“It would appear that putting female comics together is a religious experience,” comedian and moderator Ophira Eisenberg quipped to a sold-out crowd for the Nantucket Film Festival’s Comedy Roundtable. The festival made headlines earlier this year for it’s all-female slate of honorees; in honor of original SNL writer Anne Beatts, she joined original cast member Jane Curtin, current writer Sudi Green, and current cast member Heidi Gardner for a frank and revealing conversation about the show’s history- and how comedy has changed in that time.
Beatts admits to having gotten into comedy, and later into the SNL writers’ room, “on her back.” When the show was staffing up for its inaugural season, Beatts was dating Michael O’Donoghue, who went on to write for the show as well. Beatts recounted the story of a meeting she was four hours late to with creator and showrunner Lorne Michaels—because she was getting a perm. “It didn’t take, so they had to do it again!” she said to the incredulous but giggling crowd. But her tardiness didn’t hurt her chances, and she got the job- a move that almost cost Curtin her own.
Once Beatts was aboard, she pulled hard for her friend Mimi Kennedy (Mom, Dharma and Greg) to get the cast spot that Curtin was pulling for. But by bringing to life a commercial parody for speed (“how does she do it all? She takes speed!”), she won the role. Joked Curtin about her success in the audition, “I was on speed at the time!”
Green and Gardner’s SNL is a wholly different beast in so many ways, not the least of which has to do with the immediacy and tenor of viewer feedback. While Beatts and Curtin recalled being handed their hate mail the week after a sketch of theirs went south, Gardner has learned “if you can avoid Twitter, you don’t have to deal with it,” noting that the feedback she sees is less that, and more “blanket troll stuff.” Green affirmed her: “Twitter is the new letters.” But she also acknowledged that there’s little point in taking those comments to heart. When asked about how she decides what topics or approaches are over the line, she said, “to be honest, we don’t really talk about that. That’s a conversation for non-comedians.” Her instinct? To “write what gets us excited,” going less for the viewpoint that’s edgy and more to the one that hasn’t been done.
In many ways, the battles that Beatts and Curtin fought with censors and the public during their time on the show, paved the way for Green and Gardner to simply focus on the funny. Curtin said to the pair at one point, “we were a Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney SNL, kind of ‘let’s start a theater!’ We were rough and scrappy. You guys are like Cadillacs.” And for Green and Gardner’s part, they’re proud of where the show’s been able to go, even in times of high scrutiny and watchful eyes on their coverage of politics. Amid that stress, Green expressed pride and appreciation for her colleagues. “We took a lot of risks this year to be weird and silly. There can be fatigue, so we’re having a lot of fun in between.”
The conversation ended with a conversation of favorite and least favorite hosts. While Gardner and Green were more reluctant to share their least favorite hosts (“we still work there, remember!”), they did both marvel at how the cast and writers rose to the occasion of Adam Sandler’s hosting gig- his first return since he left the cast in 1995. Gardner called the table read “the best one I’ve ever been to.” Put simply by Green: “people really showed up for that man!”
As for Beatts and Curtin, they shared a distaste for the old Hollywood stars who took their turns hosting, including Milton Berle—”who proceeded to touch every woman there inappropriately,” Curtin blurted out, and Louise Lasser—”oh God, she was the worst!” Beatts and Curtin said in near unison. Among the last anecdotes of the afternoon was a shared memory between the two about Mick Jagger’s hosting turn in the seventies. Beatts recalled coming into Curtin’s dressing room to go over sketches, to find Jane’s hair in hot rollers and Mick Jagger massaging her shoulders. But to hear Curtin tell it, the shoulder massage was actually happening against her will…and Beatts popping up when she did ultimately rescued her from it. Beatts, ever quick to find a laugh in the moment, shared with the crowd Jagger’s bad sense of humor. “Mick Jagger said about a few of the sketches, ‘oh, that’s good, you shouldn’t cut those!’ And then they were bad!” Proof positive that Beatts’ fiercely funny instincts were correct, that her honor from the festival is wholly deserved, and that women on SNL continuing to show up—and show up for one another—will keep the show going for years to come.