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.