Saturday Night’s Children: Laurie Metcalf (1981)

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.

Best known as the sulky sister Jackie on Roseanne, Laurie Metcalf has enjoyed a steady career straddling theater, film, and television roles playing vibrantly offbeat and heartful characters and winning various awards and nominations along the way (including three Emmys for Roseanne), but she also holds the distinction of being one of the shortest-lived cast members in SNL history. Her one appearance – which occurred before the start of the 1981 writer’s strike, during one of the show’s critically worst eras, and on an episode that didn’t even have a host – wasn’t nearly enough time to show off the skills she would later hone into peerless comic mastery through the 80s and beyond.

Metcalf grew up in Edwardsville, Illinois and attended Illinois State University, where she met Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry as well as Perry’s friend Gary Sinise, who founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company together in 1974. Alongside ISU theater grads like John Malkovich, Glenne Headley, and Joan Allen, Metcalf joined the company and remained there after graduating in 1976, performing in a church basement for the first three years before moving to a small theater on Broadway Avenue in 1980. With the exception of an uncredited role in the 1978 film The Wedding, SNL was Metcalf’s first onscreen job.

Metcalf arrived at SNL during one of its most cluttered and unstable times – after the firing of Jean Doumanian near the end of the 1980-1981 season, NBC’s Dick Ebersol took over as producer beginning with the show’s 13th episode on April 11, 1981. Before the episode he fired Gilbert Gottfried, Charles Rocket, and Ann Risley (following Rocket’s live F-bomb) and brought in Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato. Metcalf was also hired as a featured player alongside Emily Prager.

Despite her single-episode stint, Metcalf did manage to make one appearance on the show in a pre-taped Weekend Update segment a month after the Reagan assassination attempt in which she played an Update reporter sent on the street to ask New Yorkers whether or not they’d take a bullet for the President, and if so, where they’d take it. While Metcalf doesn’t do anything particularly funny in the clip, her deadpan and disciplined performance allows for some candid and amusing responses from her interviewees. (The clip isn’t available online, but you can watch it on Netflix Instant.)

Due to the 1981 WGA strike, SNL’s sixth season ended abruptly, and Metcalf (along with Prager, who didn’t appear on the show at all) was not asked back the following year (Ebersol brought in Christine Ebersole and Mary Gross instead). Returning to Steppenwolf, Metcalf won critical acclaim for her performance as a prostitute from the Midwest in the 1984 New York production of Balm in Gilead (directed by her Steppenwolf collaborator John Malkovich three years after their 1981 Chicago production), which brought the group Broadway recognition and earned Metcalf the Village Voice’s Obie Award for Best Actress as well as a Theater World Award.

Following her critical success in Gilead, Metcalf got her big break playing the ever-relatable sister Jackie Harris on Roseanne, which ran on ABC from 1988-1997: “They’d say ‘She’s my — fill in the blanks — sister, aunt, cousin, friend,’” Metcalf told The Telegraph earlier this year. “The character was very identifiable somehow.” She’s also had guest spots on 3rd Rock from the Sun, The Norm Show, Malcolm in the Middle, Frasier, and more recent recurring roles as Carolyn Bigby on Desperate Housewives and Sheldon’s mom on The Big Bang Theory. Her film credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, Uncle Buck, Blink, Toy Story 1, 2, and 3 (as Andy’s mom), Scream 2, Stop-Loss, and plenty more.

Having proven herself on the big and small screens, Metcalf has returned to theater via roles in both new work and revivals including Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, David Mamet’s November (for which she received a 2003 Tony nomination), and the West End production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, in which she currently plays the junkie mother Mary Tyrone. The Sharr White psychological drama The Other Place – in which Metcalf stars in another Obie-winning performance as an “unhinged neurologist” – has been picked up for a Broadway run starting this December. On her performance style, Goodman Theatre’s associate artistic director Michael Maggio told The LA Times, “It’s like having Michael Jordan on your team. Her emotions are so accessible to her. All you need to do is create an environment for her to do what she does best, then let her go.”

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

Saturday Night’s Children: Laurie Metcalf (1981)