Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
Jane Curtin is comedy royalty. One of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live when the show launched in 1975, she made her mark as one of the era’s go-to straightmen. At the Weekend Update desk, she sparred with Dan Aykroyd, who she’d don a prosthetic with for the beloved Coneheads sketches, a bit that was later made into a movie. She won back-to-back Emmys for her role as wry single mother Allison Lowell on the beloved ’80s sitcom Kate & Allie, and returned to television in the late ’90s with 3rd Rock From The Sun. More recently, she’s been cast in a number of movies as a quirky but hilarious mother to everyone from Paul Rudd and Andy Samberg to Melissa McCarthy, a nod in some sense to the passing of the comedic torch from generation to generation.
Curtin’s latest project is Godmothered, which premieres on Disney+ December 4. In it, she plays Moira, who both leads and educates all fairy godmothers—albeit in ways that seem to have made wishing for a fairy godmother wildly unfashionable in 2020. The A.V. Club sat down with Curtin to talk about some highlights from her long and groundbreaking career on both the big and small screens. Portions of that interview are embedded below along with a transcript, but for the full video interview, visit our YouTube channel.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to Godmothered?
Jane Curtin: Well, first of all, I’m going to tell you the truth, which is that the costume designer for this series that I was doing said, “There is a movie that Disney is doing. I’m doing the costumes. All I can think of is you.” I said, “Oh, okay,” and she said, “It’s really cute. All I can think of is you.” Then I got a call to do this Disney movie. And I thought, “Oh, this will be great, I’ll work with [the designer].” And apparently they had a difference of opinion, and it was a different costume designer. So that was fine. This new costume designer was terrific, but I went there thinking that it was going to be a reunion, and it turned out to be something that was totally different. But shooting in Boston, doing a Disney movie, getting to use a magic wand… There were so many pluses about this thing that were just like, “Come on. Come be a fairy godmother.”
AVC: I imagine you don’t often get to wear a giant ball gown with a sweeping cape and a huge wig.
JC: That dress, I think, weighed 35 pounds. It was the epitome of every little girl’s dream. It was so gorgeous. I only wore it for maybe an hour and they took pictures and then did everything else with the green screen and all that kind of stuff. My regular dress, my sort of day outfit, was one of the most beautifully constructed things I’ve ever seen. It was comfortable. I loved being in it. It was great. The costumes were fabulous.
AVC: One thing I noticed when I was watching the movie was that, in your classroom, one of the fairy godmothers you’re supposed to be educating is played by Sonia Manzano, who played Maria for many years on Sesame Street, and I know you’ve been on that show a number of times as well. Was that just a coincidence?
JC: Yes. And I do Selected Shorts with Sonia at Symphony Space in New York City. I’ve known her for years. It was such a delight to see her there.
AVC: How did you get involved with Sesame Street?
JC: Well, I was doing Kate & Allie at the time. I think my daughter was 18 months old when I started doing Kate & Allie, and our cameramen were the cameramen who did Sesame Street. The studio was two blocks away from our studio. It was crazy.
It was so homey in that place. We shot in the Ed Sullivan Theater, Billy Persky was our director/producer, and basically we spent a lot of time talking about what we were going to eat. Susan [Saint James, who played Kate] would bring her son, who was six months older than my daughter, and the kids would spend most of their time downstairs with makeup and hair. They would draw on makeup and hair and wear boas and stuff. It was just wonderful. But the cameraman said, “You should come to the Street when we’re there. We’re there Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” or something. He said, “Bring your daughter. Just tell us when you’re coming or just drop in.” So we just dropped in and we brought some of her friends up with us.
The Muppeteers were so conscious of children and how they were going to respond to things and how they were going to keep the process innocent. Every time you walked in there, it was like, “Oh, hi, come on in.” Snuffleupagus would be up in the wings, because he wouldn’t be used that day. So he’d be up there, and they’d go, “That’s his bunk bed. You should see the lower bed. That’s where so-and-so sleeps.” They had an answer for everything. Every so often Big Bird would walk by and just sit down next to them and hug them. We have pictures. It was just a dream. It’s a great thing for kids.
