Note: Genome podcast transcripts are provided for your reading pleasure. The transcripts may contain some errors or lack certain emphases found in the original audio.
Misha Angrist: Hello, and welcome to the Genome podcast. My name is Misha Angrist from Duke University and Genome magazine. My guest, Julia Sweeney, is an actress, comedian writer and film director. She was a memorable cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1990 to 1994 and after that, she became most well-known for her monologues.
Her first one person show was entitled, God Said Ha!, and dealt with her brother’s and later, her own cancer, diagnosis, and treatment. It played on Broadway and was nominated for a Grammy. Quentin Tarantino produced a film version of the show, which Julia directed and which I highly recommend. Subsequent monologues chronicle Julia’s quest to become a mother and her adoption of a child as a single person, and her loss of faith and embrace of science.
In recent years, she has occasionally performed on stage and she wrote a memoir entitled, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother. Her new show, Older and Wider, debuts at Second City in Chicago on Friday, January 12th. We talked a few months ago about astrology, genetics, cancer, family, and life as a Neanderthal, church-going atheist, among other things at the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ meeting in Columbus, where Julia delivered the keynote at the Genome magazine Code Talker Awards ceremonies, where patients honor their genetic counselors.
Here’s my conversation with Julia Sweeney.
So I was Google cramming…
Julia Sweeney: Oh God.
Misha Angrist: As I’m one to do. I found this.
Julia Sweeney: I’m afraid.
Misha Angrist: It’s a whole breakdown of your horoscope.
Julia Sweeney: Oh my God. Oh my God.
Misha Angrist: I was just wondering if you knew that that existed.
Julia Sweeney: No.
Misha Angrist: On astro.com.
Julia Sweeney: What does it have as my birthday, oh it has my right birthday. Okay.
Misha Angrist: Yeah, so you’re a Libra and you’re a Libra ascendant and I just thought that was kind of funny.
Julia Sweeney: Oh my God. Is it just they do celebrities or something or they just pick people out and do their thing and then, all this stiff is so meaningless. It just makes me sad that humans…
Misha Angrist: It looks like science, doesn’t it?
Julia Sweeney: I know it. Oh my God. That is so on my mind recently.
Misha Angrist: What is?
Julia Sweeney: This kind of thing, not astrology, but just how things, for people who are not gonna think deeply about a certain area, and I’m sure this is true for me but not in that area because I have thought more deeply about astrology I guess, as a general science thinking person. For people who are not gonna think about an area deeply, just the monikers or the appearance of fact is as good as fact.
I’ve just been really noticing how that pulls the wool over people’s eyes and they feel like, “Well, you know smart people’s looked into it,” or it wouldn’t be so elaborate if it weren’t true or … and it’s actually … you don’t even have to do that much for people to think that experts have looked into and this conclusion is verifiable. That’s what I have to say about that.
Misha Angrist: What was it like growing up as a Libra?
Julia Sweeney: Probably more interesting how people react when they find out certain qualities that they think they have because it’s been named by some astrologer and what effect that has on their behavior. That would be an interesting study.
Misha Angrist: I’m interested why you said “yes” to this invitation, because I suspect you get many.
Julia Sweeney: Well I stopped doing these … When I did God Said Ha! I started doing lots and lots of cancer organization conventions, lots, lots. It started getting creepy because I started seeing … like a lot of them are really great. I remember one of the best weekends of my life is with the oncological nurse’s convention in Arizona where I loved these people so much. They just got, it was everything I was trying to convey, they got it, and it was fun but then there was increasingly events to raise money for a cancer cause that were really, the more I went to them, they were … I just questioned them. Not that there wasn’t some positive good intent in them but that they had been corporatized and that they were … I just started seeing through the veneer of these fundraising events.
