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From the Archives: Julia Sweeney Discovers Comedy in Tragedy.

Comedienne Julia Sweeney. The former Saturday Night Live performer, was best known for, Pat, the gender-ambiguous character. Her one woman performance piece, "God Said, Ha!" has been made into a new film. Sweeney began working on the piece when she learned that her brother had cancer. She took him into her home to care for him while he was receiving treatment. Her parents moved in too for the time being. Sweeney's brother eventually died, and she was diagnosed with cancer shortly before that. (REBROADCAST FROM 11/20/96)

44:40

Other segments from the episode on February 12, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 12, 1999: Interview with Julia Sweeney; Review of Gomez's album "Bring it On"; Commentary on television this week.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 12, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Julia Sweeney
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In her days on "Saturday Night Live" Julia Sweeney was best known for her character Pat, whose gender was always ambiguous. Now Sweeney is best known for her solo show, "God Said, Ha!" about having cancer.

Sweeney adapted the show into a book and into a movie of the same name. The movie opened today in New York and Los Angeles, and will open in other cities over the next several weeks. As "New York Times" critic Peter Marks wrote, "Sweeney has found the showcase for her real calling, storytelling."

The story she tells begins after she left "Saturday Night Live" and moved to L.A. Her brother Mike, who also lived there, developed a vicious form of cancer and came to live with her. Her parents also soon moved in to help care for him.

And as her brother was close to death, Sweeney discovered she too had cancer. While all of this was happening Sweeney was reporting on it every Sunday at a comedy club in West Hollywood called Luna Park, in which the rule was you couldn't tell a story you'd ever used on stage before.

Those Luna Park monologues were the basis of "God Said, Ha!" In 1996, when she performed her show on Broadway Julia Sweeney performed an excerpt for us.

JULIA SWEENEY, COMEDIENNE; ACTRESS: "We were all continuing to help Mike in all of his different therapies, and he was doing really well with the exception of the spinal tap chemos. Mike had received so many spinal taps that scar tissue had built up along his spinal column and they couldn't access it anymore.

So one day we were at UCLA and Mike was on the examination table and my bother Jim was there and myself and my mother. And my father, who was reading a 50,000 word essay in "The New Yorker" all about the plague in India, you know, as a diversion.

And the doctor came in and he said, `Mike, this is what I suggest. I think that we should put a shunt into your forehead, which is a plastic opening, so that we can put the chemo directly into the cranial fluid.' So, you know, this was just awful.

And Mike immediately said, `listen, doc, if you think you're going to put a faucet into my forehead, you may as well give me a lobotomy at the same time.' And there was this awkward pause, and then my mother chimed in and she said, `oh, Mike, I don't think it's like a faucet. I think it's more like a -- a spigot.'

And then I think even the doctor was a little embarrassed, and he said, `Mike, let me just tell you that my patients who have the shunts -- well, they -- they love them.' And Mike said, `oh, they do, do they? Well, then by all means give a shunt.'

And Mike did get a shunt. And after that his refrain became, `I love my shunt.' And whenever the doctor would come in the examination room he'd say, `how ya doing, Mike?' And Mike would say, `I'm not doing too well, doc, but I'll tell you one thing: I love my shunt.'

And to just show you how surreal things were getting, at night the whole family would watch shows like `ER' and `Chicago Hope.' And whenever anyone would come in to the emergency room Mike would yell out, `give 'em a shunt! They need something to love!'"

GROSS: An excerpt from Julia Sweeney's, "God Said, Ha!" I wanted to know if she was ever superstitious about turning her brother's fatal illness into comedy.

SWEENEY: No, I guess I've always seen the comedy in horror, you know, in the horribleness.

GROSS: It sounds like your brother did too.

SWEENEY: Yeah. Our whole family kind of has that attitude, I think. I didn't really realize that until after this experience, but it always seemed very natural because it wasn't like we somberly going through the day at the hospital. And then I was turning this somehow into comedy later.

We were laughing too. You know, I mean, my brother and I were -- I mean, we weren't in a constant state of laughter obviously, but there were -- I mean there was terrible things. I don't want to down play that, but there was also very humorous things that were happening, you know, because of the coldness of the hospital or because of the special warmth of some particular nurse or something.

You know, there was always something that we found, you know, something we found to giggle at. And so it seemed like those things were the things that we -- I put together for Sunday.

GROSS: So after all these Sundays of just explaining that your parents had moved in with you indefinitely and how uncomfortable that was, how did you, you know, show up and explain to the audience, well, the reason why they moved in is that my brother is very sick?

