JUST IN TIME FOR ST. PADDYS: Sweeney chronicles her funny path from Irish-Catholicism to atheism in one-woman show, Letting Go of God
By DANIEL KUSNER | Friday, March 16, 2007
She's one of the sweetest performers to ever join the ranks of "Saturday Night Live."
And when I tell Julia Sweeney that I really enjoy some parts of the 1994 box-office and critical bomb, "It's Pat," she says, "Bless your heart."
A former accountant who became a professional comedian, Sweeney created the androgynous character Pat Riely when she was a member of The Groundlings.
In 1998, she followed "It's Pat" with "God Said Ha!" a one-woman show that found laughter in the face of cancer.
Now she's unearthed the funny side of examining God's nonexistence.
But first, back to "God Said Ha!"
Shortly after Julia moved into her two-bedroom bungalow in Hollywood, her younger brother Mike was diagnosed with lymphoma.
First, Mike moved in. And then the Sweeney parents moved in.
And amid the dysfunctional-family chaos, Julia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Director Quentin Tarantino translated the stage version of "God Said Ha" into film.
As much as the story is about Julia, it's also about Mike, who ultimately lost his battle.
And while Julia was the eldest of the five Sweeney kids, the way she described Mike, it was unclear if he was gay or not.
Was Mike gay?
"Yes. He was," Sweeney says from her home in Los Angeles.
She encouraged Mike to come out to the Sweeney parents. But while creating "God Said Ha!" the big sister protected Mike's privacy.
"The family didn't really know it. And it doesn't really matter anymore. I only kept that secret ... Well, I didn't keep it secret. I just didn't put it in the show, because Mike wasn't open about it. And out of respect for him ...
"We used to argue about it all the time. All the Sweeney kids knew," she continues. "But Mike said.. Oh, this is going to make me cry... Mike said, 'When I'm in a long-term relationship with someone I love, then I will tell Mom and Dad.'"
Mike wasn't your typical Cher-loving gay dude. He listened to the Crash Test Dummies. And during chemo treatments, he usually wore his "Reservoir Dogs" T-shirt.
"And then he died. So he never got that person," Julia says.
Now she's learning about the coming out process from a different closet. Because Julia Sweeney is an atheist.
Earlier this year, her new one-woman show, "Letting Go of God" was independently released on CD ($19.95, JuliaSweeney.com). And coincidentally, on May 5 the show will be taped for a film version during its run at the Renberg Theater at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles.
In her signature wholesomeness, Sweeney chronicles her journey to the land of the non-believers.
As devout Catholic, she idolized nuns who taught at her all-girl high school in Spokane, Wash. She loved movies like "The Flying Nun," "The Singing Nun" and Audrey Hepburn in "A Nun's Story."
Like most Catholics, Sweeney was inculcated with Vatican-administered rituals. And like most Catholics, she grew up not as a literalist but as an interpreter of the Bible.
"And I was never a fan of the pope," she remembers.
But one afternoon, some young Mormon missionaries rang her doorbell and asked if she "believed" in God's love.
That question became the pea under her spiritual mattress.
The Mormon boys' dedication to God inspired Sweeney to rededicate her faith.
So she joined a Bible Study class.
Sweeney began with the Old Testament and made her way through the sequel. And through the fresh eyes of an adult, she found the whole idea of a supernatural being rather unbelievable.
"If there was a God, why he would send his son to be a savior to us by telling us incredibly convoluted and vague stories? Also, Jesus was really pissed off most of the time," Sweeny says. "If there was a God and God wanted us to behave a certain way, why wouldn't he just say, "'Look, here I am in the sky. Here's what you got to do. And this is how you have to do it.'"
Through her studies, Sweeney also couldn't get past the Bible's many breadcrumbs of immorality.
"The Bible says if someone has an adulterous affair — if you're a woman — you should be stoned to death. The Bible promotes slavery. And that men should have more than one wife," she says. "The Bible isn't a good place to look for morality. It's just an archaic document."
Not that the New Testament doesn't contain some gorgeous prose.
"The Sermon on the Mount is fantastic. And there's lots of good advice for living. But that doesn't mean that it's sacred," she says.
I mention that in the Rev. Mel White's recent book, "Religion Gone Bad," that Dallas' First Baptist Church is said to be the historical birthplace of anti-gay evangelicalism. And that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of churches because they're gay.
"Good! They should feel lucky. They shouldn't be at church in the first place," Sweeney says.
Sweeney says she has gay friends who struggle with anti-gay Christianity.
"And I keep saying to them, 'What are you trying to do wanting to be in a church? Why is anyone trying to be in a church? It's like complaining, 'Why can't I be in the KKK? They kicked me out!'"
Just because Sweeney has "let go of God" doesn't mean she doesn't have a spirituality.
"I have a fond appreciation of life. I have enormous appreciation that I exist," she explains. "It's just that supernatural connection to 'spiritual' that I don't think exists."
So why has a gay and lesbian center in Los Angeles become the venue to film her next show?
Because Mike was gay?
Because of the androgynous "It's Pat" character?
Sweeney says the connection to a gay audience might somewhat indirect.
"First, you think you might be atheist. You don't know. Then you do know. Then you consider whether or not you tell your family. How does your family react? How do you reconcile with your family? How many people need to know it?" she remembers. "When I was going through it, I thought, This must be like what it would be like to be gay."
Earlier this week, I phoned Sweeney again to see how the very Irish former Catholic will celebrate St. Patrick's day.
"That's really a secular holiday. It's not like anyone is really revering Saint Patrick," she says. "He probably never existed and never drove the snakes out of Ireland. I've always thought it was just a day to celebrate Irishness and drink."
WHO NEEDS AN ANTI-GAY GOD ANYWAY?
Julia Sweeney made an excellent DVD recommendation for gays who feel rejected by Christianity: "The God Who Wasn't There" ($24.98, TheGodMovie.com)
Written and directed by Brian Flemming, the sharply edited, funny documentary questions the literal history of Jesus and chronology of early Christianity.
There's plenty of evidence of gay-hating Christians who worship violence.
And by using unauthorized clips from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ," Flemming examines the connection between blood sacrifice and transubstantiation.
While illustrating the way things are told so often they become fact, Flemming coincidentally happens to be the guy who's responsible for the term "spam" when referring to e-mail spam. (So weird!)
Great music by David Byrne and queer band LeTigre compliment the nifty soundtrack.
"The God Who Wasn't There" is so hilariously blasphemous, it just might scare the bejesus out of you.
— Daniel Kusner