It’s not that they were 100 percent terrible, ’cause they weren’t, but they started seeming like they were about 80 percent terrible so that not only was there an auction of items that had been outsourced to a company that did auctions of items that probably … that I would find out only gave 10 percent of the money and then I was sitting at tables of people saying, “Well, I bought those diamond earrings but it’s for a good cause,” and those people not realizing how little of the money …
Then the organization itself was just about awareness and it wasn’t about anything else. It just started to feel creepy and I felt like I just had to put a stop to it. I just couldn’t go out and do that anymore and by that time, my head was in another place, I wasn’t thinking about cancer anymore and I didn’t even want to think about it anymore and I was onto my other interests at the time, investigating religion for myself or thinking about my philosophy of life and becoming a mother and having a family. I kind of just said to my speaker’s agent, “That’s it. No cancer related anything, anymore.”
Then they basically never call me for anything and I just occasionally do stuff. The reason I accepted this was because … first of all, in Chicago, where I now live with my husband and daughter, one of his close friends is a genetic researcher at the University of Chicago. I talk to her a lot about her work and I of course am really interested in genetics, and I’m interested in how it’s exploding when they called me about this, I thought that was a good excuse that we could do our 23andMe thing, you know when you get the added help thing. We all did that. That was really interesting and I just found it interesting.
Then as I got ready for this in the last couple weeks, I started reading more about genetic counselors and I read the essays and it was really … it’s really fascinating, this whole area is so fascinating that we can have this much information, and then we have to deal with knowing this information. It’s just a really interesting area.
Misha Angrist: I’m curious, what was your 23andMe experience like?
Julia Sweeney: My husband said … ’cause we had actually done the National Geographic one before, where you do the inside of your mouth, not the spit.
Misha Angrist: Geographic, yeah.
Julia Sweeney: Yeah. My husband is Jewish, I’m Irish, you know Catholic doesn’t matter for genetics but Irish, British Isles, northern European and our daughter is Chinese. We were just exactly what we thought we were. They sent us a map, we all … there was no surprise. It was just like, she’s from China, Michael’s from the Middle East, I’m from Northern Europe, that was it.
Then he was like, “Well, why do you want to do it again?” I said, “Because I want to confirm my suspicion that I’m a Neanderthal.” He said, “That’s ridiculous,” “Michael, no, no.” He goes, “Why would you say that?” I go, “Because, I just feel like I’m Neanderthal. Look at my body.” When you see pictures of Neanderthals, they just … where they have recreated … that looks like family pictures of my family.
Misha Angrist: Oh, come on.
Julia Sweeney: He goes, “You know, everyone’s a little Neanderthal.” I go, “But I’m a lot bit Neanderthal.” He goes, “Oh, this is ridiculous.” And then we just sort of laughed.
Okay, then we sent it off. We got everything back. We poured over everything. Michael was just like … he’s susceptible to all the Jewish diseases, Tay-Sachs, he can be a carrier, all this stuff and we’re not even reproducing so it doesn’t even matter but that was interesting. Mulan had only one thing that was a marker for possible late onset Alzheimer’s for her, that was interesting.
Then mine comes up. I’m in the top two percent of all people who’ve done 23andMe of Neanderthal. I am Neanderthal. I’m looking for a counselor who can counsel me on how I need to behave now. I know I’m so Neanderthal and how I started going around our house, I started going …
Misha Angrist: I’m curious, a lot of adoptees and parents of adoptees do these kinds of tests because there is no biological link. I’m wondering, did you have expectations for what you would learn about Mulan’s genome or …
Julia Sweeney: There were two things that I found most interesting about her. One was that she has one eighth or something … she’s mostly, I forget what they call it, but it’s basically Chinese, East Asian. She has one part South Asian. Somebody came up from Vietnam or Thailand or some of that area of a great-great grandparent or something like that. That’s interesting.
The other interesting thing for her, of the 23andMe database, she has fifth cousins in California that have done the 23andMe. That, for her, who has no connection to any person, and these people are so far out. A lot of Eastern Asian people immigrated to California to build the railroads, I’m sure there’s some relatives in there. Anyway, and that was really interesting. To think of that. That was cool, we’re like, “Well, we’re all connected.”
