The Women of SNL
Famous and funny females headline the festival at Katz JCC
By Terri Akman

Remember Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Wild and Crazy Guys, and the Coneheads? These Saturday Night Live (SNL) favorites came from the imaginations of three hilarious women: Laraine Newman, Rosie Shuster and Marilyn Suzanne Miller. Back together again after more than 30 years, the trio will headline the annual Festival of Arts, Books and Culture next month at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill.

“It will be the first time it’s ever been spoken about by those who lived it, as opposed to those who ratted on those who lived it,” jokes Miller, 63. “What went on backstage was so wonderful and specific to the world of people that [SNL creator] Lorne Michaels had thrown together, with a prescient insight of what people were going to be when you mix them up in a bowl and throw them on a network television screen. We had no lives except for the lives we had with each other, getting that 90 minutes on the air every week. Lorne used to say, ‘It doesn’t go on cause it’s ready, it goes on cause it’s 11:30.’”

The female trio will speak at “Back Stage at the Original Saturday Night Live” during the annual festival, which will showcase authors and performers during its weeklong run. The SNL forum will be moderated by NPR TV critic and Rowan professor David Bianculli, who will host the casual chat about the inside stories of SNL’s glory days.

“It was engrossing and compelling,” says Shuster, 63, fondly remembering the early days of creating a national phenomenon from scratch. “Rock ‘n’ roll and film had revolutions, but television was still so middle-of-the-road. Later they called us pioneers, but at the time it felt revolutionary. It was very exciting to be in on the ground floor. We had no idea what the effect was going to be; we were totally engrossed in the experience.”

“The day after the show, Gilda and I would be walking down the street and people would be calling out lines from sketches we had done the night before,” recalls Newman, 61. “That was very exciting because there was no other way to get a perspective.”

The most fun, Shuster admits, was pushing the envelope, with characters including nerds Lisa Loopner and Todd for Gilda Radner and Bill Murray; Emily Litella for Radner; and Dan Aykroyd’s Norge Refrigerator Repairman. Her favorite sketch was a commercial parody for Radner.

“It was ‘Hey You! The Perfume for One Night Stands,’” Shuster recalls. “It was the first time anybody had ever seen the walk of shame the next morning. I was proud when that happened, because when you get there first and articulate something that hasn’t quite been shaped in the zeitgeist, it’s fun!

“There was another moment that was just so crazy. I had done a sketch with Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman, who were these hippy characters, Jason and Sunshine. It was for the Peter Boyle Show and was ‘Slides from their Acid Trip.’ It was in the ’70s and the neighbors next door drop acid and take slides that are hideously boring. One of the slides was of Jason’s toes evolving from webbed to clawed to hooved. I saw the slide, and it looked like makeup had made Dan webbed toes. I said, that’s crazy – it’s their acid brains, it’s not literal. Then I found out that Danny Aykroyd actually had webbed toes! I later learned he had two different colored eyes, too.”

The writers used real-life experiences to shape their characters. “I remember one week, Gilda getting on the air at the beginning of the show and saying, ‘Mom, you can go to bed, I don’t have much to do tonight!” recalls Miller. “One of my favorite characters came from what two of my sisters used to do when they were little, which was go in their rooms and put on fake shows for no one, imagining a TV camera watching their every move.

“Gilda played Judy Miller, the little girl who went in her room and did this whole pretend show for nobody. She would jump up and down on her bed and act out these plays and do commercials for the sheets. She acted out a war with France, England and Bolivia, three names of countries she knew at whatever age she was playing. She’d say, ‘Now I will go to France,’ and run and smash herself into the closet door and bounce off of it. In dress rehearsal she broke her rib and they had to tape her up. She did the Judy Miller show with a broken rib, running into closet doors!”

Newman enjoyed the character of Lina Wertmüller, a real movie director. “I thought she was such a character,” recalls Newman. “I was so fascinated by her, because all her movies had a certain perspective that was so interesting to me. I had no idea what she sounded like; I just went by what she looked like and threw on this strange accent. The writers got her, so they wrote well for her. I also liked the character of Alice that was in the Fran Tarkenton sketch. Those remind me of a lot of the things Kristen Wiig is doing now, the very subtle stuff.”

Beyond the challenges of creating a new concept from scratch, these women also had to navigate the difficulties of being female in a male-dominated business.

“There are a lot of men who don’t think women are generically funny,” says Shuster. “It toughened me up in a good way. You had to do the work, and let the work talk. Whatever people-pleasing behaviors I had left got slapped down.”

SNL premiered on October 11, 1975, with the original team of eight writers working non-stop for three weeks in a row, and then getting one week off. Shuster remembers the first time she heard people on the street talking about the show.

“It was crazy having the outside puncture my inner world,” she says. “We were in our own little cubicles working around the clock, bringing a change of clothing, showering at the office and sleeping on the couch, just living it and breathing it.”

Reflecting fondly on her SNL days, Shuster says, “I once saw a sketch with Neil Armstrong sitting home, just watching the moon landing over and over, like his life was an empty desert. It’s not like that. It was a very astonishing time in my life, but I don’t have the energy anymore.”

October 2013
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