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How 'SNL' alum Molly Shannon found profound healing after childhood tragedy

Molly Shannon, shown here in 2021, co-stars <em>I Love That for You,</em> a Showtime comedy series about shopping channel hosts.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images
Molly Shannon, shown here in 2021, co-stars I Love That for You, a Showtime comedy series about shopping channel hosts.

As a cast member of Saturday Night Live from 1995 until 2001, Molly Shannon became famous for playing Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher.

She says that landing a spot on SNL — and becoming recognized for a sketch she had created — should have felt like a triumph. But instead, Shannon remembers feeling depressed.

"I realized that really the only person I wanted to say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so, so proud of you, Molly' was my mom," Shannon says.

But Shannon's mother, along with her 3-year-old sister and a cousin, had died decades earlier, when her father, who had been drinking, crashed the family car into a pole. For years, Shannon says, the memory of her mother and sister propelled her forward in her career. But then her SNL breakthrough happened — and she realized that her grief hadn't abated. Still, the moment represented a turning point.

"It made me feel peace with fame and show business," Shannon says. "It's like, you don't have to be the best, just enjoy being creative. Enjoy your work that you're passionate about. It doesn't matter what level you're at, just enjoy where you are. ... And I still have that same philosophy."

Shannon has not slowed down since her SNL days. She has co-starred in the comedy series The Other Twoand The White Lotus, and also in the forthcoming Showtime comedy series I Love That for You. Throughout it all, she remains thankful for the time she has with her own family.

"I think getting to live beyond the years that my mom lived is just profoundly healing, and I don't take any of it for granted," she says. "I'm so grateful. I get to watch my kids grow up, and my mom didn't get to watch me grow up. And it's just, I think that she would be so happy for me."

Shannon's new memoir is Hello, Molly!

Interview highlights

<em>Hello, Molly!</em> by Molly Shannon
/ Harper Collins
Harper Collins
Hello, Molly! by Molly Shannon

On what she remembers of the car crash

I just remember there were sirens, and I could hear a lot of people talking. A large crowd stopped and formed around the car and people were helping, trying to pull people out of the car. They put my sister Mary and I on a stretcher. And I remember feeling her body next to mine and they put a blanket over us and it felt really itchy. And I just remember being confused, like what is going on?

We had been sleeping in the back of the station wagon and then they took us to the hospital and they cut our clothes off. They brought us in and gave us all these tests ... touching parts of her body to make sure we could feel our feet and different things like that. A lot, a lot of tests. ....

We woke up in the morning and there were people coming in with gifts and lots of toys, and there were relatives. But I was like, "Where's my mom?" You know, "Where's Katie? Where's my dad?" And I would look to my sister to be kind of my guidepost, but she was just looking out the window and crying.

So in my head I made up, "Oh, my mom must be with Katie in the baby section." Maybe Katie's on a different floor with the babies. My little sister was 3. And then finally, I think an aunt did tell us that my mom and my sister had died. She said, "They've gone, they've gone to heaven." You know, like it was really good news.

On her father's legs being crushed in the crash, and how that impacted him

That was really hard because he was in the hospital for a long time and then recuperating at my aunt's. He had to learn how to walk again. And he had a walker that he used for the first year to just slowly learn how to walk around her living room. So that recovery was slow. And then we finally moved back to our original house.

It was hard for him. He would get stressed out about cleaning and cooking. But he was a very hands-on, full-time parent. He was able to be with us all the time. He invested in double houses in Cleveland, so he would go and collect the rent. But he could take us to school, and be home after school, and take me to piano lessons. So he did a really good job trying to be a good father.

On her father's mischievous sense of humor

He would want to make us laugh. He had a lot of fun parenting. He was silly. He would turn a lot of stuff into games. Like if we went to a candy store, just my dad and me, he would say, "Molly, how about if we pretend when we go into the store that I'm blind?" And I was like, "OK." So everything was like a game. He would go, "Is this chocolate?!" And he would knock the chocolate down. It was funny. It was fun. He was very silly and wild.

On her early career in showbiz

I thought it was like a professional TV show. [But] this was just kind of a local carnival show where we would go to different carnivals, and it was not professional. And the woman who ran it seemed like she had a serious drinking problem. And I found it fascinating to study her. Sometimes we'd meet in the mornings and she would be really drunk, and I just thought, "Wow, she's drunk? It's so early." So I kind of really studied her.

But the show was a great experience because my dad would drive me all over southern Ohio to go to these carnivals. I would sing with the microphone, like near the bounce house, and I would sing like "Tea for Two." So it was really good practice performing.

On her father coming out later in life

I was so scared to ask him, Terry. And it was interesting because I kept waiting for him to tell me. My last SNL show, my dad came to the party. ... And we had the best time, and he got to see my last show. But he still didn't tell me and I'm like, "God, he hasn't told me yet."

Then I invited him out for a press junket for this movie I did with Kate Beckinsale called Serendipity. And I said, "Come out to the Four Seasons." And we wore white robes and we were having Cobb salads and just having the best time. And we ... went and sat in lounge chairs by the pool and I just thought, I'm going to be brave and ask the million dollar question that only a daughter can ask a parent when they're still alive. And I said, "Have you ever thought you might be gay?" And I remember I said it so slowly ... And then it was like a pause. And he was like, "Most definitely."

And I was like, "What? What did you just say?" It's almost like, you can't hear what they're saying. Most definitely? Oh my god, what a relief. And then we ended up talking about it for the next 72 hours. We drove to Ojai, [Calif.], and we went to Carrows Diner and I just got to ask him every question I ever would want to ask. And I said, "Did Mommy know?" And he told me. And I said, "When did you know that you were gay?" And he's like, "Oh, Molly, I knew in grade school." ... So we had this open conversation. ... And it was such an honor that he came out to me, and I think it was a relief for him to be able to tell me. And he died, like, six months later.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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