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.
Ana Gasteyer has referred to the root of her characters as some version of a “funny aunt,” and that’s exactly what she brought to SNL during her run from 1996-1992. Supportive, powerful, and armed with talent from both improv and classical voice training, Gasteyer was one of the most solid supporting players during the late 1990s and was as funny as she was serious about her characters. Whether teamed up with Ferrell as the Culps, with Shannon as the super-soft-spoken “Delicious Dish” hosts, with Maya Rudolph as R&B group Gemini’s Twin, or by herself as SNL’s best Martha Stewart ever, Gasteyer knew how to shift from shrill to sweet to nerdy to righteously furious and back again, and she’s known best for playing overstated female caricatures with just as much love as grating honesty.
Gasteyer grew up in Washington D.C. in a family that encouraged involvement in the arts. At age five she started playing the violin and by high school she was landing lead roles in plays and musicals. After studying voice in classical music at Northwestern University, Gasteyer moved to Los Angeles and joined The Groundlings. After small appearances in NYPD Blue, Party of Five, and Seinfeld (where she appeared as a Soup Nazi customer), she was hired at SNL as a repertory player in 1996 alongside newcomer Tracy Morgan, joining the ranks of Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Chris Kattan, and Cheri Oteri.
Due to her adaptable chemistry, Gasteyer created hit characters with many of her cast mates. The most popular was probably the square yet feisty middle school music teacher Bobbie Mohan-Culp with Will Ferrell as her husband Marty, who sing medleys of pop and R&B hits together for an off-camera crowd of restless high schoolers. Other great Gasteyer collaborations were NPR’s “Delicious Dish” cohost Margaret Jo-McCullen with Molly Shannon as Terry Rialto, and Jonette of Destiny’s Child parody group Gemini’s Twin with Maya Rudolph (accompanied by the guest host, who plays the replaceable third member who doesn’t sing). She also had several solo characters like the famous, bitchy, but sweet-voiced singer Deandra Wells, who constantly beats down the self-confidence of her band until they freak out on her, and Cinder Calhoun, who is not a Lilith Fair stand-up comedian but “a weaver of satiric truths in the tradition of the great Appalachian humorists.” She also played “Pretty Living” host Gayle Gleeson and impersonated celebrities like Celine Dion, Joan Rivers, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Streisand.
Another vital part to Gasteyer’s success was her ability to make smaller straight-man characters funny and memorable, like in the “Three-Way” sketches with Chris Parnell, in the “Lovahs” sketch with Christopher Walken (where she is outed for her love of shinshi shinshi), and with Will Ferrell in the dysfunctional family dinner sketches, where her performance enables Ferrell’s climactical outbursts like my personal favorite, “I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!” Even as a supporting character there’s something caricatural to all Gasteyer’s performances — always overstated but never overacted – a real woman who’s both sweet and psychotic; shrill and subtle.
During her time on SNL, Gasteyer also appeared on Law & Order, Just Shoot Me!, Mad About You, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Frasier. She also appeared in The Vagina Monologues and made her Broadway debut in 2001 as Columbia in Rocky Horror Picture Show. After leaving SNL at the end of the 27th season – during which time she was the first pregnant cast member – Gasteyer continued performing in musicals like Funny Girl, Roulette, and Cinderella before landing the role of Elphaba in the Chicago production of Wicked from 2005-2006. She’s appeared in The Good Wife, Mean Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Running Wilde, and she currently costars on Suburgatory on ABC. Gasteyer leaves behind a legacy of excellent collaboration, outstanding singer impressions, and status as one of the vanguard “strong women” of SNL who knew how to take that title and magnify the whining, self-righteous, bitter dark corners of all kinds of female roles, making fun of them as much as she was paving the way for them.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.