SWEENEY: Well, I just thought I'd have to come out and say it, and not make -- try to make a huge deal out of it and just kind of go on. Because I realized that the underlying context of my brother being ill and my parents there helped the stories really be funnier. And it was also clearer why I couldn't vent or something with my parents because of my brother being ill. It just added -- there was like a big part of the story that was missing by not revealing it.

And so finally, I said, "oh, my parents are staying with me indefinitely because -- because" -- and I got very nervous. It's embarrassing for me to remember. And I said, "oh, because, because, well, my brother has cancer ha ha ha.

But he's doing really well and he's very -- has a great sense of humor about his own struggle. And we're very close, and we're all rooting for him. But here are some of the things that drove me crazy this week about the hospital." And then I would go on like that.

GROSS: Now what was happening in your life when your brother Mike got sick?

SWEENEY: Well, actually one thing I don't even reveal in my show because it's so horrible, I don't think the audience would believe it -- seriously -- is that the weekend I found out that my brother was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma was the same weekend that the "Pat" movie had come out in Seattle and Houston to disastrous reviews and no attendance by the public.

And so it was this very awful weekend. I just -- you know, I had just separated from my husband and, you know, I was kind of getting used to being alone. And then this movie was coming out and I was doing all this publicity. And then on the big weekend where it came out and I was getting fax after fax in Seattle of one terrible review after another, then that Sunday night I found out about my brother being ill.

And so my whole life, in one weekend, just changed. And I don't actually put in the part in the show about the shows getting bad reviews because, in truth, it became so inconsequential. Once Mike was sick, who cared about the movie and who cared about the reviews?

GROSS: Now how did he, and how did you feel about your parents moving in with you?

SWEENEY: Well, you know, we -- I say they were with us for nine months during the show, which it was over the course of nine months that they were with us most of the time. But there were a few times where we really just sent them back to Spokane. We'd really had enough..

And also, my brother would go through periods of time were he felt really great. And sometimes he'd drive himself to radiation, and, you know, having cancer doesn't mean you're sick every single second, you know. And so we would send them off and then they wouldn't be able to stand it. And they'd have to come back.

And, you know, it was very helpful on the one hand because there's so much to do when someones sick. I mean, there is really a lot of things that must be done. On the other hand, it's your parents doing these things for you again, and you suddenly feel like a child. And, you know, they're trying to help you and they are pretty much helping you, but they're driving you crazy also. So -- but we were both commiserating and appreciative all at the same time all the time.

GROSS: What are some of the things your parents did that would make you feel like a kid again when they were in your house?

SWEENEY: Well, my mother, she feels that when she's in her house or the house of any of her children that everything is fair game. For example, if she wants to reorganize the second drawer of your bathroom she feels that she should be able to do that. And not only do that, but she is doing you a great service.

And so sometimes you would come in and there would be all of these little, you know, Q-tips and safety pins and some Sudafed and then it would be all over the counter. And then she would be saying, "now, why -- this should be in the medicine cabinet, and if you take a little paper cup and you can put all of your safety pins in it. That's why I do when I get my dry cleaning back and then it goes right there, and I always know when I need a safety pen."

LAUGHTER

It, you know, you say thank you. And then you try not to strangle her.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now, did you turn into someone different when your parents were living with you? Did you turn into the child version of yourself?

SWEENEY: Yes. In fact, sometimes I would notice my posture would change immediately. Like suddenly I would feel -- I would slouch more and I would almost feel guilty for being taller than them or something. Like we physically had to suddenly reorganize ourselves so that, you know, I was looking up to them somehow -- physically.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Were you ever with them when you were recognized as, you know, hip "Saturday Night Live" performer, and here you were feeling like a child because you were with your parents and your slouching to be more like their height?

SWEENEY: Well, it's so funny because when I first got on "Saturday Night Live" my parents, they didn't really know what that show was. And it was on way too late for them to watch. So they weren't particularly impressed when I told them I was on the show.

But then people would start to recognize me, and that's when they liked it. Then all of a sudden they knew all about that show. And so then, like, sometimes, you know, I would be with my mother and she would want to dwell in the moment of the person recognizing me. She loved that moment.

So if we were at the hospital and a nurse said, "oh, you know, don't you do that Pat character?" And I would say -- my usual response was, "oh, yes, thank you very much. And now down the hallway is this?" Change the subject.

And my mother would go, "yes, she did." You know, in a long, more drawn out way so that we could enjoy that moment. So that was also slightly frustrating for me.

