Julia Sweeney jokes first and thinks about it later. Luckily, her daughter and husband share her sense of humor (mostly). Best known for her stint on "Saturday Night Live" -- she was under the androgynous Pat's fat suit -- Sweeney has become a successful writer, in addition to continuing to perform onstage.
She brings her hilarious, intimate new book, "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother," to Book Soup at 7 tonight. She may read about her hatred of huge strollers, being mistaken for her daughter's grandmother and the misadventures of hiring a nanny. It will be something of a return for Sweeney, who now lives in the Midwest; she began her comedy career with the Groundlings here. She returns for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, where she'll be appearing April 20.
My phone interview with Sweeney began with her New York hotel accidentally connecting me to her mother-in-law's room ("This hotel is just ridiculous!" she empathetically yelled. "How can I help? I would go out in the hallway myself but I'm dripping naked and speaking to you from the bathroom phone!"). I hung up an hour later after Sweeney's side-splitting stories had put me in physical pain.
The book is named after the pillow your mother gave you years ago embroidered with the phrase: “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother.” Why was the story of this pillow important to you and to the book?
I liked it as an introductory story, but personally, I don’t think there should be too much weight put on it. The story showed a transformation of an attitude. I really went from daughter-thinking to mother-thinking.
The story is: My mother gave me this pillow with this phrase on it. I thought it was totally not funny. It reminded me of “Saturday Night Live,” even though I’m sure she wasn’t thinking that in the least. She thought it was hysterical and I didn’t, so I hid it away and brought it out only when she came into town. Then as soon as I adopted my daughter, it was like instantaneously I realized it was hysterical! I kept it on her bed, and when my daughter was 6 or 7, she came to me with the pillow and said, “This is not funny in any way. I don’t really like it.” And I was like, “but it’s funny!” And then I realized I was in the same dynamic, only on the other side.
So I felt like the story introduced the characters, me and Mulan, and showed the humbling experience that comes with becoming a mother.
How did becoming a mother inform you about your relationship with your own mother?
I always think the best thing that happened to my relationship with my mother is that I became a mother. In some ways, I think being a mother is like a Ponzi scheme -- you have to get the next generation to participate to get paid back. You have to really act like it’s great so they buy into the whole idea.
Basically, I had so much more compassion for my mom. She had five kids, she did a lot. She was a full-time mom, she took it really seriously, she worked really hard, she did five big birthday parties every year, she had dinner on the table every night -- and I really didn’t appreciate it. I did a little bit, but only nominally. My attitude was: Any real woman had a career -- any real, strong woman, who is organized and smart has this big, thriving career. And clearly, parenting is so easy that you could just do it on the side, while you did this huge career. And I think that’s what everyone was told then, including my own mother telling me that! I guess that’s what people are still being told. Now, I just think it’s insane! Now, I think the hardest job in the world is being a mother -- it’s a full job. And if people have to work or want to work, that’s fine, but they really are adding a full-time job on top of a full-time job. It’s a really hard job and I think that understanding has helped my relationship with my mom a lot.
In the book, you are very candid about the sheer exhaustion that comes with being a parent. But before becoming a mother, you had a career on the cast of "Saturday Night Live," a show notoriously known for long, grueling hours. How have these two careers compared?
In some ways, "SNL" is more analogous with motherhood than any of the other jobs that I’ve had. At "SNL," there were a lot of tantrums and hysteria -- there were many moments when you had to force yourself to have patience! "SNL" really -- I never thought of it this way before -- actually is great training for being a mother.
The biggest difference is that effort and drive, for most career challenges, work to get you over the hurdle. With parenting, it’s such a subtler game. It’s knowing when not to push it. It’s not getting so ambitious about it. It’s being patient, backing off and letting things happen completely not the way you want them to happen. And even though those things happen in a career working outside the home, it’s like a different musical instrument all together. We watch a lot of cooking competition shows and it’s always, “GET OUT THERE, DO YOUR BEST!” And that is absolutely the worst thing to do as a parent. It’s more like, “Take a breath. Relax. Hey, you can’t control everything, you can only control so much. Just keep a nice eye out for this person. But also be vigilant, don’t let your eye off the ball.”
What is the best parenting advice you have ever received?
Don’t take a child out of a crib and put them into a bed until they can easily climb out of their own crib on their own -- my mom said that to me. And I said, “No, she’s ready to be in a bed. It’ll be easier. And then we can sit on the bed and read while she falls asleep.” So I got her a bed and every five minutes she was knocking on my door. I had a cage, and then I no longer had a cage.
Is humor an integral part of your parenting technique?
Yes, too much. For me, the note is: Yeah, it’s funny, but it’s also serious. Sometimes I just say, “Oh my God, this is hysterical!” And sometimes I think my husband looks at me and thinks, “OK, we can laugh about this later, but not in front of her.”
When Mulan gets really mad, it’s really hard not to laugh. I would say it’s the hardest thing. And it’s so undermining and terrible -- it’s horrendous in every way to laugh at a kid who’s seriously pissed off. But it’s impossible not to laugh! I struggle with that -- I really struggle with that.
In what ways are you and Mulan similar, and in what ways do you differ?
We both like to be the center of attention. And we’re different in that I am a novelty seeker and she is not. She likes routine and she doesn’t like going to new places she’s never been before, even though she did with camp. For some reason, camp falls under some other category for her that I don’t understand.
