Rolling Stone Issue 494 September 15th 1983
Catherine O’Hara Needs a Rest
The ‘SCTV’ star believes if you snooze, you don’t lose
By Lynn Hirschberg
Catherine O’Hara loves to sleep. She usually starts sleeping around four am and stops around five p.m. Sometimes, through, she’ll sleep. "I’m really a slug," Catherine O’Hara says rather enthusiastically. "I went to sleep a year ago June, and I’ve been hibernating ever since."
A year ago June, Catherine O’Hara quit her starring role on SCTV (she will continue to appear in guest spots). Most viewers regarded her departure as, well, an odd (i.e., depressing, awful, horrible) move. There was no rhyme or reason for O’Hara’s sudden exit: SCTV was the best thing going comedywise (or really otherwise) on television, and O’Hara wasn’t quitting to undertake a plum movie role or a brilliantly written sitcom. She was just…gone. "Catherine O’Hara," wrote forlorn TV critic James Wolcott in New York magazine, "seems to have flitted off into the ether on a space-cadet sabbatical."
"People thought I was nuts," Catherine O’Hara says. "They probably still think I’m nuts." She’s right. People still think Catherine O’Hara is nuts. Out there is another phrase they frequently use. "I think it’s all the sleep," O’Hara says. "When you sleep at strange times, people seem to assume you’re strange as well." Catherine O’Hara smiles. "But after all,’ she says, "everybody sleeps. I just do it differently."
Catherine O’Hara has been called "the funniest woman on television." This statement, however true, seems wrong. Catherine O’Hara is beyond funny. She makes you laugh, yes, and her acting is certainly comedic, but O’Hara is not funny in the raucous National Lampoon or Saturday Night Live tradition usually associated with television humour. Hers is instead the comedy of negative space, or sinking so deeply into a character that even silences are defining. O’Hara manages to evoke something realistically inscrutable in each characterisation, whether she’s playing an actual woman (Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Brooke Shields are some of O’Hara’s impersonations) or a make-believe personality (the quivering-lipped Lola Heatherton and the busty Dusty Towne are just two of O’Hara’s hundreds). Each incarnation has a sort of completeness that isn’t just funny-it’s eerily correct. These women are seamless: Lola Heatherton is Lola Heatherton. She’s not Catherine O’Hara camping about behind pink lipstick.
"I think the success of my work stems from being truthful," says O’Hara, by way of explaining her character-absorption technique. "I used to say in scenes, ‘If we write this, then that’s a lie.’ Dave Thomas [an SCTV costar] would always say , ‘A lie! What do you care about lies? Are you the Queen of Truth or what?!’ But what I meant by truthfulness, by telling the truth, was that when I pretend to be someone else, I go to the depths of nothingness. The more I do that - become nothing - and the more I let the character take over, the more I feel like that person. When you become the person, nothing is contrived."
We are in Toronto, Catherine O’Hara’s hometown. She’s lived here all her life (twenty nine years), presently in a sprawling art decoish apartment. Catherine likes Toronto. "I lived in LA for a few months," she says. "It seemed like no one there had parents. Or if they did have parents, they would deny it." The second youngest of seven kids, Catherine is quite close to her family, especially to her next oldest sister, Mary Margaret. "I’m pretty much a good Catholic girl at heart," Catherine says. "And I believe in family. I also have a basic belief that God takes care of me. I believe in prayer, even though I’m not that religious. I just have that foundation from my family. I mean when you think that you’re just a human being and one of god’s creatures, you can’t take anything that seriously."
O’Hara went to Catholic schools through eighth grade and then to public high school. "I always wanted to be an actress," she says, "and at public school they put on musicals. I went to see The Music Man there, and I thought, ‘Wow! Great! A Musical!’ Besides, there were boys in public school. There were a lot of motivating factors."
O’Hara was a cheerleader in high school but claims to have been only borderline popular. "I never went to the prom or anything," she says. "I got asked by a couple of weird guys, but no one I wanted to show up at a formal with. Mostly I thought about being an actress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting to be a comic actress. I wasn’t really funny or anything, and I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t supposed to be ladylike for a girl to joke. To this day, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what a guy looks like if he’s really funny. His sense of humor makes him attractive. On the other hand, you don’t hear men saying, ‘No she’s not pretty, but is she ever funny!"
