Saturday Night’s Children: Robin Duke (1981-1984)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
If you were a SNL cast member in the early 1980s, you were either Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Tim Kazurinsky lying in bed with a chimpanzee, or one of the overlooked supporting players like Robin Duke. Just 27 and fresh off her stint on SCTV, Duke started out behind the eight ball: SNL suffered from low ratings, critically negative reviews, the 1981 WGA strike, competition from ABC’s own late-night comedy show Fridays, and most obviously, the absence of SNL’s creator, producer, and father-figure Lorne Michaels, who was replaced by Jean Doumanian and then Dick Ebersol until Michaels returned in 1985. “Robin Duke was hysterical in shows at Second City. And [SNL] gave her nothing,” Kazurinsky said in Live from New York. “And the less they give somebody — well, you know what they say: If you have one line it’s harder than if you have a big part.” Duke didn’t have many big parts on SNL, but luckily her spunky and brazen brand of humor doesn’t need more than one line to shine through in reruns.
From her high school days in Toronto to her years at The Second City and SNL, Duke spent the beginning of her comedy career in the shadow of Catherine O’Hara, who appeared with Duke in their high school production of Harvey, then went on to precede her at both SCTV and SNL. Duke appeared in several episodes of SCTV in 1976, then became a regular cast member from 1980-1981 after O’Hara left the show. A year later, O’Hara quit SNL (before ever appearing) to return to SCTV, and Duke was hired as her last-minute replacement for the second time.
Duke still had several recurring characters including the trash-talking Olivia Newton-John fanatic Paulette Clooney, Ike the disheveled housewife, and her most frequent character Wendy Whiner in “The Whiners” sketches with Piscopo, in which the two appeared ten times. Duke also made two appearances as the blonde-mohawked Mrs. T (which she claims was the first Mr. T impression to air on TV) and impersonated Eva Braun, Shari Lewis, Louise Mandrell, and Shelley Winters, who she also impersonated during her years on SCTV.
By the end of season 9 in 1984, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo both left the show, and producer Dick Ebersol fired Duke alongside Brad Hall and Tim Kazurinsky, replacing them the following year with established comedy names like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and even a former SNL cast member Harry Shearer. Following her SNL departure, Duke appeared in 1993’s Groundhog Day as well as Multiplicity, Stuart Saves His Family, and shows like The Outer Limits, Boston Common, Monk, and a long list of animated shows including George and Martha, Atomic Betty, and Maniac Mansion, which was co-created by SCTV’s Eugene Levy. Most recently, Duke co-created the Canadian sketch comedy troupe Women Fully Clothed, and she currently teaches comedy at Humber College in Toronto (check out some student evaluations here).
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.