Ever since the start, “Saturday Night Live” has given us bold, weird character actresses who seesawed between deadly one-liners and powerful impersonations. Gilda Radner charmed you with insanity. Jane Curtin jarred you with sarcasm. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nora Dunn, and Jan Hooks balanced goofy caricatures with serious thespian chops. But when Molly Shannon joined “SNL” 20 years ago in February of 1995, a new wave of female characterizations began on Lorne Michaels' revue: Suddenly women could be the zaniest, ballsiest performers in the entire telecast — and with the biggest grins on their face, to boot.
Shannon was joined in the cast by Groundlings loon Cheri Oteri later in 1995; Northwestern alum and onetime violin prodigy Ana Gasteyer came in '96. The trio found inventive ways to mock new distaff phenomena in pop culture like “The View” and Lilith Fair while injecting carnality, cool intelligence, and even scariness into familiar “SNL” roles for women.
They weren't just talented; they kept an editorial eye on the kinds of characters “SNL” had previously lacked and built legendary sketches around those fringe kooks. It's an era that gave rise to the no-nonsense starpower and staying power of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Kate McKinnon. Though Rachel Dratch would also come to disrupt the boys-only delirium of '90s “SNL,” it's this triumvirate that reinvigorated our faith in Studio 8H's then-struggling juggernaut.
Ana Gasteyer: The intellectual ham
No one zeroed in on the hilarity of earnestness like Ana Gasteyer. Her characters like NPR “Delicious Dish” host Margaret Jo McCullin, middle school music teacher Bobbie Mohan-Culp, and her well-known celebrity impressions of Celine Dion and Martha Stewart were studies in earnest self-seriousness. When Kmart filed for chapter 11, Gasteyer addressed us as Stewart, saying, “I remain dedicated to my vision of bringing quality bedding and apothecary jars to the underprivileged.” She gave us GOOP humor well before it was the norm.
In retrospect Gasteyer was a nervier, more intellectual version of the great Jan Hooks, a clear professional and essential ensemble “glue guy” who used breakout moments to skewer celebrities and lampoon sickeningly sweet types. Her intelligence and august stage command made her sillier moments that much more surprising. When she murmurs approvingly about Schweddy Balls, you realize she's willing to be wilder than a fellow gross-out cast member like Chris Kattan — all while mimicking your auntie's safe, comforting voice. When she chirps “Jumpin' Jumpin'” and “Thong Song” as Bobbie Mohan Culp, you realize she's got a serious musical sense in addition to a grasp of the joy in excruciating embarrassment. Gasteyer felt like a real, smart adult who subverted her own apparent intelligence to deliver nasty, observant fun.
Cheri Oteri: The grinning madwoman
Cheri Oteri might be the most defiant performer in “SNL” history. Unlike many funny actresses (including later “SNL” standout Kristen Wiig), Oteri never, ever played women who were relatable or maternal or only slightly kooky. Oteri's characters — between prescription pill addict Collette Reardon, her seismic version of Judge Judy, or her hormonal take on Barbara Walters — had a creepy danger about them. They might scream at you! Or hit on you. Or grope you. Or tell you in a laughing fit about how their ovaries are inside out and they'll never have children. Her characters cackled through pain and hopelessness and — most defiantly of all, as a character choice — they thought they related to you. That choice provokes a kind of discomfort meant to needle and unnerve people who aren't used to being preyed upon — specifically, men.
It seems astonishing that Rolling Stone listed Oteri as only the 95th best cast member in history because she was “incapable of dialing it down a notch, so once you got sick of [her], you never went back to being un-sick.” That's a pretty ridiculous sentiment on a list where, ahem, John Belushi is listed as the greatest “SNL” cast member ever. Not only was Oteri a more adaptable and versatile performer than Belushi, her characters were often sexualized, sweet, cartoonish, and strangely passable as real human beings in addition to being loopy. They were never passive. They were never boilerplate female roles. It's a testament to the endless sexism of historical pop culture revisionism that Oteri is not considered the utter equal to her frequent collaborator Will Ferrell, whose range of characters and brand of boorishness is incredibly similar to hers. Oteri freaked you out, and if you could handle that, she was irreplaceable.
Molly Shannon: The vaudevillian neurotic
If any “SNL” cast member has been Gilda Radner's proper heir, it's Molly Shannon. Like Radner, Shannon reveled in characters who projected an outsize sense of awkwardness, childlike wonder, and gleeful obliviousness. Judy Miller and Lisa Loopner are the clear ancestors of Mary Katherine Gallagher. But Molly Shannon's talent surpassed bawdiness; she was gloriously acute in how she conveyed the guilelessness of characters who didn't understand social cues. She specialized in those types who hug you for just a second too long.
Between Mary Katherine Gallagher, licensed “joyologist” Helen Madden, and 50-year-old stretching aficionado Sally O'Malley, Shannon delighted in weirding you out with sincerity. In the case of Mary Katherine, she went a step further: Though that excitable Catholic schoolgirl lived entirely in her head, she loved showing off her manually acquired knowledge of social interactions and adult feelings through monologues from TV movies. Watch as Mary Katherine explains her workplace frustration through a critical moment in the 1979 TV movie “Portrait of a Stripper.” It's only fitting that the adolescent MK would find kindred spirits in campy television.
“SNL” allows performers to take commonplace quirks and catapult them to the masses through vivid characterizations. Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon weren't content with parody or slapstick. Their characters were organic (and bizarre) extensions of incisive, uncompromised self-realization, and they knew certain personal truths were alienating when explored with ballistic female characters. Instead of shying away from those truths, the trio relished the confusing intersection between “darling” and “diagnosable.” Their confidence and control violated the reign of loud dudes, but their silliness and sleaze made it clear that they had balls as legendary and savory as Pete Schweddy's.