You Don’t See Characters Like Molly Shannon’s on ‘Saturday Night Live’ Anymore

Molly’s a superstar!
You Don’t See Characters Like Molly Shannon’s on ‘Saturday Night Live’ Anymore

Compiling a list of Molly Shannon’s best Saturday Night Live characters shines a light on an aspect of the current show — there are no Molly Shannons anymore. Questions such as “What are your three favorite Mikey Day characters?” or “Which Heidi Gardner characters are your favorites?” would likely be met with blank stares. It’s easy to come up with funny Sarah Sherman or Bowen Yang sketches, but smashes like Yang’s Titanic iceberg are one-hit wonders. 

The show was different in Shannon’s day. A rich character like Sally O’Malley could be counted on for multiple sketches, and audiences ate it up. (Recurring characters like Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s Spartan Cheerleaders could be run into the ground as well, but that’s a conversation for another story.) With Shannon making a triumphant return to SNL tonight, let’s count down eight of her best. They don’t make ‘em like Molly anymore. 

Ann Miller from ‘Leg Up’

One of the first characters Shannon created on SNL was real-life showbiz icon Ann Miller, a team-up with fellow rookie Oteri’s hyperbolic Debbie Reynolds. “Leg Up” was a tribute to the strong female performers her father loved, “and I wanted to become one of the types he admired,” she wrote in her autobiography Hello Molly. “Elizabeth Taylor. Rosalind Russell. Judy Garland. Strong dames.” Miller was old-school but a saucy old dame, with Shannon-written lines like, “Just watching Gene Kelly slide into his tights used to put dew on my lily.”

Courtney Love

Shannon was on Fallon this week talking about the time Love wanted to kick her ass over the impression. Lucky for Shannon, she was able to convince the alt-rocker that stumbling, slurring imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Jeannie Darcy

There’s not a lot of anti-comedy on SNL outside of Andy Kaufman’s early days, but Darcy might qualify. She’s aggressively non-funny, the world’s least charismatic stand-up with a briefcase full of stock one-liners that fail to land and a “don’t even get me started” catchphrase that no one would ever repeat. “She’s stiff. She’s not a natural performer. But she keeps trying. Working on her act. She has big dreams,” Shannon has explained. “She’s one of my favorite characters.”

Sally O’Malley

At 58, Shannon will have a different POV if she tries to hitch up that red pantsuit and proclaim, “I’m 50! Fifty years old!” The sassy broad who won’t let middle age slow her down is one of Shannon’s earliest characters from her Los Angeles improv days. She’s “a combination of my dad, and a woman from my neighborhood growing up and a little Miss Patty and Miss Jackie,” two choreographers who helped stage productions at Shannon’s Catholic grade school. Apparently, all of them liked to kick, stretch and kiiiiick!

Joyologist Helen Madden

SNL writer Cindy Caponer found an ad for a “joyologist” in the back section of the Learning Annex catalogue, and Helen Madden was born. Caponer kept the scripts short since she knew how much Shannon improvised. “She had to imagine how physical I’d get and the unexpected things that might happen as a result,” Shannon wrote in her book. “One time I was kicking so hard in a sketch with Matthew Broderick, playing my seashell craftsman boyfriend, I accidentally went over backwards in my chair. The crowd loved it.”

Terry Rialto of NPR’s ‘Delicious Dish’

We’re purposely not embedding “Schweddy” here to remind you that Delicious Dish was a favorite long before Alec Baldwin brought his balls to the table. Shannon’s Rialto, along with Ana Gasteyer’s spot-on Margaret Jo McCullen, lulled us into listener-supported laughs. Gasteyer created the characters at the Groundlings, based on a local NPR food show. The key to the characters? “You have to really not worry about anyone interrupting you, ever,” Gasteyer said, ironically on the actual NPR. “And you just need to take your time and explore a subject to the point that people want to weep with boredom.”

Miss Colleen, Cohost of ‘Dog Show’

One of Shannon’s favorite SNL writing partners was Will Ferrell, with whom she created the silly series of Dog Show sketches. Miss Colleen was married to Ferrell’s Mr. David Larry, despite the fact that he was gay.

Shannon: Sometimes I think our love is dead because you like men, Mr. David Larry.
Ferrell: Maybe I do and maybe I do.

The best part for Shannon? “Making up insane dog names together: Lord Pistachio, Sugar Breath, Little Mr. Miami Beach, Captain Gingersnap.”

Mary Katherine Gallagher

Mary Katherine Gallagher was a huge reason Shannon got SNL — as well as the reason she almost didn’t. The character was a mainstay of a one-woman show Shannon was doing in L.A., the one that got the attention of talent scouts who recommended her for an SNL audition. But when it came time to try out, Shannon got a terrible suggestion. A local SoCal agent considered herself an SNL insider and issued a warning before Shannon left for New York: “Whatever you do, don’t do that character Mary Katherine Gallagher when you go to audition. If you do, you will never ever get hired. Lorne (Michaels) will hate that. He will hate that dirty little character. Don’t do it. You’ll never get the job.”

Shannon took her advice, just to be on the safe side. And got the show anyway. But considering that Shannon went on to smell her armpits 18 times on the show, again when she hosted in 2007 and finally in the Michaels-produced feature film Superstar, it’s fair to say Michaels liked Mary Katherine after all.

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