You know her as Debbie Downer, the depressing gal who ruins a trip to the happiest place on Earth with tales of feline AIDS and bird flu. You may also recognize her horny Boston teen character, Denise, who tongue wrestled with Jimmy Fallon’s Sully on recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketches.
As one of the funny ladies who made the 2000s a good excuse to stay home on Saturday night, comic actor Rachel Dratch was looking to follow her stint on late night to a prime time hit.
After ‘SNL,’ Rachel was poised to be a co-lead on “30 Rock” — until the role was recast with Jane Krakowski, and Dratch’s subsequent recurring roles all but disappeared.
In her new book, “Girl Walks Into a Bar…,” Rachel opens up about her time on one of comedy’s institutions and is candid about her challenges in the acting and dating worlds and how, at the age of 43, she was in for a shock—by getting pregnant.
Rachel was trained at Second City in Chicago by the father of improv, Del Close, and has returned to her live comedy roots in recent years, performing in the hit stage show, “Celebrity Autobiography,” where comedians and actors read unintentionally hilarious memoirs by the likes of Snooki, Liz Taylor and Justin Bieber.
Rachel recently stole the stage during a two-night run of that show as part of SF Sketchfest at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco, where she channeled the brash diva of stage and screen, Ethel Merman.
Corey Andrew: How did you develop your Ethel Merman?
Rachel Dratch: Oh, my God. They just said, ‘Do Ethel Merman,’ so I just did it how anyone would do it. Sometimes you just do someone how you would do it if you were standing in your living room or something.
Corey: Have you been able to share any war stories with your ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ co-star, Laraine Newman about ‘SNL?’
Rachel: I did ask her. It was kind of interesting; she would tell me the old stories. It was cool to meet her having watched her in the first seasons and everything, growing up.
Corey: What was it like working with Del Close?
Rachel: That was such a fun time because everyone there was in their early 20s, and everyone had moved from all over to be there in Chicago for Second City. It was the most fun group of people. We were all following our dreams. Del taught from osmosis. He wouldn’t say, ‘Do this and this and this.’ You would listen, and he would tell crazy stories. You didn’t want to make him mad so you would try to do the whole ‘truth in comedy’ thing. If you did anything cheesy, he would publicly embarrass you for it. It was kind of like getting an electric shock when you did something. There aren’t supposed to be any wrong choices in improv, but you would definitely feel like you made a wrong choice sometimes.
Corey: Is there anything you picked up during those days that you still use on the stage today? Rachel: I guess the whole sensibility of trying to be truthful. It’s kind of hard to explain, but there’s this whole vibe that Chicago improvisors had. We all came up together. Maybe it was a sort of shorthand or something. It’s kind of an intangible thing.
Corey: I enjoyed the bit in your book about the ‘getting the call’ from Lorne Michaels. He is sort of a mysterious figure. How would you describe your relationship with him when you were on the show?
Rachel: He is very hands-on at the show. I would be involved with him on a work level as he was the one making all the choices. I was never like hopping into his office and putting my feet on his couch. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. At the same time, I felt oddly supported by him just by the fact that I was there. I admire him so much. He gave me my big break. I don’t call him up at midnight to share my secrets, but he’s a good guy though.
Corey: Can you remember any bizarre experiences during those all-night writing sessions at ‘SNL’?
Rachel: I didn’t start hallucinating or anything. ‘I saw the ghost of John Belushi.’ Just the fact that you’re there and the pressure’s on, that’s bizarre enough in itself. You could start writing a piece in an hour and get it all done and be home in time for dinner, but nobody does that because I think everyone needs that pressure to write comedy.
Everyone rolls in at 5 p.m., and they don’t leave literally ’til the sun is up. The whole set-up is bizarre. At midnight, they go, ‘Snacks!’ and there’s a huge pile of chocolate and M&M’s and potato chips mounded on to this table. It’s a weird way to work, I guess. For comedy, you need that pressure.
Corey: I didn’t realize ’til reading the book that the Lindsey Lohan/’Debbie Downer’ sketch was the first one, so I had to watch it again on Netflix. There is something sort of magical about it. People didn’t seem to bust up as much back then.
Rachel: I think it was we couldn’t recover. People definitely busted up on the show, myself included. That day, maybe because of the close-up every time, I was trying too hard to get it together. I don’t know what it was about that sketch, but it was fun to do.
Corey: You write about going out with Amy Poehler when you were both pregnant. Did Amy or Tina Fey offer any parenting tips?
Rachel: With Amy, it was cool because we were both in the same boat. Along the way, I don’t remember the tips she offered, but it was nice to have someone in the same shoes as you. I can’t remember anything specifically those guys said, but I remember the best advice I got was people saying, ‘Just take one day at a time.’ Don’t think too far ahead, like, ‘What do I do when they’re 3 months or old or 6 months old?’ ‘Take each day as it happens,’ and that was the best advice. All you have to deal with is right there in front of you. If you start to think too far ahead, you’ll freak out. Sorry, that wasn’t a funny answer.
Corey: (laughs) That’s OK. Is that advice still working for you today?
Rachel: Oh yeah. In New York, you have the whole school thing. It’s crazy. I’m still trying to take it one day at a time.
Corey: Are you planning on staying in New York?
Rachel: I just got a pilot, after all my complaining of not working, and I’m not playing an obese woman! We’re doing this, and I’ll find out in May what happens with it. Who knows? I might have to pick up and come here [the Bay Area].
Corey: Do you still have your Mom Jeans and applique vest from the SNL commercial?
Rachel: I don’t, but they’d probably come in handy these days. I didn’t ask to keep those, believe it or not.
Corey: Do you get the opportunity to come to the Bay Area much?
Rachel: I don’t because flying across the country with Eli is so difficult. We just did it come here to L.A., but it’s a process. I did just do the Sketchfest thing. As I say in the book, I used to be able to just fly to the Caribbean at a moment’s notice. Now it’s harder to travel around. I do love the Bay Area.
Corey: It was nice to see you pop up on ‘SNL’ again on the Jimmy Fallon episode. When I posted that I was gonna talk to you today, one of my friends wanted to know, ‘Was makin’ out wit’ Jimmy Fallon wicked or what?’
Rachel: (laughs) As you can tell from the show, it’s not real making out. It’s crazy, stage making-out. I can’t say, ‘It’s a very sensual experience.’ It’s like, open your mouth and throw yourself in there. Jimmy’s an awesome guy. He’s so much fun. It was so cool for him to have all of us back. I’m the envy of every teenage girl.
Corey: One of the ones I’ve always loved—and I think it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it—was the ‘Lovers’ sketch—the one in the hot tub in particular.
Rachel: Yes, that was one of my favorites as well.
Corey: Did you dream those up, or was that a collaboration with Will Ferrell?
Rachel: It was definitely a collaboration with Will, but it sort of came up because my friend had this professor when we were in college that did use the word, ‘lov-ah.’ She would say, ‘If you want to relax, read a book. Eat a bon bon. Spend time with your lov-ah.’ We would always say, ‘lov-ah,’ like that. Will and Adam McKay heard me saying that so Will and I recreated that whole universe of those characters.
Corey: I guess for some, you will eternally be Debbie Downer because another friend of mine posted a link for a Web site called Sad Trombone dot com. So you can press a button and hear the sad trombone anytime you want.
Rachel: I didn’t even know about that. Good to know.
Rachel Dratch’s book, “Girl Walks Into a Bar…” goes on sale March 29.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago.
If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.