How to Spell Laughter: Recapping Molly Shannon’s Chicago Humanities Festival Q&A with Tim Meadows
*All photos by Kelley Lauginiger unless otherwise noted.
Last week, comedian, actress and author Molly Shannon took the stage to a full house of raucous applause for an hour-long Q&A about her new memoir, “Hello Molly!” Fellow comedian, SNL alum and friend, Chicago native Tim Meadows interviewed and moderated the event. Randolph Street’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance hosted the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) soiree, with its subterranean stage sneaking by on your right like a cyclist on the lake path. I swear I’ve walked past it about 200 times without realizing, but this was my night to finally go inside and get educated.
My feelings about “An Evening with Molly Shannon and Tim Meadows” can best be expressed in a monologue by author and comedian Molly Shannon herself, from this very evening. When asked if she gets sick of doing her ‘Superstar move,’ she said, “I could do it every day, 50 times a day! I never get sick of it!”
In the spirit of Molly Shannon being the most adorable, clever and hilarious famous human, let’s do this in the cutest composition style: acrostic.
M aking People Laugh
So affable, bubbly and spirited, it seems rare to find Molly Shannon in a bad mood -at least outwardly. Perhaps it is true that the people who have been through the most in life, never want others to feel badly, and inclusion through laughter is certainly Shannon’s approach. “Hello Molly!” shares personal stories about waitressing and selling gym memberships to pay tuition throughout college at NYU’s Tisch drama program, all to get the chance to make people laugh.
Though she worried the wealthier students were able to take better advantage of all that college had to offer without full-time jobs, this grind ultimately led to her breakout performance: a clown using a fake penis as a prop. Shannon’s entire acting class grade would be based on this performance, dressed as an Italian Arlecchino. “It should not be too rehearsed, and should be spontaneous and organic,” Shannon said in her memoir. “The day came and I had not rehearsed at all. The only think I had done was sew my fake penis, which I have to say was really fun!” Ultimately, she made the class cry laughing, got a standing ovation and “found herself as an artist and a performer.” She learned she could make people “really laugh,” and not to over-rehearse for her personal style. As noted in the book, this is precisely what she ended up doing years later on SNL, but she didn’t yet know she was building the foundation. It was always about making people laugh.
Toward the end of her Chicago Q&A she touched on her character “Jeannie Darcy,” who she performed on SNL just before leaving show. Darcy displayed many negative tropes of a “female comic,” from raunchy vibrator jokes to period banter. Darcy often performed in ridiculous settings like a nursing home where people were dying around her, and always used her catch phrase, “don’t even get me started!” Shannon explained that at this point, she was feeling such pressure to make people laugh, she made this character to channel it.
Sadly, Shannon’s mother passed away tragically when she was only four-years-old. Her baby sister, Katie, unfortunately died in the same car accident. She and her sister were raised by their father in the Cleveland area. In this live Chicago Q&A, she explained that during the “Darcy” era, it was then that she realized: no matter who she made laugh, or what awards she won, her mom would never be able to laugh, or tell her she did a good job. It was this, Shannon explained, that she was subconsciouly chasing.
O n Friendship
Molly Shannon is a timeless comedy icon, especially for ’90s kids who grew up with her characters. She could make me cry laughing as a kid, as well as my parents and all my teachers too. Thanks to her longevity, she remains an icon for all ages with current roles in “The White Lotus,” “The Other Two,” “Divorce,” and much more. From the time she started out on the public stage at SNL, Shannon has displayed relatable, hilarious characters that made funny women visible. She was pretty, but that wasn’t her focus, and she took risks in physical comedy not seen since the Lucille Ball years. As a young person, maybe most importantly, you could just tell in her eyes she was kind. Her jokes were just for laughs, and she had a big heart.
Growing up, I was fortunate to have a *middle school best friend.* Young people who were lucky enough to have a *middle school best friend,* especially in the ’90s, have had an amazing run recently with Pen15 and Fuller House among other shows. However, if you grew up watching SNL with your sixth/seventh grade bestie when you were supposed to be in bed on scrambled basement TV… you’ll love “Hello Molly!” Throughout her memoir, and throughout this evening with Tim Meadows, Shannon frequently mentioned her childhood best friend, Ann, who was shy to everyone else, but connected with Molly over early improv, trying to make each other laugh. They mimicked their neighbors, made up inside jokes and even took local bus trips together as young children to a nearby hospital ward to see what it would be like to be a doctor who just got out of surgery…or at least have a sandwich near them.
Throughout the evening, Shannon made it clear how friendship has shaped her life. I felt like I knew her friends Alison and Ann after reading her memoir. So many of her funniest personal moments she’s presented as characters publicly, came initially from love. This includes her friend Debbie Palermo calling her ‘Superstar’ each time before her stage show, and then Molly busting the phrase out on a whim for her friend on live TV the first time she got the character on SNL, which led to a veritable franchise of ‘Superstar’ success. In her memoir, she spoke of supporting pals from her past, like her college roommate who was considered an eccentric, ‘real witch’ to their peers. Shannon said in her memoir, “I like that witch. And you know what? I’m gonna be friends with that witch. And she and I are gonna go to the East Village for Chinese food, on Sunday night, and we’re gonna split a bottle of wine, and sit and talk… that sweet, smart witch and I. And that is that.”
