams. Betty White had a fifteen-minute sitcom, “Life with Elizabeth.” I saw women succeeding on television when they weren’t really doing well in other places. This was the fifties and early sixties, so there was a lack of women’s progress. But not on television. These were women who were in charge, and I thought that was pretty awesome.

What did you think you were going to be?

For a time, I wanted to go to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service to become an ambassador. And my mother, who went to Radcliffe during the Depression—one of her friends was in the Foreign Service, and she was Ambassador [Edwin O.] Reischauer’s [the former U.S. Ambassador to Japan] secretary. She said, “You won’t get any further than secretary. Don’t do it.” And I thought, O.K., now what?

My senior year of high school, I went and did summer stock and met a woman, Amy, who said, “I’m auditioning for an improv group. Will you come with me?” I had no idea what improv was. And I said, “Sure!” So we went, and it was this little converted bakery in Inman Square, in Cambridge, and that was the theatre for the Proposition. It had maybe a hundred seats, and it was right next door to the flagship Legal Sea Foods, so they would give us chowder, because we were all broke. Amy auditioned, and, at the end, there was nobody else there, and they said, “Does anybody else want to audition?” I thought, I’m going to give it a shot. And I got the job.

How did you first figure out you were funny?

My mother’s family is very funny. We grew up laughing. It was an Irish thing, I think. You made fun of everything.

How long did you spend doing improv with the Proposition?

I think four years. I did two years in Cambridge and two in New York. I loved doing improv, and I was really good at it. I would come from an area that nobody else would come from. One of the things that I didn’t like about it was that I didn’t know how to turn it off—the free-flowing things that are going on in your head. You need an editor if you’re going to be out in polite society. I would just become the most obnoxious person in the world.

Improv really unlocks something.

It does. This glibness. It’s really fun, because you know how clever you are. But it’s so obnoxious. So I had to stop that and sort of calm down.

What was the first you ever heard of “Saturday Night Live”?

First off, my agent called and said, “There’s a variety show called ‘Saturday Night Live.’ They’re casting for a rep company, and I’m putting you up for it.” But this was the Howard Cosell “Saturday Night Live.” She then called a couple of weeks later and said, “There’s another thing, and they’re calling this ‘Saturday Night,’ and they also want a rep company. And I’ve put your name in for it.” So I had these two things that were going on at the same time in New York City, and it was kind of exciting. The Howard Cosell show didn’t hire me, but “Saturday Night”—the ultimate “Saturday Night Live”—did.

What was your audition like for “S.N.L.”?

I auditioned with two friends from the Proposition, so we did improv. And then they called me back, I guess the next week. My agent said, “They just want to talk to you. You don’t have to do anything.” Gilda had been hired, and I think Chevy was a writer at that point, but no other cast members had been hired. So I go into the room, and all these writers and people were staring at me, and they said, “Well, what have you prepared?” And I said, “Nothing, because I was told you just wanted to talk to me.” And they said, “Why don’t you come back when you have something prepared?”

So I left the room, and I was looking in my purse for something, and there was a script that I had written with someone else for a CBS audition tape. It a two-person sketch. And I went running back in going, “I have something! I found it in my purse!” Gilda was kind enough to read it with me.

You’ve said, “I never thought ‘Saturday Night Live’ was going to succeed.” So why did it? What worked about it those first few years?

The rawness of it. Television was very highly produced and crisp and clean. This was around the time of Up with People. So everybody was sort of perky and American-looking, and here were a bunch of people who didn’t quite look like they should be on television.

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

Exactly. We weren’t polished. You kept waiting for something to go horribly wrong, because it was live. But then it sort of grew into itself, and started being really funny.

How did you find your niche on the show?

I knew I was a pinch-hitter. If you want to put me in something, I’ll do it, and I’ll do it to the best of my ability. I don’t mind surprises. I also was the one that was probably easiest for the network to deal with, because I looked like a trophy wife, so they could relate to me in some way. I knew I served a purpose, and maybe that purpose was stability.

A lot of your most famous bits on the show were you being a straight woman while other, crazier people circled around you. There was Gilda doing Roseanne Roseannadanna, or Dan Aykroyd on “Point/Counterpoint.”

In order to have those things work, you have to have a backboard. They bounced it off of me and I would react.