Misha Angrist: When you were going through the cancer stuff and your brother and … did you look into genetic testing? Was there …
Julia Sweeney: No, I felt like, for me, my cervical cancer, I felt like there was just experiential things in my life that put me in a category of possibly getting that that just seemed like it explained it. I didn’t feel like it was a genetic marker. For my brother, I have this theory that I guess … that I never looked into or did anything about, which is really terrible of me but there was these three years my brother rented this really cheap apartment, in this really crappy area of east LA, that smelled like gas so much, I didn’t know how … it was near a gas thing where they were pumping gas out of the ground, as they do in California.
I would go there and go, “Michael, how can you stand it?” I totally think that there was … but I never did anything about it, because I’m not a very good person. I didn’t go investigate it, I didn’t go and see if a lot of people in that neighborhood got cancer, but I felt like … I mean who knows what happened but I just felt like it was an environmental thing.
Also, because he delayed going to the doctor for so long, I guess I thought … I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought. I didn’t think it was genetic. I didn’t even think about doing anything like that. Even though we also were downwind from Hanford and Spokane. A lot of people attribute to cancer rates in Spokane, which they say are high. I’m not actually sure if that’s true to the Hanford thing. I don’t know, I never did.
No, so I’m bad.
Misha Angrist: No, I don’t think that’s the take home lesson…
Julia Sweeney: You know why? I’m a Neanderthal.
Misha Angrist: This probably falls under the heading of I’ve answered this more than 100 times.
Julia Sweeney: That’s okay. I’m actress, I can make it sound like, “Oh, interesting. La, la, la.”
Misha Angrist: I’ve watched God Said Ha! year’s ago when it first came out and so I re-watched it recently.
Julia Sweeney: You did? Oh my God.
Misha Angrist: In anticipation of this. It’s hilarious. Especially when you’re channeling your mother, it’s sort of like … You share all of these intimate details about your family. You’ve pretty much always done that since then.
Julia Sweeney: Yes.
Misha Angrist: Did that require seeking permission or forgiveness, or …
Julia Sweeney: No, I’m a terrible person, this is the answer to this. I did not ask anyone’s permission, and partly it was because of how it really happened. I never saw myself as a person who was gonna do confessionally, confessional standup beat kind of comedy … it’s all Kathy Griffin’s fault because she’s the one who took me to this club in LA where she was just trying got learn how to be a standup. There was this place called “The UnCabaret” in West Hollywood, and it was really for standup to kind of break out of their joke pattern.
There was certain rules that Beth Lapides who started it had, which it had to be a totally true story, you couldn’t make up stuff. It had to be the first time you’ve ever told it so you couldn’t know where the jokes were. You were really, this is it, raw. It was a late night on a Sunday when she kind of got this little club that only could hold 50 people at it’s max.
It was a very safe place to just go and to get up and tell these stories. Kathy encouraged me to go and so I did, and I got up and I started telling these stories and then all this shit started happening to me so of course that became … but I never thought anything in that room, that to me, was like a confessional. I was really just telling the room … I was talking like I would talk at a dinner party about what had happened to me that week and not thinking anymore of it.
Then later, at the end of the horrible year and everything, I was trying to get … and I was recovering from my cancer and really hadn’t been working and I was trying to figure out how I could do a showcase to let casting directors know that I was available and this was what I looked like and this was how I am. I thought, I’ll just put together 45 minutes of this material because Beth’s husband had recorded it.
I had actually forgotten everything. If he hadn’t recorded it, I would never have remembered what I said. He gave me all these tapes of nights that he thought I was particularly on or had a good story. Then I did it at the the Groundlings and everyone or a big feeling at the end of it, with all of these show business people was, forget about getting cast in something, this is what you should be doing, is telling this story.
It was sort of like … I was like the frog in the water. It just gets warmer and warmer, by the time it was boiling.
Misha Angrist: The Neanderthal frog.
