Here is my conversation with the actor/comedian/director/writer Julia Sweeney.
Julia is probably most identified with her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live and her one-woman shows God Said, “Ha!”, In the Family Way, Letting Go of God, and Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider. Julia’s lengthy filmography includes Pulp Fiction and Monsters University, as well as such television shows as Shrill, Work in Progress, Frasier and Sex and the City. She has written for TV shows including Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and she has authored several books. Julia has also toured extensively with singer/songwriter Jill Sobule in The Jill and Julia Show, an evening of songs and monologues. They were in the midst of a tour at the time of this conversation.
When did you first feel you wanted to be a performer? What precipitated that for you?
It’s funny, because I have been thinking lately – I don’t know if I’m articulating this right – about the difference between an actor and a performer.
I didn’t think of a profession as a performer – that wasn’t in the list of professions that seemed possible when I was growing up. You kind of were a lawyer or a teacher. I guess a teacher would be the closest to being a performer. But my dad was a trial attorney, so there was kind of a performance aspect to his work. And so I wanted to be a lawyer.
I was always funny. Like I was voted funniest girl, second grade through eighth grade at my school. [laughs] I didn’t think of that as performance, I just thought of that as being funny. But I obviously loved getting the laughs, and I learned how to get better laughs. So I think I just unconsciously gravitated to that because of the high that you get when people laugh at what you say. It never occurred to me to be a stand-up, even though we did like certain stand-ups in our family – it just didn’t occur to me. And then when I was in college I thought maybe I’d want to be an actress, and then I auditioned for the Goodman Theatre in my sophomore year and didn’t get in, and just gave that up.
Then I decided to be an accountant. I guess it was lurking there, in the back, but I decided to be an accountant, in show business. That’s what I wanted to be, a specific type of accountant – an accountant in show business. So I moved to L.A. and got a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, where I worked for five years, and during that time I realized that I wanted to be onstage. But not as myself – I wanted to be an actress. So I started taking improv classes, and I guess that is a performer. I guess let’s just say an actress is a performer. [laughs]
But, you know, in some ways it really is different. Like, I know people who are actors who never get onstage. They only act before a camera where it’s really alone, and it seems qualitatively different than getting on a stage in front of people – being a person who impersonates somebody in front of a camera where not necessarily an audience is nearby. So that is a very different thing. And I guess I didn’t know that much about show business then, so I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do. But I did like the idea of playing characters. I didn’t really think of being myself onstage until even after Saturday Night Live. So it was a gradual thing for me to be myself as a performer onstage.
So what did you learn about yourself when you started with The Groundlings and then when you got onto Saturday Night Live? What did you find out about yourself when you got in front of an audience?
I did learn a lot at The Groundlings. Literally, you learn techniques – improv techniques. But I learned that I had a humorous point of view that I could convey – that was the biggest thing. And I could convey it sometimes as a character, and sometimes as myself. But that was this thing that I had – I was funny, I guess.
How did you discover that?
I don’t even know when that started. I’m just learning about it myself, actually. [laughs] I don’t really know when it started. I know that I made people laugh, always. But I learned to kind of control that galloping horse by going to classes at The Groundlings Theatre. So you might have these comedic instincts – like you might have a natural ability to shoot baskets, but if you don’t learn how to make the baskets and drill yourself in it, you’re never going to be good.
So I really feel like it was The Groundlings, and then I guess Saturday Night Live, that kind of showed me how to funnel that natural comedy into something that could be useable as a character or something. And then it wasn’t really until after I was on Saturday Night Live that my friend Kathy Griffin kept encouraging me to get onstage and tell stories, that I started to tell stories onstage. But I still never thought of myself as a stand-up – I just thought of myself as a person who told stories.
Then I started doing these monologues, so then I wasn’t really considered a stand-up, but I felt like my monologues were funny. And sometimes I would feel almost self-righteous about it, like, “My monologues are as funny as anybody’s stand-up, but I’m talking about a serious subject, and I’ve gone to the trouble of making up a story that has acts in it, and it goes somewhere.” But I think a lot of stand-ups wouldn’t think that was true, like I was more of a dramatic monologist than I was a comedienne. And I don’t really know what’s right or true.
Anyway, then I met Jill [Sobule], and I literally would sit onstage and think of something, while she sang a song, that related to my life, and I would tell that.
So you weren’t preparing that material? You didn’t know what you were going to be talking about?