AVC: Speaking of Kate & Allie: That was a show about single mothers that premiered over 30 years ago. Did it feel groundbreaking at the time? What was your relationship like with fans of the show?
JC: I was told it was groundbreaking at the time, but I lived in New York. It was not groundbreaking in New York, but it was in other parts of the country. So I accepted that and thought, “Okay. Pat ourselves on the back for doing this. Good for us.” The fans that really got to me were the men. I was in my 30s when I did that show, and men in their 50s and 60s would come up to me and say, “Thank you. You make me a little bit more comfortable knowing that my daughter is going to be okay. You know, she’s not married, and she does have children. And it’s really hard. I worry about her, but I see she has a relationship with her friends and they help each other, and that just gives me such comfort to see you guys doing that.” So that was a good thing.
AVC: I was watching your appearance on Watch What Happens Live and an interview you did with Seth Meyers, and you were telling some pretty interesting stories about what it was like to be at SNL from the beginning. I think you guys were paid something like $750 a week, which is almost criminal. I think that we as viewers look at that show as a legacy show, but there are hundreds of cast members who have gone through the doors there, and they’ve all had different experiences, and I imagine that experience has changed over time. What was it like for you? I know you went back for the big 40th reunion show.
JC: Which was unbelievably fun and just the best time I’ve ever had in my life. When we started Lorne said, “You are the stars.” This was before the show started. And I just thought, “Come on, let’s be real. We haven’t done anything yet. You have to prove yourself,” but he said, “No, no. You’re the stars. You’re the stars.” So I kept thinking someday maybe it would happen. But it was new and it was controversial, sort of. We were actors—most of us were improv actors—and this was our job. So it didn’t have any history, and so the other stars either bought that line or they didn’t. Some did, famously, and some didn’t and just kept plodding along. It depended, I suppose, upon your ego and what you needed. For me, it was my job, and it was an exciting job to have, but more importantly, it was my job.
AVC: How has your relationship with the show changed over time? Did you feel one way when you left, and now you feel rosier about it, or vice versa?
JC: Oh, I’ve always felt the same way about my experience there. It was a wonderful learning experience. I had some great times, and the actual 90 minutes of that show was just so exciting and so fun. You had the orchestra, and you had the energy and the adrenaline and the guest host, and it was awesome.
The rest of the stuff was really kind of hard to deal with. So I pulled back, and I did the show, but I didn’t want to play. I knew if I went up to hang out and work with the writers that… They didn’t trust me because they didn’t know me, but they didn’t really want to know me because they didn’t have that time to get to know me. So the only way I could show them I could do it was by doing it rather than trying to sell it. Do you know what I mean? And other people were very good at selling things. I’m not a good salesperson. Eventually we got a relationship, maybe around the third year, which was fine. And then I got a little bit more comfortable being there because I had more stuff to do, but it was still a difficult place to be because it was evolving. It was sort of like being at the beginning of time, and we were the news that was coming up onto the earth, but in television. And that was a turbulent time.
The catharsis was that 40th Anniversary, though. That’s where everybody came together, because it was for us. The party was for us, and finally we were all recognized as a group. That was important, and it was a gift to us, and we gratefully accepted it.
AVC: I wonder if what you went through there is sort of like how, to make an analogy, only 45 people really know what it’s like to be president. Only 100-odd people really know what it’s like to have been on SNL full-time. They know that pressure, or they at least understand.
JC: Well, no, because each generation has had a different horror that they have had to go through, and they’re all different kinds of horrors. Every decade is different. I was there in 1975, when women were barely working out in the marketplace. So it was a different time.
AVC: Speaking of SNL, one of the characters you did there was Prymaat Conehead, which remarkably you’re still doing occasionally all these years later. They even made a movie about the Coneheads years after those characters disappeared from the show. When you first started doing that character, did you know it would have such staying power?
JC: The thing that I thought was, “I can’t believe I’m actually going to put that thing on my head again.” That’s basically because I would love to do it, but to have to wear those things? I hated those things. They were glued to your head. It was very awkward and uncomfortable. But I loved Dan Aykroyd so much, and I love working with him so much. Who could turn that down? I guess if I thought the Coneheads did have lasting power, it was because it was human. It had a core, it has soul.