Julia Sweeney: Yes, exactly. By the time I was … I never really had this clear moment where I thought, “Should I go ask if it’s okay.” Then of course, I’m a wimp and didn’t want to ask. Then I just thought, “Well I’ll just do this as a little show in LA,” but then it became very popular and then … I still hadn’t even told my parents I was doing this show, because I thought, “This is just a local thing.” Then it’s not like nowadays where it would … it would probably have been on Netflix. You could do stuff and your parents didn’t know about it in the old days.
Then it opened in San Francisco and I still didn’t tell them about it and then the local paper ran a thing saying, “Julia Sweeney’s doing a hilarious show in San Francisco about her brother,” and my parents were like, “What?” And then I was like, “Oh my God.”
They flew to San Francisco ’cause they wanted to see the show and I took them to a restaurant the afternoon before they came in and I said, “Okay, I am going to do my show for you right here in this restaurant, slowly so that you can just react to my face and tell me what you think, and it isn’t a shock what I’m going to say on stage.”
Again, I didn’t ask permission, I just said, this is what I say. I started and then after about 10 minutes they were so bored, they said, “Just stop, we’re okay. We can handle it.” Then they went and then to my horror because I do have a lot of issues with my mom even though I also love her but like most people, I do have a lot of issues. I loved being able to do the show because I could, it was my outlet. I could get that affirmation, like I’m not crazy, she is, in a lot of things.
Also, I had softened her by the way. I really left out the worst stories. Still, I felt like I did a good ribbing. To my horror, my mother loved the show. Thought it was the greatest show ever and wanted to see the show over and over again. It was like, “No, I’m making fun of you in this show. I’m really, really … ” The satisfaction I got from the audience laughing with me at my mom, when my mom was included in it, it wasn’t as fun. That wasn’t as satisfying.
There’s your long answer to that. Everyone else, of course Michael’s dead, I couldn’t ask him. I didn’t ask anyone. I feel like now I should have asked them but I just didn’t, ’cause it just seemed like this organic thing. I feel like now, like for now, ’cause I’m about to do a new show at Second City, I’m doing a new, one person show and of course I talk about … but it’s not … I’m trying got make it more observational. I’m trying got get away from my family because … and away from the big, tragic story because I don’t want a tragic story, there hasn’t been a tragic story.
I was trying got figure out well … so I’m really kind of going more towards standup territory, more towards observational standup territory but still, there’s things about my husband and daughter in them. They get complete say over whether I get to say that story or not. With them, I’ve been honorable. With my family, my birth family, I was not honorable in that way.
Misha Angrist: You talked earlier about doing all of these cancer related events and then it gets to be creepy, do you see yourself now, 20 years hence as a survivor, as a patient advocate, do you …
Julia Sweeney: No, I really don’t I guess. I really just don’t think about others. That’s really …
Misha Angrist: You’re not a joiner.
Julia Sweeney: I’m not a joiner. No, I’m really not a joiner. I like the idea of joining, which has gotten me into so much trouble because I will sign up for … my daughter and husband constantly are making fun of me for how many things I join and then have a conniption fit a month later going, “I can’t be in this group.”
It’s not because the group’s bad but I guess I don’t know what I see … I hate to say survivor. Cervical cancer is not so bad. That’s like saying I’m a bad cold survivor.
Misha Angrist: Really?
Julia Sweeney: Yeah, I do feel that way. It is true that if it hadn’t been treated I would have died eventually, yeah, that’s good, I didn’t die but I never … you know what, I think it’s because it happened while my brother was dying of a horrible cancer, that it was embarrassing that my cervical cancer was even had the word cancer in it. It seemed like …
Misha Angrist: It was not worthy.
Julia Sweeney: Yeah, it wasn’t gonna kill me. I got it detected … well not as early as I could have but … I still had to lose my uterus. Then the other part, this is the part that I don’t understand about myself. I never had any problems about losing my uterus. I really had no moment of sadness about it. I knew I wanted to be a mom but I immediately, as soon they said that, “Oh, so I’m gonna adopt.” I didn’t have … there was not even one inch to leap to that.