GROSS: It sounds from your show that you really spent so much time with your brother while he was sick, taking him to treatments and just commiserating with him and trying to make him more comfortable. Had you been very close before?

SWEENEY: We were close, but we became very close when he got sick. And it's hard to say -- I mean, I have -- there's five of us kids and I feel equally close to everyone. And in some ways it seems really really close, and in some ways I wish it were closer. And Mike lived very close to me in Los Angeles, and he worked at the Groundlings Theater where I had also been performing. So I saw him all the time.

But he really had his own group of friends and I had my own group of friends. And then when I was on "Saturday Night Live," sometimes in the summers he would come and stay at my apartment in New York City until we kind of switched locations in the same of apartment. So we were close in that kind of territorial way.

But we didn't become really close until he got sick. And in a way I'm really really thankful that I got that time to get to know him like that.

GROSS: Did he ever come to the club where you were performing the monologues about him?

SWEENEY: No. And I so regret that because I think he would have enjoyed it. But at the time I was so embarrassed that I was doing this. It was really a naughty of me -- to me -- that I was rushing off to this club and telling these stories.

And even though Mike and I were in on much of the comedy about our parents driving us crazy, I still felt like it was too public and I was kind of embarrassed about it. And I didn't really talk to him that much about it either. And I regret that now.

GROSS: So it felt naughty, huh, to be doing that?

SWEENEY: Well, you know, it's like you spend a week with your parents and then you get that 15 minutes on the phone with your best girlfriend. It's like that. And then you just burst. And then you tell everything that's driving you crazy. And then it's, "oh, oh, they're coming in again. I have to go." And so it was that. That was my 15 minutes on Sundays.

GROSS: Did your parents ever want to come and watch you perform?

SWEENEY: Yes.

GROSS: What did you tell them?

SWEENEY: They didn't know. I just told them I was going out for drinks with some friends. I'm revealing myself to be very delusional to people or trying to elude the truth. But, yeah, I would just say, "oh, you know" -- well, see, I was performing improv at the Groundlings too on Thursday nights.

And so they didn't really understand the difference between doing an improvisational show, you know, where you're making up stuff on stage with other actors and doing this kind of storytelling type show on Sunday nights. So I just made it sound like it was more like an improv show and they probably wouldn't enjoy it.

GROSS: My guest is Julia Sweeney. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Julia Sweeney. She's just made a film adaptation of her show about cancer, "God Said, Ha!"

While your brother was sick and your parents were staying with you you started to see somebody, a man named Carl. What was it like to have to almost secretly have a relationship in your own home after you had already been married for several years? Did you feel like a teenager all over again?

SWEENEY: Yeah, it was -- well, of course I was so angry about it to begin with. Because in September I had met Carl, he's the brother of a friend of mine, and he came down to visit me and we met. But it was, you know, we just met.

And, you know, we spent some time over the weekend together but we were just getting to know each other. Then he went back to Pocatello, Idaho, where he was living, and we were started talking on the phone. And, you know, I figured we were pretty interested, and then we started really talking on the phone a lot and it seemed very very interesting.

And then he said, "I'm going to come down for a visit." And, you know, it was in the middle of all of this stuff that was happening. Actually I was doing a benefit for Mike in L.A. I was showing the "Pat" movie at the directors guild.

And so, Carl drove down from Pocatello to L.A. And it was like -- so that's September to February, and we're on the phone a lot together. And it seemed like things were going to heat up. Like this was the weekend, right?

And, you know, my parents are there. And it was so frustrating because I thought, I'm finally this woman that I wanted my whole life to be which is, you know, single. I'm in my 30s. I own my own home. And I'm ready to have these sophisticated adult relationships that I always believed were possible.

And then I finally have this guy that I'm really attracted to, and then, you know, my parents are there so we're having to, you know, kind of like sneak around and kiss in the hallway. It just seemed so absurd to me. But what I didn't expect was that it was incredibly exciting and it added this kind of, you know, hot bit of titillation to have my parents there that I would never have felt if they hadn't been there.

GROSS: Oh, because you're sneaking.

SWEENEY: Well, you're sneaking around, you know, it's like -- you know, it had been so many years since I thought, "oh, I hear somebody walking down the hallway." I'm sure, you know, it's the same excitement that people must get from having an affair or something. It's like you're sneaking around. It adds this incredibly exciting element to the proceedings that you would never feel if the world were your oyster and you could do whatever you wanted.

