TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Like most fans of my guest, Molly Shannon, I got to see her first on “Saturday Night Live.” She became known for her characters – the Catholic schoolgirl, Mary Katherine Gallagher; the brassy dancer Sally O’Malley, whose catchphrase was, I am 50; and the co-host, with Ana Gasteyer, of the public radio show Delicious Dish. She joined “SNL” in 1995 and stayed for six seasons. Shannon starred in the film “Year Of The Dog,” co-starred in the HBO series “Enlightened” and “The White Lotus,” all created by Mike White, co-stars in the current HBO Max comedy series “The Other Two,” and will co-star in the new Showtime series “I Love That For You,” which premieres later this month, starring “SNL” alum Vanessa Bayer.
Shannon’s new memoir called “Hello, Molly!” helps explain the pain and loss that fueled a lot of the drive and commitment in her comedy career. The book begins when she was 4, and her father was driving the family home from her cousin’s high school graduation party. Her father had been drinking at the party and crashed into a pole. Her mother, her 3-year-old sister and a cousin were killed. Her 6-year-old sister had a concussion. Molly had a broken arm. They were both hospitalized. Her mother, her 3-year-old sister and a cousin were killed. Her 6-year-old sister had a concussion. Molly had a broken arm. Their father was hospitalized with a tube in his throat so he could breathe and two crushed legs.
Before the accident, Molly Shannon’s mother taught her how to make friends. Apparently, she makes friends very easily. By the time I finished the book, I wanted to be one of those friends, but I’ll settle for an interview. Molly Shannon, such a pleasure to have you on our show. I really love your memoir.
MOLLY SHANNON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Is the accident something you talked much about before writing the book?
SHANNON: Yes, I did talk about it. Not right away. It would have to be somebody who I’m pretty close to. But I – yeah, so – but sometimes if you give that information too quickly, it’s – can be confusing or too much for people. But certainly, as I would get to know somebody, yes, I would be open about talking about that.
GROSS: You were unconscious after the accident. Do you remember what you saw when you came to?
SHANNON: Yeah, I just remember there were sirens, and I could hear a lot of people talking. And a large crowd stopped and formed around the car. And people were helping – you know, trying to pull people out of the car. And they put my sister Mary and I on a stretcher. And I remember feeling her body next to mine. And they put a blanket over us, and it felt really itchy. And I just remember being confused. Like, what is going on? And we had been sleeping in the back of the station wagon. And then they took us to the hospital and they cut our clothes off and they brought us in and gave us all these tests – like, are the lights on or the lights off? – and touching parts of our body to make sure, you know, we could feel our feet and different things like that. A lot of tests.
GROSS: In the hospital, you kept asking for your mother and no one would explain that she had died. Your aunts and uncles didn’t know how to tell you. Your father was in the hospital with a tube in his throat in a different room. How were you finally told?
SHANNON: What happened was that night, too – I was 4, so I had – I was in training underwear. And I remember not wanting to go to the bathroom in my bed. And I was calling for my mom, but nobody would come. And then I was like, whatever. I just – I felt despairing, and I wet myself and I just kind of gave up. And then we woke up in the morning, and there were people coming in with gifts and, you know, lots of toys and there were relatives. But I was like, where is my mom? You know, where’s Katie? Where’s my dad? Like – and I would – I looked to my sister to be kind of my guidepost, but she was just looking out the window and, you know, crying, you know? So I just was like – in my head, I made up, oh, my mom must be with Katie in the baby section. Maybe she has – you know, maybe Katie’s on a different floor with the babies. My little sister was 3. And then finally, I think an aunt did tell us that my mom and my sister had died. She said, they’ve gone to heaven, you know, like it was really, like, good news, you know?
GROSS: I don’t know if when I was 4, I knew what death was. Did you know what death was?
SHANNON: No, I did not understand at all. And my immediate feeling was, like – it just – it was very confusing. And she was trying to make it kind of positive. Like, they’re in heaven. You know, they’re with God and the angels. And I was just like, well – I felt like, well, could we go see them? Could we fly there? Or could we take a hot air balloon or could we, like, go up with the birds? Can we see them? Like, I just couldn’t accept it. And then I just wouldn’t really believe it. And I went into a fantasy, just waiting for them to come back, making up that they were still somewhere else, still alive. I don’t think I could have felt how sad it was because I think it would have annihilated me.
GROSS: I think you also felt that your mother and your younger sister had gone to heaven and – but they didn’t think enough of you to take you with them.
GROSS: Did that thinking, that thought that you weren’t good enough to be taken – did that affect your self-image for a long time?
SHANNON: Yes, it did. I felt very defective. And I felt like, well, they must – my mom must have left because I’m bad. You know, I think children at that age are very self-centered. So there’s no way that I could understand it other than just being very self-focused and thinking I must have done something wrong to make her leave. So I must be bad.