I guess I don’t think of it as a survivor. I just think, I had a health situation, I got it taken care of, there was a consequence that I couldn’t have kids from it, turned out good.
Misha Angrist: But I imagine a lot of people even today, they’ve seen God Said Ha! and so they come to you and they bring these expectations of Julia Sweeney’s survivor.
Julia Sweeney: Well I am compassionate about it.
Misha Angrist: Sure.
Julia Sweeney: I mean actually that’s the one thing I loved about doing the cancer events, ’cause I really did understand. I had many events where I just was so filled up with gratitude that I could connect with these people and it seemed to mean something to them that they were connecting to me.
I really did get it. I don’t do anything to help anyone but I do feel like I get it. Especially the family dynamic part of it. I really get all … it isn’t just the cancer, it’s that every relationship is altered and stressed to the max and family that needs people that need to feel like they’ve helped you even though they haven’t helped you so you have to be responsible forgetting to feel like they’ve helped you. All those subtle dynamics that come into play with cancer, I really get it.
That’s as far as I go. I just get it, I don’t do anything, I am not an advocate.
Misha Angrist: Alright, so let’s talk about God.
Julia Sweeney: Okay.
Misha Angrist: A lot of people … our magazine is full of stories about people dealing with devastating diseases and a fair number of them develop a very strong and profound faith in the face of that. I’m wondering if in your case, all of this awfulness had something to do with you going the other way.
Julia Sweeney: No, it didn’t. I really lost my faith for such a stupid, mundane reason, even though I do think I came to the right conclusion.
When I had cancer, my brother had cancer, I was religious but I wasn’t more … I didn’t become more religious but I never beseeched God to try … I had this very, sometimes more intense, sometimes less intense faith, quote, unquote, my God was like a really loving uncle who really had no control over anything that happened in the world but was a witness to everything that happened. It was actually a pretty good God as far as God’s go. He was there to listen to you and to say, “Oh my God, I know you got cancer, that’s terrible.”
My idea of God wasn’t like, “Do something about it.” I guess I had this impotent idea of God always, that God never could do anything.
Misha Angrist: It was not the old testament ball buster.
Julia Sweeney: No, it was ’70s Jesus, hippy that came out of my Catholicism, which was popular at that time. A lot of liberal Jesuits that were taught, teaching me, God is love, he’s your friend, he’s there to love you. Vague things happen for a reason. He’s gonna be there to hold your hand through all the terrible things but he doesn’t have any responsibility for any of those things, that was my God.
I felt like when Michael died that he was … that was, not in a big way, meant to die but that that was his fate. I had the narcissism of a younger person, that of course I would survive. I didn’t … we did go to church because my parents were living with me. I always loved going to church. I’m the one who sang, let’s go to church. I’m still the one who sang that. I like going to church. I find it fascinating and … well now I look at it more clinically but at the time it was comforting but not in a really strong way.
Misha Angrist: I’m sorry to interrupt, you’re a church going atheist?
Julia Sweeney: Yes, I am. In fact, I had one year in Chicago, where every Sunday I went to a different church. That’s how I got to know the city.
Misha Angrist: I feel like that’s got to be like such a tiny Venn diagram of …
Julia Sweeney: I know. I know. It was so fascinating, oh my God. Then I ended up joining a Unitarian church but then I realized I didn’t want to be part of it. That’s a whole other story. I’m actually still on their roster, and I love the Unitarians. I think everyone should be a Unitarian because you know, you can be an atheist and be a Unitarian.
They’re kind of like everything I think is good about a church, or some might say is and about a church. The community and the outreach and the community service, and the music. They seem to uniformly have the ugliest churches. They just go out of their way to have how industrial and bad linoleum floor can we make it. But other than that, I’m always like…
Misha Angrist: Why is that?
