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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
SNL

Saturday Night's Children: Jane Curtin (1975-1980)

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.

The first few seasons of SNL are more or less synonymous with hard partying (see the invisible robot hypnotist Garrett Morris swore was following him around 30 Rock), but there was one Not Ready for Prime Time Player who chose to keep her head clear and hands clean during the show's first and grittiest of eras. By the time 27-year-old Jane Curtin joined the beginning of NBC's newest late night sketch comedy show, she was a newly married and settled-down Connecticut commuter, and through her cooler, calmer, yet curt and edgy demeanor, she brought early SNL a much-needed element of straight-laced discipline. And for the future women of SNL, Curtin showed that no number of clowny impressionists or raucous wild gals (or guys) can survive without the help of the perfect equalizing deadpan anchor.

Curtin was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and graduated from Elizabeth Seton Junior College in New York City, then returned home to study drama at Northeastern University in Boston. She dropped out of college early in 1968 after landing her first acting gig on local comedy show The Prepositions alongside Fred Grandy from The Love Boat and Josh Mostel (City Slickers, Billy Madison). The group eventually relocated to New York, where Curtin appeared in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions and starred and co-wrote a musical comedy called "Pretzels" with Grandy. In 1975, Curtin received more than one Saturday Night Live offer — while NBC's yet-unnamed sketch comedy show helmed by Lorne Michaels was looking to hire cast members, so was ABC's Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which its director Don Mischer later called "one of the greatest disasters in the history of television." Future SNL cast members Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, and Brian Doyle-Murray would begin on SNL with Howard Cosell, while Curtin and Belushi — who had auditioned for both shows — chose to join the NBC cast.

Unlike her cast mates, Curtin wasn't known for singular recurring characters as much bringing depth and gravity to sketches that might otherwise float away into trainwreck territory. Whether in her most popular role as the uptight alien Pyrmaat in the "Coneheads" sketches, the warm and maternal Mrs. Loopner in the "Nerds" sketches, or the big-assed Betty in the "Widettes" sketches, Curtin was often the go-to choice to play prim and beaming Better Homes and Gardens-style mothers. She also channeled seasoned cigarette-smoking spinster types like Iris de Flaminio or Barbara in the "Rhonda and Barbara" sketches with Gilda Radner and impersonated celebrities like Anita Bryant, Betty Ford, Dolly Parton, Grace Kelly, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, and Joan Crawford.

Curtin also rocked the show host/anchor role better than most of her fellow cast mates, such as Joan Face, host of several public access shows like "Consumer Probe," "More Insects to Worry About," "What If?", and "On The Spot," or her stint as Weekend Update's first female anchor after the departure of Chevy Chase in 1976 until she left the show in 1980. During her time at the Update desk, Curtin brought an edgy feminine authority while hosting solo from 76-77 then alongside Dan Aykroyd from 77-78 and Bill Murray from 78-80. In a recurring parody of 60 Minutes' "Point-Counterpoint" segment, Curtin played the politically correct liberated female while Aykroyd played the offensively traditionalist right-wing nut and famously retorted Curtin's argument starting with the "Jane, you ignorant slut" catchphrase. Curtin put on a barely-tolerant face when interacting with Update desk guests, and she never broke even after Radner as Roseanne Rosannadanna prods her about whether her breasts are the same size, to which Curtin replies "CHECK FOR YOURSELF, ROSEANNE!" while ripping off her shirt.

Along with the rest of the cast and writers Lorne Michaels, Curtin left SNL after its fifth season. She then costarred in 1980's How to Beat the High Co$t of Living with Susan Saint James and Jessica Lange before returning to Broadway in Candida, then for its television adaptation in 1982. From 1984-1989, Curtin costarred as Allie on the CBS sitcom Kate & Allie, which earned her two Emmy awards for Best Leading Actress. Following Kate & Allie's cancellation, Curtin continued to appear in theatrical productions and also starred in Common Ground, a dramatic CBS miniseries, in 1990. She reprised Pyrmaat in 1993's The Coneheads, then went back to NBC as the non-alien Dr. Mary Albright on 3rd Rock from the Sun, which ran on from 1993-2001. Since 3rd Rock, Curtin voiced Muffy the wasp in Antz and appeared in shows like Gary Unmarried and ABC's short-lived sitcom Crumbs, and has also worked as a UNICEF ambassador. Most recently, she landed the role as a forensic pathologist on the CBS hour-long crime drama Unforgettable. "I never really marketed myself, so each job I was given was a new marketing tool, and that would be the way I marketed myself," she told Reuters this year. "I think if you go from show to show without doing that big PR blitz it's helpful because people can get pretty sick of your face if you're just out there all the time. And keep a low profile, hold in your stomach and be a good sport." Jane, you wise wise woman.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

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  • JohnHughes

    Gail Matthius, Christine Ebersole and Mary Gross were female Update anchors before Fey.

  • AndrewMilner

    Interesting to note that the two most vulgar catchphrases during the Golden Age of SNL — Dan Aykroyd's "Jane, you ignorant slut!" and Emily Litella's "…Bitch!" — were uttered directly at Jane Curtin.