Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Described by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad as “an icy version of Mary Tyler Moore,” Ann Risley spent the duration of SNL producer Jean Doumanian’s 12-episode run stuck in the straight-man grind. Competing with the feisty energy of Denny Dillon and cooler demeanor of Gail Matthius for female roles proved to be too much of a challenge for Risley’s subdued delivery and lack of comedy chops, and her time on the show is usually regarded as nothing more than an inconsequential stint on the SNL history timeline. Risley’s comic versatility and appeal may have fallen short during the show’s dismal sixth season, but her dramatic acting background made her the go-to pretty-faced foil to her more boisterous cast mates.
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Risley earned a drama degree from the University of Wisconsin before beginning her local theatrical career. It was during a workshop production in Madison when she first met Woody Allen, who convinced her to move to New York to pursue bigger roles, and as a result Risley appeared in small uncredited parts in Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories in 1980, in which she had one line as a nurse-turned UFO follower. The same year, she was hired as a repertory SNL player by Jean Doumanian alongside an all-new cast and writing staff.
Risley impersonated presidential relatives Doria Reagan (in the “Haunted Lincoln Bedroom” sketch) and Rosalynn Carter (with Joe Piscopo as Jimmy Carter and Denny Dillon as their daughter Amy) and Toni Tennille of 70s musical duo Captain and Tennille in “The Toni Tennille Show,” one of the few sketches that allowed Risley to take the comic lead. Like Rocket, she excelled more in cold deadpan than funny voices, characters, and slapstick – leading to a few Weekend Update appearances – but she broke out of the mold now and then, like in the Bill Murray-led sketch “Script in Development,” in which she, Rocket, Dillon, and featured player Matthew Laurance act out the writer’s numerous sketch additions and edits in real time.
According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Rocket and Risley’s overwhelming confidence (and at times, divalike behavior) proved to be detrimental to their success, and when Dick Ebersol took over for Doumanian after the Bill Murray episode in March, they were among the first to be let go. Comparisons between the original cast and Doumanian’s lineup were inevitable, and the season premiere cold open with host Elliott Gould did little to soften the blow. In the sketch, Gould wakes up in a bed with the new cast, and they each introduce themselves in terms of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players: Gail Matthius is dubbed as the new Gilda/Jane, Charles Rocket as the new Chevy/Bill, and Risley calls herself “kind of a cross between Gilda and Laraine.”
After SNL, Risley returned to the theater and appeared in two Broadway shows (including Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982) and sporadic films and TV movies (Honky Tonk Freeway, Rich and Famous, Desert Bloom) until her last television credit on 1993’s Jericho Fever. While she’s since performed in over 30 plays across the country, in 1984 – just two years after leaving SNL – she moved out to Tucson, Arizona and opened The Studio for Actors, where she has remained the sole instructor to this day. The Studio for Actors website currently offers 21 classes including “Comedy Improvisation I Again,” “Accent Reduction - for Actors and/or Businesspeople,” and “Acting for People Who Don’t Want To Be Actors,” and in the description of her Improvisation I course, Risley makes quite the guarantee: “I can make you funny.” It might seem unfortunate that Risley’s mainstream recognition stops at the highly infrequent SNL mention, but superstardom’s not in the cards for everyone. Either way, Risley’s long since shifted her focus from seeking stardom to finding stardom in her students, and she’s been at it for the past 29 years.