Catherine laughs. "It was really that way in high school. I considered myself an aspiring actress. I remember having this meeting with a guidance counsellor, and he wanted to know what I was going to do with my life. I said I was going to be an actress. Or a lawyer. He said, ‘Great. Law will always be something you can fall back on.’"
Out of school, O’Hara lived at home, went to scattered auditions, worked in a fabric store and listened as her father (who worked for the Canadian railroad) nagged on about a secretarial career. "’You can make good money typing,’ He would say," Catherine recalls. "He was nice about it, though. Always pretty patient. I’d listen to him and then go out for these auditions. I even got one job. But I was scared off when, on the first day, we had to play objects. This one guy played a piece of cake and then a knife with a bit of chocolate icing on it. I just sat and watched hoping they’d go on to another game without me, but finally, it was my turn. The only thing I could think of was to do a laundry basket and a dirty shirt, but I just heated up. I couldn’t do it. I said ‘No. Sorry. I can’t. No. Sorry. Bye.’ And I went home. My Mom and Dad went nuts. They said ‘And you call yourself an actress. You can’t even play a dirty shirt.’"
Eventually, O’Hara’s older brother Marcus, who had been working as a waiter at the newly created Toronto wing of Chicago’s Second City comedy club managed to secure waitressing jobs for Catherine and Mary Margaret. Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner and a cast of other soon-to-be luminaries were part of the Toronto company, and Second City had rapidly become a popular nightspot. Catherine’s job there led to an audition, and after one rejection, she and Marcus were accepted into the Second City touring company. "It was my dream to be in the regular company, and when they first hired me, I was Gilda Radner’s understudy. After she left for Saturday Night Live, I was in. I spent three years with Second City, and it wasn’t until 1976, when the TV show came along, that I thought of leaving."
The TV show was SCTV, standing for Second City Television, and it was produced by Second City producer Andrew Alexander and featured Second City cast members. The topic was television: each show (initially half-hour segments filmed in Ontario for Canadian TV and later syndicated in America) revolved around a mythical network, the Second City Television Network and its rather bent programming schedule.
SCTV was a greatest-of-all-time show: an instant classic. Critics swooned: "Forget the faint praise," wrote Newsday’s Marvin Kitman. "The premiere episode was quite simply the most superb half hour comedy…in a long time." "SCTV is witty, grown-up, inventive and uproariously funny," stated Gary Deeb in the Chicago Sun-Times. And James Wolcott, dubbed the "bard of SCTV," exclaimed in the Village Voice, "In these sledgehammering times, nimble is not to be belittled."
SCTV didn’t seem possible-it was too good. Where else could you see T.S Eliot as performed by astronauts? Christmas specials with Divine? Horror movies without the movie? Not to mention the SCTV personalities: Bob and Doug McKenzie! Johnny LaRue! Bobby Bittman! When, in 1980, after four years of compiled half-hour shows, SCTV was finally given a network berth of NBC (and subsequently won an Emmy for writing), the show reached a peak rarely scaled in a TV-it actually achieved world-unto-itself status.
The SCTV network seemed to exist whether your television was tuned in or not. In other words, SCTV mattered.(unfortunately, SCTV didn’t matter enough to NBC, which cancelled the show because of its low ratings in an impossible 12:30 to two a.m. timeslot. It will jump to Cinemax this fall, losing cast members in the process.)
"I really had to talk my way into SCTV at first," Catherine O’Hara says. "There were only guys writing the show, and they wrote only for themselves. They didn’t include any women. They’d write a fifty-page scene where the girls had two lines, or we’d be coming in as dogs, or we’d get punched out and leave. It got to the point where Andrea [Martin, O’Hara’s only female costar] and I would be sitting on the side saying, ‘Yeah, and then a girl could come in. And then…someone’s wife. And then they could call their girlfriends.’ After awhile, we started writing for ourselves." Catherine pauses. "SCTV was just the best."
So why oh why did Catherine O’Hara leave this wonderland? "Well," she says, as if she’s said it a million times before, "it just wasn’t fun anymore. We filmed way up in Edmonton, which is a four hour plane trip from Toronto. We did the TV show from six in the morning until two or three at night. I didn’t have a life outside the show. I’m like everyone else - I want to get married and have kids. And married people on SCTV never saw their spouses. All we did was work on the show. There were certainly distractions in Edmonton. When I decided to quit, my Dad got kind of mad, saying, ‘It’s good money. It’s fun. Aren’t you having fun?’ And my Mum would say, ‘If you don’t feel happy, you should leave.’ I went nuts a whole summer thinking about it: Was I happy? Wasn’t I happy? And then I decided, ‘No, I’m not.’ And I knew I had to leave.