Did you embrace that, or did you want to be crazier?

No, I loved having that position, because I knew I did it well. I could be crazy if I wanted to be crazy. But they always needed the backboard, so it was nice to be needed. And I’m not a fighter—I didn’t want to fight for space.

Were other people doing that?

Yeah, we were encouraged to. So I would just not.

On “Oprah,” a few years ago, you said, “It was a primarily misogynistic environment.” How did that manifest for you?

This was around the time that the Equal Rights Amendment failed, which was just shocking to me. I had lived in such a bubble, working at the Proposition with people from the Harvard and B.U. community. There wasn’t that feeling that women were in competition with you. We worked together. I had not been exposed to people who thought women were just not inherently funny.

Which John Belushi said. Did he said that to your face?

Oh, several times.

What did you say when he said that?

I said, “Yeah, O.K. Whatever.” I’m not a fighter.

Did you think of yourself as a feminist at the time?

No. Well, probably. It’s interesting—did you watch the Golden Globes, when Glenn Close talked about her mother? My mother graduated in 1935 from Radcliffe and was the first female parole officer at the Charles Street Jail, in Boston, which is now a luxury hotel. But she made waves a little bit, in a tiny, tiny way, during that time. And then she got married, and my father did not want her to work. It was very frustrating for her, because she had so much to offer. I would go to her reunions at Radcliffe and meet her classmates—we’d go every five years—and they were really well-accomplished and fun and smart. And I thought, There are these women, and then there’s the world, and the world is not letting you do what you should be doing.

And then you get to “S.N.L.,” which was a workplace that was pretty much dominated by—

Aggression.

Aggression and wildness.

The wildness I understand. The aggression I don’t necessarily understand, but I think it might have had something to do with the drugs.

How did you handle that?

That was hard. I knew who was dealing the drugs. I’d see this guy in the studio every so often, and I’d think, God, I just want to shoot him. I caught John going through my purse one day. He was in my dressing room, and I just blew up at him. It bothered me a lot. It affected so many lives and careers.

It certainly took a huge toll on Belushi. How did you see that evolve?

John was also up for the Howard Cosell show, so he and I would go and meet the producer, Alan King. We split a cab downtown, and he was fun and sweet and we’d have conversations about dogs versus cats. We had both just gotten married. So he walks me to my apartment building, we’re sitting on the stoop, just gabbing, and then I learn that he’s up for the other show, too. So I thought, That’ll be great!

Then he started making money, and that was the killer. You got the money—you bought drugs. And it seemed to me that his heroes all died young in a blaze of glory, and there was something attractive in that.

Like who?

Oh, people who blew up their careers, maybe Jim Morrison.

Right, because there was a kind of rock-and-roll energy to comedy.

There was a tremendous rock-and-roll energy to that kind of comedy. And that was the aggression. You can only do that for so long, you know?

Do you feel like your role on the show as the deadpan straight woman was a reflection of your role offstage as the peacemaker, or the person who wasn’t doing the drugs?

I wasn’t the peacemaker. I caused trouble. I confronted Lorne—and this is after John set Lorne’s loft on fire—and I said, “You’ve got to do something about this. This is wrong. He’s going to kill himself.” And he said, “Well, there’s nothing I can do. He’s a grownup.”

At a certain point, you and Lorne weren’t speaking anymore. Was it because of that?

No, it was because there was a lack of communication skills. I would rather get to the point. He likes to go around like this. (Waves hands around in circles.) It was just pointless and a waste of time. So finally I said, “You know what? I’m just not going to talk to him anymore.” And so Gilda was the interpreter. If he wanted me to do something, he’d ask Gilda. “Ask Jane if she would ever open her shirt on ‘Update.’ ” And I said, “Sure.”

You had no qualms about that?

No.

What was your first reaction to the line “Jane, you ignorant slut”?

I thought it was very funny. I didn’t realize it was going to become a catchphrase. And as Gilda, who’d been doing “never mind” for a long time, pointed out, “You never want a catchphrase! It just keeps coming back and coming back.” I was doing a movie someplace, maybe Seattle, and I was in my trailer, and I could hear giggles outside, and I thought, Oh, God, I know what’s going to happen. I opened the door, and there were these four little kids—they must have been, like, seven. And I thought, They’re not going to say that. And they looked at me and they said, “Jane, you ignorant slug!”

