A comedian's poignant tale.
By Michael McCall
NOVEMBER 24, 1997: Subtlety is not a '90s kind of thing. Name any segment of American society--politics, sports, entertainment, business, or religion--and what draws the most attention these days tends to be what's loudest, showiest, brashest, or most vulgar. So it figures that comedy would reflect the tenor of the times. And since comedy tends to be brash by nature anyway, it also makes sense that albums by comics are currently enjoying a surge in popularity, with record sales recalling the '70s heyday of Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Unfortunately, the most highly touted comedy albums of late--including those by Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Denis Leary--find each of these performers simply shouting and ranting (or, in Sandler's case, singing in a purposefully awful, off-key voice). They're as subtle as Times Square.
While Rock and Leary at least generate some laughs, there's little to recommend most of these new releases. But a few worthwhile recent spoken-word LPs suggest that the art of the monologue hasn't died out just yet. The most unforgettable of these is Julia Sweeney's poignant God Said Ha!, a sweet surprise of a tale that unfolds over two CDs through connected vignettes that shine with softly shaded wit, intelligence, and insight. Like the best records, it works as well on a pleasant, lazy afternoon alone as it does with a crowd of friends; it's the sort of collection that begs repeated listenings.
Best known for playing the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live, Sweeney originally generated the material on her album for a one-woman show that opened in San Francisco in 1995; the performance later enjoyed an extended run in Los Angeles and a shorter stint on Broadway. The narrative centers on her brother Mike's cancer diagnosis and on how the Sweeney family responds to the crisis.
That may not sound like great comedic material, but Sweeney weaves a multidimensional monologue that suggests just how much humor can help us deal with life's biggest traumas as well as its day-to-day peculiarities. While illness is at the core of the story, the CD also tells a moving tale about family bonds. Even as Sweeney points out how different she has become from her family, she also comes to realize how much they share in common.
Like a good monologuist, Sweeney eases into her story slowly. She begins by talking about performing, how it gives an otherwise reticent, normal person an outlet for getting the attention she craves. Then she starts talking about her family, explaining how, as she developed her own career and her own life, the close-knit bonds of her family started to unravel. Both Sweeney and her parents began looking at each other as alien creatures with lives full of strange rituals and eccentric behavior. She explains that she finally reached a point where spending two weeks a year with her parents turned out to be just the right amount of interaction.
That all changed in 1993. As her stint on Saturday Night Live came to an end, the recently divorced comic actress moved to Los Angeles. She had bought a home there the year before and spent the interim fixing and decorating the house. As her year of planning progressed, she began to construct elaborate fantasies about how she would conduct her life once she made the move. For a month, everything fell into the patterned life she had designed for herself.
Then, she says bluntly, her brother discovered he had lymphoma. She ended up opening her smallish bungalow not only to her ailing sibling, but also to her retired parents, who moved to L.A. from Spokane, Wash., to be with their son. This is how God interrupted her perfect life to say, "Ha!" No longer was she an up-and-coming comedian, actor, and screenwriter who entertained famous friends; instead, she was back to being the quirky girl whose parents dominated her life.
Sweeney doesn't attempt to sweeten the harsher aspects of her story. She doesn't bring in music or sound effects; instead, she lets the subtle shifts in vocal tone regulate the flow of her difficult yet poignant tale. She speaks in a breezy, high-pitched voice when telling lighthearted stories, then slips into a deeper, slower register when conveying the graver aspects of her family's experience. She spins her story with marvelous aplomb, as if holding court at a dinner party.
From the moment cancer enters her story, Sweeney loosely follows a time line, juxtaposing humorous segments about generational clashes with short snippets detailing her brother's worsening condition and his increasingly debilitating treatments. That she keeps it so funny is amazing, but it's the utter humanity of her tale that makes it unforgettable and universal.
Sweeney refuses to shy away from exposing the pain of cancer, nor do her bitingly hilarious portrayals spare even her own family members. In repeated vignettes, Sweeney draws big laughs from the culture clash that takes place between a sophisticated celebrity and her backwater folks. To keep from drawing her parents' criticism, Sweeney finds herself trying to suppress any traces of big-city refinement. Instead of using words like "pasta" and "marinara," she hears herself saying things like, "Hey, how about the noodles with the red topping?"
Such an anecdote might seem trivial, but it's Sweeney's way of showing how illness can pull a distant family together or deepen the rift between them. The tension between family members is quite obvious in her tale, but then, so is the love.
Remarkably, just when the story seems to hit a true low point, Sweeney delivers a cruel twist: A visit to doctor reveals she has cervical cancer. When her gynecologist informs her that tests revealed malignant cells in her cervix, she responds, "What? That's impossible! You know, my brother has cancer."
It's strangely fitting that, as her tale gets more tragic, Sweeney's humor becomes even more cutting. As she explains, the dual illness only heightens the pungent sarcasm Sweeney shares with her brother: Once, when left alone while their parents traveled to Palm Springs, the siblings found themselves answering the phone, "House of cancer." Sweeney is particularly careful to display her brother's dark humor, for it's clear that she derives much inspiration from his sharp impudence.
Sweeney proves just as witty when talking about her own cancer battle. From the start, she lets it be known that her chances for recovery are great while her brother's grow slimmer with each passing week. But she doesn't address the mental trauma she must have experienced; instead, she subtly slips in quiet details about her brother's prolonged but losing fight. When Sweeney starts to talk about their last moments together, her narrative is shatteringly beautiful--it's here where her grace, intelligence, and storytelling shine brightest.
For all the humor in God Said Ha!, Sweeney manages to convey just how difficult it is to watch a loved one truly, deeply suffer. She grows very serious at times, detailing the chemotherapy trips and the tears and how she and her parents evolved from praying for Mike's recovery to praying for his deliverance from pain. But for all the immense discomfort and tension, what stands out in her tale is how much they all wind up loving and comforting each other.
In one segment, the family is gathered together, watching In a Lonely Place, the Nicholas Ray film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. At one point in the middle of the movie, Sweeney's mother reaches over and takes her brother's hand. "That is something that Mike would never let her do," the comedian says. "I flinched, and I almost said, 'Mom!' But I was surprised when Mike just let her."
Scenes like this one portray how Sweeney and her brother came to view their parents in a different light over the course of a very difficult year. She lays on the sarcasm and jokes, invoking visions of conflict and therapy, but in the end Sweeney comes to realize just how functional her family really is. With God Said Ha!, she gives us a portrait of a modern family that's as vivid and complex as any theatrical drama. Here's hoping her album sells more than Adam Sandler's.
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