GROSS: Your father had to become the primary parent. But, you know, his legs were crushed. He wore – I think he wore a leg brace for the rest of his life.
GROSS: And it took him a long time to recover. It took him a long time to be able to walk again. You stayed with an aunt and uncle for a while. So suddenly, your father was, like, the single parent of two young children, still recovering from his own injuries. Did he know how to be a primary parent? Did – was he able to learn how to do that?
SHANNON: That was really hard because he was in the hospital for a long time and then recuperating at my aunt’s. He had to learn how to walk again. And he had a walker that he used for, I think, like, the first year to just slowly learn how to walk around her living room and then a brace on his leg. So that recovery was slow. And then we finally moved back to our original house. And, yeah, it was hard for him. He would get stressed out about cleaning and, you know, cooking. But he was a very hands-on, full-time parent. He was able to be with us all the time. He invested in double houses in Cleveland. So he would go and collect the rent, but he could take us to school and be home after school and take me to piano lessons. And, you know, so he did do a really good job.
GROSS: He was very mischievous in ways that didn’t always seem healthy to me when I was reading your book.
SHANNON: (Laughter) Yeah. Yes.
GROSS: Like, he’d take you to a store and then, to make you laugh, he’d undress the mannequins and throw their wigs on the floor. And I thought, like, gee, that’s really a childish thing to do. That’s not setting a very good example for…
SHANNON: Yes, it was not (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. So looking back at it, in retrospect, what do you make of that?
SHANNON: Well, that particular example – yeah, that was a little crazy. But he would want to make us laugh. So he would – he had a lot of fun parenting. He was silly. Like, he would turn a lot of stuff into a – games. Like, if we went to a candy store, just my dad and me, he would say, Molly, let’s – how about if we pretend when we go into the store that I’m blind? And I was like, OK. So everything was like a game. So he would go, is this chocolate? And he would knock the chocolate down. It was funny. It was – a lot of times, it was fun. He was very silly and wild.
GROSS: He thought stowing aboard an airplane would be great fun. And you said – and I think you were 12 – and you said, oh, I’m going to do that. And he said, I dare you. And you actually did it with your best friend and then flew from Ohio to New York. You had no money. You had no place to stay (laughter). That was crazy.
SHANNON: That was crazy. Yes. He had dared us. And he never thought we would pull it off. And it was, like, one summer day, and we thought, let’s go try to do it. And we told my friend Anne’s (ph) brother Tom (ph), we’re going to try to hop a plane. He’s like, you’re never going to get away with that. Yeah. And Anne was 11, and I was 12. And we thought, well, if it doesn’t work to hop a plane, we’ll go take a ballet class with Mr. Martin (ph), our ballet teacher.
So we had pink leotards on and pink skirts. And we looked like little prima ballerinas. And we took the rapid transit in Cleveland out to the Cleveland Hopkins Airport. And we saw two flights – one to San Francisco, one to New York. And we were like, let’s go to New York. And, you know, this is, like, 1976. So it was before there was any security.
So we went right up to the gate. And we just looked so innocent with our hair in buns and our little pink leotards and pink tights and pink skirts. And we said, could we – would it be OK if we go say goodbye to my sister on the plane? And she was like, sure, ladies; go ahead. So we sprinted down the runway, and then we ducked down in a seat and put our heads down. And then the stewardess who had given us permission to get on forgot about us.
And then all of a sudden, you could see the plane backing up and getting ready to take off. And we didn’t say anything. We were just silent, holding one another’s hands, saying, Hail Marys. Like, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. And then you can see the plane go up into the air. And we couldn’t believe it. We were overjoyed.
And then the stewardess who’d given us permission to get on the plane came around to ask for, you know, snack orders. And when she saw us, Terry, she was like – she looked like she was going to faint. She said, can I get you ladies something to drink? And we were like, sure, I’ll have a Coke. I’ll have peanuts. And then, you know, we just enjoyed the flight.
We were very afraid when we landed that we were going to get busted. But we didn’t. We – and the flight was not – it was a pretty empty flight. So we walked down the, you know, the aisle to exit. And she was just at the front. She looked like she was in a daze, so scared. And she was like, bye, ladies; have a nice trip. And that was it. We were in New York City, you know?
GROSS: This sounds like, you know, preparation for sketch comedy. You know, you pretend to be something that you’re not, and people believe you.
SHANNON: Exactly. And people believed us. And we – and it was a great adventure. And it was fun because my dad had kind of – my dad had dared us. You know, he said, what a stunt that would be. So when we got to New York City, I just heard about Rockefeller Center on television. So we just asked strangers, how do you get to Rockefeller Center? And it’s funny that I would wind up years later working at Rockefeller Center.
