From ‘SNL’ to performing for the ‘Tribe’

‘Saturday Night Live’ alum and ‘Debbie Downer’ originator Rachel Dratch tells the Times of Israel about her new book, how Jewish audiences are different and what it means to have a ‘body by shtetl’

Rachel Dratch (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Dratch (photo credit: Courtesy)
From Rachel Dratch's book, 'A Girl Walks Into a Bar.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
From Rachel Dratch's book, 'Girl Walks Into a Bar.' (photo credit: Courtesy)

TV shows come and go, but rare is the entertainer as disarmingly honest and  down-to-earth as Rachel Dratch. A former star of “Saturday Night Live,” where she made her mark by creating “Debbie Downer,” Dratch has just released her first book, an engaging and funny memoir entitled “Girl Walks Into a Bar.”

Averaging a solid laugh on each of its 248 pages, “Girl” traces Dratch’s life from early childhood — in a Reform family in a suburb of Boston — to the unexpected birth of her son, Eli, who arrived when she was already in her 40s.

A veteran of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe, Dratch also writes about her professional ups and downs, including a major TV role — as Jenna on “30 Rock” — that was very publicly given and taken away. Plainspoken and self-deprecating, Dratch also writes about the anxieties of being a single woman at baby showers, how Eli’s arrival brought her family closer to Judaism — even though his father, John, is Catholic — and what it means to have a “body by shtetl.”

Speaking to the Times of Israel by phone, Dratch reflected on life after “SNL,” her next TV project and what it was like to serve as the opening act at TribeFest, a convention held in March for young American Jews.

A transcript of the interview, trimmed for continuity and length, appears below.

You wrote this book when you were a bit stuck professionally.  Was writing it therapeutic? Painful? Both?

It wasn’t painful. It was more therapeutic, but not so much in what I was writing — more just that I was doing something creative on my own. I started out not really thinking, “Oh, I’m going to write a book.” It was just, I had these big empty days going on, so I was sort of thinking, “Oh, instead of frittering away my days, if something funny happens to me, I’ll write it up as a story.” So that’s kind of how the whole thing started.

How did writing it compare to the process of writing “Saturday Night Live” sketches?

In a way, it was easier just to write a funny thing that happened, to write that up as a story. It was a lot easier, ’cause I would write it as if I were telling friends. The more challenging part was putting it all together and making the whole thing flow. In some ways, it was kind of nice because you were your own judge of what was funny. You’d write something and look at it the next day and say, “I can’t use any of this” [laughs]. Or I’d think, “Oh, that was really good.” So it was kind of nice to be your own judge and boss.

Were there other books that you had read and felt inspired by as you were writing?

When I found out I had a book deal and everything, I read Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin and some non-comedy autobiographies to see how people do this. It was kind of cool because their voices were so different from mine, but it was good to see the choices they made in structuring the whole thing.

In both the book and your TV work, you seem pretty fearless about portraying yourself in a less-than-flattering light. Where does that honesty and lack of vanity come from?

‘If you’re like an alien or the president — if you lose the fact that you’re a woman doing improv — you open up a whole world for yourself’

There’s two answers, comedy-wise and book-wise. Comedy-wise, in improv, I used to watch Amy Sedaris when I was at Second City — she was ahead of me on the mainstage. I sort of found that if you’re just the girly girl in a scene, you end up serving coffee to the guys that are having all the fun. But if you’re like an alien or the president — if you lose the fact that you’re a woman doing improv — you open up a whole world for yourself.

In terms of the book, it’s funny, because a lot of people have said I’ve been self-deprecating in the book, [but it’s] just what happened. I actually left a lot of stuff out that was worse [laughs]. The reality was that I didn’t feel like I was exaggerating about what happened after “SNL.” I think a lot of actors spin their careers to sound super-busy all the time. That’s sort of what people are trained to do, like, “Oh, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, a lot of projects.” I was just kind of being real about what was happening. I still got jobs here and there, but it’s just that after “SNL,” you kind of think it’s going to be this huge springboard. It was, in some ways — it got me known on the national level — but in terms of getting jobs right away, it definitely didn’t happen for me, so I just decided to be honest about it, instead of sugarcoating everything. I was sort of debating whether to do this or not. I didn’t want people to have this feeling that I was sidelined, but I sort of was, so I decided to say it.

You’re very open in the book about all the rejections you received on your way to “SNL,” at Second City and elsewhere. Did you draw on those experiences during the difficult years after “SNL”?

Well, for one thing, I think most actors who have gotten anywhere have had as many rejections as I have on the way up. You have to develop a thick skin in terms of not taking stuff personally. It did [frequently] take me two times to succeed. That’s probably pretty common. The one lesson I took was after Second City and before “SNL,” I had a year in between where nothing was happening, and then I ended up getting a call from “SNL.” It was during that year that I was like, “I’m never going to work again,” and I was super-bummed out. I just thought everything was crashing and burning. Then I got “SNL,” so I always carry that with me post-“SNL,” to know that things can turn around at any time. I did start to lose a little faith [laughs], but the main point is that I didn’t want to spend my days lamenting instead of just enjoying life. I decided I wanted to do all these things that I didn’t have time for before because… you may get a job the next year. You just don’t know.