GROSS: Well, I have to say though that in your monologues, although you joke a lot about how uncomfortable it was when your parents moved in with you for such an extended period of time, you obviously really love them. You know, that's always clear.

SWEENEY: Yeah. Well, I have to say that there were moments when I would be coming back from the store with my dad and it would be 9:30 at night and it was just like a Thursday night or something and there was no more plans for that night or we all had to get up and go to the hospital the next day.

And I loved it. I mean, I loved it -- having them there. I mean, it took a while to, you know, kind of break me into the new idea of them being there. But after a few months I liked it. I mean, I kind of liked that I came home and there was a big group there to hear about what had happened or I was there to hear what had happened to them.

And we were all on this big mission of trying to take care of Mike, and so we had an agenda and we had information to give to each other. We had -- I miss it. I miss it terribly.

GROSS: When your brother knew for sure that he was close to death did he talk with you about what he wanted when he died?

SWEENEY: You know, he never talked about dying. He never did. And we -- I think Mike believed he was going to make it until, really, the very very end. I mean, he was -- there was a point at which he lost his speech, and he was writing notes saying, "let's try these new experimental chemos."

He was trying, you know, so hard to do anything to try to combat this illness. And we never had that resigned conversation of, "oh, you might not win this battle." And when we all realized that he wasn't going to win we didn't talk about it with him. I mean, we all just felt it, I believe.

GROSS: You say in your show that your parents sent a priest to deliver last rites. Did he want that?

SWEENEY: No. Well, you know, he had a complicated relationship to the Catholic Church like all of us children did -- do have. And, you know, it's like there are certain tenets of the church that intellectually we cannot abide by, yet the ritual is so attractive and it's so much a part of our cultural heritage.

And so we were always riding this line between not wanting things like a priest to come to the room, and then being very comforted by the priest coming to the room. And so by the time my parents wanted Mike to get the last writes -- but they don't treat it like a last rites like you see in the movies where you're just rushing at the moment of death.

They even call it like, it's like -- oh, it's a sacrament called -- it's not like reconciliation, which confession is now, but it's like you're getting better of something. And, you know, it's like it has a positive spin on it. And so it's not to make the patient feel like this is the end, but let's join with God to try to help you get better.

And so -- but on the other hand, it's also the last rites. So when the priest came I was a little bit mortified because I didn't want Mike to feel uncomfortable by this priest coming in, clearly, to give Mike the last rites. Clearly, our parents sent him.

And I was actually a little defensive and Mike arched my back a little bit, and probably wasn't as friendly to the priest as I might have been. And then after he received the last rites then, you know, Mike turned to me and said, "actually I was glad. I'm glad he came."

But that's all he said, and I didn't push it because I got what he meant.

GROSS: Julia Sweeney, recorded in 1996. We'll hear more of the interview in the second half of the show. Sweeney has adapted her show about cancer, "God Said, Ha!" into a new film. The movie opened in New York and L.A. today, and will open in other cities in the next few weeks.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

With more of our interview with Julia Sweeney. She's adapted her comic monologue, "God Said, Ha!" into a new film. It opened today in New York and Los Angeles. The monologue is about what happened after she left "Saturday Night Live" and her brother was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He moved in with Julia, and soon her parents moved in too to help care for him.

Julia, the real kicker in this story is that you were diagnosed with cancer yourself.

SWEENEY: Yes.

GROSS: When did you get the diagnosis and what was your brother's situation at the time?

SWEENEY: Well, Mike was not doing well. He'd had a shunt put into news forehead so they could put chemo directly into his cranial fluid, and that was a horrible thing although it was supposed to help him. And, you know, it wasn't like we knew he wasn't going to make it but it didn't look good.

And then right in the middle of it I get diagnosed with cervical cancer, and it had spread to the point where I needed to get a radical hysterectomy and they wanted to do all sorts of radiation. So it wasn't -- it was, you know, sort of a big deal.

Oh, it was just the worst timing. I just couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. It was -- I -- ugh.

GROSS: Did your doctor know that your brother was very sick with cancer?

SWEENEY: You know, this is not going to make him sound like a very compassionate doctor, and I actually liked him very much. But I kept saying -- I was compulsive about saying, "you know, my brother has cancer. Oh, this is petty strange because, you know, my brother has cancer. Well, you know, my brother has cancer. My brother is staying with me, he has cancer."

The doctor is going, "well, what kind of cancer?" And I would say, "lymphoma." And he'd go, "well, that's not related to cervical cancer." And I'd say, "but, you know, but still it's cancer though. And his is really bad timing, you know."

