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PROFILE : Survival of the Wittiest : Julia Sweeney nursed her brother until his death, then learned that she too had cancer. And then there was divorce and 'It's Pat.' Turning to life-affirming laughter, she found a new character: herself.

August 13, 1995|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a regular contributor to Calendar

'Basically, this was the year that I became Job," Julia Sweeney says with a bemused shrug. The 35-year- old comedian and actress, perhaps best known for her four seasons with "Saturday Night Live," has indeed been through an Old Testament-worthy assortment of tribulations during the last 15 months.

She has also discovered that her natural ability to create comedy from life's most cruel and frightening moments is one of her greatest survival skills.

Early last summer, on the heels of the commercial failure of her first major film, "It's Pat," Sweeney learned that her brother Mike was dying of lymphatic cancer.

She moved him into her Larchmont-area home and for nine months took on the full-time responsibility of caring for him. In March, two weeks before her brother's death at age 31, Sweeney herself was told she had cervical cancer.

"When you spend so much time taking care of someone with cancer, you kind of feel like you must be building up some chits against getting cancer yourself," she says. "Apparently, that's not how the system works."

Today, after having undergone a radical hysterectomy and several months of state-of-the-art internal radiation treatments, Sweeney is happy to relay the news that she is cancer-free. Relaxing at home, she is certainly a vivacious presence, with twinkling blue eyes, a mischievous grin and a fetching giggle that frequently punctuates conversation.

For someone whose life has been visited by so much darkness, she remains remarkably light of spirit, and while making no attempt to belittle all that has happened to her, she has been able to find some sparkling humor in many of the grim situations she has just been through.

"Well, you can't be depressed and sad 24 hours a day," she explains. "Oh, I've certainly proved that you can be sad and depressed a good 16 hours a day--but you've got to do something else with those other eight hours. Why not try thinking of your life as hilarious rather than nightmarish?"

*

Finding the hilarity within her tragedies, and presenting it to audiences, has been Sweeney's primary coping mechanism the past year. The pain of watching her brother die and the horror of her own illness have often been gracefully transformed into life-affirming laughter during powerful, startlingly honest and magnificently funny performances for the Hot Cup of Talk series at the Groundling Theatre and at the Sunday night Un-Cabarets at LunaPark. (She'll perform at the Un-Cabaret tonight.)

For Sweeney, a graduate of the Groundlings with very little stand-up in her background, the decision to get intensely personal with her comedy was not taken lightly. But as her life at home became more difficult, the personal approach became a necessity.

"I'd never been onstage as 'Julia Sweeney,' " she says. "With the Groundlings and at 'SNL,' I'd always been in character. But I started doing these shows and I couldn't not talk about what was happening in my life. I'm living in a house with a dying brother, and my parents have moved in to help. Mom's hysterical, Dad's having heart palpitations, and Mike's furious. I'm finding syringes in the kitchen and I don't know if they're from Mike's T-cell count or Dad's diabetes, so I'm scolding both of them. All of that had to come out somewhere, and it happened at Hot Cup and Un-Cab."

Sweeney didn't waver from that deeply personal approach when her own cancer was diagnosed.

"I think I hesitated a bit. But it didn't seem fair that I would talk about Mike's cancer and not my own," she says. "Especially because in the time we had together as cancer patients, we shared a very dark sense of humor--he teased me that I had started with cancer envy and then developed sympathy cancer. The hardest thing was finding ways to talk about all this that didn't freak an audience out."

Some pivotal support and encouragement came from Kathy Griffin, Hot Cup's organizer.

"There was never a minute when I thought, 'She shouldn't do this,' " Griffin says. "I knew she'd find a way to make people comfortable, and she did. You'd see people's hearts going out to her, and they'd also be laughing as hard as humanly possible."

Once she began to speak of her illness onstage, she felt free to speak comedically of other personal topics.

"I never thought I'd talk about my sex life onstage, but I had a relationship going with someone while all this was going on, and the sex was part of the situation and part of the comedy. I felt like I had a kind of squeaky-clean image, and I thought that if I talked about an intense sexual experience the audience would just feel sad for me," she says, laughing, "or that they'd just be totally uninterested. But the audience was with me."

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