Molly Shannon Shares Stories About Her Childhood Tragedy, Her ‘SNL’ Audition, and Sneaking Onto an Airplane as a Kid
Comedian and author also tells Howard who the best “Saturday Night Live” guest hosts were while she was a cast member on the showApril 12, 2022
Even if comedy is just tragedy plus time, it’s still a wonder how Molly Shannon can be as successful of a comedian as she is considering the trauma she witnessed as a child. Her new memoir “Hello, Molly” takes a hard look at the 1968 car accident that killed her mother, sister, and cousin when Molly was just four years old. She was also in the car along with her other sister, who survived as well. And behind the wheel was Molly’s father who’d been drinking all day.
“I did not blame him … we would talk about it,” Molly told Howard on Tuesday morning, explaining how her father always admitted to being intoxicated and knowing he shouldn’t have driven the family home. The way he and others who were at the all-day party remember it, there was some discussion on whether Molly’s mom or adult cousin should drive instead but neither wound up taking the keys.
“Not that I’m trying to bail him out – I take this very seriously. But … a group of people come to the car and say goodbye,” Molly remembered. “Why did they let him drive? Why did everyone see him off? I don’t know.”
Molly told Howard how her aunt, who lost her daughter in the crash, was even willing to take her dad in and nurse him back to health following the incident.
“It must have comforted her to take care of us and have these two little girls, [I was] four and my sister Mary was six. I think she really enjoyed it. It must’ve helped her,” Molly said of her aunt.
As for Molly’s father, he raised her as best he could and she knows with certainty he loved her and that she loved him. However, his alcoholism would continue to be a problem throughout her life. She recalled her father showing up to her school recitals and knowing by how he waved to her onstage if he was drunk or not.
“He’s an alcoholic, he struggled with that, but then he would try really hard to go to A.A. and be sober for years,” Molly said of her dad. One time that her father fell off the wagon occurred during her final week as a cast member on “SNL.” He was in New York for the occasion and met a random college student at a bar and brought him back to Molly’s apartment.
“Then we all went out to dinner … and I was so mad at him,” Molly said. “This college kid has to see this darkness between me and my dad. It was so embarrassing.”
Molly sent her father to a hotel for the night and called her manager and friend Steven Levy to tell him about the ordeal. Throughout the call, Steven seemed to be defending Molly’s dad.
“Steven Levy … lost his dad when he was a kid and [Steven is] gay and out and … [he] really connected with my dad. They bonded. He was like a father figure to him,” Molly explained. Based on the way Steven was reacting to the story and telling Molly she should be more understanding, she suddenly wondered out loud, “Are you saying he’s gay?”
“I felt like, so much compassion. Like, kind of the pieces of the story all coming together. It’s tragic,” Molly continued.
“He probably drank because he was in so much pain,” Howard told his guest. Molly agreed and wondered what his father’s life could’ve been if he was allowed to be his true self. She waited until he was 72 before asking her father herself if he was gay. His reply: “most definitely.”
SNEAKS on a Plane
Molly’s memoir is brimming with stories about her upbringing and unique relationship with her eccentric father. Howard was particularly interested in one anecdote from her pre-teen years in which Molly and her friend snuck on an airplane headed to New York City. They got the idea from Molly’s dad who pitched it as a funny prank the two could pull.
“We had pink leotards and our hair in buns because we figure if we were hopping a plane to New York we’d take a ballet class,” Molly recalled, telling Howard that stowing away on the plane involved telling a flight attendant they wanted to board for just a moment to say goodbye to their sister, and then they just snuck into a few empty seats. Their plan worked. The duped flight attendant even gave them cocktail peanuts to snack on during the flight.
After landing and exploring the city for a few hours, however, the kids realized they had a new problem. Where would they stay and how would they get home? “No hotels would take us, so [my dad] was like ‘Alright, alright, you gotta come back,’ … but then [sneaking on] didn’t work on the way back because they were too crowded and we kept getting busted, so he had to put it on his credit card,” Molly said, adding, “We had to pay him back for the flight.”
“What a character,” Howard remarked.
“He was also so silly and fun, Howard. He would make everything a game,” Molly continued. “If we went into a candy store, he would go … ‘Molly, let’s pretend like I’m blind,’ … and we’d do these little scenes where we go in and knock the chocolate over … and just silly stuff like undressing mannequins, taking their shirts off and making the one mannequin cup the other one’s breast. “
“We thought it was funny,” she added. Not for the last time, Howard marveled at how well-adjusted Molly seemed to be after experiencing such a unique childhood. “You seem like a very together human being,” he said. Molly agreed she was in “a place of peace” now but told Howard and Robin that getting there required a good deal of effort.
