Saturday Night’s Children: Cheri Oteri (1995-2000)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 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.

Cheri Oteri was never one to let her drive and snappy on-screen confidence be underestimated, and as such she’s left us with five seasons of kooky, clueless, and sometimes bossy characters who helped pave the way for the best time to be an SNL lady. Whether with Will Ferrell as zippity cheerleaders or morning talk show cohosts, with Chris Kattan as a couple stuck in PDA overdrive, with Molly Shannon as Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds, or flying solo as deranged prescription addict Collette Reardon, Cheri Oteri was SNL’s quintessential tiny theater geek firecracker.

Like cast mate Tina Fey, Oteri was born just outside of Philadelphia in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. At age 25 she moved to Los Angeles and worked in promotions at A&M Records before joining The Groundlings four years later, which led to her joining the cast of SNL in 1995 for its 21st season in the wake of newly departed Sandler, Farley, Nealon, and others – a total of 11 cast members who were fired or quit the previous year.

Alongside newcomers like Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, and later Chris Kattan and Ana Gasteyer, Oteri helped transition the show from near cancellation into a fresh era. Her most popular recurring character was Arianna the Spartans cheerleader with Will Ferrell as her partner Craig, and the two appeared as the cheerleaders 17 times with support from hosts like a social climbing Robert Downey Jr., foreign exchange student Jim Carrey, baton-twirling man stealer Christina Ricci, and Tom Hanks as The Spartan Spirit. Taking advantage of Oteri’s pint-sized pep versus the lanky slab of towering hair Will Ferrell, the two also had recurring duo success with their “Morning Latte” cohosts Cass Van Rye and Tom Wilkins, which gave them more opportunities to feed off the comic energy of each other and create hilarious vertical challenge-based dances, routines, and altercations.

All of Oteri’s characters mix perky-hyperactive and tiny-but-tough elements, like the bizarrely shy and on-edge sex toy store owner Joy Lipton, territorial front porch mother Rita DelVecchio, and the passive-aggressively slow service employee Nadeen with her catchphrase “Simmah down nah!” She also impersonated celebrities including Katie Couric, Melissa Rivers, Debbie Reynolds, Judge Judy, Ross Perot, Kathie Lee Gifford, and her uncanny incarnation of Barbara Walters. In Live from New York, Ana Gasteyer says:

I think we were exalted, for reasons that weren’t always clear to me early on, Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and I. We got press for it. We got press for being this trifecta of women that turned the show around. I mean, that’s what they talked about. I don’t think there’s such a thing as actual exaltation every day in this place, because there’s just too many creative people that need exaltation at any given time. But, you know, we were written up and we were photographed together. That sort of signifies that you’ve changed a tune, and certainly we heard it anecdotally all the time – that the women were the best thing on the show.

Before leaving SNL in 2000, Oteri already had small roles in Liar Liar (“Hi Mr. Reede! Like the new dress?”), Austin Powers, Small Soldiers, Inspector Gadget, and Just Shoot Me. After her departure, she went on to appear and/or voice in Scary Movie, Boston Legal, Shrek the Third, as a revolution-minded guerilla drug dealer in Southland Tales, and Sit Down Shut Up, as well as her own AMC web series Liza Life Coach. She returned to SNL in the 2010 special The Women of SNL with fellow cast members like Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch in the Real Housewives parody open, with Oteri channelling the hot-tempered table-flipper Teresa Guidice. Most recently, she costarred with Janeane Garofalo, Christopher Titus, and Michael Boatman in Bad Parents, set for release this year. The memory she leaves from her SNL era is that she was a creature out of her time, exuding the kind of brassy hot wire spunk and energy we associate with 40s stars like Mickey Rooney and the showgirl flamboyance of Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, or Betty Hutton. That kind of perkiness was out of fashion for a while, but now that we live in the age of Glee and Smash, it’s clear Oteri’s time has come again, and so has the joy of rediscovering her.

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

Saturday Night’s Children: Cheri Oteri (1995-2000)