Molly Shannon on Defying the Gatekeepers, Getting Mugged, and Her Most Iconic SNL Characters
In Conversation with Erin Hosier at Cuyahoga County Public Library
Featured Image: Corey Nickols
Molly Shannon is from Cleveland, and she’s a superstar. Because I also live that truth, I began reflexively smelling myself when I was asked to join her in conversation this month at the Cuyahoga County Public Library in support of her triumphant New York Times bestselling memoir, Hello, Molly!. In her first visit home since the loss of her beloved father, Jim Shannon, in 2001, Molly didn’t just share the story about the time her dad successfully dared her to sneak onto a flight to NYC as a tween, she reenacted it live onstage alongside her childhood BFF in front of a sold-out auditorium. Molly’s book is full of the same moxie and perseverance in the face of tragedy embodied by her iconic SNL characters Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley, strivers who never quit.
In this excerpt from the event, Molly talks about her earliest influences, trusting her instincts, and creating the agent you want to see in the world. For the full conversation, listen below or head over to the Tell Me About Your Father podcast.
On Sally O’Malley’s origin story:
Molly Shannon: At St. Dominic’s, they didn’t have a big budget for the arts or anything, but they did enough. This is also what got me interested in acting: on St. Patrick’s Day, each grade, first through eighth, got to do one big Irish number and wear costumes, and we did it on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. And Miss Patty and Miss Jackie were these two sister choreographers. Sally O’Malley is loosely based on them, because they wore red spandex pants and red lipstick, and they were like, “Five, six, seven, eight, let’s go!” and teach us our dance. It was absolutely great.
Sally O’Malley was loosely based on those ladies, but it’s also a combination of my dad, Jim Shannon. Because my dad had a brace on his leg after the accident; he had to learn to walk again. I was always like, oh, I wish he could walk faster, I wish he didn’t walk so slow. I wish I could sit on his lap, but you could hurt him, so you couldn’t just jump in his lap. People don’t know this, but when I do the character, I’m imitating him. When I came on stage all those years on Saturday Night Live where I go, “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sally O’Malley,” and I’m limping, that’s me imitating my dad’s walk. And then this is me wishing my dad could kick the braces off his legs. [Stands up and does high leg kick] “I can kick and stretch, and kick. I’m 50 years old!” Don’t be fooled by the limp because she seems weak, but then she’s like, “I can fuck you all!”Sure enough, five years later, SNL came back again, and they were like, “We’re looking for women again!”
On discovering that comedy is king:
Erin Hosier: Before you got to Saturday Night Live, you hustled. You went to NYU; you went to Tisch. You originally were like, “I’m a dramatic actress.” When did you learn that comedy was king?
MS: Yeah, I was a very dramatic student there, really into drama. I worked at a health club for years during school, but then I was like, I should take advantage of NYU and audition for a play. It was expensive. So, I auditioned for this show called The Follies. Adam Sandler was also cast in that show, and it was a comedy review where we make fun of the teachers. It was like a midnight black box theater.
And for an exercise, while we were rehearsing, Madeline [the director] was like, let’s make up characters for the show. Let’s do an exercise where you come through the door and make up a character, and I’m going to play a snotty director and you have to try to impress me. And so, I created Mary Katherine Gallagher in that exercise. I just went, “Hi, I’m Mary Katherine Gallagher!” She said don’t overthink it, and I just did an improv. The character ended up going so well that they wrote the whole show around her, and it became a big hit on campus, so much so that there were lines around the block to get into this midnight show. And then people on the NYU campus started coming up and going, “You should be on Saturday Night Live!” And I’d never thought of it. I was like, really? Wow.
On breaking into Hollywood by impersonating agents:
EH: You had to figure out how to get an agent and go to all these auditions. You had a bit of a scam called the Mamet Scam.
MS: David Mamet is a very famous playwright. He wrote movies and plays—Speed-the-Plow, so many Broadway hits and movies. He taught at NYU. He was a drama teacher, just part time. And Eugene Pack, my friend who I met at NYU Drama School, studied more with him. When Eugene and I were struggling out in Hollywood, it was really hard to get in the door of these agents. We would go drop off our headshots and nobody would call, and we were like, how are we going to break in? This is just so hard. So we thought up one day the Mamet Scam.