Julia Sweeney: I always want to say, “You guys, have you gone into other churches? They actually try to make it look nice.” To go from all these beautiful little Catholic churches, and especially in Chicago, old St. Pats downtown, these just jewel boxes that are so … you can’t help but feel, be put in a mind space when you walk in of the sublime and eternity and beauty and poetry. The Unitarians, my God, it’s like a community … it’s not even a church. It’s like the neighborhood community meeting at the community center with a bunch of metal chairs. Oh God. Anyway, but I like their philosophy.
God … when I had the cancer, I had nothing to do with God, really, it was just about the same as it was. I never thought, even while Michael and I both had cancer, people would say. “Do you just say, ‘Why me?'” And I go, “No, I never thought that. I always go, ‘Why not me?'” Why not me?
Misha Angrist: And you didn’t double down on prayer.
Julia Sweeney: No. This is the embarrassing truth. It wasn’t until later, when I had a terrible breakup, a really, really painful breakup with a guy I was really in love with and he dumped me and it really was my first just … I mean, of course I had upsets before but this was really … I was down for the count.
Part of it was that I really wanted to be a mom and I didn’t imagine myself being a mom on my own and so I was at that age, around 35, where it was really … I didn’t want to be single again, looking for someone to quickly adopt a kid with them. I knew that it meant that I had to either adopt on my own or not be a mom. There’s all these other implications, and I was in love with this guy, like really in love.
I was really depressed. Really depressed. I wouldn’t say … I hate to say the word depressed because now I know people who are really clinically depressed. I like to say really sad for a reason. Really sad for nine months for a reason. Where I could just barely … I felt wounded, physically wounded. I was crying a lot I was really in a state, life-crisis time. Honestly, nothing’s happened since then like that.
It’s kind of embarrassing because people have died but I guess it was because I thought it was a failure on my part. When my brother got cancer, that was he got cancer. When I got cancer, I got cancer, that’s just rolling of the dice. To me, not being able to put together a long-term relationship with somebody who wanted to raise a kid with me just felt like a massive personal failure, bigger than anything I had every experienced. A lot of sadness, I couldn’t sleep and then that became a terrible feedback loop of not sleeping and being able to do stuff, and I was really not leaving the house, and it was terrible and terrible.
Then I had this religious experience where I felt like I woke up in the night, I felt … Now I think it was probably a partial … it was a right temporal lobe something. Seizure possibly and because I was really, really in a bad way and I had this feeling that … like I saw lights. I felt like it was God. I didn’t feel like somebody said something to me but I felt like I knew in my heart it was all gonna be okay.
I felt like this thing go through my body of just calmness like I suddenly had a main line of Valium. It felt overwhelming. It’s hard to describe this experience, which of course, from my culture I interpreted it as a religious thing with God saying, “You’re going to be okay, would you just stop crying.” It was kind of it.
Then that was great, I did calm down. I felt like there was a definite shift, that was several months into it, four or five months into this terrible almost year. Then I kept thinking, “Why did that happen … what was that?” Just curiosity like what happened there, how real was that? Am I a Jesus freak now or what? Am I really religious? I thought, well I guess I am religious. Well, my tradition is Catholicism, always liked it. Always had good experiences so I’ll just rejoin the Catholic church and I’ll sign up for a Bible study class.
Then I signed up for a Bible study class and then I actually read the Bible. That was really the end.
Misha Angrist: That was the deal breaker.
Julia Sweeney: Then I read the Bible and was like, “What? This is what?” Then I started reading about how the Bible was put together and appreciating of course the Bible, all the wonderful things that are in the Bible and of course, there’s all the creepy weird stuff that’s in the Bible. Then it’s so obviously just a historical hodgepodge document that had enormous cultural influence but was not divine. To me, that seemed obvious.
I guess one book lead to another and before I knew it, I was reading Michael Shermer and Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and all those people and I was like, “I’m convinced.” Then I learned more about what could have been happening in my brain and then … who knows what happened. I don’t even know if that’s a dream or what. I can’t go test it. It never happened again.
I don’t think it was a God. I think I was in a huge crisis, emotional crisis state and my brain did whatever it could to calm me down. I think it was just doing what it could do to help me. That’s what it was. When I saw your question, I thought, “Oh God, I know I should say it was like, ‘When I got cancer, I realized there was no God.'” No, it was when a guy broke up with me. It’s embarrassing, my reason.