But we just took the subway. We had to walk to the subway from JFK. And then we just, you know – we didn’t – we only had a few dollars in a bag and a change of clothes. So we just hopped over the turnstile. And then we went to a diner and dined and dashed, and we stole I love New York T-shirts. And it was just – it was a really fun day.
And then we did call my dad. And he couldn’t believe it. Then he really did get nervous. He goes, oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. And he called Jolene Rampton (ph). She broke out in cold sores.
And then my dad said, you know what? I’ll tell you what. Mary and I will drive to New York City, and we’ll come meet you, from Cleveland. And so then he thought, why don’t you just stay in the lobby? And I’ll try to get a hotel room. And we’ll meet you this evening. We’ll drive right now.
And so he called hotels. But they – nobody wanted to be responsible for two minors without a parent. And so they kept saying no. And he said, I’ll be there, if they could just wait in the lobby. And they all said no. So eventually he said, all right, you got to come back home tonight. And try to hop on a plane home. I’m not paying for it.
GROSS: Oh, wow. OK. Is that what you did?
SHANNON: We did. We went back out to the airport. And this time that flights were all very crowded. So we were at JFK, and we found a flight back to Cleveland and did the same stunt, told the stewardess we had to say goodbye to my sister. And this time it just did not work ’cause the flight was sold out and people would say, excuse me, this is my seat. And we kept getting – so we gave up. That was not working. And we did call from the airport. And he did get us two tickets home. And he paid for it. And he said, all right, I’ll pay for it. But you have to pay me back with your babysitting money.
GROSS: I’m also trying to picture the two of you – you and your best friend – walking around Manhattan in your tutus (laughter) – in your 12-year-old tutu (laughter).
SHANNON: Exactly. It was like two little prima ballerinas on a crime spree in New York City.
GROSS: Well, let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Molly Shannon. And her new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE’S “CARMEN’S MAMBO”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Molly Shannon, who became famous as a cast member on “SNL.” She co-stars in the HBO series “The White Lotus” and in the new HBO Max series “The Other Two.” She co-stars in the Showtime comedy series “I Love That For You.” On that series, she plays a home shopping cable host who’s mentoring the main character, played by “SNL” alum Vanessa Bayer. Molly Shannon’s new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!”
You know, another thing about your father is that he was very moody. He could be really loving and adoring and then be, like, really angry. So as a child, did you learn to read his mood and therefore also learn how to read other people’s moods?
SHANNON: Yes, that’s true. My dad would get, you know, tough. He was – he would get stressed out about keeping the house clean and, you know, having to do all this stuff just as a single parent of two girls. So he would get – so sometimes, yes, we would kind of have to hop to it. Like, if we heard him coming up the steps – you could hear his brace, you know, one foot at a time. And we’d be like, oh, my gosh. We would quickly start vacuuming or take out the trash or – and then if he was – if we hadn’t done something, he would just ignore us. And that was really difficult and, you know?
So we had to kind of guess what he might be mad about and fix it. And sometimes when he would get behind in the cleaning, he would take a Dexamyl. Like, it was a combination of an amphetamine and a tranquilizer. And he would just want to get caught up on the cleaning. So we would clean, clean, clean, clean all day into the night. And there was one time where my sister came in my room, my sister Mary, at sunrise. And she was like, Daddy is still downstairs cleaning.
SHANNON: And we went down to the basement. And he was, like, smoking a cigarette and, you know, scratching his arms and, you know – and folding clothes. And – but then, the house would be sparkling clean. And he would play Judy Garland. And that meant, you know, everything was good. Like, (singing) Swanee, how I love you, how – like, blaring through the house. And then if we ate, you know, dinner, he wouldn’t want to see crumbs on the floor. So we would just celebrate the clean house, you know?
GROSS: You went to Catholic school. And your “Saturday Night Live” character, probably your most famous character from the show, is Mary Katherine Gallagher, who was the Catholic schoolgirl. And, you know, you write in your memoir that when you were in Catholic school, you misbehaved around female teachers in school out of fear that you would disappoint them the way you must have disappointed your mother, because your mother left you behind when she went to heaven. And so that must have been because she was disappointed in you. Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with the nuns in the Catholic school where you went?
SHANNON: I think I just felt misunderstood, you know? I remember, right after the accident, a nun had me draw a picture of my family. And I drew all the – the mom with chopped off arms. And then my father had very long arms. And she was like, well, what is this picture about? And I think that a lot of the teachers just didn’t understand stuff. Like, my sister once – they had the grade making Mother’s Day cards. And my sister said, well, I don’t have a mother. And she said, it’s OK. Just make a card anyway. So we felt let down by some of these teachers, who just probably didn’t understand losing a parent at such a young age.
