PROFILE : Survival of the Wittiest : Julia Sweeney nursed her brother until his death, then learned that she too had cancer. And then there was divorce and ‘It’s Pat.’ Turning to life-affirming laughter, she found a new character: herself.
‘Basically, this was the year that I became Job,” Julia Sweeney says with a bemused shrug. The 35-year- old comedian and actress, perhaps best known for her four seasons with “Saturday Night Live,” has indeed been through an Old Testament-worthy assortment of tribulations during the last 15 months.
She has also discovered that her natural ability to create comedy from life’s most cruel and frightening moments is one of her greatest survival skills.
Early last summer, on the heels of the commercial failure of her first major film, “It’s Pat,” Sweeney learned that her brother Mike was dying of lymphatic cancer.
She moved him into her Larchmont-area home and for nine months took on the full-time responsibility of caring for him. In March, two weeks before her brother’s death at age 31, Sweeney herself was told she had cervical cancer.
“When you spend so much time taking care of someone with cancer, you kind of feel like you must be building up some chits against getting cancer yourself,” she says. “Apparently, that’s not how the system works.”
Today, after having undergone a radical hysterectomy and several months of state-of-the-art internal radiation treatments, Sweeney is happy to relay the news that she is cancer-free. Relaxing at home, she is certainly a vivacious presence, with twinkling blue eyes, a mischievous grin and a fetching giggle that frequently punctuates conversation.
For someone whose life has been visited by so much darkness, she remains remarkably light of spirit, and while making no attempt to belittle all that has happened to her, she has been able to find some sparkling humor in many of the grim situations she has just been through.
“Well, you can’t be depressed and sad 24 hours a day,” she explains. “Oh, I’ve certainly proved that you can be sad and depressed a good 16 hours a day--but you’ve got to do something else with those other eight hours. Why not try thinking of your life as hilarious rather than nightmarish?”
Finding the hilarity within her tragedies, and presenting it to audiences, has been Sweeney’s primary coping mechanism the past year. The pain of watching her brother die and the horror of her own illness have often been gracefully transformed into life-affirming laughter during powerful, startlingly honest and magnificently funny performances for the Hot Cup of Talk series at the Groundling Theatre and at the Sunday night Un-Cabarets at LunaPark. (She’ll perform at the Un-Cabaret tonight.)
For Sweeney, a graduate of the Groundlings with very little stand-up in her background, the decision to get intensely personal with her comedy was not taken lightly. But as her life at home became more difficult, the personal approach became a necessity.
“I’d never been onstage as ‘Julia Sweeney,’ ” she says. “With the Groundlings and at ‘SNL,’ I’d always been in character. But I started doing these shows and I couldn’t not talk about what was happening in my life. I’m living in a house with a dying brother, and my parents have moved in to help. Mom’s hysterical, Dad’s having heart palpitations, and Mike’s furious. I’m finding syringes in the kitchen and I don’t know if they’re from Mike’s T-cell count or Dad’s diabetes, so I’m scolding both of them. All of that had to come out somewhere, and it happened at Hot Cup and Un-Cab.”
Sweeney didn’t waver from that deeply personal approach when her own cancer was diagnosed.
“I think I hesitated a bit. But it didn’t seem fair that I would talk about Mike’s cancer and not my own,” she says. “Especially because in the time we had together as cancer patients, we shared a very dark sense of humor--he teased me that I had started with cancer envy and then developed sympathy cancer. The hardest thing was finding ways to talk about all this that didn’t freak an audience out.”
Some pivotal support and encouragement came from Kathy Griffin, Hot Cup’s organizer.
“There was never a minute when I thought, ‘She shouldn’t do this,’ ” Griffin says. “I knew she’d find a way to make people comfortable, and she did. You’d see people’s hearts going out to her, and they’d also be laughing as hard as humanly possible.”
Once she began to speak of her illness onstage, she felt free to speak comedically of other personal topics.
“I never thought I’d talk about my sex life onstage, but I had a relationship going with someone while all this was going on, and the sex was part of the situation and part of the comedy. I felt like I had a kind of squeaky-clean image, and I thought that if I talked about an intense sexual experience the audience would just feel sad for me,” she says, laughing, “or that they’d just be totally uninterested. But the audience was with me.”
Says Beth Lapides, the hostess and co-producer of Un-Cabaret: “It isn’t a surprise that she’s done such great work. But it was a revelation to watch her come out from under all the characters she’s played in the past. She’s an engaging personality with intelligence, warmth and fearlessness. She was committed to telling the truth about her situation, and it’s awesome to watch.”
With her unflinching truthfulness tempered by her sweetly charming stage manner, Sweeney has drawn laughter from the most horrendous--and explicit--aspects of her illness.
“Because death and illness are the most horrible things in life, of course that’s where the most absurdly funny things are going to happen,” she says. “For instance, the surgeons left my ovaries in, but they moved them so that they wouldn’t be affected by X-rays. One day, a doctor said, ‘Julia, we’ve lost one of your ovaries.’ I thought he meant it had stopped working, but he said, ‘No, it’s traveling through your body. Sometimes when ovaries are cut off from their “responsibilities,” they travel.’
“That was amazing to me. Where would a retired ovary go? What’s the anatomical equivalent of Florida? There was no way I could not find that situation hilarious.”