Misha Angrist: You’ve been kind of an out and vocal atheist.
Julia Sweeney: Yes.
Misha Angrist: Have you gotten a lot of grief for it?
Julia Sweeney: I think not to my face. I feel like … well first of all, people wanting me to do any kind of cancer-related stuff was like … I was saying “no” already but they did not want me if I was … there were many things that my agent would come and say, the Cancer Society of North Dakota wants you but you cannot say anything about you being an … they’re very worried about you being an atheist.
I had never really thought before, oh yeah, I guess in the cancer community, that’s a big God loving community. Although, you would think it would be a not God loving community but it is, which I also understand ’cause you’re … it’s a useful construct. I have to say, there’s a lot of wonderful things that religion, while I think they’re delusional, are effective and useful. Especially in a crisis. I get it.
I don’t know, that was just a whole other thing. What do you think I’m gonna do, get up and say, “There is no God, people.” I’m not gonna say that. What I hate is where people … they don’t judge me themselves, but they’re so worried other people are gonna judge me. You know what I mean, like they wouldn’t … they don’t want me around cancer people because they’re afraid the cancer people might be upset. I actually don’t think they would be upset. I think they would say, “Well,” …
I mean if you really believe in God, who cares … if there’s somebody who doesn’t believe in God, wouldn’t you just say, “Well, too bad for you. You don’t understand.” What do they think is gonna happen?
Misha Angrist: How would you feel if I asked you to tell the story of meeting your husband again?
Julia Sweeney: God.
Misha Angrist: I mean, how many times have you told that story?
Julia Sweeney: Way too many and in fact, last time I was like, “Oh God,” ’cause you know every time you tell a story, you’re a little bit…
Misha Angrist: Are you embellishing it?
Julia Sweeney: No, I’m not embellishing it. In fact, my husband laughs at … now when I tell the story, now that we’re in this long-term marriage, over 10 years, it doesn’t … I don’t imbue with all of the flowers. It was like, “Yeah, we seem like we’re good enough for each other.” It doesn’t have that fairy-tale quality that I imbued it with when I was first telling the story.
Well, let’s see how I can tell the story, ’cause now when people say, “How’d you meet your husband?” I go, “His brother introduced us.” Then they go, “Oh, how’d you know his brother?” I go, “I just knew his brother.” I don’t wanna get into it.
Michael’s brother, Joel, went to see God Said … no, Letting Go of God. He’s seen God Said Ha! in San Francisco, that’s where he lived then and then he saw Letting Go of God and Michael, who was single and had never married, I’ve been married and divorced and Michael lived in Chicago had said something about how he could never be with anyone unless they were not religious.
This is actually, I used to say that they didn’t believe in God, he said, “That’s not true. I didn’t say I couldn’t be with someone unless they didn’t believe in God, what I said was I couldn’t be with someone who was religious, which I actually think is different.” For him, he didn’t feel like he could be … You can imagine how excited he was when I joined the Unitarian church. Anyway, that was the one thing I didn’t … I hope you got someone who didn’t believe in God, but no I’m joining the church.
Joel wrote me this fan letter and it was around the time that I had an excerpt of the show on This American Life so I was getting really hundreds of emails. One of the emails was, “Desperately Seeking Sweeney In-Law,” was the headline, so of course I had to read it and it said, “I am writing to you to propose marriage on behalf of my brother, who doesn’t know that I’m writing to you but he’s the perfect match for you because he is blah, blah, blah, scientist in Chicago and our family is crazy too and … ” It was just a funny letter and I read it to my … the guys across the hall on the Desperate Housewives staff and we all thought it was a funny letter but I didn’t write back ’cause I thought, If I say, “good letter,” he’ll say, ‘Why don’t you call my brother,'” and I thought, “I’m not gonna call your brother, oh my God.”
