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Julia Sweeney puts her pain in perspective

When she found out her brother Mike had cancer, Julia Sweeney dealt with that fact in different ways. One was to have her brother move into her house so she could care for him. Another was to talk about it every Sunday night in a comedy club.

"It was a little tiny club," she said. "Fifty seats. Dark and intimate. It was more like calling a girlfriend and just ranting--getting everything off my chest. Or like a therapy session."

Sometimes she talked about the sad and scary times, but more often she talked about the human comedy. Her parents moved in, too, and so after finally getting her first house of her very own, she felt as if she'd moved back home. Even a lot of the furniture was the same.

"I remember one Sunday I did a whole thing about my mother and elevators and how she drives me crazy in the way she pushes buttons. When you're with somebody that many hours, just the way they get on elevators drives you crazy. It made it less upsetting at the time because I could see how to make it into a funny story. I've always been able to tell funny stories about my life, but I never thought that was part of my talent or my art, until I did this..."

This is "God Said, 'Ha!'," an 89-minute film in which Sweeney, who is best known for her work on Saturday Night Live, stands alone on a stage and talks about a year in her life when cancer visited her family, and is very funny about it. Cancer is not a laughing matter. But people who have cancer, and those who love them, can be. What did the man say in the poem? We laugh, that we may not weep.

If laughter is the best medicine, then certainly Sweeney's kind of laughter, based on sympathy and understanding, is the best kind--not the silly red noses in "Patch Adams," but humor generated by a woman who sees the absurdity of malignant little cells that go off on their own and start causing trouble. Why, she wonders at one point, does cancer only strike the parts we need? "Why can't there be cancer of the fat?"

When she first started talking about her family and her worries, Sweeney said, she wondered if people would be in tune. "It was like I'd been on Mars and was telling people about this experience that no one could relate to. Then I found out that everyone could relate to it. Everyone. But at first, with my background in comedy, I didn't find the right note. A friend took me out to breakfast and said, 'You need to let the sad come in. You're afraid to not have people laughing while you're on stage.' And I thought, yeah, that's right--because it's not like I trained as an actor, really. I was an accountant and did sketch comedy. So I started cutting jokes and adding to my descriptions of people. It was funny and sad and poignant, and it just got so much richer."

The movie makes lovable comic characters of her parents, who moved down from Washington and into the house with Julia and Mike; finding the bedrooms occupied, Julia moved to a little cottage in the back yard, which she called her office, and sometimes, looking through the window at her parents in the big house, she had to remind herself it was her house. One time she and her boyfriend, Carl, were in the house alone and took advantage of the empty bedroom, only to realize her parents had come home and then, tactfully, left: "I started getting warning calls from them announcing, 'We're in San Diego, and we're leaving now, and we should be home in about 45 minutes'."

Mike's cancer was not the only bad luck the family had that year, although the other developments should be revealed only during the course of the film; "God Said, 'Ha!'" is a process if discovery.

"When I started doing it on stage," she remembered, "nobody knew anything about what was going to happen. They just knew it was a one-woman comedy about a woman whose parents move in and drive her nuts. We didn't want to push that cancer thing because we thought we wouldn't get anyone to come to the theater. But it's okay to know that my brother gets cancer because in the first two minutes you find out about it; it's not like a big plot point is revealed later. It's the set-up. This is what happened and he moved in and here we go."

I've seen the film three times, at the Floating Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival (where we did this interview), and recently at a Chicago screening. I felt each time as if I were actually seeing Mike and Julia's parents and the house with its inherited furniture that was trucked down from Spokane. Sometimes mental images are more vivid than actual ones.

"People asked, why don't we put a picture of your real family at the end, or a picture of the house? But I thought, no. People create their own. They make Mike in their head and they make my Mom the way they see her. I listen to a lot of radio drama and a lot of books of tape, and I love imagining it."

Sweeney says she learned a lot of things from "God Said, 'Ha!'," and one of them was that she was a writer. The monologue and the movie are not just standup bits, but a rounded dramatic experience, with pacing and subtle development. Earlier, she'd had to get used to the idea that she was a comic actor, a profession she sort of backed into.

"Sometimes when I hear about people coming out of the closet, that's how I felt about being an actress. I felt like I was really an accountant. I made $10,000 during the year I did freelance accounting. I did all the accounting on 'Rain Man' for United Artists. My cohorts in accounting were all buying houses and stuff and I was trying to figure out how to pay rent. I knew inside that I was a performer but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone because it was socially unacceptable.

"It was like a religious experience in a way, because I had to get to the point where I didn't care what people thought. And I might try for years and not succeed. And it was another three years before I got on 'Saturday Night Live' so I was a struggle there for awhile."

On SNL, her best-known character was the androgynous person known as "Pat." She made a movie as Pat after leaving the show, wrote some other screenplays, and then Mike moved in. After that year and the material it produced, she did more screenplays, appeared on "George and Leo," a short-lived sitcom with Judd Hirsch and Bob Newhart, and is working on a movie about a Catholic girls' school that goes co-ed. And she has the house to herself again.

Did your parents see the show? I asked, wondering how they reacted to her comic version of them?

She smiled. "At the time I started working on this stuff, I didn't think of my parents ever seeing it. Then I thought, I'll just take it to San Francisco and see how it goes. And it got these really nice reviews, and unbeknownst to me my parents have friends in San Francisco, and they heard all about it, so they flew to San Francisco..."

And walked into the theater?

"No, I met 'em at the airport. At least I knew they were coming."

How would it have been if you looked out from the stage and saw them in the audience one night?

"I would have had a heart attack. So I tried to protect myself and the audience, because I thought I can't give that audience a bad performance just because my parents are in the audience. So I took them out and said 'Now, look, I'm gonna mimic you for comedic benefit, you know, and it's not gonna be easy for you to take...' I worked myself up into this lather of how I was an artist and a writer and how I couldn't be encumbered by worrying about if somebody's feelings are gonna get hurt....

"I had my script and I thought, I'll read them all the parts that are most offensive and they can just have their reaction right now so I don't have to worry onstage. And I got a quarter of way through and my Mom said, 'Oh, stop! You know, we can handle a lot.' And then she just changed the subject and it was really neat. Like they really didn't care. I think they could see it was loving. They just wanted me to do well."

And she did. One gets the feeling, seeing the film, that the parts that are true are very true, and the other parts are even truer.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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