When Jane Curtin began her run as an original member of the Not Ready for Primetime Players on the storied first five seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” it was not unheard of for women working on the show be groped in the hallways of the production offices at 30 Rock. She remembers Milton Berle, the comedy great who hosted “SNL” in April 1979, as being particularly handsy.
“It was part of being a woman in the ’70s,” Curtin tells Variety. “Women’s choices at the time for careers were secretary, nurse, teacher, wife or go into the convent.”
Curtin will gather with a mix of veteran and contemporary women associated with NBC’s late-night institution at the Nantucket Film Festival on Saturday as “SNL” is feted with the festival’s Creative Impact in Television Award.
Curtin and original staff writer Anne Beatts will join current cast member Heidi Gardner and writer Sudi Green and former head writer Sarah Schneider, now co-creator and exec producer of Comedy Central’s “The Other Two,” in receiving honors from the festival.
As a comedy institution, “SNL” has been a launchpad for a host of female stars such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, the late Gilda Radner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and most recently Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant. There is no better training ground for writers or performers than the breakneck pace of improv and writing demanded by a live 90-minute sketch comedy series, according to “SNL” troupers, then and now.
“The learning curve is really crazy,” says Green of her experience working on the show headed by the legendary Lorne Michaels. “You produce so much in a short amount of time. There’s not a lot of time to second-guess decisions. You make choices with your pieces and you see very quickly whether it works or it doesn’t. It’s a crazy whirlwind education for the first couple of years.”
Green, an “SNL” writing supervisor who is heading into her fifth season on the show in the fall, co-wrote with Fran Gillespie and Alison Gates the show’s hit “Women of Congress” sketch that aired in February, highlighting the surge of mostly young women from highly diverse backgrounds who were swept in to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I feel like I was really fortunate to come up in a time when a lot of women before me opened a lot of doors,” Green says. She feels the weight of her rare ability to reach a wide swath of America through the sketches, given “SNL’s” influence in pop culture. “It’s such a platform and an opportunity for women in the cast and writers to make an impact,” Green says. “It’s a huge responsibility. That’s exciting,” Green says.
Curtin remembers a time when Chevy Chase declared that women “couldn’t do certain things in comedy” and John Belushi flat-out believed that women simply weren’t funny. “He was difficult,” Curtin recalls. Dan Aykroyd, on the other hand, “didn’t have that problem.” And Bill Murray was a breath of fresh air when he signed on in 1977, Curtin says.
She has kept in touch with “the Murrays” and Laraine Newman, her fellow “SNL” femme pioneer, among other co-stars. “Garrett (Morris) and I see each other whenever there’s an event. And I’m still friendly with Al Franken,” she says.
Curtin would go on to long runs on CBS sitcom “Kate & Allie” and NBC’s high-concept comedy “3rd Rock From the Sun.” She even gets recognized from her recent three-season run on the CBS/Lifetime procedural drama “Unforgettable.”
One of Curtin’s favorite memories from her “SNL” days is the time that a group of the Teamsters crew members took the women on the show out for a steak dinner in Times Square. “They adored me and Gilda and Laraine,” she says. “They brought us corsages.”
One of the most lasting bonds from Curtin’s association with the show is the group of alumni who gather every year to pay tribute to their late co-star Radner, who died at age 42 of ovarian cancer in 1989. A group ranging from on-screen stars to former secretaries meet every May at Radner’s gravesite in Stamford, Conn.
“A bunch of us go to Gilda’s grave on the anniversary of her death,” Curtin says. “We clean up the grave and go have lunch. I love these people. We grew up together.”
(Pictured: “Women of Congress” sketch from the Feb. 9, 2019, episode of “Saturday Night Live”)