“I really had to work my ass off in therapy processing that,” she said. “It wasn’t like it came easy.”
A Horrific Hotel Room Encounter With Gary Coleman
Molly thought signing with agent Mark Randall in the late ‘80s might lead to a big break in her career. Instead, as she told Howard on Tuesday morning, it led to a horrifying run-in with one of his other clients, “Diff’rent Strokes” star Gary Coleman.
As Molly recalled it, Randall had set a business meeting with Molly and Gary at the fancy hotel he and Coleman were sharing the Presidential Suite at. The get-together started off innocuously enough—until Gary invited her up to their room.
“You’re not even thinking Gary Coleman is interested in you sexually?” Howard asked.
“I was a virgin, so I wasn’t even thinking about that,” Shannon responded. “He held my hand, and I was like, ‘He’s so cute!’ He had a suit on.”
Once they got up to the suite, she remembers that Mark disappeared immediately while Gary took her to his bed and got sexually aggressive with her.
“That’s such a dark story,” Howard said.
“Yeah,” Molly agreed, explaining Gary was “relentless.” “He was trying to kiss me and get on top of me, so I’d push him off. Then I would get off the bed, then he’d bounce on the bed and wrap himself around me, then I would fling him off, then he got on top of me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Gary, stop!’ but I guess because of his size I didn’t feel physically threatened.”
Shannon spent so much time getting chased around the room and repeatedly tossing the four-foot, eight-inch actor off of her that she was soon out of breath and needed some place to hide. “I go to the bathroom, and then he grabs onto my leg … I had to kick him off,” Molly recalled.
“Then I go lock myself into the bathroom and then he sticks his hand under the door and said, ‘I can see you!’”
“How did you get out of the room?” Howard asked.
“I just sprinted out. I think I was probably very polite,” she said, explaining that on her way out she did tell the agent to keep an eye out for his client. “I wish I could’ve stood up for myself more,” Molly lamented.
It’s often said the entertainment industry is more about who you know than what you know. In Molly’s case, at least as far as her first TV credit was concerned, it was about who she pretended to know.
“We called it ‘The Mamet Scam,’” Molly told Howard as she explained the duplicitous but ingenuous method she and her friend Eugene Pack thought up to break into the business after moving out to L.A. They’d studied together under renowned playwright David Mamet at New York University, so they decided to call up casting agents on each other’s behalf while in character as a representative who worked with Mamet.
“I would say, ‘Hi, this is Liz Stockwell and I’m calling from David Mamet’s office … and they’d say, ‘Oh my gosh!’—they’d put the agent right on the phone,” Molly recalled. “I’d say, ‘We have a kid out here who is in David’s next play. He’s an up-and-coming star. You gotta meet this kid.’”
Howard was astounded. “They would take these meetings with you?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” she told him, explaining they ran the scam on Friday afternoons after four, when the agents were generally in a good mood. “We figured they’re getting to meet good, talented people. So, we figured we’re giving them a gift.”
“But we got busted once,” Molly said. “When I sat down with [the agent] she was like, ‘I just wanted to see what a liar looked like in person.’”
She told Howard she relied upon her N.Y.U. acting skills to get her out of the jam and pretend that Eugene—her platonic friend the casting agent had spoken with on the phone—was a deceitful boyfriend who had promised to help her out in Hollywood. “[The agent] was like, ‘Honey, this guy is a scum bucket,’” Molly continued.
Getting caught was awkward, but the Mamet Scam ultimately paid dividends when another well-placed phone call from Eugene helped Molly snag a 1992 role on the cult classic TV show “Twin Peaks.” “I met the casting director, and she was like, ‘Wonderful, Molly—I want you to meet [filmmaker and series co-creator] David Lynch,” she told Howard. “And then they gave me a part as the Happy Helping Hands lady.”
Becoming a “Superstar” on “SNL”
Molly’s road to “Saturday Night Live” was a long one. Though she started in the middle of the 1994-1995 season, the actress actually auditioned five years prior. “They asked for a tape of five characters, and I spent all my waitressing money making my tape … I found out they weren’t going to have me, they weren’t going to see me [and] I cried and cried,” she recalled to Howard, noting she used the experience as motivation. “I thought, you know what? I’m just going to work really hard on my show, create characters, work, write, write, perform, so that when they come back again, I’m going to be like locked and loaded and ready.”
When the second call came years later, Molly was ready, although she pushed back when then-producer Marci Klein asked her to send another tape. “I was like, ‘I’m not giving you a tape, you’ve got to see the live show,’” she revealed. “Marci flew out to see that and it went great and then she was like, ‘You’re coming to audition.’”
