God Said, “Ha!” (1998)

Director/Writer/Star: Julia Sweeney

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1980s will be remembered for many things—most of them bad—but one positive development of that go-go decade was the blossoming of comic monologues. Spalding Gray gave us Swimming to Cambodia, Lily Tomlin revealed the depth of her talents in The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Billy Crystal created one memorable character after another in a variety of works.
I was dismayed when I caught the latest in this line of monologists, Sarah Silverman, in her filmed concert performance Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (2006). Silverman, like Tomlin and Crystal, creates a character, an uber-prejudiced, self-involved Jewish American Princess named Sarah Silverman. She is clearly a very gifted individual, but her act is so one-note that it loses its flavor after about 15 minutes. However, nasty sells these days, and her popularity is assured because she is a pretty woman who talks dirty.

After this painful experience, I needed something to cleanse my soul, and that brings me to former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney and her warm and courageous monologue God Said, “Ha!” Over the course of 90 minutes, Sweeney tells us about 1994-1995, the worst year of her life.

She tells us that the year started very hopefully for her. Although she had just come off a divorce and her bomb of a movie It’s Pat, based on her gender-ambiguous character from SNL, her divorce was amicable and she looked forward to moving from New York to Los Angeles and into her newly purchased bungalow for one. Her idealized vision for her life was one of a sophisticated, strong, single woman and happy about it! Her fears come out, however, as she envisions being one of the active elderly, involved and admired by her neighbors for her independence—in other words, alone forever.

No sooner does she start her brave new life than her brother Mike is diagnosed with lymphoma. She moves him into her bungalow, and her parents come down from their home in Spokane and move in to help care for Mike. Julia has a lot of hand-me-down furniture from her parents. Thus, the experience is akin to moving back home. To Julia’s plans, “God said, ‘ha’!”

In the midst of this nightmare, Julia relates the comedy of family life in affectionate caricatures of her parents. For example, Mrs. Sweeney interrupts Julia’s work in the coach house behind the main house to ask her where her “mixes” are. Julia is baffled about this term. “You know,” she says in a nasal imitation of her mother, “your boxes of Hamburger Helper.” Pasta becomes noodles; marinara sauce becomes red topping. The 1950s live again for Julia, the would-be sophisticate.

The arrangement has its unforeseen benefits, however. When Julia begins a romance with Carl, a outdoorsy type from Idaho, she finds she has to sneak around her own place to have sex with him when he comes to Los Angeles for a visit. She finds herself saying things like, “My parents are so weird. Come on, let’s go neck in the coach house!” The unexpected titillation of the fear of discovery becomes a sweetly humorous memory when she finds that her parents purposely leave the house empty so Julia and Carl can have some privacy. Her apparently clueless parents are, in fact, adults, and that comes perhaps as no surprise to Julia.

The horrors of dealing with a very sick person aren’t glossed over, but the focus is on what Mike has to go through, not very much on her reactions or those of her family. I liked how she recognized that it is the patient who really does all the heavy lifting, and Mike’s procedures (chemo every other day through a spinal tap; a shunt placed directly into his skull) are gruesome to contemplate. Her life-goes-on approach is refreshing and hopeful for all of us who will one day face taking care of a dying loved one.

As Mike continues his downward slide, Julia discovers that she has a rare form of cervical cancer and must have a hysterectomy. The odds of this much pain coming in this short a time to one family is mind-boggling. That Julia can joke about a misplaced ovary and Mike can accuse her of trying to steal the cancer spotlight from him is testament to the beauty that can accompany our darkest moments.

Mike succumbs to cancer, though he has to have a psychologist brought in to help him let go of life. Julia survives to this day, still a single woman, an adoptive mother, stronger and in greater awe of the wonderful foundation of her family. I hope she’ll see fit to bring us an update on the Sweeney clan. The world needs some gentle and wise comic monologists today to give us hope and a good laugh. l

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