How Gilda Radner changed comedy and helped make 'SNL' a cultural treasure

Gilda Radner -- one of the most influential cast members in "Saturday Night Live" history -- played a pivota...

Posted: Jan 8, 2019 3:50 PM
Updated: Jan 8, 2019 3:50 PM

Gilda Radner -- one of the most influential cast members in "Saturday Night Live" history -- played a pivotal role in shaping "SNL," forever changing the course of comedy.

Early on, "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels knew Radner had something. She was the first person he hired for what would become his groundbreaking sketch comedy team, which was dubbed "The Not Ready For Prime Time Players," in 1975.

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Despite that original sketch team's legendary star power -- Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman -- Radner stood out.

Her quirky characters became household names: Roseanne Roseannadanna, the loud-mouthed consumer affairs reporter on "Weekend Update"; Baba Wawa, Radner's parody of Barbara Walters; Lisa Loopner, the lovable geek from "The Nerds" sketches; and Emily Litella, the hard-of-hearing elderly woman who appeared in op-ed segments for "Weekend Update."

In the CNN Film "Love Gilda," it's clear Radner inspired countless comics, both men and women.

"You see Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong and Maya Rudolph talking about her in the film," Alan Zweibel, Radner's close friend and "SNL" writing partner, tells CNN. "Even Bill Hader spoke about her with reverence, growing up and watching her. They looked upon Gilda as someone who was a gateway, who was a pioneer for women in sketch comedy in particular and comedy in general."

She helped break down barriers

"SNL" has changed a lot over the decades and much of that can be attributed to Radner helping break down barriers for women in comedy. During her time, she had to fight against stereotypes and the rampant sexism that was almost the norm in show business. Even Belushi, who was arguably the biggest star on "SNL" at the time, believed women were "fundamentally not funny" and he actively worked to undermine female staff writers, according to Curtin.

Watch CNN Films' 'Love, Gilda," now

Just like Radner used to say, "It's always something" — if it ain't a star like Belushi, it's someone else.

"To be a woman on that show was extremely different than when I was there," Amy Poehler says in "Love, Gilda."

"There was so much in the world that had yet to be carved out for women in not just comedy."

Throughout its history, "SNL" has dealt with claims of sexism of being a boy's club. The ratio of male to female staff writers was stark for much of the show's early history, which had an impact on the types of sketches that made it to air. With more male writers penning material, there were more parts written for the men. Not helping matters was Belushi, who "felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women," according to Curtin.

"John absolutely didn't like being in sketches with women," Curtin said in "Live from New York," a book about the history of the show. "He told me women were not funny. Actually, Chevy said it to me as well. And I found it stunning."

Over time, that ratio of male to female writers balanced out, which paved the way for Tina Fey to be named the first female head writer in "SNL" history, a title she held during one of the show's most successful runs. Fey also made up one-half of the first all-female "Weekend Update" duo alongside Poehler.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for Radner, Curtin, Newman and the early female staff writers laying the groundwork.

"By the time I got there, in that read-through room ... our director was a woman, one of our stage managers was a woman," Fey told Oprah Winfrey in an interview. Fey described the system at "SNL" as being "very fair," with everyone having the opportunity for their sketches to be heard and given a chance to make it to broadcast.

Some of the most influential women in comedy today -- Fey, Poehler and Melissa McCarthy, to name a few -- all owe their careers, in part, to Radner. Not only did she make it acceptable for women to cross boundaries in comedy previously only crossed by men, she gave young women a role model.

"Gilda was a superb role model and inspiration for female comedians and performers," Aykroyd tells CNN. "Her legacy is the array of giant female talents who, motivated by Gilda, worked to audition and get on 'SNL.' All of the female cast members since Gilda would agree that their own careers are part of Gilda's legacy."

What made Gilda Gilda

While Radner served as an inspiration to many, you could see shades of Lucille Ball in the way she performed. In some ways, Radner could very well be considered the Ball of her generation. She had a distinct walk; Aykroyd described her as "a puppet with frozen knees and elbows." But she was a master of physicality, and there have been very few, if any women in comedy who have been able to match her level of physicality since.

"Gilda would just give herself up to a moment, she really gave herself up, she sacrificed herself," Bill Murray said in "Live from New York." "She knew how to serve a scene or another person in the scene just so devotedly. She really had the most of that of anyone. As a result, because she made other people look good, she herself looked fantastic."

A number of cast members were nominated for Emmys over the decades, but Radner was one of only three in the show's history to win an Emmy for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program. (Chevy Chase and Dana Carvey are the other two.) Considering the roster of talented people who have appeared on "SNL" throughout the years, it's a testament to her abilities as a performer. Even Poehler says that she "basically stole pretty much all of my characters from Gilda."

Whether she was trading barbs with Curtin on "Weekend Update" or fighting off a noogie from Murray in one of the "Nerds" sketches, Radner elevated any performance she was in. Average sketches became good and good sketches became great. When all else failed, the audience could always turn to Radner for a laugh.

"I think that she's probably got one of the highest batting averages in "SNL" history," says James Andrew Miller, co-author of "Live from New York." "She always delivered. Even when a sketch went sideways or wasn't particularly brilliantly written, there was just something so compelling and appealing about her that she was enough to capture your attention."

'She showed her soul'

Aside from all her memorable characters, part of what made Radner so compelling as a performer was that she was relatable. She was transparent about her own vulnerabilities, which made her endearing to the audience.

"I think that she showed her soul," Zweibel says. "People related to her. Yeah, she was on television, but she had questions about guys, questions about being out there in the world as a woman. She was very revealing. There were very few secrets that she withheld from the public. It's like the audience knew her."

Radner used comedy to be in control of her situation, and she even joked about her battle with stage 4 ovarian cancer when it was in remission during her final TV appearance on "It's Garry Shandling's Show" in 1988, which was unheard of at the time.

This fearlessness served Radner well as she helped reshape the comedy landscape.

"So much of what "SNL" is today is a result of that unbelievable five years of consistency, and Gilda was a huge part of that," Miller says. "In terms of laying the foundation for the show, I think she was vital and instrumental in building up a show that was so great it could stand the test of time."

Gilda Radner's career brought the world joy, while sadly ending in tragedy. Before she died of cancer in 1989 at age 42, she reminded us that life comes with both the good and the bad.

That idea may have been the deeper meaning behind, "If it's not one thing, it's another."

As Gilda so succinctly put it, "It's always something."

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