But I do have to say, there was a priest, Father Murray (ph), who – right after the accident, we went back to church at Saint Dominic’s. And he knelt down. And he looked me in the eyes. And he acknowledged the loss of my mother and my sister. And I really appreciated it. He said, Molly, now I know you lost your mother and your sister. And that’s very, very sad. And I just – oh, my God, Terry. I appreciated it so much. I think everybody else was like, oh, don’t talk about it. It’ll make her sad. It’ll make her cry. Don’t bring that up. But I was actually desperate for people to bring it up, and for someone to acknowledge the deep pain and heavy grief I was in.
GROSS: It pains me that more people around you didn’t embrace you to help you heal from the pain.
SHANNON: Yeah, I know. Yes. I was going to say, and then regarding the female teachers, I really admired – you know, I liked looking at them. I liked the ultra-feminine ones. Like, there was a woman, Mrs. Hallas (ph). And she had – her nails always matched her outfit. And she smelled good. And she was pretty and peppy. And I really liked how feminine she was. And – or I would – like, my piano teacher would always wear, like, a blouse. And she would teach me the piano. And I loved, like, getting a – like, smelling her perfume and feeling her blouse rub against my face. And I was just like, oh, I miss this. This feels so wonderful.
GROSS: You really wanted to be in show business when you were a kid.
GROSS: And you were hoping to audition for the new “Mickey Mouse Club.”
GROSS: But you missed the audition – got there late. So instead, you auditioned for The New Little Rascals, which did carnivals and Greek restaurants. You say that this group was terrible. What was terrible about it?
SHANNON: Well, it was so not – I thought it – yeah, for some reason, I thought it was “The Mickey Mouse Club” that was going to be on Disney with, like, Justin – I don’t know what I thought. I thought it was, like, a professional TV show. This was just kind of a local carnival show, where we would go to different carnivals. And it was not professional. And the woman who ran it was – seemed like she had a serious drinking problem. And I found it fascinating to study her because sometimes we’d meet in the mornings and she would be really drunk. And I just thought, wow, that’s so – she’s drunk. It’s so early, you know? So I kind of really studied her. I thought she was an interesting character to study. And I liked watching her and studying her.
But the show was great experience because my dad would drive me all over, you know, southern Ohio to go to these carnivals. And I would sing with a microphone, like, near the, you know, bounce house. And I would sing, like, “Tea For Two.” So it was really good practice performing. And we would go to Hungarian restaurants and sing. And there was another mom who helped me with my costume. And she would wash my hair before the shows. And I was like, oh, it felt so good to have this, like, lady touching my hair. And I liked things like that about show business.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here. And then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Molly Shannon. She has a new memoir called “Hello, Molly!” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN’S “HAPPY SONG”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Molly Shannon, who became famous as a cast member on “SNL.” She co-stars in the HBO series “The White Lotus” and in the new HBO Max series “The Other Two.” She co-stars in the Showtime comedy series “I Love That For You,” which will premiere later this month. She plays a home shopping cable host who’s mentoring the character played by “SNL” alum Vanessa Bayer. Molly Shannon has a new memoir. It’s called “Hello, Molly!”
So you went to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. And then from NYU, you moved to LA and, you know, you did the whole waitress-hostess thing while, you know, auditioning for roles. And you got into you improv. And it was during your improv days – actually, this was back at Tisch, I think, that you started doing Mary Katherine Gallagher, your Catholic school character that became famous on “Saturday Night Live.” What did you take from your own life and your own Catholic schoolgirl experiences to put into Mary Katherine Gallagher?
SHANNON: Well, yeah, that character came out of – I auditioned for this show called “The Follies” and Madeleine Olnek – and Adam Sandler was actually in that show, too, at NYU. He was in my class at NYU Drama School. And the – Madeleine Olnek, who wrote the show, had us do this exercise during rehearsals where you just come through a door and make up a character. And I made up, hi, I’m Mary Katherine Gallagher, and we would have to try to impress her. And she was a snotty director, and we would keep having to try to impress her. So that’s how the character was created. And I just used myself and how I felt when I was little but exaggerated it a lot. Like, Mary Katherine Gallagher is an adult child of an alcoholic. She wants to please. She’s clumsy. She’s ambitious. You know, she fantasizes. She obsesses. So I just, like, amplified all of it.
GROSS: So I want to play an excerpt of your first Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch on “Saturday Night Live” in which you’re auditioning for the Catholic school’s play doing a monologue. And the monologue that you do in this, as we’ll hear, is a Meredith Baxter Birney monologue. And she became famous in, like, the second chapter of her career as the queen of, like, soap opera-ish kind of movies, like, Lifetime movies. So tell us why you chose a Meredith Baxter Birney monologue.
SHANNON: I just love a dramatic monologue. There’s something so dramatic about it that I love. I love dramatic comedy. I like comedy with heart and soul. And I just feel it really anchors the comedy to have, like, depth and sadness and passion with the comedy. And I was fascinated with Betty Broderick, that story about how she’d put her husband through, you know, law school, and then he ends up cheating on her with his secretary. And I watched all the “60 Minutes” and all the specials. And I was like, wow, oh, my goodness, this preppy mom just went crazy. And I was…
GROSS: And Meredith Baxter Birney played her.
