Saturday Night’s Children: Molly Shannon (1995-2001)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 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.

An overload of male legends like Hartman, Farley, Myers, Sandler, and Carvey made female comedy dominance next to impossible on early to mid-90s Saturday Night Live, an era when the show was more than happy to use Sandler, Farley, and Spade in drag as the Gap Girls or Carvey dressed up in another Church Chat sketch rather than actual women. It wasn’t until the arrival of featured player Molly Shannon in 1995 that female-played characters on the show began to gain the momentum that paved the way for future cast members like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig to become SNL superstars. The 1993-1994 cast had twelve men compared to just four women, one of whom Shannon replaced mid-season (Garofalo). Over six years, Shannon racked up a long list of popular characters and impersonations ranging from Courtney Love to the ever-chipper licensed joyologist Helen Madden, but no matter how much her characters differed, they all called for both the exuberant physicality and girlish awkwardness only Shannon could deliver.

Prior to joining the cast of SNL, Shannon went to NYU’s drama school then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She found small parts in several shows and films like Phantom of the Opera, Twin Peaks, General Hospital, and In Living Color, but without a big break she decided to focus on developing characters through improv and co-writing her two-person show The Rob and Molly Show with Rob Muir, which ran for several years at the Up Front Comedy Theater in Los Angeles. The show led to Shannon’s SNL audition where she brought characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher, an awkward but gutsy semi-autobiographical Catholic schoolgirl obsessed with superstardom and made-for-TV movie monologues who took the girl humor of Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller and added divorce rates and depression to the mix, delivering humor that was nerdy, physical, and sometimes a little disgusting.

Like Mary Katherine, most of Shannon’s popular characters were known for their overabundance of energy like veteran showgirl Sally O’Malley (“I’m fifty!”), licensed joyologist Helen Madden (“I love it, I love it, I love it!”), and Dog Show cohost Miss Colleen (“And I…love…ah-DAWGS!”). She also played the ditzy supermodel Veronica (on the “Veronica & Co” sketches), Circe Nightshade in the “Goth Talk” sketches, and Delicious Dish cohost Terry Rialto alongside Ana Gasteyer. Shannon’s impersonations include celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Monica Lewinsky, and Ann Miller, who she played alongside Cheri Oteri as Debbie Reynolds in the “Leg Up” sketches, which show Shannon’s knack and fondness for classic showbiz singer/dancer queens that runs through all her performances.

During her time on SNL, Shannon also appeared in shows and movies like Seinfeld, Analyze This, Never Been Kissed, Wet Hot American Summer, and Superstar, in which she starred as Mary Katherine Gallagher. After leaving SNL, her career continued with roles in Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Year of the Dog, Kath & Kim, Glee, and voiceover work for American Dad!, Neighbors from Hell, and Hotel Transylvania, set to release in 2012. Shannon appeared on Broadway in Promises, Promises from October 2010 to January 2011, and her first children’s book Tilly the Trickster will be released by Abrams Books this September. She returned to host SNL in 2007 and also appeared in 2010’s Mother’s Day episode, where she performed alongside SNL women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig. Shannon’s fearlessness in exposing the nerdy resilience and ugly fascinations of women makes her one of my favorite SNL cast members, and her comic sensibilities continue to inspire SNL players of both the male and female variety today.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Molly Shannon (1995-2001)