AVC: There are so many amazing people in that movie, too, like Chris Farley…
JC: Michael McKean…
AVC: Michael McKean, the winner of the Million Dollar Celebrity Jeopardy! invitational, which you placed second on. What was the Jeopardy! experience like for you? Were you a fan of the show?
JC: Because of improv, when you choose that profession and you’re young, your brain starts to operate differently. I believe it starts to pick up bits and pieces of information that you could possibly use. Just stuff that could come out somehow, but that would be handy. So I have gathered all of this handy information. I have no idea what it means. I got it little bit by little bit. It’s like I’m an idiot savant and it’s in all of the little file drawers of my mind. So I was good at trivia because I focused on it because it helped me in improv, and I always watched Jeopardy! I loved Jeopardy! back when I was doing improv. I was working with a guy named Fred Grandy, whose wife at that time went on Jeopardy! and won a car. And it was like, “Oh, my god.” This is when Art Fleming was the host of Jeopardy! This was a long time ago. But we all knew the game. We all watched it.
Before I got married, I went on a game show in New York because I wanted to make some money for a honeymoon. It was a show called Jackpot. It was fun, and I won $5,000, and I was hooked. I mean, game shows! Like, “Oh, my god, this is so much fun.” But then I thought, “Well, I’d never do Jeopardy! I’d never be good enough for Jeopardy!”
But then I got a call when I was doing 3rd Rock, and they were doing a ladies’ night for celebrities. I thought, “Well, I could do a ladies’ night Celebrity Jeopardy!” It was Teri Garr, Naomi Judd, and me. So I thought, “Okay, all right, good company.” But the categories were like, “Furry Woodland Creatures” and “Fast Food Groups.” It was demeaning. Teri and I were looking at each other going nuts, but we did very well, so I thought, “This is easy, and this is fun.” So I did another one. I can’t remember what that one was. And that was a little harder. And then time passed, and they called about the Celebrity Invitational. My grandkids live in Los Angeles, so I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll go out. I’ll do Jeopardy. It’s fun to do. I’m not intimidated by it, and I don’t care if I win. I just want to play the game.” So I went, and this time I spent time there. I knew the hairdresser because she had worked on 3rd Rock, and by that time I knew Alex [Trebek], and I had gotten good at it, but now I can never go back again.
JC: You know that feeling where you’ve done it and you did it well and you’re really proud of yourself, but… I watch it now and I can’t do it. I have no idea about popular culture. I am so far beyond that. So I can’t do it.
AVC: But you know opera and physics and all of that?
JC: No, no, not that stuff either. Just woodland creatures and fast food.
AVC: Speaking of 3rd Rock, that was a show that bridged the millennium and hit in a really interesting time in culture. You’ve had some time away from that show—almost 20 years—so I’m wondering what you hope people remember about that show.
JC: Just that it was very smart and very funny. There is a plaque on the studio at the CBS Radford Center. It’s on the studio where we did 3rd Rock, and it says, “3rd Rock From The Sun was shot here.” I haven’t seen any other plaques for other shows.
Honestly, when we were there, there was a lightness because of that show. Simbi Kali, Wayne Knight, Ileen Getz, and I would commandeer a golf cart, because we had time off. There were other people doing other scenes, and we had nothing to do. So we would play. We would commandeer golf carts and go to other sets and go to their craft services and hang out. We just had so much fun, and Simbi would flirt with all the security guards so they’d let us go anywhere we wanted to go. We’d just drive around, and they’d go, “3rd Rock’s here.” So they’d stop, they show us their craft service, we grab a donut and leave. It was so much fun. We filled that space because we were laughing. It was a silly, funny, smart show.
AVC: I like the CBS Radford lot quite a bit just because of the history there. You can see, “Oh, this is Gilligan’s Island avenue, so that shot here.”
JC: Yeah! Seinfeld… those were major. That’s a big deal, you know. And I did drive to work one morning, and when I drove on to the lot, I was behind an elephant.
AVC: You have played a number of on-screen moms in recent years. You played Melissa McCarthy’s mom in The Heat, for instance, and you played Paul Rudd and Andy Samberg’s mom in I Love You, Man. How do you feel about being called in to play the mother to so many beloved comedy figures?