And he didn't seem -- I guess when you're doctor and you're diagnosing cancer a lot it doesn't seem so profound to you when two people in a family are having it at the same time. And I remember when I got my morphine or whatever it was just before I went under for my hysterectomy, the last thing I said to the guy was, "my brother just passed away. My brother just passed away."

Because Mike had passed away three days before my surgery. And sometimes I look back on that and I think, what that guy must have thought. I was just such a mess, clearly.

GROSS: How did you break the news to your parents that you were sick now?

SWEENEY: Well, I actually postponed it for a little while because I didn't -- I felt so guilty about it. I felt, you know, I mean, they had gone through so much and they were so upset and they were trying so hard and they were doing so well. And now, you know, I was being the strong one and we were all staying in my house.

And then I just knew it would be a big deal obviously, and so I tried to wait until it was really for sure -- all the tests were in. It was just going to happen. And then I told them and their eyes filled up with tears, and then my mom and dad went for a walk around the block. Oh, it was a bad night.

GROSS: What was it like to have them there when you were sick?

SWEENEY: Well, it was great having Mike there because he would tease me relentlessly about my -- he would say that I had a cold compared to him, which was true. My cancer was so much not like his cancer.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

SWEENEY: And he would say, "oh, you just have a little sympathy cancer." And he would say, "now you can join me in the cancer spotlight."

LAUGHTER

He would say, "you know, you get served a lot faster in restaurants when you mention you have cancer," and so forth. You know, and we really became comrades at that point.

GROSS: And what about your parents? Did you -- you're so funny in the show, you say, "all the other girls got to have their hysterectomy's without their parents staying with them."

SWEENEY: Well, you know, weirdly enough I have a couple of girlfriends who are my age, who, for various reasons -- one because of cancer and one just because of other sorts of problems, had to have hysterectomy's in their 20s. And during that time, you know, one was married and one had her friends around, including me.

But I didn't remember a lot of the parents being there every minute. And so i thought it was so weirdly ironic that I was in this situation saying to my parents, "my friends who had hysterectomies, they didn't have their parents there. They got to go on their own to get it."

LAUGHTER

And it's just like, "what's happened to this world!"

GROSS: Did it help you get through things, do you think, to be -- when you were sick yourself, did you go back to the Uncabaret (ph) and talk about yourself?

SWEENEY: Oh, yeah. And it was lot easier then.

GROSS: Why?

SWEENEY: I mean, well, because, you know, I feel a lot more comfortable talking about myself in that situation than I was talking about Mike and my parents. Because even though I spoke of them sympathetically, you are getting up and telling stories about people who aren't there, you know.

There is something about it that is slightly naughty, as I said, or offensive. And so when it was me, I felt this kind of free rein to really just go nuts talking about it. And I was really graphic about it, actually.

And there's a lot of tapes from the Uncab that I could never do in my show, because of the nature of my illness, that were really surreal moments. And I -- it was a great therapy for me to be able to get up and vent about it. And I think, you know, it seemed to be interesting anyway.

GROSS: So whenever you have a problem that's a "female problem" the opportunity for absurdity in the medical world really enters into things.

SWEENEY: Yes. Well, it's -- you know, you spend your life making certain -- your reproductive areas of your body are supposedly very private and, you now...

GROSS: ...and delicate.

SWEENEY: ...delicate. And then all of a sudden, you know, you're just plunged into this situation. I mean, I'm sure it's very much like having a baby, you know, where your in front of God and everybody, as my mother would say. And -- but then it was this -- it was the cancer too and then about not being able to have kids was all -- and people would just say appropriate or inappropriate things. And it was just -- I found it hilarious, but anyway.

GROSS: You know what I'm wondering? When you're on stage talking about your brother's cancer, your brother's death, your cancer, your surgery, your recovery from cancer -- so much of the angle that you see these stories from is the absurd angle, the funny angle.

On the other hand, is there ever a time -- was there ever a time when you surprisingly just started to choke up, when your eyes just started to tear up. When all of a sudden everything that you managed to find, to laugh at slipped away and you were left with just the tragedy, the sadness of it all?

SWEENEY: Oh, yeah. In fact, while I was writing it was never as tragic and difficult as during certain moments while I'm performing it. And in Los Angeles at the Coronet there would be always a different moment in the show where I didn't know if I could go on. And I didn't want the audience to see me getting choked up even though -- I just -- I mean, I don't want to be cold and callous about it, but I didn't want to break down, you know.