Not at first – it was really, just, “Oh, that song reminded me of this…” But then, as we started doing shows more and more together, of course, we started to notice which songs went better with what stories, and we kind of tried to have a little bit of an arc, we tried to have little themes. Like we had kind of this boyfriend theme that paid off when I told the story of how I met my husband. And it kind of gravitated, very loosely, towards a structure.
Do you think musically?
No, but I’ve always loved musicians. And I did this before with Jonathan Richman, another musician. We met when I was on Saturday Night Live and I interviewed him for SPIN Magazine, and then we became friends. And I started doing that with him, where I would go out to his concerts – we never made it “The Jonathan and Julia Show”, it was Jonathan’s show that I would get up for a period of time during his show and tell stories that somewhat related to his songs. So I guess I always kind of liked that.
See, I just am always so jealous of musicians, because, first of all, it’s not all relying on the story – they get the music. So they have the lyrics, and they have the music. And then their lyrics don’t even have to make sense! [laughs] I mean, they have to make sense and be resonant, if they’re good, but they don’t have to conform to normal storytelling rules. And I just feel constantly frustrated by having to, one, tell the truth – which I’m just sick to death of – and, secondly, having to make it build to a payoff. I really am tired of doing that, and I’m trying to stop, frankly. I’m so sick of it! [laughs]
That’s so interesting, because that’s been your trajectory for quite some time, and you’ve found so much success with it!
I know it, except that I’m telling you – I feel like this is another topic – like I have these shows with Jill but then we’re stopping, and even though I love Jill and I’ve loved doing it – we’ve done it for seven years – but I just have had it with the storytelling about my life. I’m just done. I can’t do it anymore. I mean, obviously I can do it 16 more times, which is the number of shows we have left [laughs] but this is going to be the end of it.
I really love it, but I have hit the edge of what I can do anymore. I don’t have a turbulent love life; my daughter [Mulan] is becoming a person who you can’t just constantly tell stories about onstage without truly violating her privacy; [laughs] and it’s too hard, the travel and stuff. And actually being on the stage is an emotional roller coaster for me that I just have to take a break from. Or maybe a break for the rest of my life. [laughs] “I’m taking a break from performing…for the rest of my life.”
Well, I actually wanted to ask you about that. Because you present this intimate material, and I wonder how you protect yourself, yet leave yourself accessible to the experience and also let the audience in. Do you feel like you’re doing a version of yourself, or a character that’s based on yourself, or is it truly directly wired to yourself?
No, it is myself! That’s just it. People come up and say this to me all the time: “I feel like I really know you from your monologues and books, but I know that you’re really more than that.” And I say, “No, I’m not. That is me, and in fact you do know me.” [laughs]
So when you’re doing this, do you ever get anxious, or stage fright, in terms of, “Here I am about to unzip my protective coating again…”
No, that’s the interesting thing. I don’t have that fear, and I even have that desire, but it has costs, but not until later.
Because in the moment, I want to be a performer, and the people have paid, and the machine is going, and the car’s in gear, and you gotta goooo! [laughs] And then, you know, most of the time I do get laughs, and that’s totally the payment for it – I get really high from that. Then it isn’t until two months later where I’m going, “Oh my god, why did I say that? That’s a terrible thing to say!” And then I’m up in the middle of the night thinking. It’s really a horrendous roller coaster that I’ve been on, really since I was about 33! [laughs]
So now I feel like, can we just do fiction again? Like, when I was on SNL, I wasn’t myself, I played characters! So now, after this year ends, after we do all of our shows through November, I’m going to stop. Because I’m writing fiction now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just feel like I want to write fiction. That’s all I can say – that’s what I want to do. I feel just over-naked with the telling personal stories. And I love it in other people. And I think I’ve done well. I think I’ve been honest, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I’m also completely embarrassed by it. [laughs]
And maybe Mulan is a little bit, too…
Yes, it’s true! And I just, I don’t know, I talk of entering the convent. [laughs] I’m in The Trouble With Angels, and I’m saying, “Ok, and now I’m done, I’m entering the convent.”
Do you have a pre-show ritual, or a way of getting yourself psyched up so you can go out there and do what you need to do? Do you and Jill do something?
Well, we make our show order, which changes all the time. It’s just the weirdest thing with stories, you know? Like, say I’ll have ten stories that I know work. Then I’ll do a new story. “Oh my god, here’s another one to go in the pantheon! This will work every time!” Then I do it two more times, and then all of a sudden that story’s dead. I can’t find my way back into how that story was funny, and no one’s laughing! So our show order’s always changing, mostly because of me thinking, “Ok, that story didn’t work.” And then we change that up.