I think it’s just a genetic thing and that’s just her personality trait. She loves the predictability of going to a place we’ve been before where you know what to do and you know what to do expect. And I’m always like, “I know! Let’s try a new place! Hey! We’ve never tumbled down this slide -- let’s try it!” That’s where we butt heads a lot.
Your writing is personal and intimate — you really allow readers to step into your world. Does that ever get too difficult and as a writer, where do you draw that line and say, “This is mine, I’m going to keep this story or this moment to myself”?
It’s funny, because while you were saying that I thought, “I really shouldn’t have said that thing about the novelty seeker.” She’ll think, “Why did you have to say that? I like doing new things!”
It’s really hard because it’s an absolute difficult thing and there’s no resolution to it. Some people will say, “I read your book and I feel like I know you -- although I know that’s not really you.” And I think, “No, that’s really me. You, in fact, now do know me. This is as much as knowing me gets. Pretty much. There it is.”
When the story happened about how Mulan learned about sex, it was like the heavens parted and God handed me the most hilarious story. I knew it while it was happening and I almost wanted to stop and protect her from doing it. I wanted to say, “OK, I can already tell this is hysterical and I’m going to have to get onstage and tell it. So you should probably stop talking to me. Because I’m your mother and I’m supposed to protect you from people like me who get onstage and talk about you.” So that happened and of course I had to tell it onstage.
Then my husband got worried about it. He said, “Well, I just worry that some boys on the playground will say, ‘Is now the time to take off my pants?’ ” And then Mulan said, “I don’t like that you told that story. I don’t want you to tell that.” And I absolutely had a meltdown. I made this big announcement on my blog saying that I will never talk about my personal life again.
A year and a half later, I was doing a show with Jill Sobule where I tell stories and Mulan was saying, “You should really tell that story, that was pretty funny.” And I realized now a few years had gone by. Since she was older, it wasn’t so embarrassing. Now she could look back on that time as her as a young person. And then it made it OK. So time had made it OK.
Have your daughter and your husband responded similarly to your book?
Yes, they haven’t read it -- that’s how they’ve responded. They have a unified front of covering their ears and going, “La la la la la la.”
My husband knows every single thing in it -- I’ve talked to him about every single thing. And there were a couple chapters I’ve given him to ask, “Is this accurate?” or “From your point of view, do I say anything in the chapter that is too embarrassing?” Anything about him, I absolutely ran by him. There really are no surprises for him, but he hasn’t sat down and read it all the way through. And I don’t know if I really want him to. A part of me feels embarrassed that I’m this person who talks like this. I kind of like keeping it to him as, “Oh no, I don’t do that!” There’s something very blabber-mouthy about it that feels unattractive to me around him, although I don’t think he feels that way. But I feel that way. I have a conflict about it.
I have to watch it because I have this really critical voice that is the death to creativity -- that kind of voice that criticizes you. You have to let that voice be a little heard or else you would have no restraint in any way, but you can’t let that voice be very loud because then you can’t create.
I am trying to get into a new place where I just polish and polish and polish certain things to the point that I can almost dissociate myself from them during the polishing process. I’m almost like an editor of someone else’s stories. And then I can let myself be critical in a way that feels like it’s separated to a certain degree. But when it comes to the first telling of it, the first idea of it, I have to have this really loving, “tell me anything, I don’t care what it is!” kind of attitude.
Does that critical voice exist solely during the writing process, or was it something you also encountered when you were creating characters on "SNL"?
It’s funny, I was just thinking, “Did I really create any characters on 'Saturday Night Live'?” I did impersonations, but I didn’t really come up with characters. I never thought of this before. I might be wrong, but I don’t think there were any characters, that weren’t impressions, that I came up with at "SNL." Maybe that’s partly because of how critical I perceived the environment. I’m not trying to blame them -- I think I should have overcome that and been tougher about it. I think I was too nice and too sweet. I wasn’t aggressive there like I wish I had been.
But at the Groundlings, I felt like that was an incredibly nurturing environment. I would just have the most amazing teachers there who would show you how to create characters. They would come in and say, “Who’s the family member that you know the most about. And then name a cartoon character that you love -- you know, like Daffy Duck. Now put those together.” It was just so creative and it felt like, yes, almost everything you did was a failure, but people loved even the attempt. To me, Groundlings was just a loving, nurturing, anything-goes, “let’s just try it!” kind of place.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
I’m in New York now and I’ll be back here in four week for the premiere of “Monsters University” -- Mulan is going to come and it’s going to be exciting!
I’m trying to write a book now called “My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story: A Catholic Girl Goes Rogue” -- I have not yet been able to crack the nut of this book but I feel like I’m onto something now. I haven’t sold that to anyone, I’ve just been writing it.
I’m also writing this screenplay, “Fork,” that I want to turn into a small-budget film and direct. I have actor friends who have already committed to being in it. I would shoot it in my own house. I love my story, I love my actors and I want to create an environment where I can test the waters as a director in a low-pressure, low-risk way and see if that’s a direction in which I would want to go.
And "The Jill and Julia Show"! Jill Sobule lives in L.A., she’s a musician and she’s really my best girlfriend. We do these shows called "The Jill and Julia Show." We’re doing a whole tour this summer -- we’re going on the road for two weeks, all up and down the East Coast, and some shows in the Midwest. That is really exciting -- to formalize my relationship with her. We made a "Jill and Julia Show" film that will go up on our website by the end of the month. We’re just hoping that every summer we go on tour and it just gets bigger and bigger!