SHANNON: And Meredith Baxter Birney played her – right – with the head band. And it was obviously very tragic. But I grew up watching those made-for-TV movies, like “Ode To Billy Joe” and those Robbie Benson movies. So I would always put the movies that I grew up with as dramatic monologues in those Mary Katherine Gallagher sketches or, like, “The Boy In The Plastic Bubble,” stuff like that.
GROSS: So let’s hear this first sketch that you did as her on “Saturday Night Live,” and the priest that you were auditioning for is played by Gabriel Byrne.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”)
SHANNON: (As Mary Katherine Gallagher) I’m going to be doing a monologue today for my favorite made-for-TV movie, which is the Betty Broderick story, starring Meredith Baxter Birney.
GABRIEL BYRNE: (As priest) That’s very good then. Very good then, Mary Katherine. So whenever you’re ready, off you go.
SHANNON: (As Mary Katherine Gallagher) OK. OK. OK. OK. I remember it was dawn, and the sun was just – the sun was just barely rising. And I took the gun out of a little wooden box in my room, and I – I just – I went outside, and I got into my car, and I drove (shuddering).
SHANNON: (As Mary Katherine Gallagher) And I drove. And I drove over to Dan Broderick and Linda Kolkena’s house. And then I – and then I – I broke into their front door, and I – I slowly climbed up the stairs (shuddering).
SHANNON: (As Mary Katherine Gallagher) And into their bedroom. And I saw them sleeping there, and I just – I just shot them both. I hate you, Dan. I hate you. I hate you.
BYRNE: (As priest) Mary, Mary, good girl, good girl, very good, very good.
SHANNON: (As Mary Katherine Gallagher) Monologue.
GROSS: OK. And describe what happens right after that.
SHANNON: And then right after that – let’s see. Then I say I can do gymnastics because I’m starting to warm up, and then I would fall into metal chairs and definitely hurt myself.
GROSS: You were falling into metal chairs and then tripping on them and get your leg caught in them. And it was this incredible bit of physical comedy with, like – these were, like, real metal chairs.
SHANNON: Real metal chairs, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. You really threw yourself into this, literally. Were you hurt? I mean, watching it, it’s kind of like, oh, my God, I hope she’s OK.
SHANNON: Yeah. At that time – and I did Mary Katherine Gallagher in my stage show for years, and I was just in a reckless period of my life where I didn’t care. I wanted to hurt myself and rough myself up and cut my leg and bleed. And I liked waking up the next morning with my muscles hurting. I didn’t mind. I think I was just, you know, in a different place in my life. I would never do that now. It feels way too dangerous. And, yes, when I first started doing Mary Katherine Gallagher on “SNL,” I was doing the metal chairs all the time. Finally, they got worried, so they hired, like, a professional stunt man. And then later, I started wearing padding. But the stunt men thought I was out of my mind. Like, she’s crazy. Oh, my God. They couldn’t believe it.
GROSS: Let’s take another break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Molly Shannon. Her new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY VOSBEIN’S “BOUM”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Molly Shannon. She became famous as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” She co-stars in the HBO series “The White Lotus” and in the new HBO Max series “The Other Two.” She also co-stars in the new Showtime comedy series “I Love That For You,” which premieres later this month. Her new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!”
When you got to LA and you were auditioning for roles, one of the ways you used your acting skills was in something that you describe as the David Mamet scam (laughter).
SHANNON: Oh, my God.
GROSS: So could you describe the scam for us?
SHANNON: Yes. The Mamet scam was – I called it the Mamet scam…
GROSS: And let me just stop and say, for people who don’t know, David Mamet is a famous playwright and screenwriter. So, OK, go ahead.
SHANNON: Yes, such a talented screenwriter and playwright. So David Mamet was a teacher at NYU, and I took a few classes with him. And Eugene Pack, my friend who was also a struggling actor in New York, had also taken many classes with him. So we were having a tough time breaking into the doors of these agents. It was really hard. You would send your headshot, and nobody would call you. And we just thought, we got to figure something else out, you know? So we decided one day to do this thing, the Mamet scam. And we made up fake characters. My character was called Liz Stockwell, and Eugene was Arnold Katz (ph). And we would make telephone calls for one another. Well, first, we would go to the AFI library, and we would research which current stars were represented by which agents. Like, for example, I would look up Joan Cusack. Maybe she’s like me, and let me see who her manager is. And then I would have a list of people that I wanted Eugene to call for me so that I could get into these agents’ offices and meet them, and then he would have a list for me.