In one of those sketches you call Dan Aykroyd a “sadistic, élitist, sexist, racist, anti-humanist pig,” but that didn’t catch on.

That’s too long. That’s not a catchphrase, that’s a paragraph.

Did you feel like you were playing a feminist stick-in-the-mud?

I was playing an extremely uptight, ambitious newswoman who had staked a claim and was pursuing that claim. That was the character I had chosen to play—I was the opposite of whatever Danny was going to be.

Was your “Weekend Update” persona based on real newswomen?

No, it was based on “Singin’ in the Rain”: “Dignity. Always, dignity.” That’s what it was based on. You maintain your composure at all times.

What do you remember being the funniest thing that you did on the show?

I think doing “The Nerds” with Gilda and Bill Murray was the most fun, just because it was so goofy and silly.

You’ve told this amazing story about Gilda, about how she came to your house to observe you and your husband living. What was she trying to learn?

She just wanted to see what it was like.

To be married? To be normal?

Just to live. “What is your day like?” So she came over in the morning, and she sat on the sofa. And we went about our business. She drank coffee. I think she actually walked the dog at one point.

What did you do?

I did laundry. Patrick was working in the office. We made lunch. It was just a day.

Do you think she was really that mystified by normal people?

To a certain degree, yeah, because she wanted a relationship so badly, and she didn’t like being alone. But she hadn’t been very successful at it. She just didn’t know how you could be in a relationship with somebody if you didn’t work at it all the time.

She did go on to have a successful marriage with Gene Wilder.

She did. She finally found someone that she could be with.

Because they were equally weird?

Gilda was very, very close to her father and was not very close to her mother. Her mother was jealous of her relationship with her father. And Gene, I think, represented someone more mature, maybe fatherly to a certain degree, and I think that’s what made it work. I could be talking completely out of my ass. But they had a lovely relationship, and she deserved it.

Can you describe what it was like just to be around her? She seems like such an otherworldly kind of person.

She was very much of this world, but she skipped through this world, because her energy was just constant—until she got sick. When she was feeling good, no one felt better, and it was hopeful and funny and fun. It wasn’t a bipolar thing—she didn’t crash. But she could turn it up, and she could sort of temper it. She would tap-dance for hours and hours, just trying to get rid of some of the energy.

How did you react to the fame from “S.N.L.”?

I stopped going out. You would walk into a restaurant, and people would shake. And it was, like, “Don’t do that. I am just like you. Here, poke me.” But they couldn’t help themselves, because what Lorne had created was so much bigger than anything else. And it was really hard to deal with. When it happens so fast, your world changes, and you’re not comfortable in your own skin.

How did you know it was time to leave the show?

My contract was up, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I loved doing the show. The ninety minutes of doing that show was so much fun, but it’s hard to wait a week for a ninety-minute moment. I had given them all I could give.

Wasn’t that the year there was a mass exodus, because Lorne was taking time off and Jean Doumanian took over the show?

He wasn’t taking time off. He quit. Jean took over, and it was not pretty, because Lorne really was the skipper of that show. It was his baby. And it was very difficult to pass that on to somebody who didn’t understand what the premise was, what it was based on. I’m not really sure Lorne understands how to do it, but he does hire well. He surrounds himself with pretty capable people.

When you left, did you have some idea of how you wanted to spend your career?

I never planned anything. It’s silly in this business to plan anything, unless you are all-powerful. And, even then, you’re going to get turned down a lot. You wait by the phone and see what’s going to happen.

I got a phone call one day from Penn Jillette. I said, “Oh, hi, Penn. How are you?” He said, “Fine. Would you ever eat fire?” I said, “I don’t think so.” He said, “O.K., I’ll get back to you.” Hung up. About two hours later, he called back and said, “How about walking into a room full of bees?” I said, “Absolutely not.” He said, “O.K., I’ll call you back.” Then he called back and said, “Would you ever put a needle through your ear?” “Yeah! No problem. I’ll do that.” I had pierced ears. So I did the Penn & Teller special. Someone did walk into a room full of bees, and somebody did eat fire. But not me.

You went on to be part of two successful sitcoms, “Kate & Allie” and “3rd Rock from the Sun.” What do you think made those shows work that other shows didn’t have?

