Molly Shannon hadn’t shared details about the tragedy that shaped her life until now. The comedic superstar has a memoir, Hello, Molly!, coming out in April of next year that’ll delve into her difficult family life, and in a new interview with the LA Times, Shannon discusses a traumatic experience that wasn’t widely known. When she was four years old, her mother, younger sister, and cousin died in a car accident that occurred while her father was driving under the influence. Years later, she tapped into that grief to create her beloved Saturday Night Live character Mary Katherine Gallagher.
“I was very heartbroken and very sad and just trying to hold it all together as a kid,” says Shannon. “There’s no way that you could feel that type of deep pain about your mother and your sister being dead, so you just hold it all in, and it comes up later in life.”
After the accident, Shannon and her other sister Mary lived with their aunt while their father healed in the hospital from severe wounds sustained in the accident. “The life that we left was not the same life we were coming back into. It just felt like everything was different. And I wanted my aunt to do stuff like my mom,” she recalls.
Shannon channeled her pain in order to create the iconic Mary Katherine Gallagher, who she conceived during an improv exercise for a comedy show directed by Wild Nights With Emily’s Madeleine Olnek. “[Mary Katherine] was really based on me, how I felt after the accident—really nervous, accident-prone, wanting to please, fucked up but full of hope,” says Shannon. “I just exaggerated everything I felt as a little girl and turned it into a character.”
In the same LA Times interview, Lorne Michaels recalls casting Shannon in SNL, saying, “Everything she did was fully formed. You had this level of intensity where she’s totally in it. I don’t know how that level of determination was formed, but she had it the moment I met her. She was fearless. And also funny.”