Why I’m honoring these three unsung heroines of Saturday Night Live
For Women’s History Month, we are publishing Celebrate Her—an essay series honoring women who deserve more public praise for how they have inspired us individually and empowered their communities: Scientists, activists, and artists. TV directors, comedians, and actors. Burlesque dancers and wrestlers. Those who have passed on and those who are still with us. Here, film critic Mara Reinstein celebrates the talent and impact of SNL comedians Rachel Dratch, Jan Hooks, and Ellen Cleghorne. Read the rest of these essays here throughout March, and read about even more incredible humans in our Women Who Made Herstory series.
Amid the million heated opinions about the 91st annual Oscars in February, there was one universally applauded moment: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph’s joint monologue as the unofficial welcoming committee. They were cutting, pithy, and relaxed. Though they didn’t host the host-less show, they set the tone for every other presenter that evening.
Two thoughts crossed my mind as I watched them kill it on stage at the Dolby Theater:
1. How cool is it that three talented women who together rose through the ranks at Saturday Night Live kicked off the biggest entertainment event of the year?
2. Where is Rachel Dratch?
Then I wondered about Ellen Cleghorne, and all the other lesser-celebrated female SNL performers who once gave their livelihoods to the iconic series.
This is not a meditation on the mistreatment of women in the comedy industry—I don’t have the stamina to go there. I’m not going to wax poetic about the significance of Saturday Night Live, either. If you’re breathing right now, then you already know the NBC institution basically invented the viral video and has turned live comedy into a sport. It’s also been a breeding ground for some of the biggest stars over the past 44 years. Bill Murray. Eddie Murphy. Chris Rock. Mike Myers. Jimmy Fallon. And, of course, Fey, Poehler, and Rudolph. But before any of those women appeared in SNL’s cosmopolitan look-at-me-in-N.Y.C.! opening credits, three other comediennes served as vital, albeit unflashy, pioneers. I want to pay some 30-years-worth of respects.
My earliest memories of Saturday Night Live date back to the mid-80s, when my parents let me stay up late—the ultimate pop culture rite of passage—so that I could watch my idol, Madonna, host the show. While I can remember being super-disappointed that she didn’t sing “Like a Virgin,” the show’s comedy itself was totally lost on little me. It wasn’t until the ’90s, when I turned into a TV-obsessed suburban teenager, that I thought of SNL as a must-see. I caught the show live on my portable black-and-white set in my bedroom, taped it on my parents’ VCR, then re-watched my favorite skits throughout the week. You call it nerdy—I call it premature research for my future career as an entertainment journalist. But, yeah, I was nerdy.
I laughed at Wayne’s World and Chris Farley’s motivational speaker character Matt Foley. I crushed hard on Adam Sandler whenever he sang and played guitar.
But nobody impressed me as much as Jan Hooks.
One of only three regular female players on the show during the late ’80s and ‘early 90s (along with Victoria Jackson, Nora Dunn, and Julia Sweeney), Jan Hooks stood out because she refused to stand out—i.e., she didn’t have to mug for the camera and suck the air out of Studio 8H with an oversized personality. Hooks just quietly and consistently brought the funny, disappearing into impersonations of Kathie Lee Gifford, Sinead O’Connor, Drew Barrymore, and Diane Sawyer. She was also the first cast member to spoof Hillary Clinton, portraying her as a maniacally power-hungry co-president. This was back in 1992.
Hooks never “broke” and burst into laughter, not even when Farley and host Patrick Swayze pranced around half-naked in front of her in the iconic Chippendales sketch of 1990. (If you’ve never seen it, Google “SNL Chippendales.” I’ll wait.) She belted out, “Tell the chickens we are on our way!” in a celeb sing-along about saving poultry. I never caught her reading off cue cards. The woman could do it all.
Hooks was a grown-up woman surrounded by man-boys. Staking ground during those 90 minutes every Saturday night must have been difficult. Now imagine being a Black woman on the show during this era; Ellen Cleghorne joined the cast in 1991, the season after Hooks left (she’d return for several guest appearances).
Cleghorne broke a major racial barrier, becoming the first Black woman or woman of color to be given the opening credit treatment on Saturday Night Live for longer than a single season.
And though she fleshed out signature characters such as the busybody NBC page and Queen Shenequa, I always sensed that the predominantly white male writing staff didn’t know what to do with Cleghorne’s skills. Unlike her male counterparts, she never yukked it up with the host during a monologue or scored popular weekly segments on Weekend Update. Only five Black women have joined the series since Cleghorne left in 1994—including Rudolph from 2000-07.
By the end of the decade, I was living in New York City and spending most Saturday mornings standing in a snaking line outside 30 Rock in hopes of scoring SNL tickets. (I never got lucky.) Dratch and Fey, comedy partners at Second City in Chicago, were now part of the cast. Fey joined as a writer; Dratch was a featured player with Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, and Cheri Oteri.
Rachel Dratch had the ability to play unglamorous freaks and geeks.
From the uncouth love child of Angelina Jolie and her brother to a nervous junior high boy on his school’s radio show, Wake Up Wakefield!, Dratch killed. Most memorable of all? She created the great Debbie Downer, the frumpy grouch able to buzzkill a sunny trip to Disney World by noting statistics about feline illness. I laughed to the point of crying, and I know you did, too. When SNL celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2050, I guarantee Debbie Downer will merit a clip.
I worked in magazine offices for 20 years. No matter how much camaraderie I shared with my fellow staffers, I felt natural twinges of envy as they thrived and embarked on exciting new endeavors. That emotion must be a million-fold when you’re in the SNL trenches watching some of your peers skyrocket to mainstream success.
With a bit more luck and opportunity, perhaps the pendulum could have swung in the other direction for these three unsung heroines. Cleghorne went on to headline a self-titled sitcom, Cleghorne!, on The WB before the network became a millennial destination. Dratch was axed from a lead role in the Emmy-winning 30 Rock—though she made guest appearances and will perform alongside Fey, Poehler, and Rudolph in the upcoming Netflix movie, Wine Country. Hooks had roles in 3rd Rock from the Sun and starred in Designing Women toward the sitcom’s end. She also popped up on a few other shows (including 30 Rock) before dying of cancer in 2014.
I had to explain to my younger coworker why her death merited a mention in our weekly issue. She had never heard of her.
When I watch the current iteration of SNL—next-day playback on Hulu—I marvel at the queen statuses of the female cast members.
Repertory players Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Melissa Villaseñor aren’t just clawing their way to equal screen time; they generate the biggest buzz and are featured in the sharpest sketches and digital shorts. They headline big-budget comedies, appear in commercials, and get nominated for Emmys. McKinnon has won two. Bryant scored her own top-draw Hulu series, Shrill. They’re not part of the cast for optics’ sake. They rule the school.
Somewhere, I can hear the Church Lady snipe, “Well, isn’t that special?” It is, actually. The comedy institution still needs to progress, but women on SNL have come a long way on a show that, for decades, has structurally remained unchanged. The next time you catch it, remember that Hooks, Cleghorne and Dratch all blazed the trail so others could follow with less obstacles in the way. And if any women SNL-ers past or present end up winning an Oscar one day, I can think of three people they should thank.