One friend mentioned throughout the event and the book, was Shannon’s dad. He put her in what she called “The Jim Shannon School of Acting” from a young age, where she’d try to trick her friends that someone was on the phone for them while over to hang out. “Ann, it’s for you,” Shannon pretended, changing her voice into her father’s deeper tone saying back, “nope, not believable enough, do it again!”
Seeing Shannon high kick on stage and laugh with her old friend Tim Meadows felt like a warm hug from an old friend. She was so fit, so petite and so flexible, it felt pretty unbelievable that she is 57-years-old. Even though Shannon summed up her relationship with childhood BFF Ann in this quote from the Chicago show, for many of us, it could apply to our relationships with the characters themselves, like Mary Katherine Gallagher, Sally O’Malley and so many more: “I think when you’re connected like that from your childhood, it doesn’t matter how much time passes, you can always pick up again. Our lives have gone in different directions…but we’re still really close. Like sisters.” Thank you to Molly Shannon for creating the landscapes for so many silly, special memories.
L et’s Talk About Tim Meadows
Tim Meadows looks AMAZING and is still The Ladies’ Man. He has recently hosted other interviews around town, notably at the Music Box with Bob Odenkirk. His wit and comedic timing remain bastions of crossing taboo thresholds with endearing vibes. He’ll make you think, make you laugh and if you were in the Chicago audience, definitely asked you for weed, but not in an annoying way. If you’re reading this, Tim; I really hope you got what you needed, king. He also reminded the audience of his deadpan Dr. Poop sketch that broke Will Ferrell, Chris Parnell and Molly Shannon all at once. If you haven’t seen that one for awhile, or ever, go ahead and look it up.
Thanks to his close relationship with Shannon from working together for years on SNL, Meadows as her moderator felt intimate and casual. The pair got comfortable early, mostly discussing topics from Shannon’s memoir. Meadows cranked the heat when asking questions more personal to him specifically, noting how it felt terrible when only some of the SNL cast made it on the cover of Rolling Stone, leaving the rest of the cast feeling a bit cast aside. He asked Shannon, one of four who did make the cover, what she remembered from that time. This could have led them down a dramatic road, but Shannon instead recalled how fun the experience was, mentioned cover photographer Mark Seliger by name and didn’t once buckle.
The exchange felt like an authentic call and response from both Meadows and Shannon, enhancing the unique corners of conversation explored only in Chicago, with different moderators along each stop on Shannon’s book tour. Meadows touched on how hard the skit “Dog Show” used to make him laugh at SNL table readings, stating frequently to get her skits on the show that Shannon would use for support, “but Tim laughed!” One time, the two went for pedicures together, which Meadows said was his only time doing this with a woman he wasn’t sleeping with. The Ladies’ Man, forever and ever, amen.
Lovingly, Meadows held up Shannon’s new book to start the show, saying the first thing he did was look to find where she wrote about him, getting a huge laugh from the crowd. She of course, did mention him, and the mutual respect and rapport shared between them was a lot of fun to experience. It felt as if we in the audience were just guests for two old friends catching up. Kudos to the Chicago Humanity Festival for cultivating such a show.
L ove & Loss
Lots of funny people are actually sad. I think we all know that and yet, it can be easy to forget when they make you laugh all the time. Part of growing up is learning about love and loss in due time, but since Shannon went through such trauma at such a young age, it was like she had become a woman when she was only four. In her memoir, she says the doctors told her older sister, Mary, “You have to kind of be the mom now.” She was six.
Knowing there is an end someday for all of us is daunting, but it also brings humanity together as a great equalizer. Reflecting on this through Shannon’s comedy surfaced many emptions. Through her memoir, learning that her sisters names were Mary and Katherine, and the head priest for her first grade St Patrick’s Day show was Father Gallagher, showed how what we love, and what we hold close to us inevitably who we become, and we share with the world, for better or for worse. Shannon could have done it differently, but she turned sadness and tragedy into a conquering story of resilience, as radiant protagonist, Superstar and iconic role model.
Y our Birthmark Looks Like Chi-cago
As a young high school student, Shannon auditioned for NYU at a Chicago hotel, as told in her memoir. Making a fun road-trip out of it from Cleveland, she went with her best friend and their dads. She clinched her position in the competitive program w a dramatic monologue. Mary Katherine Gallagher’s soon-to-sprout roots were definitely planted deeper that day.
Chicago loved having Molly Shannon, hosted by Tim Meadows. One audience member told Shannon she has been Mary Katherine Gallagher every year for Halloween since 2009 (12 years), and asked her if she’d ‘do Superstar,’ to which Shannon burst into form (pictured below).
See the full Chicago Humanities Festival’s “An Evening with Molly Shannon and Tim Meadows” conversation here:
Check out the preview for this event here from a few weeks back, with more pictures and CHF information about upcoming guests including Anita Hill and John Waters. Please note that some details changed after the preview was published. According to CHF, they are trying to reschedule the Jonathan Van Ness appearance that was cancelled due to illness.
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