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L.A. theatergoers of a certain vintage may experience deja vu driving past the Geffen Playhouse, where the show Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider opens Feb. 5. Julia Sweeney — didn’t she play the androgynous office worker Pat on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s? And then didn’t she evolve into a successful monologist, spinning her life into the one-woman shows God Said Ha! and Letting Go of God? In the new show’s poster, although she doesn’t in fact look measurably wider, she does have gray hair — a radical move for a female star nowadays. But look again at the eyes: big and blue, with a twinkle. It’s the same Julia Sweeney.
But where has she been?
Sweeney developed her latest one-woman show, Older and Wider, in part to answer this question. After working for more than a decade as a stay-at-home mom in a suburb of Chicago, she celebrated her daughter’s high school graduation last June by moving back to Hollywood, ready to pick up where she left off. Older and Wider is a calling card, announcing her return to audiences and directors alike. (She debuted the show in January 2018 in Chicago, to admiring reviews, and has taken it to several other cities; the Geffen run marks its L.A. premiere.)
“Here I am, this is what I look like now, these are my thoughts now, cast me in something — is basically the show,” says Sweeney, sitting in her living room in Larchmont Village.
She has owned this house, a pretty Spanish-style bungalow, since 1990. She rented it out during her Illinois sojourn — but after a coat of paint she felt right at home again. And she quickly fell back into her old L.A. routines, spending most evenings at the Groundlings, the improv company where she first studied comedy, working on new material. Her 10 years in a different city started to feel like a dream.
It got to the point, Sweeney jokes, where “I’d even find myself driving home late at night, going, ‘Why didn’t I ever meet someone? I’m such a delight! I don’t see why — Oh, wait! Oh, my God! I did meet someone. I’m married to them for 10 years. Eleven years! And we’re doing good.’ OK, guess I can’t get into my old romantic depression.”
The story of how Sweeney met her husband, Michael Blum, is a fairy tale for the digital age: Blum’s brother, after seeing Letting Go of God, set them up via email. (Sweeney describes their courtship in her 2013 essay collection If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother.)
But Blum, a scientist, lived in Chicago; Sweeney was an actress and single mom in L.A. Her daughter, Mulan, whom she’d adopted as a toddler from China, was in third grade. (No, Mulan is not named after the Disney princess — but when people ask if she is, as they inevitably do, Sweeney sometimes just says yes, for expediency’s sake. The real story, which she tells in Older and Wider, takes some time.)
As things got more serious, Blum, who had always wanted to live in L.A., planned to sell his Chicago business (building protein crystallography X-ray detectors) and move, but the undertaking proved more complicated than he’d imagined.
So Sweeney took charge. “I proposed to him,” she recalls. And because she wasn’t thrilled with Mulan’s L.A. school, and because Blum had told her how good public schools in Wilmette, Ill., were, she went even further. “We’re moving to you,” she informed Blum. “And he was like, ‘But I was going to move to you,'” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, no. We’re coming to you. Mulan will go through these schools until she graduates. Then you get to come to L.A.’ So he’s like, ‘OK.'”
After meeting Sweeney, it’s easy to understand how such a thing could have happened. It’s not that she’s bossy. It’s just that everything she says is at once so disablingly funny and so persuasively reasoned that even if you could draw enough air between gasps of laughter to argue with her, it wouldn’t occur to you to try.
Unless, of course, you adamantly disagree, as plenty of people have over the years. Sweeney tends to address controversial and uncomfortable topics in her comedy. Her breakout one-woman show, God Said Ha!, is an account of the year when she and her brother were both diagnosed with cancer. He died; she underwent a hysterectomy. In Letting Go of God, she described her journey from Catholicism to atheism, earning critical acclaim but also thousands of angry emails, not to mention a standing Twitter feud with her former SNL castmate, Christian conservative Victoria Jackson. Sweeney is a vehement defender of another SNL castmate, Al Franken, who resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate last year following sexual harassment accusations.
“What happened to him is completely wrong,” Sweeney declares. “I have not met one person I have not been able to convince of that. Yeah, I’m that good.” Then she breaks into a giggle. “Or else they just think, ‘I don’t want to argue with you anymore about it.'”
Although decades have passed since Sweeney played Pat, the character she developed on SNL and in the notoriously unsuccessful 1994 spinoff movie, It’s Pat!, she’s still getting Pat-related flak. Transparent creator Jill Soloway has called the character “an awful piece of anti-trans propaganda.”
Sweeney addresses the issue in Older and Wider, pointing out that she never intended Pat to be trans (in fact, the joke of every Pat sketch was that Pat was oblivious to everyone else’s confusion about his or her gender), while also expressing contrition for any pain Pat caused anybody.
This gift for rolling with the punches is part of Sweeney’s appeal, both in her art and in her life. Although she loves to make complex and ambitious plans for the future, when fate throws a wrench in the works, she regroups.
For example, last June, when she moved back to L.A., her husband had to stay behind in Chicago, still disentangling himself from his business. He commuted back and forth for six months, and finally, she announces ecstatically, “just yesterday, he arrived here as a resident of here! And on Tuesday all of his stuff is coming in boxes.”
Which will, of course, cause its own disruption.
Sweeney has a lot going on right now. It’s not just the incoming boxes, or the house remodel she’s about to undertake, or planning family time for next summer, when Mulan will be done with her first year of college. It’s not even keeping an eye on the Trump administration (she says she’s “obsessed”). It’s also that her career is taking off a bit faster than she anticipated.
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