And it was never the moments that you'd think. It wasn't necessarily the moment when I talk about how Mike died or when he died or anything. It was like all of a sudden I'll say we were scoping the hallways for the cutest doctor, then I'll suddenly be so in that hallway or when I turned to him or when I was looking at the "L.A. Weekly" and I was reading and article to him.

And suddenly it's so real, and I can smell it and it's like a virgin memory. And then I don't think I can go on.

GROSS: But you do.

SWEENEY: But I do, yeah. Yeah, it's different times in the show. And different memories. And not every show. Some shows I don't have that feeling. But a lot of shows I do.

GROSS: You know, I'm reminded of what singers often say, which is when your singing a song the singer shouldn't be the one that's crying it's the audience that should have tears in their eyes while the singer just sings the song. Do you feel that way as a performer, that you shouldn't have to actually feel that much what it is? You shouldn't be the one who tears up?

SWEENEY: Right. Well, I think that people are emotionally affected by my show because I don't go there.

GROSS: Yeah. That's right. That's right.

SWEENEY: I don't break down, and I let them -- because when someone cries it kind of takes the -- it relieves the audience of having to or letting themselves feel that way. You know, and it happens just amongst people. If you're in a room with someone crying you don't necessarily join in. It's like they're having the emotion for you.

And I definitely feel that way in the show. That it isn't -- it wouldn't be as good of a show if I did cry. And also I feel as a performer it's not my responsibility to go up there and just throw myself into all the saddest parts of it in a real way. I'm there to perform because I'm trying to let the audience go through this experience.

And it's better if I don't break down and cry. And I don't.

GROSS: My guest is Julia Sweeney. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Julia Sweeney. Her show, "God Said, Ha!" has just been made into a movie. It's about what happened after she left the cast of "Saturday Night Live" and her brother was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Then as he was dying, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

You know, I have a whole different view of you now. I used to watch you on "Saturday Night Live" and I didn't always have a really strong sense of you, you know. And now I just -- I've fallen in love with you as a character, do you know what I mean? It's such a great -- I know it's you, but it's such a great character you've become on stage.

I just think it's really interesting that after being a public figure on "Saturday Night Live" for a while that you've now revealed such a kind of personal side of your own story, and such a funny way of telling it. I mean, I feel like I understand your sensibility so much more than I did in the "Saturday Night Live" years.

SWEENEY: Oh, thanks. I enjoyed being on "Saturday Night Live," and it was a big break for me and it was very exciting. And it was thrilling when "Pat" became popular, and, you know, it was also frustrating in the ways that everybody knows about. But it wasn't really me, you know, it wasn't -- I feel fortunate that in this sort of venue I'm able to get my real point of view across in a way that I was never able to on that show.

GROSS: Was the success of "Pat" a blessing and a curse for you? Sometimes when a character takes off you have to just like do it and do it and do it even when you don't want to do it anymore.

SWEENEY: Well, it was pretty much all a blessing. It really was -- on that show. Because it was difficult for a woman to get material on, or anyone to get material on. There's a lot of cast members, and when you had a hit character you had people wanting to work with you.

I mean, it was hard -- like after the first two years of doing it was hard to think up sketches for "Pat." But it was exciting when someone, you know, like Roseanne came in and said, "I want to do a `Pat' sketch," you know. And it was exciting when Harvey Keitel wanted to do a "Pat" sketch. I mean, that was a great great situation to be in on that show.

GROSS: How did you come up with the character?

SWEENEY: Well, I -- you know, I was an accountant before I was an actress.

GROSS: You were?

SWEENEY: Yes. For five years I was an accountant at Columbia Pictures, and when I was there there were a couple of people who I kind of melded together to become "Pat" in my mind. One person drooled a lot and another person stood way too close to you and was always asking you to go to lunch and you never wanted to go.

And so I kind of mooshed them into a person, and then I started doing that person at the Groundlings. And then when I got on "Saturday Night Live" I continued doing it. It was popular.

GROSS: Well, how did the gender confusion aspect of the character come into play?

SWEENEY: You know, it was such an accident. And I wish -- in retrospect it was a genius idea, but in reality as the idea arose it was just out of expediency. Because I was trying really to be a guy even though these two people -- one's a guy, one's a girl that I was basing it on -- but I was really trying to be a guy and I just wasn't really doing it very well.

And so they -- I thought, well, maybe the way to get around this lack of acting ability I seem to have is to really make this gender thing confusing to everyone. And so people won't say, "well, she really doesn't seem like a guy." So I added that element in and then of course it became the most popular element.