And we would – and Eugene Pack and I had worked together selling health club memberships back in New York City, so we basically used our same techniques as salespeople selling health club memberships to do the Mamet scam. And so we would call when the agents were in a good mood, usually on Fridays after, you know, lunch, after 3 or 4. And I would call, and I would say, this is Liz Stockwell calling from David Mamet’s office. Can I please talk to, you know, whatever agent? And they would go, oh, yes, right away. And they’d put the agent on, and then I would say, you know, we have this kid who’s in David’s new play. I would make him the star of David’s new play. And he’s in LA taking meetings, and I would love to set up a meeting for him. And David speaks so highly of your company and you. And they would always be so flattered. And they would say, well, why don’t you just have Eugene call me when he gets to town? I’m sorry. You know what? He’s so busy; I’d rather do it for him. And then I would get him a meeting. Then he would make a call for me and get me a meeting.
And we would pass little notes to one another when we were on the phone calls, and we – it was so hard to not laugh. And if there was an obstacle, like, if somebody said, oh, you know, Liz, I’d love to have lunch with you, I would say, oh, my gosh, yes, I’ll have my assistant call you. We’re changing offices, but let’s definitely do that. So we just – we had, like, a whole thing going where we did that. And we – I met everyone through the Mamet scam. I got my first agents. And I actually got a part on “Twin Peaks” ’cause Gene called the casting director, Johanna Ray. So I got in, and then I got cast. And I got commercial agents and theatrical agents. Gene called Bernie Brillstein for me, and Bernie was like, tell David I said hello – ’cause I knew that Bernie…
SHANNON: I knew Bernie was connected to Lorne, and I wanted to be on “Saturday Night Live.” So Bernie Brillstein then introduced me to his daughter. And we just – we got so many meetings, Terry (laughter).
GROSS: I guess none of these agents ever called Mamet’s office to speak to Liz, whatever her second name was, that you made up, you know, to find out this person didn’t exist.
SHANNON: I think we kind of knew that maybe he was more in Vermont and New York, and we figured there wouldn’t be a cross-check. And we really made these agents feel so good. And my character was just delightful. She was just really, like, a happy, peppy, positive lady. And mostly people were delighted that David Mamet was thinking of them on a Friday afternoon at 4. They were thrilled.
GROSS: So you auditioned twice for “Saturday Night Live.” You didn’t make it after your first audition for “SNL,” but you made it on the second. And you say it was good you didn’t get in the first time because it wasn’t a good time for women. What was the difference between the first season that you auditioned for and the season where you actually became a cast member?
SHANNON: I think when I auditioned for the first season, it was more of a boys club. And I want to say, a very talented boys club. Those guys were really good. But there weren’t as many women at that time at the forefront. So when I got hired five years later, it was a better time. It was like a renaissance. There were just – they were hiring more women. It was better. So it was just interesting that it all worked out that way because I feel like it was a blessing in disguise. I’m glad I didn’t get hired five years before. It wouldn’t have been great. So – and then what happened was when I got rejected that first time, I thought, you know what? If they ever come back around again, I’m going to be ready. I’m just going to work on my characters for the next few years, develop my stage show, keep developing these characters, hone the material, write, create, so when they come back, I’m going to be locked and loaded and ready. And I really was.
GROSS: After your success on “Saturday Night Live,” you got depressed, and you write that you finally let yourself feel deeply about your mother. Can you explain why it was then that you allowed yourself to feel deeply? And how did that compare to how you felt before?
SHANNON: I think I couldn’t really feel sad about losing my mom when I was little. I just let myself go. So I was driven to achieve and work really hard and make it. And I was driven. I was like, I want to make it, and I want to, you know, audition and make it in Hollywood. And I was driven, driven, driven, working on my show. And then I finally get “Saturday Night Live,” and then I get Mary Katherine on the air, and I’m doing backflips and throwing myself into chairs, and people come up to me – oh, my God, I love that character. I love that character. And I would turn the compliment and find something wrong. And I felt this kind of anxious, deep longing – like, no, no, that’s not right. And I got so depressed. And I realized, like, that the – really, the only person I wanted to say, oh, my gosh, I’m so, so proud of you, Molly, was my mom, you know? And I think I was just driven, driven to succeed that it really was like, ugh, this fame, it doesn’t fix anything – because I really just want her, and I want her to be proud of me and her to see this, and I wish she was here, and I wish Katie could see this, and this would be so cool.
But it was a great turning point because it made me feel peace with fame and show business. And it’s like, ah, you don’t have to be the best; just enjoy being creative. Enjoy your work that you’re passionate about. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; just enjoy where you are. And then it really turned around for me, where I just didn’t – I could just enjoy “Saturday Night Live” as, like, a creative arts camp and not have to be the best or just – I could just enjoy being an artist and enjoy my work and enjoy that I was going for what I believed in. And I still have that same philosophy.
