Originally published in encore magazine, January 15, 2019
Julia Sweeney is the “Saturday Night Live” alum best known for her androgynous character “Pat” in the early ‘90s. She also is an atheist who loves churches. In fact, she thinks everyone should be involved with some kind of church.
“I know!” she says over the phone, acknowledging the oxymoron. “The atheists don’t like me because I like church and the church people don’t like me because I’m an atheist. I have no group!”
It took Sweeney many years to deconstruct what she actually thought about churches and her own beliefs. As someone who was brought up Catholic, she loved the organization and routine of church but especially the community-building surrounding it.
“[Church] was a good way to do community-service work,” she continues. “It was a good way to be in touch with people, the rituals bound you together. . . . To me, getting together with people that you don’t know—singing and acknowledging birth, death and whatever—if I were in charge, I would say everyone should have to belong to some kind of church because it really is a huge, wonderful thing. I don’t even not like the mythology of it—the stories are great. What I don’t like is the dark side of it: insisting the stories are accurately or historically true, which is absurd.”
She also isn’t keen on the organized religion aspect of it, wherein a patriarchy keeps women from holding positions of authority or having any rights at all. The subjugation of people and quelling curiosity aren’t schools of thought she respects.
“Of course, I hate all of that,” she notes. “But then I landed at the Unitarian church [in Chicago] where for the first time I didn’t disagree with anything they said.”
In Sweeney’s experience, Unitarian church is predominately made up of a non-believing congregation, where “God” and “pray” are more metaphoric terms. So, when she moved back to L.A., she joined another Unitarian church in Pasadena and heavily was involved with its service projects.
“I know some Unitarian churches are more ‘Christian-y,’” she says, “but these ones aren’t, and I just think they are the answer to everything that’s wrong with the world.”
Sweeney equates not going to church because of not believing in God to that of refusing to go to Thanksgiving dinner because one doesn’t eat turkey. “Well that’s no reason not to go to Thanksgiving dinner—that’s just one part of Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, it’s a minor part of Thanksgiving dinner!”
At the end of the day, her beliefs are her own. And she respects those who hold tight their own set, too. “I don’t even care if people believe in God or not, I don’t care about more people not believing in God. I want people to be good and take care of each other and not live in denial.”
“Older and Wider” is 90 minutes of anecdotal comedy during which Sweeney only touches on atheism/religion a couple of times. She has a bit about the Gospel and the New Testament reading like excessive drafts of a screenplay, written under the thumb of an executive who wants “more pizzazz” with every draft.
“And it doesn’t even get that many laughs,” she admits. “But I do it for me because if you’re writing something over and over again every 30 years, which the Gospels were, and they get more embellished with mythology with every rewrite, to me, on its face it’s funny.”
And, yes, Sweeney talks about her famed “SNL” character, too. She offers up perspectives on Pat, and what she would or would not change about the character today. Over the years, Pat has become a symbol in the LGBTQIA community, and at other times has just as easily offended.
“Pat is not trans, Pat is not purposefully androgynous, Pat is accidently androgynous,” Sweeney notes. “Pat is a man or a woman—we just can’t tell which. I think it would be funny if Pat was homophobic—because Pat’s not trying to look gender non-binary and that’s what was interesting to me about Pat to begin with.”
Nevertheless, Sweeney wishes she had made the bit less about Pat’s quirky and sometimes annoying characteristics. If Sweeney were to do Pat’s character today, she would make the comedy more about the androgyny and people’s reactions.
“I wouldn’t make Pat unlikeable,” she clarifies. “I made Pat unlikeable, not because of the androgyny or anything, but because I based Pat on a person I couldn’t stand . . . who was really a guy and not androgynous at all, but it was somebody who stood too close, asked too many questions and drooled a lot.”
Sweeney’s show also offers relatively limited observational political humor. Though she’s had a guy walk out of a show before when she talks politics, she’s not bashing on or making fun of Republicans, per se. Her political humor is a little more introspective, including when it was revealed her daughter’s new boy had voted for Trump.
“And we just lose our minds,” she reveals, “and we don’t handle it well. And I make fun of myself for trying to do the right thing but end up doing the wrong thing. And that’s not even really upsetting. The truth is I am so upset about Trump and what the Republicans are doing that I can’t make it funny at all.”
Sweeney took time off from her career as a writer, actor and comedian to raise her then 9-year-old daughter, Mulan. Ten years later, Mulan is off to college and Sweeney and her husband are in the City of Angels once again. That being the case, she just wrapped filming the first season of “Shrill,” which will debut on Hulu in March. Based on Lindy West’s 2016 memoir, “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” the show stars another “SNL” comedian, Aidy Bryant, as lead character Annie, who is a full-figured woman, happy with her body but wants to change her life. Sweeney plays Annie’s mother, who is somewhat of a well-intentioned villain.
“I would probably be exactly like that mom,” Sweeney admits. “Because they write [the show] so well. I say [the mom] is a villain but she’s just nudging [Annie] toward healthier habits, but when it’s your mom, it’s just loaded. . . . That’s the thing you learn about being a mom: You’re just not going to win, no matter what you do.”
In the fall of 2018, Sweeney workshopped a monologue “I, as Well” based on the “#MeToo” movement.
“But I couldn’t make it where it’s not just me yelling at the audience for an hour,” she quips. She’ll pick up with it again after her “Older and Wider” run, but stand-up comedy is a different beast from Sweeney’s experience. So she watched a lot of stand-up comedians and pushed herself to think of what’s uniquely hers but also relevant to others: motherhood.
“[Motherhood] is my favorite thing to talk about,” Sweeney offers. “To me, there was great things about being a working mom and great things about being an at-home-mom; and there were terrible things about being a working mom and terrible things about being an at-home-mom, too. . . . and it’s a chronic unresolvable problem for everyone who has children, and it’s also painful and funny and interesting.”