How Gilda Radner changed comedy and helped make ‘SNL’ a cultural treasure

Updated 11:07 AM EST, Tue January 8, 2019
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Watch CNN Films’ “Love, Gilda,” which explores the dramatic story of legendary comedian Gilda Radner, on Tuesday, January 1, at 9 p.m. ET.

CNN —  

Gilda Radner – one of the most influential cast members in “Saturday Night Live” history – played a pivotal role in shaping “SNL,” forever changing the course of comedy.

Early on, “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels knew Radner had something. She was the first person he hired for what would become his groundbreaking sketch comedy team, which was dubbed “The Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” in 1975.

Despite that original sketch team’s legendary star power – Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman – Radner stood out.

Her quirky characters became household names: Roseanne Roseannadanna, the loud-mouthed consumer affairs reporter on “Weekend Update”; Baba Wawa, Radner’s parody of Barbara Walters; Lisa Loopner, the lovable geek from “The Nerds” sketches; and Emily Litella, the hard-of-hearing elderly woman who appeared in op-ed segments for “Weekend Update.”

In the CNN Film “Love Gilda,” it’s clear Radner inspired countless comics, both men and women.

“You see Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong and Maya Rudolph talking about her in the film,” Alan Zweibel, Radner’s close friend and “SNL” writing partner, tells CNN. “Even Bill Hader spoke about her with reverence, growing up and watching her. They looked upon Gilda as someone who was a gateway, who was a pioneer for women in sketch comedy in particular and comedy in general.”

She helped break down barriers

“SNL” has changed a lot over the decades and much of that can be attributed to Radner helping break down barriers for women in comedy. During her time, she had to fight against stereotypes and the rampant sexism that was almost the norm in show business. Even Belushi, who was arguably the biggest star on “SNL” at the time, believed women were “fundamentally not funny” and he actively worked to undermine female staff writers, according to Curtin.

Watch CNN Films’ ‘Love, Gilda,” now

Just like Radner used to say, “It’s always something” — if it ain’t a star like Belushi, it’s someone else.

“To be a woman on that show was extremely different than when I was there,” Amy Poehler says in “Love, Gilda.”

“There was so much in the world that had yet to be carved out for women in not just comedy.”

Throughout its history, “SNL” has dealt with claims of sexism of being a boy’s club. The ratio of male to female staff writers was stark for much of the show’s early history, which had an impact on the types of sketches that made it to air. With more male writers penning material, there were more parts written for the men. Not helping matters was Belushi, who “felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women,” according to Curtin.

“John absolutely didn’t like being in sketches with women,” Curtin said in “Live from New York,” a book about the history of the show. “He told me women were not funny. Actually, Chevy said it to me as well. And I found it stunning.”

Over time, that ratio of male to female writers balanced out, which paved the way for Tina Fey to be named the first female head writer in “SNL” history, a title she held during one of the show’s most successful runs. Fey also made up one-half of the first all-female “Weekend Update” duo alongside Poehler.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for Radner, Curtin, Newman and the early female staff writers laying the groundwork.

“By the time I got there, in that read-through room … our director was a woman, one of our stage managers was a woman,” Fey told Oprah Winfrey in an interview. Fey described the system at “SNL” as being “very fair,” with everyone having the opportunity for their sketches to be heard and given a chance to make it to broadcast.

Some of the most influential women in comedy today – Fey, Poehler and Melissa McCarthy, to name a few – all owe their careers, in part, to Radner. Not only did she make it acceptable for women to cross boundaries in comedy previously only crossed by men, she gave young women a role model.

“Gilda was a superb role model and inspiration for female comedians and performers,” Aykroyd tells CNN. “Her legacy is the array of giant female talents who, motivated by Gilda, worked to audition and get on ‘SNL.’ All of the female cast members since Gilda would agree that their own careers are part of Gilda’s legacy.”

Gilda Radner, left, as Roseanne Roseannadanna, with Jane Curtin during "SNL's" "Weekend Update."
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
Gilda Radner, left, as Roseanne Roseannadanna, with Jane Curtin during "SNL's" "Weekend Update."

What made Gilda Gilda

While Radner served as an inspiration to many, you could see shades of Lucille Ball in the way she performed. In some ways, Radner could very well be considered the Ball of her generation. She had a distinct walk; Aykroyd described her as “a puppet with frozen knees and elbows.” But she was a master of physicality, and there have been very few, if any women in comedy who have been able to match her level of physicality since.

“Gilda would just give herself up to a moment, she really gave herself up, she sacrificed herself,” Bill Murray said in “Live from New York.” “She knew how to serve a scene or another person in the scene just so devotedly. She really had the most of that of anyone. As a result, because she made other people look good, she herself looked fantastic.”

A number of cast members were nominated for Emmys over the decades, but Radner was one of only three in the show’s history to win an Emmy for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program. (Chevy Chase and Dana Carvey are the other two.) Considering the roster of talented people who have appeared on “SNL” throughout the years, it’s a testament to her abilities as a performer. Even Poehler says that she “basically stole pretty much all of my characters from Gilda.”

Whether she was trading barbs with Curtin on “Weekend Update” or fighting off a noogie from Murray in one of the “Nerds” sketches, Radner elevated any performance she was in. Average sketches became good and good sketches became great. When all else failed, the audience could always turn to Radner for a laugh.

“I think that she’s probably got one of the highest batting averages in “SNL” history,” says James Andrew Miller, co-author of “Live from New York.” “She always delivered. Even when a sketch went sideways or wasn’t particularly brilliantly written, there was just something so compelling and appealing about her that she was enough to capture your attention.”