Sweeney, a native of Spokane, Wash., and a graduate of Washington State University, originally came to Los Angeles back in 1982 and arrived surprisingly free of show-biz aspirations. She spent five years working in the accounting department at Columbia Pictures.
“I kept saying, ‘I want to be a business affairs executive,’ ” she recalls. “But I didn’t really have any idea what that entailed. I just thought it sounded glamorous. I wanted to be in a tailored suit smoking cigarettes and making deals.
“But after three years of accounting, I started crying on my way to work every day. As I was starting to get desperate, I read a review of a Groundlings show and decided to sign up for classes. After one class, I knew I’d found my calling.”
While working her way up the Groundling ranks--at one point studying under future “SNL” colleague Phil Hartman--Sweeney discovered that she had a talent for bringing a wide assortment of endearingly absurd characters to life.
The perpetually befuddled, intriguingly genderless Pat character got his/her start on the Groundling stage. So did Mea Culpa, a shyly contrite sketch character Sweeney developed into a successful play, “Mea’s Big Apology,” for two Los Angeles runs, in 1988 and 1992.
Groundling success did not immediately translate into lucrative TV and film work, however, and Sweeney had to battle the soul-sapping auditions process armed with a decidedly skimpy resume. “I think ‘member of the Groundlings’ looked pretty good,” she recalls, “but under films I had ‘star of “The Graduation.” ’ That was actually a home movie of my college graduation that my brother had shot. I just said, ‘Oh, it was a direct-to-video thing’ and hoped nobody asked any questions about it.”
Just when Sweeney was beginning to consider a return to accounting, she won a spot on “Saturday Night Live” in fall, 1990.
“At the time, I loved everything about ‘SNL,’ and I felt the Groundlings had been perfect training,” she says. “Looking back, I feel the same way about ‘SNL’ as I do about high school--there were some great times and you wouldn’t want to have missed it, but you wouldn’t want to spend more than four years there and you don’t ever want to go back.”
Sweeney’s Big Disaster Year, as she describes it, began in May, 1994, after she had left the show and returned to L.A. First, she needed to accept that her marriage to writer Steven Hibbert had failed. “I didn’t really acknowledge that I was divorced until I left the show and came back to my house in L.A. and there was no one there but me,” she says.
Then “It’s Pat” was drubbed by critics in its limited release and ignored by the public (it was finally released in Los Angeles in February of this year).
“I understand now why that movie was completely unsuccessful,” Sweeney says, “but at the time I thought of it as my child--not the smartest one in the class but so cute! And my child was rejected by America. That was not pleasant.”
But that professional misfortune quickly paled when more personal tragedy struck.
After sitting in a hotel room for a weekend, watching as increasingly dispiriting “It’s Pat” reviews were faxed to her, she was told that her brother had collapsed while out to dinner with friends in New York. He was rushed to a hospital, where his advanced-stage lymph cancer was diagnosed.
“It was a very strange time, and in a way I kind of miss it,” Sweeney says of the months she spent caring for him. “Every day had a clear purpose and some new obstacle to get by. We went to the hospital, the Social Security office. We dealt with insurance, new prescriptions. We coordinated between all these doctors. Dealing with cancer was a full-time job, and I didn’t really have time to worry about my career. There’s nothing like some catastrophic illness in the family to make Hollywood seem small and silly.”
Now, with her health restored, Hollywood looks a little more inviting, and Sweeney has resumed her career energetically by taking on a variety of film, TV and writing projects. She’ll be taking blood tests every couple of months and is hoping at some point to move back to New York. She remains close to her family, has a “very amicable” relationship with Hibbert and has even seen the memory of “It’s Pat” fade, thanks in part to Sweeney’s cameo appearance as a junkyard operator in her good friend Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
“I sweated my way through the Pat movie for 10 weeks, 16 hours a day, in a 50-pound latex suit,” she says with a chuckle, “and now I’m known for being in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ where I showed up on the set at 8 a.m. and was home by 2.” She is also currently working much of the dark, heroically honest material she has developed at the Un-Cabaret and at Hot Cup into a full-length monologue, which she plans to perform in Los Angeles this fall.
Revisiting this year’s pain and loss, even through comedy, is still difficult.
“Every time I talk about Mike it’s hard,” she says. “I don’t want him to become just a story, but that’s the risk you take when you memorialize somebody in your work. I don’t really want time to heal things. I don’t want to get over losing Mike. But it’s already happening. I don’t cry every day about him--I cry every other day.”
Sweeney has seen her comedy touch and inspire her audiences, but she also wants to avoid turning her experiences into a kind of packaged uplift for others:
“I don’t want to be the spokeswoman for cervical cancer--and it’s not about telling people that cancer is OK and funny. But I feel I can show people that you can find funny moments in bad situations. I feel like I’ve been to this very odd foreign country where no one else has been, and I want to tell all my friends about it: ‘Hey, guys--you know what it’s like to be naked on a radiation machine with a bunch of strangers staring at you?’ It’s terrible, but it’s kind of hilarious.
“I think one of the basic tasks in life--one of the nice things we can do for each other--is to take things that are horrible and scary and make them acceptable and less frightening and, if possible, funny. It feels great to succeed at that.”