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.
Wry, understated, and best known for her Chicago accent and off-brand nerd-girl appeal, Joan Cusack is another second-wave SNL cast member whose brief time on the show went largely forgotten thanks to a successful – and in Cusack’s case, also underappreciated – string of post-SNL film and TV performances. Despite spending only a year as a repertory player, Cusack had already established herself as a master of blending hipsterdom and squaredom together into a loopy and sweetly self-deprecating package, and despite her laments about being stuck in “the best friend or the quirky sidekick” mold, few actors have owned those roles with the same level of irreplaceable weirdness and accessibility.
Cusack was born in New York City and raised in Illinois in a family of performers – her father as well as her four siblings Ann, Bill, Susie, and John have all been actors, and Joan has appeared with John in a handful of films including Sixteen Candles, Grandview, High Fidelity, Say Anything…, and War, Inc. By the time she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cusack had already learned improvisation at the Story Theater and The Ark in Madison, where Chris Farley later trained while she was an SNL cast member.
When Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, he rounded up a strange mix of both established and upcoming stars like Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, and 23-year-old Cusack, whose pre-SNL performing experience extended to only a few film roles including her part in 1984’s Sixteen Candles alongside cast mate Hall. Despite being one of only three females during one of the show’s most tumultuous seasons, Cusack still managed to gain somewhat of a presence on SNL with her socially awkward character Salena in “The Further Adventures of Biff and Christina” sketches with Jon Lovitz, where the two play friends too inept to try to flirt with each other. They appeared on the show two times over the course of the season. Cusack also impersonated Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda, and Queen Elizabeth, and she appeared at the Weekend Update desk as a movie critic in March 1986 to argue that Sydney Pollack’s film Out of Africa wasn’t funny, citing Midnight Cowboy as a much more successful comedy: “A young Texas boy comes to New York to work as a male prostitute but instead takes up with a crippled Puerto Rican – that is a funny situation.”
Along with the majority of the eleventh season cast, Cusack was not asked to return the following year, but she went on to appear in The Allnighter, Broadcast News, Married to the Mob, Addams Family Values, and Working Girl and In & Out, which both earned her Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. More recently she had a small but memorable role as the dweeby principal/Stevie Nicks fan Rosalie Mullins on School of Rock, voiced characters in Chicken Little and Toy Story 3, and starred in her own sitcom What About Joan, which ran for 21 episodes on ABC from 2000-2001. She currently has a recurring role on Showtime’s Shameless and still makes the occasional SNL appearance by way of Abby Elliott’s killer impersonation.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.