"AREN’T YOU ON TELEVISION?" THE voice is coming loudly from across the room. We are in a club: a reggae band is playing, ice cubes are clinking, and a man is screaming at Catherine O’Hara. "You're on television! You’re…no..you’re.." The voice is getting closer. Catherine smiles: "Yes. I am." "You’re…Catherine O’Hara!" The man draws within six inches of Catherine’s face. "You were on SCTV," he says. "Why did you leave that show? Is your career over now?"
Catherine mumbles something about being happy and new projects and no, her career isn’t over, she’s on to other things, but the guy is persistent. "You have nice teeth," he shouts as Catherine moves toward the bar.
"That happens a fair amount in Toronto," says Catherine, draining a gin and tonic. She seems content, at ease. Catherine has a bit of a reputation as a party girl (Andrea Martin: "Catherine would kill to party every night"). But tonight her mood is subdued rather than swinging. "The truth about Catherine," says Joe Flaherty, another SCTV costar, "is that she’s like a lot of Irish Catholic girls - a non swinger. She lives a dissipated lifestyle without being dissipated."
"I like this place," Catherine says. And, in fact, there is a sense of familiarity about the club. It’s managed by her brother Marcus, whose best friend is Dan Aykroyd, who used to date Catherine. And her sister, Mary Margaret, a girl with aura to spare, is around here somewhere. This place seems to be populated with friends from Second City, friends from high school and friends of friends.
"I’m not this known outside of Canada," she says between hellos. "In fact, I don’t really have a distinct image in America. I guess I should work one out because I don’t project a personality in my work. People just think I’m strange or, you know, they think I’m nuts. They look at my work and don’t find any trace of me - they just see the character. It’s the same with someone like Dan Aykroyd. His personality is really hard to determine when you see his work. My personality doesn’t shine through, either, and that makes me hard to remember. People always say, ‘You and all those other girls are so great on SCTV.’ When I say it was just us two, they look baffled."
Catherine stares at the band. Since jumping ship, she’s been up for movie roles and TV shows and variety specials, but no part has clicked. She had a chance to make a record, but when the label found out she wanted to actually sing rather than tell Brooke Shields or Dusty Towne jokes, they withdrew their offer. Now, the SCTV cast is attempting to write its own movie, but the progress has been slow.
‘It’s hard to write," Catherine says, lighting a cigarette. "But it’s almost impossible to find good work, and I hate auditioning. Last fall I was called to audition for a wonderful play off-Broadway called the Middle Ages. They really liked me from the show. I thought, if they like me so much why do I have to audition? As it turns out, they loved me until I read for them. It was just…the worst. I completely blew it. Every time I’d start to read, I’d begin walking around in circles. They didn’t give me the part.
"So I got this book on how to audition, and now I’m much better. The thing about the book that’s so great is it gives you so much to think about that you stop thinking about yourself. The only problem is that there’s noting I want to audition for. I don’t want to do the first mediocre thing that comes along. I want a really good part, and what I always get offered is the part of the nymphet or the prude who lets her hair down by the end of the movie. The characters I want to play aren’t like that. My dream character is really myself…only better. I’d like to write a nice, relaxed funny-film - one that would make you laugh and cry - full of dream characters." O’Hara pauses "Although I wouldn’t mind playing Edie Sedgwick…."
O’Hara is interrupted as another fan zeros in on her table. "You’re Catherine O’Hara." He says. Catherine nods. The fan nods back and then, still nodding, moves away slowly. Catherine laughs. "You know, when we won the Emmy for writing, eighteen of us trooped onstage to accept our awards, and someone bet Milton Berle, who presented the award, ten dollars that he couldn’t nam our show. He turned around and said, "You’re right I haven’t the faintest idea what show you are.’"
The fan, still hovering nearby, hears all this. "Fuck Milton Berle," he says.
"Oh, no." Catherine replies, "Milton Berle is great." Catherine finishes her drink. "It’s late," she says. "let’s go. I want to get home and write. Nighttime is really the best time to work. All the ideas are there to be yours because everyone else is asleep." Catherine pauses. "Or maybe I’ll just go home and sleep. You know, she says, waving goodbye to her sister, "I really do plan to wake up soon."