After a year of physical and emotioal trauma, Julia Sweeney reclaimed her life with laughter‹and lived to tell the tale in her one-woman show, God Said "Ha!", opening on Broadway Nov. 19.
There was a weekend in the middle of August in 1994 when Julia Sweeney was supposed to soar into the celebrity stratosphere as a bona fide, full-fledged film star. Instead, she plummeted to earth with a devastating double-thud.
It's Pat -- the feature-length extension of her one-joke androgyny from "Saturday Night Live" skits‹marked her screen debut, much like a tree falling in the forest. It bowed August 15 in Seattle and Houston‹to no attendance and terrible notices. "It's hard to argue with that," she concedes cheerfully without much of a struggle. "You can't say, 'Well, there were good reviews, but the people weren't smart enough' or 'Well, the people loved it, but the critics weren't kind.' You just gotta say, 'Well, critics and audiences alike . . . .'"
Peals of purifying laughter complete the sentence and ripple out from her booth at Lincoln Center's Shun Lee, bringing smiles to the faces of diners nearby. It's an inviting, infectious, healing laugh‹the sort of laugh that saw her through a particularly "bad patch" and may well have saved her life.
Her movie's twin-city bombing turned out to be the good news that weekend. The bad news was she learned her brother Mike, who had just turned 30, had The Big C‹and, before it had run its tragically short course, she too would be stricken with the disease. Incredible as it may seem -- and this says something about the resiliency of the human spirit -- laughter illuminated her year in the darkness.
It pin-spotted it, in fact. True to her training, she got her life together and took it on the road‹or at least to the neighborhood comedy store in L.A., where, for 15 minutes a week, she recapped her travail from a humorously humanizing P.O.V. Talk about Stand-up Tragedy! Talk about a work in progress!
By the time she had worked her way into the sunlight‹and a clean bill of health, not so incidentally‹Sweeney had herself a substantial piece of theatre, fashioned from a year of comedy tapes. God Said "Ha!" was everything It's Pat wasn't‹namely: a hit, critically and commercially‹winning raves and selling out L.A.'s Coronet Theatre for three-and- a-half months. Now, James B. Freydberg and Jon Steingart, who produced the West Coast edition, have brought the show to Broadway's Lyceum this month, sorta "falling up" to get there.
"We wanted an Off-Broadway house, but none was available," Sweeney hastens to say. "It got down to: Either we do it at the Lyceum or we don't do it at all, so we went for it." [God Said "Ha!" is presented there, under the auspices of the Broadway Alliance, at Off-Broadway prices.] "My friend Al Franken, from 'Saturday Night Live,' says if this is a success, I may get to do Off-Broadway." Except for the Broadway venue, God Said "Ha!" is a credible cousin to other inspirational, laughing-through-adversity one-person shows like Evan Handler's Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors and Al Metrano's The Great Metrano. Sweeney can even put a happy face on Aug. 15, 1994: "In a way, it was a little bit of a good thing to have it happen then‹even though it seems like two catastrophes at once. The catastrophe of Mike really overshadowed the movie. I didn't care at all about the movie anymore. So it sounds kinda nice because you realized what was important and it wasn't how a movie was doing.
"With Mike sick, I didn't care about anything. I canceled the publicity tour. I stopped everything. I left town. This isn't in the play, but Mike was actually in Rochester, New York, at the time, visiting a friend and ended up in a hospital there because he passed out. And I flew to Rochester and stayed there six weeks with him and then brought him back to my home in Los Angeles."
No sooner had the two settled in safely there that a second plague descended on the house: their parents. Despite the tragedy that triggered the invasion, such is the stuff of which sitcoms are made. Indeed, Sweeney has converted it into a pilot for Fox TV. "People loved the stuff about the family," she says of the play and the pilot. "Everyone can relate to what it would be like to suddenly have your family move in with you and not be able to kick them out. They were there for a very difficult situation, and you had to be gracious and loving, but you're still irritated by all their little idiosyncrasies‹how they're always in the way, how they eat, how they have to be directed to the store, how they take so long to get to the point. They need so much attention. It's like taking on your best friend's hyperactive, 6-year-old twins!"
If you believe illness is an individual matter, don't tell it to Sweeney. "It really isn't because it requires so many other people. I remember thinking when Mike was sick it really made me want to get into preventive health care. When you think of how much energy is expended for people who are ill, it just shows you how clearly if you can catch things early to treat them, how much plain old effort can be saved for pursuits other than to care for an ill one."
The Julia Sweeney you thought you knew came from the androgynous Pat. God Said "Ha" only goes to show how you didn't know her at all. Quite a different individual emerges here‹one with a shiny, open Irish face and a blissfully sunny disposition that has been sorely taxed by the fates. She has absolutely no ambiguities. All those have been banished by the two theatrical masks she wields with such authority. "I see them as complementary. They feed each other. The humor makes it more tragic, and the tragedy makes it funnier."