Anyway, then … see now I’m having to remember the story. Then what happened, six months later, I was in New York doing a show and I came out …it’s so funny ’cause all these people are really good friends now, that I didn’t know. This woman, later I know her as Rhonda, comes up to me and says, “My friend wrote you a letter … ” and actually, she didn’t even look for me. We were coming out of … I was going in the bathroom and she was coming out, after my show.
She said, “My friend wrote you a letter proposing marriage on behalf of his brother and I said, “Oh right, that was such a funny letter.” And she’s like, “I just want to say, he’s a good guy. You should really write him,” and I was like, “Maybe I will.” And she’s like, “You should,” she said, “I knew those boys in high school and they’re hilarious,” and I said, “Oh, maybe I will, I’m going to. I’m going to.” But I didn’t.
Then, six months later after that, it was about a year later. I was doing a show again in LA and I came out and Joel was there and he said, “I wrote you a letter about a year ago proposing marriage on behalf of my brother,” and I said, “Oh, right, right. I was thinking I’d write him … ” The truth was, at that moment, I was sort of flirting with this other guy that was bad news so I was like, “Good, who’s this new guy.”
I said, “Well, I think I will write him.” And he said, “No, don’t write him, because he’s an asshole.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Well, as I was coming down here, I called him, I said I was coming to your show. He got really upset when he found out about the letter because of his home phone number was on it and his cell phone number and a picture of him and he didn’t even know it was being sent and it was unfair. Now we won’t … he screamed at me and we’re not speaking and even my mother thinks I’m crazy, who came to see the show and I wanted her to meet you too but she said, ‘She’s gonna think we’re stalkers or something. I won’t meet her.'”
Then I said, “Okay, I have to meet the mother.” I went off, I met Norma, who immediately I liked very much and she was funny. She was like, “You shouldn’t be talking to us.” She said, “But I would make a very good mother-in-law.” We laughed about that. Then I really wrote Michael the first time to say, “Don’t be so mad at your brother. I know this is embarrassing but it’s really not a big deal. I’m not putting it out there, just talk to your brother.” And something like, Michael always remembers this part, I said, “And if you’re as charming as your brother, who was very charming when we met, I guess I should say, ‘Hello.'”
Then three days later, Michael wrote back and said, “I am so humiliated. When I found out about that letter had been sent to you I just hoped you had this efficient assistant who would delete a crazy letter like that and that you would have never would have laid eyes on that. So sorry to take up your time.” That was really it. It was not an invitation to more conversation.
Then I said something like, “But what kind of science do you do?” He was remembering this recently because I said something about, there was something happening in Switzerland at the time where these scientists were like, “We’re gonna do this experiment. Either we’re gonna learn about the hidden something or we’re gonna create a black hole that the entire Earth is gonna be sucked into.”
I made some joke about that, like, “Well, maybe we’re all getting sucked into a black hole next week or we’re gonna know more about this thing or something.” He thought that was funny.
Misha Angrist: And he’s a biophysicist?
Julia Sweeney: Yes. He has a company that … he makes this very high end camera that uses X-rays to take pictures of protein molecules so that you can see the DNA. It has the whole software thing, and it’s a huge, huge machine. Huge.
Misha Angrist: With a Large Hadron Collider joke, you were sort of right…
Julia Sweeney: Yes, oh baby.
Misha Angrist: Right in his wheel house.
Julia Sweeney: Yeah, we went back and forth and then finally he came to visit and he was cute, so we got married.
Misha Angrist: The end.
Julia Sweeney: The end. Then I moved to Chicago.
Misha Angrist: Thank you so much.
Julia Sweeney: Oh thank you.
Misha Angrist: Thanks so much to Julia Sweeney. Julia’s new show, Older and Wider debuts at Second City in Chicago on Friday, January 12th. For tickets and other information, please visit SecondCity.com. Thanks to you for listening to the Genome podcast. Don’t forget to check out our magazine, which comes out quarterly and it’s available online for absolutely free at Genomemag.com and buy mail.
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