GROSS: The gender confusion?

SWEENEY: Right.

GROSS: Are you ever going to do "Pat" again?

SWEENEY: I would under the right circumstances. I mean, I'm not dreaming about jumping into that fat suit again.

LAUGHTER

But I mean, it's not like people will say, "oh, I bet you say you'll never do that `Pat' character again," or "Pat" is dead. And I'll think, oh, I have great affection for "Pat." And I loved making the movie. I mean, I stand behind that movie and I loved every minute of it. So, I don't know. Maybe not anytime soon.

GROSS: Julia, how is your health now?

SWEENEY: Well, I guess it's very good. I keep going back to the doctor sooner than they want to see me again. And right before I moved to New York I went and got all of my CAT scans and blood tests, and everything came back fine.

They said, "OK, well, comeback in a year." I said, "really, don't you think I should come back next month?" And they said, "not really. You're really -- you look fine." So I guess I'm fine.

GROSS: Good.

SWEENEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You're performing your show on Broadway.

SWEENEY: I know.

GROSS: How does that feel to you to go from a comedy club to a Broadway stage?

SWEENEY: I can't believe it. I can't get over it. I have to not think about it because I can't believe it. But, yeah, on Broadway. When I was on "Saturday Night Live" I'd go to Broadway shows all the time. I was really in love with the theater.

And I always thought, oh, I should have dedicated my life to being a Broadway actress. Oh, this is the most wonderful thing. It will never happen for me. And now here I am, kind of becoming a Broadway actress I guess.

GROSS: But instead of doing Chekov you're doing Julia Sweeney.

SWEENEY: Exactly. It's not exactly Chekov. But, yeah, we were actually looking for off-Broadway venues and we were finding it very difficult to get into an off-Broadway theater and then these Broadway theaters were empty -- there was a few.

So at the beginning it sort of seemed like it was by default that I was going on Broadway. And my friend Al Franken kept joking with me saying, "you know, I here if you do well on Broadway you can make it to off-Broadway."

LAUGHTER

But now that it is Broadway I feel like I'm rising to the occasion. I feel like, you know what? This is a Broadway show. So, you know, that remains to be seen, but I'm feeling very Broadway-ish.

GROSS: Well, this time your parents will have to come see the show, yes?

SWEENEY: Oh. This is a fight that's still going on. You know, they saw the show in San Francisco when I did it there. And I warned them vehemently that they weren't going to like it and I kept saying, "I make fun of you on stage. I get laughs at your expense. I don't think you're going to enjoy it. I can't imagine a worse situation to be in the audience with a bunch of people laughing at something I'm saying you said. And I don't think your going to enjoy this."

And then my mother called me and said, "you know, we can handle a lot." And I thought that was the greatest thing. And they came to San Francisco and they saw the show, and they loved it.

GROSS: Julia Sweeney, recorded in 1996. I'm glad to say her health has been good. Her movie adaptation of her show "God Said, Ha!" just opened in New York and L.A., and will open in other cities over the next few weeks.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Julia Sweeney
High: Comedienne Julia Sweeney. The former "Saturday Night Live performer was best known for Pat, the gender-ambiguous character. Her one woman performance piece, "God Said, Ha!" has been made into a new film. Sweeney began working on the piece when she learned that her brother had cancer. She took him into her home to care for him while he was receiving treatment. Her parents moved in too for the time being. Sweeney's brother eventually died and she was diagnosed with cancer shortly before that.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Movie Industry; Television and Radio; Cancer; Diseases; Julia Sweeney

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Julia Sweeney

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 12, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021202NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Ken Tucker
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:46

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Gomez is an English group whose debut album "Bring It On" won this year's Mercury Music Prize voted by British critics and music industry figures. But rock critic Ken Tucker says that if you're familiar with the band it may be from an American TV commercial that's brought the group unexpected attention.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GOMEZ PERFORMING)

I wear the same shoes as everyone
I got the same blues as everyone
So try and call me
I'm a normal man

Yes I am

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: Gomez consists of five guys from Bristol who turned out "Bring It On," a low key CD that harks back to the American rock and R&B influences they've cited in interviews. Ranging from John Lee Hooker to Lynyrd Skynrd to Taj Mahal.

