THERE ARE A COUPLE of ways to make people give a damn about what you have to say: You can tell a tale of surpassing strangeness and originality, or you can just be a great talker. Julia Sweeney is a great talker. In her wildly funny monologue God Said, Ha!, Sweeney tells a story that's moving, but hardly strange: A few years ago, her brother was diagnosed with lymphoma. He moved into Sweeney's LA house, and soon her parents arrived from Spokane to help care for him. It's a tragedy, but it's pretty ordinary as tragedies go. The reason you give a damn is the way Sweeney tells it—like the funniest, most observant, most sunnily macabre friend you can imagine, yakking with you over the phone.
Which is no accident. In an interview during last year's Seattle International Film Festival (where God Said, Ha! won the Golden Space Needle Award for best film), Sweeney described how the monologue came into existence. "I didn't really write it," she said. "It happened organically. On Sunday nights, these friends of mine who are comics started this thing called the Un Cabaret, this alternative comedy stand-up place. The idea was to take stand-ups and break them of all their habits. The rules were, you cannot ever have told the story before. It has to be a story, it can't be a joke. There can't be a punch line to it. You can't know where the laughs are. I always feel, when I go there, I've called my best friend, Wendy, and I'm telling her about something exasperating that just happened."
God Said, Ha!
directed by Julia Sweeney
starring Julia Sweeney
starts March 19 at the Egyptian
Sweeney vented a lot of her frustrations onstage. "I started performing there, and someone recorded it, and it was the year everything happened. So at the end, it was as if someone had tape-recorded me on the phone with this really good friend who really got me."
In her monologue, Sweeney demonstrates a style that could be described as lemony: cheerful and acerbic. As the film opens, she tells how she moved back to Los Angeles after quitting Saturday Night Live and divorcing her husband. She dreamed of a fulfilled and perfect life in her new feminine, trinket-filled, solitary house. "People would say, 'There lives Julia Sweeney. You know, she never married after a brief early liaison, but we've never known anyone who was happier and more full of life than that Julia Sweeney. How we envy her existence.' Well, that's when God just said, 'Ha!'"
Alongside the more harrowing visitations of her brother's cancer, Sweeney had to deal with the deep weirdness of living with her parents after a 20-year hiatus. "If I used a word like 'pasta,' it was as if I was throwing my big-city ways right in their faces." After a while, pasta marinara simply became "noodles with the red topping."
THE FILM ENDS at the end of the year, when Sweeney really began to feel like the butt of the Creator's joke: She found that she had cancer as well—ovarian, in her case. Before her compulsory hysterectomy, her doctor harvested some of her eggs, in case she wanted to have children later. He suggested they harvest 12. "Why?" Sweeney wonders toward the close of the monologue. "Because they're eggs?"
In person, Sweeney's a little gentler (not to mention unedited), but just as alert to absurdities. Interviewing her felt more like dishing than extracting information. A lot of the talk revolved around knitting. And when we started to talk about her plans for the future, the meeting devolved into an impromptu career-counseling session, as Sweeney surveyed her options. Writing is one possibility: "Writing is like some kind of fiend that comes inside you and never leaves you alone." And acting: "I'm made to be on a sitcom. I don't care if the jokes are kinda hacky. It's like doing vaudeville." Then again, she really liked directing: "It was the only thing I've done that I had complete control over and it was great. I mean, [with great emphasis] I liked that." After considering all her choices, Sweeney told me, "I feel like you're going to say, 'Have you ever heard of a book called What Color Is Your Parachute?'"
One thing she does know—she's not going to draw on her own experience for her next project. "I don't want to work in the true area anymore. I'm done with the truth."