What we did was I pretended to be a person who worked for David Mamet, like his right-hand gal. We knew in Hollywood there would be no crosscheck, because he stayed in Vermont or the East Coast. Eugene Pack’s fake name was Arnold Katz. We went to the American Film Institute Library and we would do research, because there was a big agency book of actors and who their representatives were. I would just look up comedy girls I liked. I would go, ok, who’s Joan Cusack’s agent? Oh, they’re this person, ok, I want to meet them.
So we each had a list of a bunch of people we wanted to meet, and Friday afternoons at 4, we would sit down and make calls. I would call and go, “This is Liz Stockwell calling from David Mamet’s office. Can I please speak to X agent?” And they would put the agent right on the phone. And I would say, “David speaks so highly of you and your company”—and they were very flattered that David Mamet’s thinking of them on a Friday afternoon at 4. And then I would say, we have this kid, Eugene Pack. I make him the star of David’s new play. You really gotta meet this kid, he’s so talented. Could I please get a meeting for him? And I would say he’s rehearsing and he’s running around Hollywood meeting all these agents. And they would go, oh, sure, why don’t you have him call us when he’s out here?
But we had a rule, because Gene Pack and I had worked together in sales, and when we were selling health club memberships, you were never allowed to hang up the phone until you got the credit card. That was the rule in sales. In the Mamet Scam, you couldn’t hang up the phone till you had the appointment in the book. So I would say, you know what, Eugene is so busy, let me just make the appointment for him and that way we’re not going to bother him, because he’s so busy. And they would go, “Great!” And then they might say, “Liz, we should have lunch,” and I would say, “We’re switching offices but let me have my assistant call you.” I just created this character.
And we met everyone. I got cast on Twin Peaks through the Mamet Scam. I really wanted to be on the show Twin Peaks; I said, I want to meet the casting director, Johanna Ray, and the assistant was like, “Wonderful! Tell David I said hello.” And she met me and she was like, “Oh Molly, I’ve got to put you on the show. You must meet David Lynch.” And so I got cast as the Helping Hand lady through Gene Pack with the Mamet Scam. That’s how we got started in Hollywood.In the Mamet Scam, you couldn’t hang up the phone till you had the appointment in the book.
On writing for the stage and her memoir:
MS: I would do the character Mary Katherine Gallagher in my stage show [The Rob and Molly Show with Rob Muir]. I would write out the beats—like she comes on, she’s nervous, she starts out shy then she slowly warms up, and then she sings a song or does a monologue, and then she gets carried away and does gymnastics, and then she gets sent away because she gets too out of control and she’s bad. And then she gets the part and she celebrates. So this little sketch that was like four minutes, I would just develop it in my show over and over and over. And then when I finished the show, I would walk around the block the next day and go, ok, that worked, that joke worked, that joke worked, kind of like that. Does that make sense?
EH: Totally. It’s just such a different process, all kinds of writing. Writing the book, you worked with Sean Wilsey, the author of Oh the Glory of it All. Can you talk a little bit about that process and how you collaborated?
MS: Sean and I met years ago through Mike White, and Sean’s memoir is fantastic. We would just go back and forth because we were in different cities. To sell a book, you have to submit a 100-page proposal. I would just tell him stories kind of like this. And then I had those stories transcribed. And then from those pages of transcription, we started turning those into actual written pages, maybe five pages at a time. We would work on a chapter—like hopping a plane to New York chapter. And just go back and forth.
On defying the gatekeepers to break into SNL and bonding with Lorne Michaels:
EH: Can you talk about the first time you auditioned for Lorne Michaels?
MS: Saturday Night Live had come around, and I had heard they were looking for women. I remember, they asked us to make a tape, and I didn’t have that much money, so I used all my waitressing money and I made a five-minute reel of different characters. But then I found out that I was passed over. He was going to invite some other women in, but not me. I don’t know if he ever saw the tape. I actually don’t think he did; it was probably just assistants. I found out on a payphone outside of my apartment on the corner of Fountain and Vine across from the El Pollo Loco that I wasn’t going to be asked, and I cried and cried. But then I thought, you know what? If they ever come back again, I’m going to work really hard on my characters. I’m going to work on my stage show and write and develop and write and create more characters so if they come back again, I’m going to be locked and loaded and ready.
And sure enough, five years later, they came back again, and they were like, “We’re looking for women again!” And they asked for a tape and I was like, no, no—no tape, come to my stage show. Because I knew that show rocked. It was a 55-minute, tight show. So Marci Klein came to see my show, and it went great. I had almost wanted to give up show business before that because there was so much rejection. I got kind of like, “I don’t know if this is working.” So I stopped doing anything for a year; I just worked in restaurants and I was like, maybe I’ll become a real estate broker or teacher. I’d kind of given up. But sure enough, just when you let go, Marci Klein calls.