It's a pleasant laid back collection, one that was released a few months ago here in America and went nowhere. Listening to it, you can't imagine cuts like this burning up American radio airwaves.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GOMEZ PERFORMING)

(unintelligible)

I've been walking far too long
Drag my feet like everyone
Always wanted to learn (unintelligible)
(unintelligible)

TUCKER: But then Gomez did something else, they cut some music for an American TV commercial. It's a spot for Philips TVs, and it features Gomez lead singer Ben Atwell (ph) croaking through a little bit of the Beatles "Getting Better."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GOMEZ PERFORMING "GETTING BETTER")

I've got to admit it's getting better
Getting better all the time

TUCKER: Gomez's album was a big hit in England, where it's perceived as a return to roots rock. A sort of homegrown second coming of Creedence Clearwater Revival. It's the kind of thing that only the British ears can divine. But "Bring it On" was dead here until the commercial, the Philips Corporation says it's getting literally thousands of calls every day wanting to know who's that guy singing the Beatles song.

Guess what? The band says it may record the tune on its next album. Maybe it will give them the leg up they need to become as big here as they are in England. Or maybe the commercial will have been played so much on TV that we'll all be sick of Ben Atwell's voice before Gomez even gets a second album out.

Call me cynical, but so are they. And I'm betting on the latter scenario.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for "Entertainment Weekly."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Bring It On," the debut album by the English group Gomez.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Gomez; Ken Tucker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ken Tucker

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 12, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 021203NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: David Bianculli
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our TV critic David Bianculli says that all of a sudden television is providing some sense of closure to some very long-running stories. Many people may not see a connection between the Senate impeachment vote, George Clooney's imminent departure from "ER," or next week's six hour Stephen King miniseries, but David does.

DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: OK, so maybe it's a tenuous connection, but I don't think so. Even though one is from real-life and infinitely more important than the other two, they're all different forms of the same TV genre.

Stephen King's "Storm of the Century," which premieres Sunday, continues Monday, and concludes Thursday on ABC is a classic miniseries in the strictest sense of the term. At six hours, it's longer than the usual TV long form dramas these days. Most of the time today's long form dramas run for hours then runaway, rather than risk spending too much money and airtime if viewers end up rejecting them anyway.

"Storm of the Century" also is original for television. It's the first time King has created a story especially for TV, rather than adapted one of his existing books. And that will probably encourage lots of people to tune in.

King's TV miniseries have done well over the years, even though most of the people watching already know the ending. With this new story, the ending and the scares truly are a mystery. This may be King's most popular TV drama yet. By the way, it's also one of his best.

Colm Feore plays a sinister figure who visits a remote island in Maine just before a major winter storm arrives. The storm isolates the island residents from the outside world and that's when this mystery man, who seems to know all the town's deepest secrets, begins to take lives and take charge.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM STEPHEN KING'S "STORM OF THE CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Your town is full of adulterers, pedophiles, thieves, gluttons, murderers, bullies, scoundrels and (unintelligible) morons. And I know every last one of them. Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in.

BIANCULLI: Most King miniseries fall apart at the end, but "Storm of the Century" actually comes together. It's the third and final episode that's really creepy and makes the story so haunting and effective. The bad news is that ABC has scheduled that final episode right smack against NBC's "ER" next week.

The show in which George Clooney makes his last appearance as Dr. Doug Ross. The reason this matters so much, at least to loyal fans of the show, it is that "ER," like most quality dramas on TV since "Hill Street Blues," isn't really a weekly series at all. Not in the sense that they used to be where one week's story was pretty much independent from the one before and after it.

With "ER" it's been one continuous storyline from the start. Like a primetime soap opera or, and here's my point, a very long miniseries. So when Doug Ross got in a car accident at the end of last night's cliffhanger, it was the most recent screw up in a series of missteps that goes back years.

Like Reed Diamond's character of Mike Kellerman, who left "Homicide: Life on the Street" in disgrace, Clooney's Dr. Ross is a good guy undone by some bad moves. Next week his past finally catches up with him and offers a nice sense of closure that TV in the '90s provides us every now and then.

Finally, speaking of some sense of closure, there's today's Senate vote on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. This too has been a TV miniseries. Longer than most with longer speeches and a lot more sex talk, but a miniseries nonetheless.

And without getting political, I'll just end by saying that "ER" and "Storm of the Century" have come up with some very dramatic endings to their long-running story lines. And two out of three ain't bad.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the "New York Daily News."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: David Bianculli
High: TV critic David Bianculli takes a look at several television events and episodes this week, "ER," Stephen King's "The Storm," and the impeachment proceedings.
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; Stephen King; George Clooney; David Bianculli

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Bianculli
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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