Ana Gasteyer on Moving From the Groundlings Troupe to ‘Saturday Night Live’

After getting her start training with the Los Angeles improv-sketch group the Groundlings in the ’90s, Ana Gasteyer booked guest roles on quintessential sitcoms of the decade, including “Seinfeld” (in the infamous 1995 episode “The Soup Nazi”), “Mad About You” and “Just Shoot Me!” In 1996, she joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” creating iconic characters that included low-key NPR host Margaret Jo McCullen and impressions of personalities like Martha Stewart and Joan Rivers. She has continued to show off her comedy chops on such programs as “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Suburgatory” and “The Goldbergs,” and is now starring in the TBS sitcom “People of Earth” as well as appearing opposite Maria Bamford in the offbeat Netflix comedy “Lady Dynamite.”

Gasteyer was first mentioned in Variety on Sept. 5, 1996, for joining the “SNL” cast.

At what point did you decide comedy was for you?

At Northwestern there is an improv comedy troupe called the Mee-Ow Show. That was my tribe. Jill Cargerman and I stayed up all night — that was the first time I ever knew I could write comedy. We were appalled by the material, and as females in comedy are known to do, we pulled up our bootstraps and wrote something crazy like nine sketches in a night and showed up for rehearsal with a stack of them.

What were your early experiences once you moved to L.A.?

The first agent I met with told me I would never work because I didn’t look like Courtney Thorne-Smith — and that’s a quote! [L.A.] was very blond and traditional. I was, hilariously, ethnic for [casting types]. I just had a sense that if I did comedy, I could find my own way.

How did you come to the Groundlings?

Kathy Griffin basically wagged her finger at me and said, “You have to do the Groundlings. Everything will open up for you if you do the Groundlings.” So I went to a show, and it was Lisa Kudrow and Mindy Sterling and Kathy Griffin and Jennifer Coolidge — so many funny women creating their own material — and it was such a strong showing of women for the ’90s in particular that I immediately enlisted.

What was the biggest adjustment between the L.A. and New York comedy scenes when you moved East for “SNL”?

I definitely had to develop the muscle of impressions. Guys like Darrell Hammond and Jimmy Fallon are savants. It’s a total extra talent. I also think “Saturday Night Live” is a uniquely branding experience. Overnight, you become culturally meaningful to people just by virtue of being a cast member. I had like 35 voicemails just when [Variety] first announced it. That was the first experience I had of people who had been openly disdainful of me in Hollywood calling to congratulate me.

What was one of the first moments or characters that made you feel at home at “SNL”?

When we did Martha Stewart, it was a palpable shift. I could feel myself belonging. I just had a sense that I would live on the show for a while. And I do have a memory of that “Topless Christmas” skit — it was so collaborative, and I remember loving the rewrite table. It’s so amazing for a writer-performer to sit down and have 14 genius comedy writers pitch jokes for your sketch and make it better.

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