JC: There are so many mothers in the world that need to be portrayed. Who else is going to do it? They exist and they’re important. A friend of mine who is a very well-known actress said, “I don’t want to play mothers because it means you have no sexuality.” I said, “But you had to have sexuality because you have children.” So it’s okay. I love playing mothers. I am a mother, and I love being a mother. And I’m a grandmother, and I love being a grandmother. We’re human.
AVC: I love that they hire funny people to play the parents of other funny people. It’s like cinema genetics.
JC: Except in I Love You, Man. I kept thinking, “How did J.K. Simmons and I have those children?” Our children wouldn’t have looked like that. Paul Rudd doesn’t look like me or J.K. And Andy Samberg didn’t look like either one of us either. Where did these kids come from?
AVC: I’m a big fan of Bob & Ray, and I think they’re so underappreciated in this day and age. You did a special with them alongside Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman. Tell me how that came about.
JC: It’s interesting. Keith Olbermann owns a lot of their old shows. He’s a big fan. Anyway, they were on television in Boston when I was growing up, so I grew up with Bob and Ray. When we did this special, Ray had a giant cold sore and nobody wanted to look at it. They were just totally grossed out by it, but it was just a cold sore and it was probably nerves. I had no problem with it. So I sort of bonded with Ray. We had a scene to do together where we played a married couple, and he really was so embarrassed about this thing that he really was uncomfortable with other people.
So, anyway, he’s doing another scene, and I’m in the set where we’re going to do this married-couple-in-bed scene. I’m lying down on the bed, and Joe Dixon, the stage manager, comes over to me and stretches out down at the bottom of the bed. He’s lying down there when Ray finishes up his scene and comes walking over to rehearse this one. He sees us and he lies down on the other part of the bed. We’re just lying there waiting for them to bring the cameras over and nobody was saying anything. But then all of a sudden something just struck me as funny, and I just started to laugh a little bit, and it made the bed shake, which made Joe Dixon laugh a little bit, which made Ray laugh a little bit. It was like that game when you put your head on somebody’s stomach and you start to laugh. The three of us were having a belly laugh that was for the ages. We just kept going and going and laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing. It was wonderful. I love those guys.
AVC: Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about working with Paul Newman in Our Town at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2002. It was also made into a TV movie that ran in 2003. Tell me about that experience, because who doesn’t love Paul Newman?
JC: I have known them for years. When I was first in New York City, I was thinking about getting a dog. A friend of mine had done a movie with Joanne [Woodward, Newman’s wife] and said that one of her dogs had puppies. My friend got one of the puppies, and then she called me one day and said, “Do you want a puppy?” I said “Yeah,” and she said, “Well, my dog’s brother has just been returned, and they don’t want to keep this puppy, so they want this puppy to be adopted.” So I said sure. She said, “Okay, we’ll go up to the Newmans’ in Westport, and we’ll pick up the puppy.” And I’m just going, “Oh, my god, what am I going to do? I don’t know how to deal with that.” But I got on the train, and I went up to Westport, and they could not have been nicer. They were just lovely, welcoming, warm people. All of a sudden you forgot where you were, and you were just having lunch outside with a family, with dogs and chickens and cats and mayhem. Just great mayhem, though.
Fast-forward a few years. There was a writers’ strike and a directors’ strike and an actors’ strike, and everybody was on strike and there was no work. I got a call from Michael Cristofer, who was a playwright and a director, and he said, “I’m doing Candida at Kenyon College in Ohio. Do you want to do it with me? Joanne Woodward is starring in it.” So, yes, of course I do.
We all went out to Kenyon College, and Joanne and I just had a great time. We both brought our dogs, and we would take our dogs to county fairs on our day off and make them watch sheepherding competitions and stuff like that. We just had a great time, and so we’ve been friends ever since. So when I got the call about Our Town, I just thought, “Oh, thank you. That’s really nice. Thank you very much for including me. I really appreciate that.”
AVC: That’s a really sweet story. I love the bit about the dogs.
JC: They were the happiest dogs on planet Earth, except that both of them got poison oak. And then I got poison oak, of course.