Before Kristin Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey were earning laughs on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner graced the stage of studio 8H as one of the original queens of comedy. Whether as the frizzy-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna, the hard-of-hearing Emily Litella, or the unintelligible Baba Wawa (a parody of Barbara Walters), Radner, who would have been 66 last week (she died in 1989), never failed to make her audiences howl with laughter.
Radner was born in 1946 to Herman and Henrietta Radner, a Jewish couple who lived in Detroit. Comedy was a way for Radner to cope with unhappiness, even in childhood. Teased for being overweight, her nanny instructed her to crack jokes about herself before the other students could. Her father encouraged a love of show business and entertainment, but passed away from brain cancer when she was 14. She entered the University of Michigan, majoring in drama, but dropped out to follow a boyfriend to Toronto where she joined the Second City improv troupe with future SNL castmates Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Bill Murray.
It was SNL that brought Radner into millions of homes and showcased her versatile comedic skills. A dynamically talented impressionist, physical performer, and all-around entertainer, Radner bore a blend of her comedic predecessors Fanny Bryce and Gertrude Berg, but with her own bold humor. She could transform not only her voice, but her entire stature and demeanor to play the congested, oblivious nerd Lisa Loopner or the drunk and stumbling rocker Candy Slice. Yet, through her repertoire of irritating, ridiculous, and gross characters, Radner’s warmth was still evident. As critic Molly Haskell said, “Even when she’s tasteless you don’t wince. There’s something very gentle and sweet in Gilda that comes through.”
Moreover, Radner never played a role merely to type. One of her recurring characters on SNL was Rhonda Weiss, a Jewess from Long Island with big hair and press-on nails. Radner played off of JAP stereotypes, but in unexplored, funnier ways. For example, she didn’t just mock dieting as a JAP behavior. Rather, in her show Gilda Live! she portrayed Rhonda Weiss singing a heartfelt song over her anger with the FDA for banning saccharine.
Though she had but one spoken line in the SNL commercial parody for Jewess Jeans, her entire way of dancing, moving her hands, and even the expression on her face as Rhonda Weiss conveyed the JAP perfectly. But because Radner’s Rhonda Weiss was really more of a parody, a purposefully humorous imitation rather than something meant to accurately represent reality, I find more laughter than offense in the role.
Moreover, as a Jewish woman herself mocking the JAP stereotypes, there is something empowering rather than humiliating in her work. Radner refused to be boxed-in by the stereotype and, even more importantly, recognized how to claim her own humor from it. It’s a subtle and unique skill, but somehow in her short 42 years, Radner nailed it.