Molly Shannon talks her new memoir, 'Hello, Molly!'

Molly Shannon talks her new memoir, ‘Hello, Molly!’

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Molly Shannon is an inveterate credit giver.

Ask her about the title of her new memoir, “Hello, Molly!” and she volunteers that Allison Saltzman, an art director at HarperCollins, came up with it. Praise her “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Dr. Beaman’s Office,” in which Tim Meadows performs the robot as Dr. Poop, causing Shannon to break out laughing, and she’ll offer, “Adam McKay wrote it.” Mention you enjoyed the first two episodes of her Showtime series, “I Love That for You,” premiering April 29, and she’ll give props to show creators Vanessa Bayer and Jeremy Beiler, showrunner Jessi Klein, director Michael Showalter and costar Jenifer Lewis.

But “Hello, Molly!” is all about Shannon, and it thrums with her indefatigable and fearless spirit. These qualities were instilled in her following the tragic death of her mother, sister and cousin in a 1969 car crash that she and her father, who was at the wheel, survived. She was 4 years old. “I was tough,” she writes. “When you lose a parent, you don’t want anybody to treat you differently. You want to blend in.”

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But Shannon can’t help but stand out, much like her iconic “SNL” character, Mary Katherine Gallagher, the aspiring “superstar” who literally throws herself into everything she does. In “Hello, Molly!” Shannon shares her journey from Cleveland, where she lived with her permissive, but nurturing, alcoholic father, to Hollywood and New York where she became one of “SNL’s” most beloved cast members.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You write about being in something called the New Little Rascals when you were young. Did you watch the original “Our Gang” comedies growing up? Who were the actors who inspired you?

A: I definitely watched “Our Gang” after school on TV. John Ritter on “Three’s Company” was a great influence as a physical comedy performer. Years later, I met him at a Starbucks with his wife in West L.A. He saw me and I saw him and we gave one another a big hug. I also watched “Little House on the Prairie.” Melissa Gilbert was about my age. She was a little spitfire. And Gilda Radner! I grew up watching “SNL” on babysitting jobs after I put the kids to bed. I didn’t think I could ever be like her; she was a unique one-of-a-kind talent. My dad loved her character, Roseanne Roseannadanna.

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Q: You had a rich interior life growing up and the book is filled with outrageous stories. The one that comes to mind is your dad daring you and your friend to hop a plane to New York. You were 13! Do you think this fearlessness prepared you as a comic actor?

A: It gave me a zest for life and a kind of exuberance. My dad liked to be silly and have fun. Someone asked me once if I was scared. I wasn’t scared at all. We were thrilled and overjoyed. It was like a fun adventure.

Q: Your first “SNL” episode was hosted by George Clooney. Do you remember getting your first laugh?

A: I was very nervous. When I got the job, I went to my friend Michael Palermo and said, “Mike, what if I forget how to walk and talk?” I went to his office where he was temping and practiced walking and reading lines and he said, “See, you can do it.” I played George Clooney’s assistant in a sketch. I do remember I got a laugh. George Clooney couldn’t have been nicer. He was a great person to perform with for the first time on the show. I was like, “Okay, and we’re off.”

Q: You write extensively about the creation of your iconic characters Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley. But you were also in sketches that rank in the “SNL” pantheon with “More Cowbell” and “Delicious Dish.” When you’re in a sketch like that, do you have any inkling it’s going to become part of the culture?

A: Ana Gasteyer brought that to me. Dennis McNicholas, Michael Schur, Robert Carlock and Ana wrote that together. It was such a pleasure to perform because we would do it center stage and it just killed. I think I did have a sense right from the beginning, “This is going to be good.”

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Q: In the book, you have an interesting take on breaking character; you defend it. I’ve read Lorne Michaels isn’t a fan of the actors laughing during a scene, but audiences love it. Why is that?

A: Because they feel like they’re in on something as it’s happening right before their eyes. It’s like they’re laughing with you, as though they are part of it. It also means you’re a happy performer; you’re obviously relaxed and having so much fun. It happened to me in a sketch with Brendan Fraser. I was playing Xena, the warrior princess, and he was my rival. I accidentally pulled his wig off. I could not stop laughing. It was so unprofessional. All of us couldn’t stop laughing.

Q: Was it cathartic to write the book?

A: People have asked that and I’ve said, “No, I’ve already processed so much of this stuff.” But the truth is, it is cathartic because there are all these things you think about and you dig deep to make the book rich. For the first time in my life, I Googled the place of the accident and how far we were from home. My whole life I had never done that. We were 18 minutes from home.

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Q: What do you hope readers get out of your story?

A: I hope it can inspire people [to realize] that they can overcome difficult things from their childhood, and to see that it’s great to stick to what you’re passionate about. It’s not always easy, but it does make for a good life.

Q: Your story is in part a testament to the importance of the arts in school. And yet the arts are often the first thing that gets cut.

A: It’s so important. My grade school did not have a big budget, but we could do cheap stuff. We had a mom who came in after school and taught us improv. It changed my life. We could just make up little skits. I lived for the St. Patrick’s Day show where each grade would do a big song and dance number. It was the highlight of my year.

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Vulture.

By Molly Shannon with Sean Wilsey

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