One of the original “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” on Saturday Night Live, Jane Curtin has made a career out of playing the straight woman (in comedy terms). She was also the down-home half of the Kate & Allie duo and the non-extraterrestrial object of John Lithgow’s alien affection on 3rd Rock From the Sun. Now, after a lifetime of TV work, Curtin seems to be sticking to the occasional film role or TV guest spot. Up next? This weekend’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, in which she plays mother-in-law to Sarah Jessica Parker’s harried working-mom character. We spoke to Curtin about the movie’s possibly condescending message, that SNL comment she made on Oprah, and her thoughts on network executives.
What drew you to I Don’t Know How She Does It?
Well, look who’s involved! There are really fun people in this movie, and I’ve known Doug [McGrath, the director] for a long, long time, and he’s just a delight to be around. And why not go and have camp for five days and play with these people and then go home?
Were you worried about the tone of the title at all? “Isn’t it crazy this woman can do all that?!” Would Hollywood take a different tack if it was, I Don’t Know How HE Does It?
Well, what does he do that’s different? I think the problem is with the maternal instinct, that need to do it all and do it all with grace. It’s in your DNA, and you are a nurturer, and that’s exhausting. Men take differently to that role, and there’s less guilt involved with it because they’re not smotherers, as you know some women feel the need to be. You know, the genders are different in how they approach things, and so I really think that women put a lot more guilt on themselves than need be. And compare themselves to other women. They do a tremendous amount of that, and it’s not productive. I don’t know whether men do those things the same way or to the same degree.
Do you feel like you have done it all in your career?
I did absolutely everything I wanted to do, so I did have it all. But it depends on what you want. If you want a career and a home and a family, sure, you can do it. But to what level do you want these things to be? Do you want to be a high-powered executive: You go to work every single day and wear a suit? Um, no. Do you want to work from time to time, on a series that shoots maybe 20, 22 [weeks] a year and then have some time off? Yes. So I could spend more time with my family.
It seems like you’ve been making that choice for a while. An article from the New York Times from 1996 mentioned that you signed on to 3rd Rock From the Sun because you only had to do seven episodes.
Well, the seven episodes is such an arbitrary number. It was based on nothing. [Laughs.] I just didn’t want to commit to something that I didn’t know what it was going to be like to do.
On Oprah, you discussed how difficult it was for women in the early days of Saturday Night Live — that some cast members were dismissive of female sketch ideas. Have any former cast members reached out to you about your remarks?
I was really surprised that created such a kerfuffle, because it’s been documented. But Marilyn Miller [one of the original writers] called me, and I hadn’t talked to Marilyn in, oh, maybe twenty years. Rosie Shuster called and thanked me, which I thought was very sweet and unnecessary because we were all there. We all saw it, and it was just overwhelmingly rude, the treatment of the women writers, and just unnecessary.
What was surprising to me about that Oprah clip is Chevy Chase’s reaction. He seemed to be like, “Oh, this again … ”
Well, you have to understand he’s on a show, so he’s promoting Community.
Do you continue to watch SNL?
Is there a particular reason or are you just busy?
It’s on very late. I get up very early in the morning.
Well, that’s what DVRs are for.
Yeah, but you know — I’ll see it online from time to time … mostly the clips that are featured on blogs and stuff. The format seems the same; I think the people on the show are probably more polished than we were, which is a good thing. And that’s basically all I can say about it except the stuff I’ve seen I thought was very good.
How much network interaction have you had over the years?
I don’t really deal with the networks. I don’t find I’m comfortable in that level. I try to avoid the network people at all costs. Over the years, they’ve intruded way more … They’re posing as creative people. I just don’t get them. When you watch shows a lot now, it’s sort of like being in an airport. You don’t know what city you’re in; everything looks the same. There’s a tremendous amount of competition over, “We’ve got the technology, we’ve got to use it.” So everything is beautiful to look at, but just shiny and bright.
Why do you think networks have increased their intrusions?
I think because they can; [TV] can be reduced to a formula. And all of the shows have to have the same formula. All the half-hours have to have the same formula. All of the hour shows are just these duos that fight crime all over the country. Some of them wear hats, some of them have long hair, but they’re duos that just fight crime. [Laughs.]
Lots of TV shows have tried to use improvisation and failed. Is there a way to use it that we’ve all been missing?
No. It’s so of-the-moment, so there will always be a canned feeling to anything that’s on a television. You can’t get that feeling of live even though we did Saturday Night Live live. People would say, “So when do you tape Saturday Night Live?” No no, no, no — it’s live.
It’s called “live.”
It’s live. But with improv, at some point in your life while you’re doing improv, you realize you can’t have that energy constantly. Because you become truly obnoxious. You cannot stop.
Yeah, then you’re riffing in normal conversations all the time.
Oh, you’re riffing for hours and then you go home and think, [Breathes in] What did I just do?
Do you feel pressure to be “on” when you’re around your funny friends?
No, I stopped feeling that pressure a long time ago. I think it comes from age.