For “Kate & Allie,” it was Billy Persky, who is a TV writer of much note and did “That Girl” and a whole bunch of others. He’s just a glorious human being. And Billy knew what was funny. That’s basically it.

With “3rd Rock,” we had a) John Lithgow, and b) Bonnie and Terry Turner. Bonnie and Terry had worked on “Saturday Night Live,” not when I was there—I didn’t meet them until we did “The Coneheads” together—and they had written this script for a sitcom for John. I was in Virginia, playing Mary Todd Lincoln to Kris Kristofferson’s Abe, and I was in my hotel room doing aerobics with wine bottles as weights. That’s when I got a phone call from Bonnie.

You played Dr. Mary Albright, who was the non-alien of the cast. And again kind of the normal one, the straight woman, with all these nutcases around you. Was that as fun as it had been on “S.N.L.”?

More fun, because it was age-appropriate, and because it was during the day. It was always silly. We never blew up anything. And there were times when I just got so tired of bulldozing sets. That to me wasn’t funny; it was just destructive.

What do you remember about Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Did you foresee that he would become a kind of hipster sex symbol?

I found him intimidating when he was [fifteen]. He was the coolest [fifteen]-year-old I had ever met in my life. So I was, like, I can’t talk to him.

What was cool about him?

His coolness! It came out of his pores.

That show had incredible ensemble chemistry. It reminds me of “Fawlty Towers.”

If we weren’t on the set, Simbi Khali, Wayne Knight, and I would be so wild on that lot. We would go from set to set, because we’d be bored. We’d get a golf cart and drive over to “Seinfeld” and walk in: “Hi! Where’s your craft-service table? Let’s see what you have.” And then we’d go someplace else.

How did the “Seinfeld” craft service compare to yours?

Ours was better. But, I have to admit, when we shot the pilot for “3rd Rock,” our craft service was just a guy who brought baked potatoes. Fifty baked potatoes on a slab.

We skipped over “Kate & Allie,” but I want to go back to it. Is it true that it was originally called “Two Mommies”?

Oh, my God, yes. That was unacceptable.

The show is about two divorced single mothers who live together. Was there something about that idea that appealed to you?

If it’s funny, if it makes me laugh, and if I want to work with these people, I’ll do it. If I don’t think it’s funny, I won’t do it.

But that show did push the envelope a little bit, like the episode where Kate and Allie pose as lesbians to get out of a rent increase, and it turns out their landlord is a lesbian—which I imagine in 1984 was a bit risky on a network sitcom.

This was New York, and the gay community was very vibrant. And so I thought it would make perfect sense that these women would go, “What if we tell them we’re gay?”

There’s a whole video on the Huffington Post about that episode and what it showed about the gay political movement in the eighties and the AIDS crisis.

What?! So they think that it was based on that?

They said it was sort of an inversion of what was really happening, which was straight landlords discriminating against gay tenants who had AIDS.

Our head writer was gay, and it was his script.

How much of “S.N.L.” do you watch nowadays?

I’m a morning person, so I don’t watch it. And I don’t think I should watch it, because I’d judge it, and I don’t want to. I’ll watch clips, so I know what’s going on, but I’m not going to stay up until eleven-thirty. I can’t function after ten!

People have said since the beginning of time that “S.N.L.” is going downhill.

I was there when we started pushing the rock up the hill. It took awhile to get halfway.

When you look at the many generations of “S.N.L.”—

And there have been many.

—a lot of the time, the men who come out of the show become huge movie stars and the women have had a much harder time of it. I think of the era of Mike Myers at the same time as Julia Sweeney and Ellen Cleghorne, or the era of Will Ferrell, who went on to an amazing movie career, and Cheri Oteri, who did not. In recent years, it’s changed, with people like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig—and now Kate McKinnon is basically dominating the show.

It’s the culture change. Movies were not written with women in mind, nor were they written with women audiences in mind. Guy buddy movies sold much better than female buddy movies, unless they would go off a cliff. The movies that I got to do back then were not very good, but that’s what was available. You were making a living.

There were more male writers in Hollywood, there were more male producers in Hollywood—I think Sherry Lansing was the only female producer. But I have to admit that, now that I’m old, I’m getting much more interesting parts, I think because there are more interesting female directors and interesting female writers. So I think it’s going to even out.

Source: newyorker.com

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