Oddly enough, that audition didn’t include arguably Molly’s most popular character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. As she remembers it, Molly was discouraged from showcasing the Catholic schoolgirl by an unofficial talent scout with ill intentions. “She got kind of jealous,” the comedian said of the woman’s reaction after finding out Molly was flying to New York for an audition. “She was like, ‘Yeah, whatever you do, don’t do that.’”
Even when Molly did get on “Saturday Night Live,” getting Mary Katherine on the show proved to be an uphill battle. After pitching the character to one of the writers, Molly was told it would never work. “I said, ‘No, no, no, I do it in my show, it works,’” she recalled insisting. “And then I went to this guy Steve Koren. He was like, ‘Just tell me what you do in your show, and we’ll type it up.’”
Once the character finally came together for the screen, it piqued the interest of Lorne Michaels. “The first time we read at the table … he knew,” Molly remembered of the executive producer’s acknowledgement of Mary Katherine’s appeal, so much so that he wanted to debut her at the perfect moment. “He was like, ‘I want to wait. Let’s wait and do it next week with [host] Gabriel Byrne.’”
The following week, the Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch was towards the end of the show, a spot where segments are known to get cut. “I was so mad. I thought, ‘They’re not getting what this is … they’re not knowing how physical this is,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m going to have to do it. I’m going to have to fucking show them and I’m going to like blow the roof off the house,’” Molly admitted thinking. “So, I did that dress rehearsal and … my heart was pounding … and I went on there and I just had to show them, and I did it … I had the skirt on, I lifted my leg up, and I did gymnastics, and I sang, and I did a monologue, and I threw myself into those chairs and flew off and it killed.”
The performance paid off. “My sketch, ‘Mary Katherine Gallagher,’ got moved from the bottom of the show to the top and I was like, ‘Yes!’” she told Howard.
During her six seasons at “SNL,” Molly had the opportunity to work with an array of talented guest hosts, including Jim Carrey, whom she worked with on “In Living Color.” “When he comes to ‘SNL,’ what a force,” she stated, comparing him to Adam Sandler when it comes to his commitment. “He just elevates everything … he’s incredible.”
Molly had similar praise for actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston. “Gwyneth and Jen could be cast members, they’re just fun [and] elegant,” the actress remarked. “Jen Aniston especially too … she’s just like quick and easy and doesn’t get too stressed out.”
But it was a certain musical guest that particularly stood out for Molly—Whitney Houston. “Whitney was so nice,” she said before recalling how she convinced the late singer to be in a Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch despite naysayers predicting Whitney wouldn’t want to do it.
“I just told Whitney, ‘Look, I’m going to play the catholic schoolgirl, you’re going to be like a snotty girl … do whatever you want. You just have to kind of be, you know, snotty, push in front of me, outsing me. You can say whatever you want.”
Whitney was into the idea, although she didn’t show up to the stage until seconds before their sketch went live to the point where fellow cast member Ana Gasteyer was waiting in the wings to take her place. “They usher her on and she was fantastic,” Molly recalled. “She had so much fun and … she had such a good sense of humor.”
Despite her monster success on “Saturday Night Live,” Molly still found herself struggling. “When I was on the peak of ‘SNL,’ like when I was the most famous … that’s when I got the most depressed,” she confessed to Howard. “I would have this like anxious feeling when people came up to me like, ‘Oh thank you, thank you,’ but then I would have like a gnawing, anxious, sad feeling, like, ‘No, no, something’s missing.’”
The actress eventually realized that something was the relationship with her late mother. “It was sad because the only one I really wanted to tell me that I was good was my mom,” she said. “I’m doing backflips and I’m doing this and I’m doing everything and she’s still not coming back … and I was like, ‘Oh, fame doesn’t fix any of this, I still have a fucking hole in my heart.’”
The realization gave Molly a whole new perspective. “It gave me this like freedom where I was like, ‘Okay, who cares?’” she remembered thinking. “You don’t have to be the best, you can just be whatever level you’re at, you’re doing what you love, you get to be an artist, you’re creative, you’re passionate, you’re pursuing what you want, who cares if you’re not number one? Like you could be number two thousand, just enjoy being creative. It doesn’t matter.’”
While she was still happy at the show, after six years Molly decided to call it quits.
“I loved it so much, I love Lorne so much, I respected the show so much, I wanted to leave when I loved it,” she said of her decision, also noting her desire to have a life as a factor. “I’ve seen some people stay on too long where they’re phoning it in and I was like, ‘I’ve got to hand the torch over’ … I’d been working so hard I was like, ‘I just want to enjoy my life and just have fun.’”
Molly Shannon’s new memoir “Hello, Molly” is available now.