You performed last month at TribeFest, the Las Vegas convention for young Jewish leaders. How was that?

‘If you’re in front of a Jewish audience, all you have to say is any Jewish reference, and you’ll get huge laughs, just ’cause it’s like, hey, we know what you’re talking about’

It was really fun. Part of the speech was lifted from the book, about explaining Passover to my non-Jewish baby daddy [laughs]. Basically, [the organizers] told me to talk about what being Jewish means to me, so it was this interesting exploration. If you’re in front of a Jewish audience, all you have to say is any Jewish reference, and you’ll get huge laughs, just ’cause it’s like, hey, we know what you’re talking about. A lot of what I was talking about, people seemed to identify with, so it was really kind of fun, to hear what things I thought were funny, and then all the young Jews thought those things were funny, too [laughs].

You write in the book about how you started thinking more about your Jewish background after you got pregnant. Why do you think that is?

I don’t say that I had this big awakening or anything, but I talk about how my parents became super Jews with the birth of their grandson. I was raised Reform, [and after the birth] my dad would start singing these old Yiddish songs — he just kind of turned 100 times more Jewish than he was before. I don’t know what that was all about… In terms of me, because the baby was a surprise, John and I hadn’t really discussed religion at all. We had so many other more pressing things — to me, anyway — come up right away. I didn’t really have some big deep spiritual thing going on.

Is it playing a different role in your life now?

John’s open to Eli being raised Jewish. He’s Catholic, but he’s sort of a lapsed Catholic. Kind of by coincidence, we have Eli signed up for a Jewish preschool in the fall. I definitely want him to have some sort of Jewish/Hebrew school education so he gets an idea of what it’s all about.

You write in the book about having a “body by shtetl.”

[laughs] I knew you’d bring that up because I was thinking of the Jewish people who’ve read the book. A lot of women have responded to the “body by shtetl” thing. I guess they relate.

Was that a running joke in your family, or something you came up with?

It was something I came up with for the book. There was one holiday when we were all sitting around, showing our lack of ankles to each another. It was like, “No, look at mine!” and pulling up our pants [laughs].

Do you think there were any beautiful Jewish women with amazing Sports Illustrated bodies running around the shtetl, or not so much?

[laughs] That’s a good question. I’m sure there were. They were probably hidden under those conservative costumes. They just weren’t in my family tree.

To switch gears a little bit, you write about getting replaced on “30 Rock.” You’ve made lots of appearances on the show in other roles. How has that felt, playing a smaller part?

The first year, that was more of a running part  — [star and creator] Tina [Fey] basically came up with this alternative part when I was replaced. I felt more suited to do all these character parts. The first week was kind of weird, but then I got used to it, and it was fine. I wasn’t like, “I want to be the lead part!” It was evident to me that I wasn’t quite right for it as it turned out being, but that was fine. The first year the media [focus] was still really prevalent. That was the bummer, not the show itself. When I’ve come back years later, it’s been a lot more fun because all the hoopla has died down — I could just go back as a regular actor to do these fun little parts.

It seems like you and Tina Fey are still friends, but was that awkward or a challenge, having all this media attention in the background?

The actual challenge was the media stuff. In terms of us being friends and actors and being in the whole business, we’re used to people getting replaced on pilots all the time, but usually it gets stuffed under the rug. It just makes a little appearance in a trade paper or something, but this one, for some reason, was picked up everywhere. That was the hard part for me, not the actual losing out on the job. The hard part was the follow-up, and the questions that wouldn’t die.

Like what I’m putting you through now.

[Laughs] No, no. Now it’s so in the past. I’m cool with it. I don’t mind. That’s what I was debating with the book — like, do I want to bring all this up and remind people? But it was sort of where my starting point was for my little journey in the book. It was the starting point for my transformation, or whatever you want to call it. Hmm. That’s a big word to use for what happened [laughs]. But I decided to be honest about where I was and what was going on.

You recently shot a pilot called “Lady Friends” with Kari Lizer, who created “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

Yeah. I’m not sure if it’s still going to be called “Lady Friends,” but it’s already done, and we’ll hear about [whether it’ll be picked up by NBC] by May 15.

What’s the role?

Well, the premise of the show is that Minnie Driver and Andrea Anders are lifelong friends, and one is married and one is single, so it’s all the stuff that comes up in friendships between single and married women, and what each is going through. I play Minnie Driver’s kind of odd friend [laughs].

You’ve now got the book and the TV pilot, and Eli, who you write about wanting to spend as much time with as possible. What would your ideal situation be in terms of balancing work and your personal life?

Actually, if the show [gets picked up], that would be perfect. It’s multi-camera, which means, for you laypeople out there [laughs], that it has a lot fewer hours on the job than a single-camera show like “The Office” or “30 Rock,” where they shoot more like movie hours. For multi-camera, you come in and do the real show in front of a live audience. That would actually work out pretty well with a child. This would be good timing — being able to work and spend a lot of time with the baby.

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