Interview: Rachel Dratch
Former SNL cast member Rachel Dratch is best known for her hyperbolic renditions of all-too-familiar real life archetypes (Debbie Downer, the droopy-eye wet blanket who complains about melanomas at Disney World; Denise, the screaming, windbreaker-wearing Red Sox fan). Originally cast as Jenna on 30 Rock, Dratch was ultimately replaced by Jane Krakowski, a bubblier, brighter-eyed blond who producers thought would up ratings. When tabloids got wind of the trade, they had a field day with bombastic headlines and insulting rhetorical questions (“Is Rachel Dratch Too Ugly for Hollywood?”) About the whole fiasco, she remains both brassy and noble: “I had always been pretty sure that comedy was about producing a laugh, not a boner,” she says with cool dismissal in her new memoir’s introduction.
Girl Walks into a Barâ€¦ is a stroll through Dratch’s life: the pleasantly uneventful childhood in Lexington, Massachusetts; the grim years at Dartmouth; the exhilarating start of her career at Second City in Chicago. Then the dream-come-true job at SNL, in all its boyfriend-preventing late-night hours, and ever-lasting platonic friendships, and finally her implausible pregnancy at the age of 44. Throughout these chapters — of both book and life — Dratch maintains the wry, chatty demeanor we’ve come to expect from the comedian who swapped funny girl glamour for a kind of gruesome verisimilitude, and carved her own niche in a sector of the entertainment industry historically overrun with men.
Your career really began in Chicago at the Second City, but originally you’re from Lexington. I wouldn’t expect you to have cogent theory about this, but why are so many comedians from the Boston area — Mindy Kaling, Louis CK, Mike Birbiglia, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Conan O’Brien, and that’s just off the top of my head.
I don’t know what that is. Sometimes I think it’s the large amount of Irish people there, even though a lot of the comedians themselves aren’t even Irish. There’s just that Irish, snappy story telling, you know, always having a quip. It’s a Boston thing that’s always kind of in the air.
In your book you talk about the SNL writing schedule being really good preparation for motherhood — that the late nights train you to not sleep regularly. Do you think improv was also good training?
Huh, that’s interesting. I’ve always been kind of a water sign — [laughs] you know, go with the flow. That’s improv: that you don’t have to be in control of every moment. You have to get used to not having control. Improv is not good for ridged, anal people because it’s not about having a plan for every moment. So I guess that sensibility might help, but that’s what brings people to improv in the first place. We all sort of have that trait going into it.
How did writing your book compare to writing sketches? Were there any unexpected challenges?
In a way it’s easier, in terms of sweating it. At SNL, we never wrote joke-jokes, we would write sketches and scenes, but there’s the pressure that it’s going to be read in front of people right there. You might have a great character, but if you don’t get it into the sketch in the right way or show the character in the funniest way, it might not get picked. The nice thing about writing a book is that it’s just you and yourself; there’s no judge sitting there, which is the necessary part of SNL, having someone there to pick which scenes get on the air. I like being my own judge though. Some days I’d write and on the next day be like, “Oh, no. I can’t use this at all. It’s not as funny as I thought it was yesterday.” I like being in charge of my own destiny. I like the individuality of it.
You’ve lived in NYC for years now. Do you consider yourself a “New York comedian”? Do you even think that’s still a type? Does the city influence your work?
I like living in New York [versus L.A.] because you see all sorts of people right there on the street. I like being on the subway with people of all walks of life, so maybe that helps when you’re trying to come up with characters, though I can’t really say I have any characters based on someone I saw on the subway. I think wherever you are, you see funny things. If you think like a comedian, you’ll find characters and situations no matter where you are.
There’s been so much relentless discussion of your non-Hollywood look, which you address in the book’s introduction. Was that a way of preempting negative critiques?
I don’t want to be a spokesperson. It’s like everything I say, I could also say the opposite. I just told my story of what happened to me. My own brain never would have gone to “Oh, I’m not getting parts because of this.” It was just that was what I kept reading, and those were the kinds of parts I kept getting offered. That’s just what happened to me, so I had to draw my own conclusions. But because I don’t want that to be true, I don’t like giving it voice. Every little thing I say gets picked up and stated as gospel. In the book, I write, “Hollywood sees me as a troll, a woodland creature, or a manly lesbian.” That got picked up and the rest of the sentence got cut off, so everywhere it’s like, “Hollywood sees me as a troll!” I’m not literally a troll or literally an elf! Stuff like that bums be out, so now I’m so reluctant to comment. I guess I just commented for five minutes, but I’m just trying to set the landscape for that part of my book.