Julia Sweeney’s Spring Homecoming, Older & Wider
“I really left show business for like 10 years,” says Julia Sweeney.
The comedian and actress is charming and frank, full of insightful stories about her life and career that she tells in a unabashedly resonant voice. Like the tale of her unexpected wave of recent showbusiness success following that decade-long hiatus. A long break can mean an insurmountable cease of momentum in the entertainment industry, but Sweeney just finished a landmark year, acting in three television series and refining her latest one-person show, “Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider,” which she’s filming in Spokane this spring.
The road to this point hasn’t followed a straight, continuous line. A Spokane native who grew up on the South Hill, after college Sweeney spent years working as an accountant in Los Angeles before making an unexpected turn into entertainment. She took classes and refined her comedy at the Groundings, which led to her successful run on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s. SNL was followed by a series of jobs in the industry—writing pilots, playing parts in sitcoms, writing and consulting for shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and performing one-person live shows including “God Said, ‘Ha!’” and “In the Family Way.”
“I always cobbled together a living, and a good living,” she says.
Then life took another turn in 2001 when she adopted her daughter, Mulan. “I was so overwhelmed by parenting, and single parenting,” Sweeney says. It was unsettling to feel her priorities shift under her feet.
“It was hard because I didn’t care about work anymore,” she says. “To me, that was the biggest hit of parenting. I really lost interest in work. I wanted to be home, I wanted to make dinner … I wanted to be there after school to find out what happened. Really be present.” Following her marriage to her husband—Michael Blum, a scientist—she decided to become a stay-at-home mom.
“I told my agent for 10 years, ‘Don’t send me out for any acting parts,’” she remembers.
As her daughter approached college age, Sweeney began to think about how to reintroduce herself to Los Angeles (“Hello Hollywood, I’m back and this is what I look like, and this is how you should cast me!” she quips). She developed “Older & Wider,” the funny, personal, and profound show that’s received critical acclaim in major cities across the country. In the meantime, she also auditioned for and—to her surprise—got cast in the role of Aidy Bryant’s character’s mother on the series Shrill (Hulu). Sweeney was also cast in roles in the series American Gods (Starz) and Work in Progress (Showtime), which she also executive produces.
The recent past has been full of more “yeses” than her earlier years. As a young woman in Hollywood, “I probably spent a year going out for the sexy ingenue parts because I was in the age range for it, but I didn’t have the look or the ‘zhuzh’ of it,” she says. She got used to being turned down, an essential quality for survival in a profession where they “reject you over and over again based on your looks.”
“You have to have a good sense of self and a good sense of humor and you have to have a good community of people to laugh about it with,” she says. “You have to have a very high tolerance for rejection.”
Sweeney is matter-of-fact about the wave of success that’s come in her 60s. “I arrived at the right look for myself. I was the right age—I could be the mother of someone in their 30s,” she says pragmatically. “That’s a huge thing in Hollywood.” By the time an actor is able to carry a show, “the star is probably going to be someone in their 30s. Once I was in my 60s and could be the mother of someone in their 30s, that opened up a whole other category for me.”
“My personality and looks have come together into one understandable product,” she says with a laugh.
She’s coming home to Spokane to film her live show on April 2 and 3 at Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, where she worked as an usher in high school and which she considers “the most beautiful theater in America.” She describes the content as “very stand-uppy storytelling.” It includes observational humor and personal stories, topics like launching a kid out into the world, religion, cancer, feminism, and the complex legacy of Pat, the iconic character she popularized on SNL. While the show is not pushing the comedic envelope in terms of, for instance, talking explicitly about sex, “it’s edgy in a deeper way,” she says.
Sweeney has “worked harder on this show than any show to really construct a joke,” sometimes with the help of an unexpected collaborator: her non-showbiz husband, “who’s funny in this way that I’m not funny at all,” she says. “It turned into this great thing for our marriage.”
Because she’s performed the show in Spokane previously, Sweeney’s providing audiences with extra incentives to attend by giving away 500 seats to each performance to those who sign up for her mailing list and pricing the rest at $25. If you sign up for the mailing list you’re likely to get a fun bonus: a written response from Sweeney herself. “I personally am writing them back and going, ‘Thank you for coming,’” she says.
2019 was a good year, and 2020 is shaping up well. “I made more money as an actress in 2019 than I have ever made as an actress, even having taken ten years off,” she acknowledges. Yet she’s fully aware that “we absolutely cannot count on that happening again. I might now not work for four years.”
“But what it ignited in me is how much fun I have acting, and how much I love acting.”
Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider, April 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. Details and tickets can be found at foxtheaterspokane.org.
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