Today is the birthday of the great comic actor Jane Curtin (b. 1947).
Believe it or not, despite the fact that she has continued to work steadily and prominently down to the present day, my experience of her career is limited almost entirely to her years on Saturday Night Live (1975-1980). I suppose I saw five or ten minutes of Kate and Allie, but certainly never a whole episode. So my celebration will be of 40 year old work, admittedly kind of an outrage.
An interesting thing happened on SNL. It doesn’t seem to have been intentional from the outset, more an act of organic evolution, but within a matter of a few short months Curtin managed to find her niche in the cast by frequently playing the straight character. This would happen in skits, but also came to the fore in the “meta” version of herself she played on camera, presenting herself (as she was) as a sane, sober, drug-free, normal human, in contrast to all the wild people around her. Like I say, that doesn’t seem to have been the intention at the outset. Like all the other cast members she had been hired for her experience in sketch comedy troupes and off-Broadway shows, and because she was funny at the audition. And she played her share of broad, funny characters (I think of the nerd mother Enid Loopner, as a great example of that). But comedy definitely works better with some contrast and some conflict and opposition, and so the role she eventually took on brought a kind of added magic to the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
Around 1980 or so I saw her in Candida at Circle in the Square. Joanne Woodward played the title role and Curtin was Prossy. But the casting was upside down. Onstage Curtin was charismatic and unpredictable in a role that cried out for off-putting and dumpy. Woodward was glowingly ordinary in a role that called for some glamor. If only the two had switched roles, the production might have been remembered and Jane Curtin could have become the Cherry Jones of the 1980s.