Julia Sweeney's Comedic Journey From Spokane To China

Jul 12, 2013

Julia Sweeney is a comedian, actress and author. She performed four seasons on Saturday Night Live and now has a new book of memoirs titled, "If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother."

Sweeney was born and raised in Spokane, Wash., a place she still venerates for its independent character and pretty, old buildings. In fact, she gives the Midwest-style city the highest praise she can: “I could live there again.”

She was there for the famous environmental world fair, Expo 1974, which she remembers as an experience at the height of her adolescent development.

I was 14 and I had huge breasts and that’s all I really remember about that. I wore a tank top and put on some short shorts and walked through Expo ’74 every day. I was very popular then.

From Spokane, she made her way to the University of Washington, where she earned a double degree in European history and economics; one half of which was originally an appeasement to her staunchly practical parents.

I wanted to be an European history major and my mother went crazy: "What are you going to do with a degree in European history besides be a waitress who reads about European history on her break?"

She grew to love studying economics and used it to cleverly maneuver herself into the Los Angeles acting community, another interest developed at UW, by becoming an accountant at Columbia Pictures and taking improvisational classes on the side.

Eventually Sweeney’s focus shifted to family life. She began to explore adoption from China, though she met with some unusual resistance from some quarters, including her doctor.

He was a Lebanese gynecologist in Beverly Hills who said, "You’re funny. China – they don’t laugh enough, you should adopt a Brazilian baby. Brazilian babies laugh a lot." And I said, "You know, I’m not really looking for an audience. I’m looking for a child to parent."

She dismissed the concerns and pursued the opportunity that lead her to bringing home her daughter, Mulan, in front of a crowd in a Chinese ballroom in Guangzhou. As she says, absurdity is the basis of humor, and in this personal process, she was still able to pick out the comedic moments.

The adoption facilitator would hand you the baby and for our adoption experience they played some "emotional music." It was this old 1980s boombox, and they pushed a button and out came the theme to "Titanic." And that was how we got our baby.

In Sweeney’s case, first came baby and then came love, in the most unexpected way imaginable. After performing “Letting Go of God” for This American Life, she received an email proposing marriage from a gay man in San Francisco – he didn’t want to marry her of course, but he thought she would be perfect for his brother. Sweeney didn’t respond to the email, but she did end up marrying that same brother in a comedic turn of events.

Sweeney’s book of essays travels through these byways as well as past loves (all named Joe for anonymity) and the trials of parenting.

This program originally aired May 22, 2013.