I’ve seen a few documentaries on comedians recently — Robin Williams: Come Inside my Mind was pretty good. My favorite was the Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling. What was smart about the way Judd Apatow did that was that it wasn’t just a love letter to an amazing talent, but…we got to see the neurotic and dark side of Shandling, too. I already knew he was funny. Who knew he was a big time jerk?
This documentary on Gilda Radner by Lisa Dapolito, just lightly brushes over the dark stuff, and sticks with a light-hearted vibe. Now, I love that it wasn’t just a “greatest hits,” in which we see her do the nerdy Loopner skit with Bill Murray, or an entire Emily Litella or Roseanne Roseannadanna or monologue. We didn’t need to see a Baba Wawa bit. It just needed to give us a bit more.
I’m guessing some critics reviewing this will compare Gilda Radner to former Saturday Night Live female cast members like Kristen Wiig, Cheri Oteri, or Tina Fey/Amy Poehler, and the current powerhouse — Kate McKinnon. I say…why compare her to just the female members? She was just as funny and valuable to SNL as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Dan Akroyd.
Other critics will compare her with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, saying she’s one of the funniest females ever. As I’ve said about Burnett (and say about Radner), why do they have to just be compared to women? If I were to make a list of the funniest people in the history of Hollywood/comedy, it would be a combination of male and female, and Gilda Radner would be somewhere high on that list.
It was great to hear from Martin Short, especially since I never knew he dated Radner. He talks about her smile and personality lighting up a room (it sure lit up our TV sets and living rooms on Saturday nights in the ‘70s).
It was powerful to hear Radner, in her own recorded voice, talking about some of the trials and tribulations in her life. They covered her eating disorder, and we got to see photos of her as a chubby kid, always making her parents laugh. Well, her dad was always laughing. Her mom seemed a bit more obsessed with the child’s weight.
We learn about the affluent family she grew up with in Detroit. We watch as she goes to Toronto and does some performances in college, and drops out to pursue a career in entertainment.
She talks about joining Saturday Night Live just as if it was “another job” and why would she think anything different? It was 1975, and the show was brand new. She was literally, the first person brought onto the cast. Even when it started airing on TV, they didn’t realize how big they had become until they attended a Mardi Gras parade and the crowd was treating them like The Beatles arriving in America for the first time.
Just like with the Shandling documentary, we’re getting details of her life from diary entries. And since she was filmed from a very early age, video accompanies a lot of what she’s saying.
I have mixed feelings about having a current crop of comedians read some of her entries (again, similar to the Shandling documentary). I loved hearing Bill Hader show such excitement about just holding the actual diary entries in his hand. With a huge smile on his face, he said it was an honor. At this point though, I’m tired of Amy Poehler always commenting on comedians (Amy Schumer and Maya Rudolph also show up). Obviously, those are bigger names than Lorraine Newman (who we do hear from, but Jane Curtain is surprisingly absent). Chevy Chase was only in one interview segment, but he’s so difficult for anybody to be around, it’s surprising they even got that. Bill Murray can also be difficult, so it’s no shock he wasn’t there But Akroyd (a former boyfriend) and a few others should’ve been here.
Lorne Michaels has a few nice things to say. He explained how if they were short and needed to fill time, they’d just have her go out onstage and talk about what she ate for lunch. They show her doing that, and you have a smile on your face while she does it. There’s that cliche about how people say they could watch certain talented people they love “read a phone book.” Well, Radner falls into that category.
There’s some interesting stuff shown about her marriage to Gene Wilder. She was his third wife, and she left her second husband, SNL bandleader G.E. Smith, to marry him. There are things I had read before about how Wilder wasn’t…so wild about how the marriage was going. The movie never touches on that, and I suppose that’s smart. Neither are around anymore to comment on it.
It’s just that she had this self-doubt, and she seemed to get obsessive over boyfriends, and a fear that nobody really loved her. I think a deep dive into more of that would’ve been interesting and given us a more complete portrait of this comedic genius.
It was heartbreaking to see that, as she does a one-woman show that was a huge success — she said she never felt more lonely on stage. It reminded me of something Janis Joplin said about loneliness, and how being onstage was like making love to thousands of fans and then you just go home alone.
For those of us that grew up watching her on TV, it’s a nice way to reminisce. And there are enough things we haven’t seen before that it makes it well worth our time. Who would imagine that a doctor checking her blood tests would leave a note telling her “…it was an honor to analyze your urine.”
4 stars out of 5.