Interview with Julia Sweeney on Standup, Storytelling & SNL

Julia Sweeney

The unseasonable heat Chicago is experiencing may not be due to the weather. More likely, the warmth is resonating from the debut of Second City’s one-woman show “Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider.” For 90 minutes, the actress/author and Grammy-nominated comedian shares her generous spirit, personal stories, offbeat outlook and sharp sense of humor with audiences. She also shared her thoughts with Rebellious earlier this year.

Janet Arvia: You were on Saturday Night Live” for five years, so its hard to believe youre making your standup debut now. What took so long?

Julia Sweeney: Ha! I love that you say it that way. I always hung out with standups, and performed at alternative comedy clubs with them, but never actually considered myself a standup…I see it as a challenge to shape the things I want to say into short bits that are funny. So for me, it’s a very different area of comedy. But to almost anyone else, it’s practically the same thing I was doing before.

Pat, the iconic androgynous character you inhabited on SNL during the 1990s, spotlighted gender ambiguity in a time when it seemed taboo. Have fans shared their stories with you throughout the years?  

Yes! To my surprise I got many letters from people who are intersex…You know, the androgynous aspect [of] Pat was an afterthought. I was actually trying to play a male character and didn’t pull it off quite convincingly. So I threw a joke in about Pat’s gender being hard to nail down and it got such a laugh, it really took off. But then people liked the questioning almost too much. It got to be creepy to me how some people were so uncomfortable not knowing Pat’s gender…I think we’ll have truly evolved as a society when Pat is no longer funny.   

Storytelling is at the heart of your art. Why is it important, and how does humor help deliver the message?

Storytelling is the way the mind knows itself, and that means every human being is a storyteller. I always did love to tell funny stories. When I was young I didn’t think about the grand meaning of it, or understand the architecture of it, much less the psychology of it. But as I got older, I got curious about this aspect of myself and of everyone else. So, yes, it’s very important to me. And the humor, well, it’s the sugar that keeps people listening. For me it’s essential.

Prior to this run, you workshopped the show for nine weeks in Chicago. Briefly describe that experience.

It’s really fun. It’s hard not to let it take over your life. I literally [was] doing nothing but thinking about my show and wanting another chance to tell my stories and jokes, desperate for another chance to see if I can make it work better or see if it needs to be scrapped. It’s like turning on a separate faucet in your mind and seeing what comes out. [It helped me] think of jokes, and I didn’t think I could do that. I love this process so much. It’s like getting to work on a machine, and tinker and tinker…and the audience’s laughs are your results.

“Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider” performs through May 30 at Second City’s e.t.c. stage in Chicago. For tickets, visit secondcity.com.

Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.

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Ms. Arvia is a freelance writer, former filmmaker, artist and Janet-of-all-trades who is pleased to contribute to our magazine since she’s always been Rebellious.