And, you know, Jill – see, this is the thing about singers, they do their vocal exercises, so Jill is always walking around going, [singing] “Doo doo doo doo DOOOO doo doo doo doo…” and all this stuff. And I don’t have anything like that. [laughs] I’m just sitting there going, “Wow. You sure do a lot of vocal exercises.”
Also, for whatever way I’m wired, for whatever reason, my blood pressure goes down when I get onstage. I just don’t get nervous. As soon as I walk onstage, I feel calm and focused. I don’t know why that is. I mean, part of it is definitely just doing it a lot. Because always people say, “How do you become a performer?” I go, “You get onstage every time you can for about ten years. [laughs] And make it, like, three times a week at the least. And then you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I know what this feels like.’ You’ll have had enough terrible things happen that you’ll have a general idea of what to do when things go wrong.” [laughs]
Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot and you’re kind of sightseeing when you’re up there? Or do you pretty much always feel fully engaged?
Well, I don’t know if I’d say autopilot. Definitely not with Jill, because one of the great things about doing things with Jill is it’s interactive. When I have done monologues, it definitely could slip into that. Because even though I felt like I was giving a really good performance – and people said I was giving a good performance, so I think I was – different times when I would start a show and then half an hour would go by and it was like you drove to work and you don’t remember anything about getting there. I wouldn’t really have any sense of having done thirty minutes of a show. Like I’d go, “Oh my god, where am I? Did the show just start? Am I finishing the show?” [laughs]
And there was actually some really scary moments, some of the scariest moments of my whole life. You know, like being on Broadway, and coughing, and looking up and not knowing if the show was starting or ending. You know, terrifying! Like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and your toes are hanging off the edge – that sort of sensation? [laughs]
But with Jill I don’t feel like that, because we’re so with each other. I definitely feel more engaged in some shows than others, but it’s more like the sensation of really being super-engaged is what I remember than not being engaged. Or maybe that’s just denial about when I’m not engaged! [laughs]
For example, Jill and I just did eight shows in the Northeast in July. And it was so funny, because there was this one show where we didn’t know why our booker booked us in to it. I think he just booked us there because it was in between two other dates. And we were only getting a percentage of the door, and they had, like, twenty people.
So considering that we were driving and staying in a hotel and we had our producer along with us, basically we were paying to do the show. But the people were so nice at this theater! Everyone there was a volunteer, and they really let us know that, [laughs] and they were so sweet. And also, they didn’t have air conditioning and it was, like, a hundred degrees and it was in the attic of something – it was terrible! It was terrible in so many ways that it started to be great. Because it was just so terrible– this is, like, as bad as it gets. It’s a hundred degrees in the theater, there’s only twenty people, and there’s two hundred chairs. [laughs] It was so terrible! And, actually, that was my best show of all the shows. Because I was up there, like, “Oh my god, this is such a special situation! I am gonna give the best show I can!” [laughs]
See, now, that’s a real professional!
Well, I don’t know, because maybe sometimes when there’s lots of people I kind of start disengaging, but whatever! Anyway, that was just a funny thing. And so, one of the things I remember about this trip was that moment – feeling like, man, I’m just going for it. [laughs]
I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.
People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that. How do you experience the zone? What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?
First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game. I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it! But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important. Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great. It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.” But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened. I don’t even know about that. I can’t articulate that in my mind.
But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show. And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences. To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences. That’s another way to control the audience. And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have. Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling. Now let’s have some other feelings.” [laughs]
Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?
[laughs] No! I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good. And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind. Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith. Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…” Her control is incredible. I don’t feel that way. I feel like, [shakily]“I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…” [laughs]
I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?
Well, I think just being calm. I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage. And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference. I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot. And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do. You’re going to give them a show. They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show. And that calmness, I definitely learned. At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.
Yeah, I definitely see that. There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.
Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous. And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs. So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs. You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.
Yeah, I talk with my clients about that all the time. It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”
How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?
Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you. [laughs]
It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way. Ok, so the [stage] lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights. And I like that. In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me. [laughs] If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look. And it can be just, you know, disquieting.
Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience. Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved.
And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years. And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad. Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile. And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.” I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking. And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.
And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends. I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories. Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.
Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!” You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show. [laughs]
And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him. He obviously didn’t get anything about my show. There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way. It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god! We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!” [laughs]
Well, whatever works for you!
It’s true! But anyway, whatever!
When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance? What are the characteristics of it?
Well, I like things to be smart. I like things to be witty and insightful. And I really like a combination of irony and compassion. There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them. They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion. And I like that – I like that quality. And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more. And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill. I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there. They were funny, but they weren’t superior.
I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that. It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not! But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion. There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for. I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like. It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them. But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.
Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.
Yeah, I think so! And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country. So that’s hard. But I still try to keep an edge to it. I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know. They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax. [laughs] And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…” Or something like that. And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that. There’s comedy there, too.
I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim. You go to enormous effort…
…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue. And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.
And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.
Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone. [laughs] And I like that in other people, too. So that’s my particular thing – I like that.
Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?
You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time. That was the part that was like, “Really? You really…? No way!” [laughs] So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious. And that probably cost me some work. [laughs]
But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”. [laughs] And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion. And I really totally am not dismissing religion. And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it. And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that. And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t. Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things. So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.
And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic. But I don’t know if that will be rectified. I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist. But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.
Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.
You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!” And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.” [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing. And I am just done with that. Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction. [laughs]
I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it. And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture. I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows. I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way.
Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.” And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should. It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name. [laughs] What are those two words? And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words. And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!
It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.
Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining. You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done. Ok, so this is what I’ve done! Wow, it’s so clear! And, I’m satisfied with it. I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there. But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.
Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…
Yes, I know, I know! But I do have a lot of experience performing. Yeah, well, what are you gonna do? [laughs]
Are you going to keep doing voice work?
I love doing voice work. Actually, that would be a very good happy ending for me. Like Laraine Newman, who was also on SNL – she works all the time in voiceover. I can’t believe how much she works in voiceover. And what a great life that is.
It’s the best.
I’m telling you, it’s the best. Do you do voiceover?
I’ve done a little.
I love it.
And I think because you have so much live experience, you have a live feel in your voice work. And that is really hard to do.
Wow, thank you. I never thought about that. That’s just made my day!
Oh, I’m so glad. Do you have a sense of that when you’re doing it? Do you have a sense of going for the live experience, or is it just how it happens for you?
No, I don’t, it’s just how it comes out.
Well, you’re very dynamic, anyway, just in the way you are in the world.
Wow, you’re making me feel so good! I don’t know, I guess I can kind of see that. It’s really just the same way – now we’re getting back to, “I’m sure that you put on something…” or things that I do not really do. No, that’s really me. [laughs] That’s it. There I am. I’m naked. Not different later, just the same.
Well, not everybody can say that. Even monologists and people doing their own material. A lot of times people feel that they have to invent a character in order to do it safely.
Well, you know what, that reminds me. When I first started, I actually took a stand-up class. This is so funny, this is before I did The Groundlings – I guess I was kind of thinking about it enough to take the class. But anyway, in the class, he taught us – now, this is years ago – that you had to make for yourself a character, and then when you went onstage you were in that character. So I did make a character for myself of a really shy person who didn’t want to be onstage. [laughs] That was my character. And it really was a character. And it was very useful. I mean, I could see teaching that.
Well, I use that technique with clients when they’re doing self-confessional material, as musicians, and a lot of times they feel like they just can’t do it safely. And we’ll talk about, ok, let’s remove it one step. You know what you need to know because you wrote this, you experienced it. But let’s remove it one step, and let’s come up with a character who has a similar experience and come up with their story. And then they can use enough of what they know from their own experience to inform that character, but they can do it as that character and they’re not completely vulnerable.
Yeah. I did it a little bit as myself. It’s not so much a character if I think, “I want to be the version of me that is just as authentically me as any other version of me, that loves to be onstage and can’t wait to see all those people and can’t wait to tell my stories to them.” And I kind of imagine myself like my best self in that manifestation. And then I just can do that.
Yeah, that makes sense. And then you can keep revisiting that if you’re getting unfocused?
Yeah, I do think that. Especially when we were on the road, and if I stopped to think about how much I didn’t want to do the shows, I couldn’t even go there. [laughs] I just had to say, “I’m going to do it, and I’m going to have fun, and we’re going to be in a van for eight hours, and then have trouble parking in Manhattan, and it’s going to be fun! We’re going to find out what’s fun about it. And we’re going to go into the club, and the guy’s going to tell us how we haven’t sold enough tickets, and that’s going to be ok!” I mean, it sounds like an insane person. I think if you did it too long, you really would be insane. But I think for short bursts, you can do that. [laughs]
I know, I talk to a lot of nationally, and internationally, touring musicians, and they say, “Basically, I travel for a living. And then when I actually get onstage and do the show, that’s the extra part, that’s just the recreational part. The rest of it’s just traveling for a living.”