There was actually a woman before that who had called herself an unofficial talent scout in New York. But she was more into comedy boys, and I was like, she’s missing all the good women! She was not very helpful. And as a matter of fact, when the woman who called herself the unofficial talent scout for SNL, when she got wind that I was auditioning, I was finally jumping over her because I was like, she’s not getting me anywhere. I could never get in, even though she knew my stage show for years, but she would never bring me to audition. So, she got kind of jealous when she heard that I was getting in through Marci. And she said, “Well, I have one bit of advice for you: whatever you do, when you do your audition, don’t do that character Mary Katherine Gallagher because you’ll never get hired. Lorne will hate it.” Isn’t that crazy?
Eventually I got asked to fly to New York City, and they have you do five characters in five minutes. Chris Farley was at my audition, and Lorne, and I was so excited. My audition went great. I didn’t find out right away if I’d gotten the job, so then I flew back to LA, and some people were telling me, “I heard you’re gonna get Saturday Night Live.” And I go, “No, I didn’t hear anything.” And then, sure enough, one day I got a call: “Lorne wants to meet you and talk to you a little more.”
So I flew to New York, and I had a great meeting with Lorne. Then I went to my sister’s house to celebrate that I just met Lorne Michaels. I still didn’t know if I got the job, but my sister and her husband and I all had a glass of pinot noir, and we toasted my good meeting. And then I went back to my hotel, and it was at night, and I walked on the streets of Tribeca—and I got mugged. This guy came out of nowhere and he looked really scared, and he grabbed me and threw me down on the ground and took my wallet. I was like, oh my god. But I wasn’t that scared because I was so excited that I’d just met Lorne! Nothing could get me down.
And I remember thinking, “Just be like water, just be like water.” He has me down on the ground and I was like, “Do you want my coat?” And he was like, “No, that’s okay. You can keep your coat.” And then I was like, “Oh, he’s so sweet.” It was kind of like Stockholm Syndrome, where he’s my captor but I was like, “Oh my god, I think I’m in love.” And then we got engaged. Just kidding. No, it was very scary. It was scary. But I was still like, “I just met Lorne!”
On the rise of Mary Katherine Gallagher:
EH: Let’s talk about Mary Katherine Gallagher, because that was really the breakthrough sketch. How do the sketches get on the shows?
MS: It’s a really hard job. It’s a writing job. You’re competing with 17 other people for a spot on the show. You have to write your way in.
When I first started, I went to one writer and I was like, “I have this character, Mary Katherine Gallagher, that I do on my stage show.” And I wrote it up, and he looked at it and he goes, “The reason this can’t work is because that’s not really a joke. That’ll never work. That doesn’t make any sense.” Had I listened to him, I would have just stopped. But I was like, no, I know it works. So I was just like, “Next! Get out of here.”
So then I went to this guy, Steve Koren, who I’m still very close to. Steve was a big writer on Seinfeld after SNL, and he wrote Bruce Almighty. He’s written all kinds of movies. He writes a lot for Adam Sandler. Steve just said, tell me what you do in your stage show. And we wrote that up, and that was my very first sketch. He buoyed it with a few more jokes, and I put it into the readthrough, and Lorne really liked it. So that woman was very wrong. And he said, “You know what, Molly? I like it. But let’s wait till next week when Gabriel Byrne is the host. And Gabriel Byrne, he’ll play the Irish priest.”
So then it went to the next week and I read it at the readthrough and it got picked, of course. But then you do a dress show before the live show. And for some reason, the stuff that they don’t believe in as much, they put at the bottom of the dress show schedule. And I saw it and I was like, why is Mary Katherine at the bottom? That means they don’t believe in it. Because between dress and air, they cut like six sketches. And those are usually sketches that are at the bottom.
So I thought, I don’t think they’re understanding what this is going to be physically, because I had just read it at the table, so they’re not understanding when you read stage directions like, she falls on a chair, she does a back handspring. I thought, I’m really going to have to show them what this is. I did it great in the dress rehearsal. And then we all go into Lorne’s office between the dress show and air, and it’s like 11:15. You go in and you might still be in your costume from a sketch that gets cut. And you go in his office and you look at the bulletin board to see what’s made it in the show and what’s cut. And I went in and I looked at the bulletin board, and Mary Katherine Gallagher got moved from the bottom of the show to the top. I was like, yes! And it changed my life. It changed my life.