GROSS: Well, let’s take another break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Molly Shannon, and her new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN’S “BIG STUFF”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Molly Shannon, who became famous as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” She co-stars in the HBO series “The White Lotus” and in the new HBO Max series “The Other Two.” She co-stars in a Showtime comedy series called “I Love That For You,” which will premiere later this month.
You introduced your father to the folks on “Saturday Night Live.” They got to know each other. It sounds like people really liked your father a lot. I think it was through your agent, who is gay, that you found out your father was gay. So how did he know but you didn’t?
SHANNON: Steven Levy, my longtime manager – his father died when he was young. He developed a close connection with my father, and my dad became kind of a surrogate dad to him. And they would talk on the phone a lot. And Steven said to my dad, Jim, you’re gay. You’re gay. And my dad was, oh, I probably am. So Steven would, you know, send him gay porn. And, you know, my dad was – oh, my God. He was like, wrap it in – wrap it up in a paper bag in case somebody opens it. And, you know, he’s like – what? – 72 at this point.
And so my dad showed up for my last “SNL.” It was my very last week. And I think at the time, he had cancer but wasn’t telling anyone. And so he had been sober for a while. He was a recovering alcoholic, but he slipped that time coming into New York. And he flew into New York and stopped at the bar at the Grand Central and got drunk, and then he showed up to my apartment. And I was so disappointed in him because I was – this is my last week of the show. And I was like, you’re drunk. And then I kicked my dad out of my apartment and made him stay in a hotel. And then I talked to Steven and – my manager – and I said, oh, I’m so upset. He was drinking. I’m just disappointed. And it’s stressful. It’s my last week. And Steven kept defending my father. He said, you know, he’s given up so much for you girls. And I was like, what do you mean? He’s given up so much. And then I said, are you saying he’s gay? And he was like, he – I don’t want to say anything. He’s going to tell you. And I couldn’t believe it, Terry. I was like, what?
And my dad and I ended up making up the next day. Because I had this new information, all the pieces of the puzzle from my childhood of, like, the anger and, you know, some of the acting out came together. And I felt compassion. I was like, oh, my God, he’s gay. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. It felt like a flooding in of understanding, compassion. This new information blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it.
GROSS: You know, your manager told you that your father was going to tell you that he was gay, but your father didn’t tell you. So you ended up asking him if he was gay – asking your father. Did you, like, rehearse that in your mind, like, how you were going to go about asking him this question that risked making him so uncomfortable because he had withheld it from you so long?
SHANNON: I was so scared to ask him, Terry. And it was interesting because I kept waiting for him to tell me. So that last “SNL” show, my dad came to the party at the Hudson hotel and talked to Lorne and was just the belle of the ball, the life of the party, talking to Marci Klein and was so happy and proud of me. And I was waiting for him to tell me, and we had the best time and he got to see my last show. But he still didn’t tell me. And I’m like, God, he hasn’t told me yet. Steven’s like, he’s going to tell you. He’s going to tell you. Then I invited him out for a press junket for this movie I did with Kate Beckinsale called “Serendipity.” And I said, come out to the Four Seasons. And we were at the pool one day and he still hadn’t told me, and we were just having a wonderful time. And we went and sat in loungers by the pool. And I just thought, I’m going to be brave and ask the million-dollar question that only a daughter can ask a parent when they’re still alive. And I said, have you ever thought you might be gay? And I remember, like, I said it so slowly that I – it was like a ticker tape of, like, a plane. Like, take a deep breath. And then it was, like, a pause. And he was like, most definitely. And I was like, what? What am I – what did you just say? It’s, like, almost like you can’t hear what they’re saying. Most definitely. Most – oh, my God, what a relief.
And then we ended up talking about it, Terry, for the next 72 hours. We drove to Ojai, and we went to Carrows diner. And I just got to ask him every question I ever would want to ask. And I said, did Mommy know? And he told me. And I said, when did you know that you were gay? And he’s like, oh, Molly, I knew in grade school. I’d go on double dates, and I would look at the boy. And I liked this one boy who was from Poland, and I liked the way he – his hand held a cigarette. He looked so manly. And I would look at the J.C. Penney catalogs and see the macho men in their undershirts. And I was like, oh, do – well – you know? So we had this open conversation. And I said, did you ever, you know, hook up with anyone? He was like, yeah, you know, I would be on sales trips and businessmen would give me their cards and I would be like, oh, no, like, kind of mad but intrigued but mad. And then he said he would get action at truck stops, as men who were closeted in that – at that time did. And I was happy for him. And it was such an honor that he came out to me. And I think it was a relief for him to be able to tell me. And he died six – like, six months later.
GROSS: You were with him when he died?
GROSS: And you write that it was so good to be able to be there with him and for him because your mother was taken away from you so abruptly in the car accident when you were 4. Were you able to talk or was he, like, not really, you know, conscious or able to speak by then?
