Debbie Downer may have put Rachel Dratch on the map, but the former Saturday Night Live utility player doesn’t have much cause for sad-trombone sound effects these days. She’s keeping busy with work, continuing her campaign to appear on all of your favorite sitcoms (in the past year alone, she’s added Portlandia, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Angie Tribeca, and the brilliantly wacko At Home With Amy Sedaris to her CV) while getting that Netflix money with a pair of upcoming films. When she took Vulture’s call on a Tuesday afternoon, Dratch was out in Los Angeles working on Wine Country, an ensemble comedy with her old SNL pals. As for the more immediate future, she and Adam Sandler will play bickering parents of the bride clashing with the groom’s family in The Week Of, due to hit Netflix this Friday.
But parenthood has been her main project as of late. In 2010, the actress discovered she had gotten pregnant at 44 years old — a miraculous experience she details at hilarious length in her memoir Girl Walks Into a Bar — and has found a lot of joy through child-rearing in middle age. From the personal to the professional and their funny points of intersection, Dratch had lots of insight to share.
You’re a Massachusetts native, like myself, but you play part of an archetypal Long Island couple in The Week Of. Growing up in a Red Sox house, we were raised to believe that New Yorkers are the enemy, but this movie suggests there’s not a lot of difference between these tribes.
I hadn’t thought of that shift during production. The biggest difference is in the accent, really. You show up to set thinking, “Oh, I can do accents,” but then I kept flipping back into Boston. I got to work with a dialect coach, and learn the little distinctions between the Boston sayings and the Long Island sayings. In terms of actual character, though, whenever I do the Boston thing, I do the person stahtin’ a fight in the pahkin’ lawt. This was a more suburban, older couple. Still lots of yelling, but not as rough in the manner.
Your relationship with Adam Sandler’s character in the movie is built on a foundation of argument and love, semi-peacefully coexisting. That’s my parents to a tee — did you have a frame of reference as well?
In a regular family, especially in a family living in close quarters during a stressful event, planning a wedding can bring out the worst in everyone. Our characters, you can tell that we’ve got a good solid family life, but to make it real, you gotta throw in a lot of discord. My mom, she’s a good party planner, but she always gets stressed out. Not as much yelling as my character does, but I might have thrown a little bit of her in there.
You were shooting earlier today, yeah? Can you tell us what for?
Yeah, it’s another Netflix movie, I ended up doing two in a row this year. It’s called Wine Country, with a lot of the SNL ladies. We’re out in Los Angeles doing that right now.
I had heard about this, and it got me thinking — your generation of SNL, with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, has really only grown in stature since leaving the show. Have you gotten a sense of your collective profile growing, or is this just me?
I think that because we’re all friends in real life, keeping in close touch and talking all the time — in fact, this movie is loosely based on a trip we all took — all the interacting makes it easier to keep the comedy going. When you get an idea or a character pops out at you, you immediately think of your friends, and how they fit into a given scenario. When the friendship stays real off camera, you get the results on camera. Adam Sandler’s doing the same thing, he likes working with his usual set of friends. It’s fun to be in a little gang.
Comedic actors talk a lot about trust, how improvisation can really only work when you’re attuned to your scene partner’s rhythms and thinking.
As you’re doing a scene, you’re looking at someone you’ve been onstage or on camera with for hundreds of hours, and you’ve got a shorthand. There’s stuff Amy can do that cracks me up immediately every time. There’s a familiarity there that counts for a lot.
Another one of your upcoming projects is a sequel to Hurricane Bianca, a comedy vehicle for drag queen Bianca Del Rio that you appeared in a couple years ago. I have so many questions. Are you a drag icon now?
Not as much as I’d like! I’ve been a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race since back in the day. I got asked to do the first one, and I got to play the villain, which a fun thing that I don’t usually get to do. That was a tiny indie we shot one summer in Texas, and it was so much fun. The second one is even goofier than the first one, but — this is weird. Like, my name in the Bianca movies is Deborah, and my name in The Week Of is Debbie, and then my big character on SNL was Debbie Downer. I do not know why I keep getting these Deb-adjacent roles. Does this qualify as typecasting?
But yeah, the Bianca thing is a blast, and this time they even dress me up in drag! I’m in the crazy contour makeup, the gigantic fake eyelashes, the whole nine yards. I look incredible.
Do you have a drag name all picked out?
Shoot, I haven’t! I’ve got to think of a funny one for when people ask me that. “Dratch” has a lot of potential.
One of my favorite sketches from your SNL days was “Sheldon the Bar Mitzvah Boy,” which makes me curious about your own Bat Mitzvah. What was the theme?
Ooh, one thing, just to clarify: Vanessa Bayer would later do a great bit where she played a Bar Mitzvah boy named Jacob on Weekend Update, after I had done Sheldon. People sometimes get those confused.
But no, back in my day, Bat Mitzvahs didn’t have a theme. We didn’t do that, maybe it was a Massachusetts thing. Still, it was a [chuckles] magical night for all.
You became a mother at age 44, which mostly changes your work by rearranging your entire schedule, but I’m more curious as to whether raising a child has had any effect on how you think about acting and comedy.
I don’t think it’s changed my approach or anything. In a bigger sense, it’s helped me get away from thinking like, “Aaah, I gotta get this part or else!” Now, I can love staying with my kid while he’s little. He’s fun to hang out with. People always say that about their kids, but in my case, it’s really true. He’s a funny dude! I don’t want to encourage him to go out for commercials or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up doing comedy. I can’t endorse that, but I see it happening.
How would you describe your 7-year-old’s comedic stylings?He does funny little voices, impressions, little characters. We’re not sitting around doing this, he just naturally comes up with miniature bits. I can’t think of an example right now, but every time I go on Seth Meyers, I stockpile anecdotes I can tell on the show. And every time, my son kills!
Last thing: Of the many, many characters you played on 30 Rock, do you have a favorite?
I loved Greta Johanssen, the cat wrangler, who was one of the first ones I did. That one was loosely based on the animal handlers we’d have on SNL. That’s a specific type, and it may be in reference to a real person. And the little blue man I played, who Tracy hallucinates, is probably the weirdest role I’ve ever played. That’s what I miss most about 30 Rock: From week to week, you have no idea what you’re going to do next, and it could possibly be anything. Tina’s good like that — on Kimmy Schmidt, I played two halves of a lesbian couple. I got to be married to myself!
This interview has been edited and condensed.