I know it, that’s the thing I’ve kind of hit the wall with. It’s really many things. One is, weirdly, I feel like I’m having an inverse parenthood, whereas my daughter gets older I want to be home more, so while most mothers take off the first five years, I want to take off the last five years.
So to me, being on the road is a huge cost, because it means I’m not here and I really want to be here. And it’s terrible for my health, because I don’t work out and I don’t eat right. And I know there are people that do. I’ve been with musicians like Jonathan Richman, who gets up every morning and does a hundred pushups and drives all over town so he can get the perfect nut mixture. And I just don’t do that. If I’m on the road I’m just eating cupcakes and having lattes all day.
And who knows what they’re going to have in the green room, if there even is a green room.
And then I get so high from the show – Jill and I both say this, we both want to eat a thousand calories after the show, we’re so hungry. And it doesn’t matter how much we ate before the show. There’s just something about that experience that just makes you ravenous. I think it’s because you’ve given and you’ve given, and now you want to get back, or something, I don’t know whatever it is. But it’s just not good if you’re trying to not be a million pounds. [laughs]
And I thought I was going to get better at it, and in fact I got worse. Because I think as I got older and it didn’t really matter that much how thin I was, it was really “just for health”. It wasn’t like I was trying to be the hot babe onstage – that ship had sailed many years before. [laughs] So it was really just about me, and it’s just a high cost. I do a lot of shows in a month, and it takes me a month at home to just get back into the routines. And I just don’t want to do that anymore.
And now my whole thing is how I don’t want to do performance – this is terrible! [laughs]
Yeah, actually, do you mind if we put that out there into the universe?
No, it’s so funny, because I was just thinking of our producer, Heather [Schmucker], who’s producing our shows, Jill and I. She just had sent me an email saying, “Don’t you think that we should make an announcement that this is it?” And I had said this to Jill, and I said this to the booker, that I didn’t want to book more shows than we had. But then I didn’t want to – well, because first of all I’ve said this before, and then I changed my mind, so I have zero credibility about it. And then I didn’t know. But, actually, now I do know. Now it’s been several months, and I really do know. And I’m so excited! I’ve already planning my whole next year and how no travel there’s going to be in it.
Good for you!
So anyway, I was just thinking this is a useful conversation for me to have, because now I have to write this blog entry where I say that. But I’m trying to say it in a way that doesn’t make it like, [self-importantly] “I’m making an announcement!” “Aaaand, who cares about your announcement?” [laughs] But I also feel like I want to articulate it. Anyway, so this has been helpful – thank you!
Glad I could help. Anything I can do to help you put a brake on your career.
Yes, help me!
So, are you thinking you might write for TV shows anymore?
Well, I can’t really, because I’m living in Chicago – well, I’m not even living in Chicago, I’m living in Wilmette. You know, I don’t even want to write on TV shows. I’ve done that so much. I have a novel that I’m going to try to write – that I am writing – and then I want to write a screenplay based on it, and then I’m going to see if I can direct a version of it. That’s what I want to do.
That sounds fabulous!
It’s a three-year thing. And then in the meantime I’m hoping I can just drum up enough voiceover work, because I do that here and there, to keep me making enough money to make it ok. But it’s a hard thing for me – that’s the other hard thing, to keep me on my deadlines when I don’t have any external deadlines. So I put some things in place that are going to keep me honest about how far I’m making it each week.
Boy, that’s rough.
I know, it’s really hard. But I really want to do it. I really want to. And I’m going to.
And you know, I think if you really lobby yourself, you’ll probably get the movie rights from yourself.
I know! [laughs] Actually my book agent was, like, “Well, that’s not the way you make money. You write the book and then you sell the movie rights.” I go, “I know…but I don’t want to do that!”
“I want the movie rights.”
“I’m selling them to myself right now!”
“And I’ve heard I can get ‘em real cheap.”
I know, exactly! Oh my god, I made such a good deal with myself, I can’t believe it.
[Note: After some time away from live performing, Julia did end up going back to the stage in her standup show, Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider.]