SHANNON: Yeah, he was able to talk. And he was in the hospital. He had slipped at a wedding and cracked his femur. He was stone sober. But, you know, he didn’t call us when he was in the hospital. My Aunt Bernie (ph) called. She said, you better come. He’s in the hospital. And, you know, he had prostate cancer, so his bones were compromised from the treatment. Before he died, we had a long phone conversation after he came out to me where he was like, you’re my lucky star, Molly. I want you to know, having you and Mary was the best thing I ever did. And I said, I know. I understand that. He didn’t want me to think that he regretted having children.
SHANNON: But anyhow, on his deathbed, he gave us advice. He told, you know, me, go on, get married, have children. I think you will have great joy with that. And then he also said, you know, also, don’t ever underestimate a good small part in a movie. I had done this movie called “Analyze This” with Billy Crystal, where I just did one scene where I played his patient, Caroline, who was going through a breakup and really crying. And my dad loved that scene. So on his deathbed, he was, you know, saying his goodbyes and we were like, will you watch over us from heaven? And he was like, indeed. And he said, don’t cry for me ’cause I’m going to be OK. He was very – he believed in an afterlife. And he was not afraid.
And then he said – he was taking oxygen. And so about this movie, “Analyze This,” he took an inhale and he was like, (inhaling) giving me advice. He said small parts. And we were like, small parts, trying to make out what he’s saying. Then he took another inhale of oxygen (inhaling). And then he said, in movies. And we were like, yes, in movies. And then he said (inhaling) like “Analyze This.” And we were like, like “Analyze This.” And then he died after that. I’m not kidding – dead (laughter). That was his last bit of advice (laughter).
GROSS: He really wanted to be an actor, too, right?
SHANNON: He did. He really wanted to be an actor. He wished he would have been an actor. And he loved the movies and Judy Garland and Rosalind Russell. And he would have liked to have gone to the Cleveland Playhouse. And he loved writing. And I use a lot of his writing in the book. And, yes, he said he didn’t have the confidence. So in a lot of ways, I went and did that for him. And I kind of wanted to give him that life, and he got to live that life and see that through me. And it was deeply gratifying.
GROSS: You and your husband, Fritz, have two children. What does it mean to you to be a mother?
SHANNON: It’s just the greatest ever. I love it. I always wanted to be a mom and I feel like I’ll cry a little. When I was little, I would – I was always playing on the playground with the kids in grade school. And we would play family. And I would reenact this scenario. We would line all the girls in the class. And Amy Wall (ph) and I were the mothers, and we would pick who was going to be in our family. And they’d be like, I want to be in your family, I want to be in your family because my family in the game, I was a fun mom, and my kids and I would fly around the parking lot. And I would play this game over and over again. So I always knew I wanted to be a mother. I babysat a lot when I was little, and I just really wanted that. And I told Fritz, you know, when we first started dating and he wanted that, too.
And so getting to live beyond the years that my mom lived is just profoundly healing. And I don’t take any of it for granted. Like, I think, you know, I only had four years with her, but that was so substantial. I’m so glad I had four years – that it gives you this perspective on appreciating time. And you never know how much time you’re going to have. And so it’s like, I have a real, like, feeling of, like, you’re up to bat, Molly. Come on. Let’s do it. And I just – maybe some things that people complain about I don’t relate to because I just think, you know, I feel so lucky that we’re all, like, alive. And, you know, I’m so grateful. And I get to watch my kids grow up. And my mom didn’t get to watch me grow up. And it’s just – I think that she would be so happy for me, you know?
GROSS: Yeah. To change the mood a little bit, do you still watch “Saturday Night Live?”
SHANNON: I do. I just had dinner with Lorne. I’m still so close to him. And, yes, I still watch it. My favorite part of the show is the goodnights. I like watching the host and all the cast. I like to think, what kind of mood are they in? And oh, look, she’s talking to him, and they look so happy. And now they’re going to go to the party. So yeah, the goodnights are my favorite, and I really enjoy it. And I just have such great feelings about the show. And I just – I still am so grateful that I got that opportunity.
GROSS: Molly Shannon, it has just been wonderful to talk with you. I am so grateful you’ve come on our show.
SHANNON: Terry, thank you so much. This is such an honor to talk to you. You are one of my favorites. And thank you so much.
GROSS: Molly Shannon’s new memoir is called “Hello, Molly!” Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be ProPublica reporter David McSwane who’ll tell us about the people and businesses that profited from the COVID-19 pandemic. He found the government awarded lucrative contracts to many people with a history of fraudulent business practices that could be found documented in public records if anyone had bothered to check. McSwane is the author of the new book “Pandemic, Inc.” I hope you’ll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA’S “HABANA SIN SABANAS”)
GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA’S “HABANA SIN SABANAS”)
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