Saturday Night’s Children: Julia Sweeney (1990-1994)
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.
While she brought plenty of squeaky energy to her four-year stint at SNL, Julia Sweeney is known best for creating the most unnerving character in the show’s history, the gender-unspecific nerd Pat. With fourteen SNL appearances, not to mention an Emmy Awards ceremony cameo and 1994 feature film, the grating, whiny, yet perennially enigmatic Pat continues to be hailed as one of the show’s most annoying — and oddly groundbreaking — recurring characters. In fact, SNL‘s recurring character mold, as well as male/female cast member divide, would have gone largely untested without Pat’s existence. And for a featured player whose first year was spent in an overcrowded cast with 13 men and a mere 3 women, perhaps Sweeney sensed that a joke on the gender issue was the best way to get around it. Whatever the case, Pat’s smarmy, pleading face will, for better or worse, remain the thing on SNL for which Sweeney is most remembered.
One of five children in a strict Catholic family, Sweeney grew up in Spokane, Washington and exhibited an early interest and talent for performing but ended up studying economics at the University of Washington. After graduation, she moved to LA and worked various jobs, including accountant positions at Columbia Pictures and United Artists, before taking improvisation classes at The Groundlings, where she developed characters like the “hyper-apologetic wallflower” Mea Culpa and Pat, who she created after her not-so-convincing attempts at impersonating a former male coworker as said in Live from New York:
I’d been an accountant for like five years, and there was one person I worked with in particular who had a lot of mannerisms like Pat. This person sort of drooled and had the kind of body language of Pat. I started trying to do him. I was testing it out on my friends and they were just like, “Yeah, it’s good, but it doesn’t seem like a guy that much.” Like I couldn’t quite pull off being in drag convincingly enough. So then I thought, maybe that’s the joke. I’ll just have one joke in here about how we don’t know if that’s a man or a woman just to sort of cover up for my lack of ability to really play a guy convincingly.
After the departure of Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn, Lorne Michaels began looking for new cast members and chose Sweeney over Lisa Kudrow (Friends premiered four years later). She came on alongside a handful of new hires including Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, and Adam Sandler, with writers Rob Schneider and David Spade also getting promotions from writers to featured players.
SNL‘s overpopulated 16th season cast was divided on two fronts — first there was the obvious gender gap, which gave Sweeney more opportunities to take on female roles (Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson were the only other ladies), and then there was the split between veteran cast members like Hartman, Myers, and Carvey and the abundance of mostly young male newcomers. And while Pat was a creepy yet instant recurring character hit, Sweeney was otherwise widely underutilized during her four years as a cast member, racking up only two other recurring characters (Dame Sarah Kensington from the snooty “Theatre Stories” sketches and Sandy, a supporting character in Schneider’s “Makin’ Copies” sketches). She did get chances to impersonate celebrities like MTV correspondent Tabitha Soren, singer Petula Clark, feminist Susan Sontag, Jane Pauley, Ethel Merman, Nancy Sinatra, Naomi Judd, and even Chelsea Clinton in a 1993 sketch called “Inaugural Gala,” which prompted Hillary Clinton to fire an offended letter at NBC.
Things took a frustrating turn during Sweeney’s fourth year on SNL when the younger male-centric humor of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley dominated most of the sketches, so she left at the end of the season along with Phil Hartman, Melanie Hutsell, Sarah Silverman, and Rob Schneider. She starred in It’s Pat the same year (which, despite Michaels and NBC owning the character, was not produced by Lorne) with Dave Foley playing Dana Carvey’s role as Pat’s equally androgynous partner Chris, then enjoyed mostly smaller supporting film and television roles like Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Coneheads (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Vegas Vacation (1997), and Stuart Little (1999), and in TV: Mad About You, Mr. Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Frasier, Family Guy, The Goode Family, and Sex in the City, in which she played a nun named Sister Anne Marie.
While Sweeney never managed to find any memorable starring roles onscreen, drastic turns in her personal life inspired her to pen multiple one-woman shows — first after her brother Michael passed away from lymphoma, and then after Sweeney herself was diagnosed, and subsequently beat, her battle with cervical cancer. In her trio of performances — God Said Ha! in 1995, In the Family Way in 2003, and Letting Go of God in 2004 — Sweeney candidly chronicled stories of her childhood, experiences with illness, her newfound atheist principles, and adopted daughter Mulan. God Said Ha! brought Sweeney notable recognition — it moved onto Broadway, then to CD, and then to a film produced by Quentin Tarantino, winning Sweeney a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album and Audience Award at the New York Comedy Festival. Most recently, Sweeney has been working on a book called If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, and she workshops it during live readings in Chicago, where she currently lives with her husband and daughter. She also regularly updates her personal blog, which you can check out here.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.