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.
She’ll always be identified with Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, but not many people recognize Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the young television newcomer she was on early-80s SNL. Before going on to star in a string of critically acclaimed shows, Louis-Dreyfus spent three years as a repertory player during the Dick Ebersol days developing characters and paving her quick path to stardom. Since then, she’s dominated with leading TV roles, first on Watching Ellie (created by husband and SNL alum Brad Hall), The New Adventures of Old Christine, and most recently HBO’s Veep, which earned her a 14th Emmy nomination and fourth win.
Born in New York City to a writer/tutor mother and French billionaire businessman father, Louis-Dreyfus moved around for much of her childhood – her parents divorced a year after her birth and both remarried – she spent weekends with her father in New York then lived with her mother and stepfather, the dean of George Washington Medical School and doctor for Project HOPE, in Washington DC, often traveling with them for her stepfather’s work to Colombia, Tunisia, and Sri Lanka. She majored in theater at Northwestern University, where she met future SNL cast mates Brad Hall (they began dating and married later in 1987) and Gary Kroeger and with them joined the Practical Theatre Company. The troupe performed right next-door to the Second City Theatre, and Dick Ebersol hired all three of them for SNL in 1982 sans auditions. Louis-Dreyfus was only 21 years old when SNL offered her the gig – the youngest new female cast member in the show’s history at the time – and she dropped out of Northwestern to move to New York.
At SNL she immediately created several recurring characters: April May June the Southern beauty queen televangelist, Weather Woman from the mundane superhero group “The Interesting Four,” Becky the bully in the “El Dorko” sketches with Kroeger and Hall, talk show host Consuela, and Patti Lynn Hunnsacker, Saturday Night News’ eye-rolling Teen News Correspondent. She impersonated a range of 80s celebrities including Marie Osmond, original MTV VJ Nina Blackwood, Diana Ross, NBC journalist Linda Ellerbee, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joanna Carson. While she maintained a steady, spunky presence during her three seasons, her lack of experience with the showbiz world and backstage SNL politics (and, at times, sexism) turned the experience sour, as she retells in Live from New York:
I thought it was going to be a congenial experience; my head was in the clouds. I wasn’t aware of the politicking one had to do, and I think there were a lot of drugs going on at the time, but I was unaware of that as well, to tell you the truth. I was always surprised at read-through, though, when certain writers’ sketches were eighteen pages long and they were laughing and laughing, and I was so confused as to how they could possibly have found it so funny – and made it so long! Everybody was doing a lot of coke and smoking dope. Everybody would stay up late. All the work was done between eleven o’clock at night and six o’clock in the morning; that’s when everybody was functioning. And that wasn’t, in my view, conducive to comedy.
After leaving SNL with the rest of the 1984-1985 cast, Louis-Dreyfus made her film debut in the low-budget horror flick Troll, following it up with Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Soul Man, 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (starring alongside Chevy Chase), and roles on NBC sitcoms like Family Ties and its spin-off Day by Day, which was canceled after two seasons. The rest of Julia’s story is history – NBC producers gave Larry David – who wrote for SNL from 1984-1985 – an ultimatum to create a female character for his new show or it would not get picked up for a full season. Louis-Dreyfus beat out Patricia Heaton, Rosie O’Donnell, and Megan Mullally and appeared in all but three episodes of Seinfeld until the series finale on May 14, 1998, giving birth two her two sons Henry and Charles along the way.
While on Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus appeared in several films (Jack the Bear, North, Father’s Day, Deconstructing Harry) and has since been largely absent from the silver screen save for her voiceover of Atta in 1998’s A Bug’s Life and starring in her husband’s 2011 short film Picture Paris. But it could safely be said she owns TV with numerous memorable leads (Watching Ellie, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Veep), guest parts (as herself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the not-blind lawyer Maggie Lizer on Arrested Development, and as Liz Lemon on the 30 Rock “Live Show”) and voice work on animated shows and TV movies (Animal Farm, Geppetto, Dinosaurs, Dr. Katz, Hey Arnold, The Simpsons). She returned to SNL with hosting gigs in 2006 and 2007 as well as the Women of SNL special in 2010 and has since recounted her days as a cast members thusly: “When SNL first began, I was their demographic – a young teenager watching Gilda and Belushi and Bill Murray and all of those guys – and I was just riveted … it was a huge Cinderella-getting-to-go-to-the-ball kind of experience, really.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.