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Julia Sweeney on SNL's Pat, atheism
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2013-07-17

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Julia Sweeney came to national attention with Saturday Night Live and her Pat segment, even spawning a feature film about the androgynous character. She later created three autobiographical monologues that she performed in various settings, God Said Ha! (her brother and her battling cancer), In a Family Way (adopting her Chinese daughter, Mulan) and Letting Go of God (her becoming an atheist).

She served as a consultant on two television shows with gay followings, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and recently voiced the character of Sherry Squibbles in the hit cartoon Monsters University.

Sweeney met "I Kissed a Girl" Jill Sobule at Technology Entertainment and Design conference and have now created a touring show called Jill and Julia. Windy City Times talked with her directly after the duo's show at City Winery recently.

Windy City Times: Hi, Julia. Are you originally from Wilmette, Ill.?

Julia Sweeney: No, I am from Spokane, Wash. I only moved to Wilmette four years ago. I had never even heard of Wilmette before that.

WCT: How did that happen?

Julia Sweeney: Because I met my husband and he has a business in Evanston. He wanted to quit his business and move to LA. I said, "No, I am quitting and coming to you darling." So we moved here, me and Mulan. Mulan was 8 when we moved here.

WCT: What a great place to raise a family.

Julia Sweeney: It is a fantastic place to raise a child. She was in schools in L.A. and things were getting dicey. I didn't want to send her to a private school. I learned about the North Shore schools and that was it.

WCT: How did you get in the entertainment biz in the first place?

Julia Sweeney: I actually got a degree in economics and planned to be an accountant in the film industry. I fulfilled my dream and became an accountant. I realized to get ahead as an accountant I needed to get an MBA or a law degree. It occurred to me that I wasn't very interested in the topic. I went through a huge midlife crisis when I was 25, which I recommend by the way because if you have one at 25 years old then you have the rest of your life to correct your mistakes!

I realized I didn't want to be an accountant. Then I went to The Groundlings and took classes and everything changed.

WCT: Then The Groundlings led to Saturday Night Live.

Julia Sweeney: Yeah, and a lot of people like Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Laraine Newman, and many people since made it a performance-team place before SNL.

WCT: How long were you on there for?

Julia Sweeney: Four and a half years.

WCT: What is one thing you got out of it?

Julia Sweeney: I feel like I was so lucky to be on the show. What would I take away from it? Even the biggest stars have had an enormous amount of luck but also have a certain skill set. If you see it up front, it isn't magical. It is a real set of skills and luck that have combined to make them huge stars. Seeing that up front was a real education.

WCT: Where did the Pat character come out of?

Julia Sweeney: I was working as an accountant and I knew somebody that had many of the same qualities that Pat had. He was a guy and not ambiguous sexually or anything but I wanted to do a character like that. There was this other woman that had these odd physical qualities. I wasn't good enough to seem like a guy so I decided to make a joke to make it seem like it was not a man or a woman to cover up for the fact that I don't really know that it is a man or a woman. That became the joke and that was at The Groundlings. I did it for a couple of years before I got on Saturday Night Live.

WCT: It was ahead of its time with the transgender community.

Julia Sweeney: I know. I was wondering just today if I knew what I know now about "transgender"—that wasn't even a well-known word back then—I wonder if I would have even done Pat. I didn't want it to be controversial or making fun of anyone. It was really making fun of other people being befuddled. Pat was always confident in his or her sexuality whatever that was. I wonder now if it is too dangerous to do something like that now. I might not have done it.

WCT: Have you heard from the transgender community about it?

Julia Sweeney: I have only heard positive things. There may be negative things but I haven't heard about it.

WCT: Let's talk about the tour. How did wind up touring with Jill?

Julia Sweeney: I was a fan of hers for a long time. It is like I said in the show I wanted her to do the theme song for one of my shows. Our representatives had contacted each other but never met because that project didn't go.

I was at a TED conference in Monterrey and we met there. We then realized we lived only three blocks away from each other in L.A., so we started walking to each other's houses. Jill asked me to come to Largo, which was a club she was performing at and I performed there too because a lot of comedians went there. She asked me to do some patter there while she tuned up. That was really how it started.

WCT: Letting Go of God had so many good points. There have not been a lot of spokespeople for atheism.

Julia Sweeney: No, and it is interesting. I have let it go for the last five years. I didn't even know about the atheist community. I didn't know there were conventions and people who met with each other as I joked the atheist mania. Then I got swept up in it. Some of it rubs me the wrong way.

I see religion as art that has become misguided. To me it is theater and I appreciate it as theater. I don't really hate it and have taken the last five years to think about how I really feel about it. Now I am thinking about writing something about how I feel about it now. I am sympathetic to religion but not as a believer.

WCT: You have really turned into a writer. That wasn't planned, was it?

Julia Sweeney: No. Someone asked me to teach a class at Northwestern. I thought that was funny because I was thinking I should take a class at Northwestern! If I had known I was going to be a writer I would have taken some writing classes. I do think I have some qualities as a writer that are natural and good but I don't know much about the mechanics of writing. I wish I could go of to graduate school and really learn how to be a writer!

WCT: You are working on a new book, I heard.

Julia Sweeney: Yes. I have a couple of books but one called Fork in particular that I am working on.

WCT: That will be a screenplay?

Julia Sweeney: Well, it is going to be a screenplay but now what my plan is, that changes all the time is, to write the book first then write the screenplay. A movie is hard to get made but a book you can just do it. No one can stop you from writing a book but money can stop you from making a movie! My editor at Simon & Schuster thinks it could be a book so I want to do it.

I am thinking after the November shows I will take some time off from performing, like a maybe a year. Performing is so frantic that I can't get into the head space of writing while I am on tour. It is such a quieter thing to write. I know people that do it but I can't.

WCT: You want to enjoy the city that you are visiting as well.

Julia Sweeney: Right. So taking time off will allow me to finish a few projects.

WCT: Where are going next?

Julia Sweeney: We are doing these seven shows then in September we have six shows in the Northwest. We are going to Portland, San Francisco and San Diego. In November we have shows in the Northeast again, like Lake Placid and New York.

Keep up with the tour at www.jillandjuliashow.com and juliasweeney.com .


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