Saturday Night’s Children: Nora Dunn (1985-1990)

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.

While she was one of the few cast members to survive past the ill-fated 1985-1986 season, Nora Dunn was and continues to be one of the most polarizing repertory players among SNL fans. Most of the anti-Dunn tension seems to stem from her allegedly cutthroat and manipulative backstage behavior as relayed in the book Live from New York as well as her feminist principles that culminated in 1990 when she famously boycotted an episode hosted by Andrew Dice Clay, slamming him as a “hatemonger.” But having gone from one of SNL’s weakest to most memorable casts in a year, polarization is no foreign thing to Dunn or her characters, and viewing her unapologetically strong performances begs the question of what SNL would be like if they were to nix all the male cast members and let the ladies take the reins. Dunn wasn’t the first “strong female” in SNL history, but she was certainly the first to demand, rather than suggest, that a woman’s place in comedy shouldn’t be cut from the man’s mold.

Dunn was born in Chicago and studied painting at both the School of the Art Institute and Academy of Fine Arts in her hometown before attending San Francisco City College to study acting and pursue a stand-up career. After three years on the west coast comedy circuit, she returned to Chicago and continued honing her act at the Roxy cabaret theater, which eventually led to her hiring for SNL’s 11th season. Dunn’s younger brother Kevin had auditioned for Al Franken and Tom Davis first and told them, according to Nora, “If you think I’m funny, you ought to see my sister.” Kevin wasn’t hired, but Nora went on to be the only standout female of the season with a consistent presence and stream of characters and impersonations at a time when only 2 of SNL’s 17 writers were women.

During her first year, Dunn’s recurring talk show host Pat Stevens earned her more time in the spotlight than her fellow female cast mates Joan Cusack and Danitra Vance, so by the time the new wave of players took over with the wild and upbeat Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson, Dunn had a head start in snagging leading female roles and imbuing them with domineering yet cynical power, like snobby film critic Ashley Ashley from “Actors on Film,” “Learning to Feel” host Denise Venetti, and Lifetime show host Linda Dano of “Attitudes.”

Dunn also played Babette the Marseilles prostitute, Mrs. Campbell in two “Wayne’s World” sketches, and Ching Change’s (Dana Carvey) girlfriend Loose Change and impersonated celebrities like Brigitte Nielsen, Leona Helmsley, congresswoman Pat Schroeder, Liza Minnelli, Cokie Roberts, jazz singer Peggy Lee, fictional Chicago Sun-Times advice columnist Ann Landers, and activist/musician Joan Baez in fake game show sketch “Make Joan Baez Laugh.” Her most memorable characters take on two extremes – on one end there’s the glitzy party singer Liz of The Sweeney Sisters with Jan Hooks, and then there are her more politically provocative roles, like the male-hating lesbian psychiatrist Dr. Norma Hoeffering who refuses to discuss her “personal experience” to Phil Hartman as Phil Donahue.

In May 1990, Dunn chose not to appear in the second-to-last episode of the season and instead boycotted host Andrew Dice Clay (scheduled musical guest Sinead O’Connor also boycotted and was replaced with Julee Cruise and Spanic Boys), an event which has since instigated several of her cast mates to speak out about her mean and cold-hearted backstage attitude, including Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, and even Lorne Michaels, who said in Live from New York that “Nora painted herself into a corner” with her choice not to appear on Clay’s episode. Despite her absence, the cold open featured “The Pat Stevens Show” being interrupted by Clay and Lovitz as Mephistoles in a scene that poked fun of the boycott and feminist backlash, with Mephistoles talking Clay out of suicide by revealing that infamously awful SNL host Frank Zappa would have been scheduled to host instead (Clay also calls Sinead O’Connor a “cute bald chick”). Whether it was the tension caused by the press or just Dunn’s time to leave, the next week would be her final episode as a cast member until she returned for The Women of SNL special in 2010.

Dunn’s first film role came in 1988 with Working Girl, and she continued to land small parts after her SNL departure in films like Bulworth, Three Kings, Heartbreakers, What Planet Are You From?, Zoolander, Bruce Almighty, Pineapple Express, and most recently Frankie Go Boom (which released in March at SXSW) and The Guilt Trip, which is set for release in December. On the small screen she’s appeared in Get A Life, Everybody Loves Raymond, The X-Files, and more recently Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, with longer stints on Sisters, The Nanny, and Entourage as Dr. Marcus from 2006-2011. When not on screen, Dunn also enjoys writing, acting, and even directing in theater productions most often in her hometown of Chicago, from her one-woman show “Mythical Proportions” to directing “Augusta” for the American Theater Company in 2008.

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

Saturday Night’s Children: Nora Dunn (1985-1990)