"The Funniest Woman in the World": Catherine O'Hara

Women have always had a hard time making it in comedy, even after proving themselves on a television sketch comedy show. I've previously written about the struggles of female Saturday Night Live alumnae, and the recent success of Sarah Silverman, who was fired from SNL early but managed a better career than nearly all the women who stayed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best successful comic actress of the past thirty years cut her teeth on SCTV, the other major sketch comedy show of the 1970's: Catherine O'Hara, once a Second City understudy for Gilda Radner, who has managed to have the career Radner never lived to achieve.

O'Hara certainly doesn't lack for recognition among those who are in the know. In his liner notes to the DVD release of the first season of SCTV, Conan O'Brien calls her the "funniest woman in the world"; her IMDB profile notes that she "has an almost religious cult following around the world," if that's a good thing. Whether or not the breathless superlatives are justified, she has certainly been among the very finest comic actors for a very long time. She hasn't had any above-the-marquee starring roles, but she has had plenty of memorable characters, and one of the most recognizable lines in movie history, as Macauley Culkin's forgetful mother: "KEVIN!!"

She hasn't worked a great deal in the past decade, and has actually done more animation and voiceover work than live-action acting. Twenty-one years ago, she already was defending herself for establishing a slow, quality-conscious pace for her career, explaining: "'Picky and she won't go out for anything' -- that's a better story than, 'She Goes Out for Everything and Can't Get a Job.'" Since leaving SCTV, she has found some regular work in holiday movies, picking up checks for films from Home Alone to Surviving Christmas to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

But the secret to her success in never fading completely from public view has been her membership in another big-screen comedy troupe. Along with fellow SCTV alum Eugene Levy, she has been a regular cast member in Christopher Guest's periodic improvised comedies, a series that includes Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. Every three or four years, she reappears with yet another critically acclaimed modest hit, ready to be rediscovered.

Like Diane Keaton, O'Hara is modest to the point of denial of her own considerable comedic gifts -- of herself in high school, she says "I wasn't really funny" -- and, like Keaton, has achieved some of her greatest success playing gentiles opposite neurotic Jewish characters (mostly played by Levy, otherwise an actor of greater range than Woody Allen). She hasn't appeared in any movies this year, but since it's Halloween season, you can see her in the new Disney 3-D version of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's well worth watching, or re-watching, since it's one of the best animated movies ever, let alone one of the very brightest lights in the normally execrable "holiday movie" genre, and O'Hara is a revelation: in a non-comic role, she sings the loveliest song in the movie, "Sally's Song." As rare as her live-action performances have become these days, her musical talents (like Christopher Walken's dancing skills) are even less frequently showcased, making only a brief appearance on a We Are the World Album until they were finally fully brought to bear in A Mighty Wind. As with her entire filmography, the remarkable quality of her performances, not the disappointing quantity, stands out.

O'Hara can certainly be viewed as a success -- a sketch comedy actress who crafted a decent Hollywood career -- but she can also be seen as a symbol of the general lack of success that sketch comedy actresses have had, since she, a role player with a modest filmography and nearly no starring roles outside the context of an improv or sketch troupe, is probably the most successful sketch actress in history. Of course, the shortness of her resume can largely be credited to her lack of ambition to be in as many movies as possible. To all appearances, she is happy with the career she's had, and the family life it has allowed her to have. She has the respect of her peers and the adoration of legions of fans. (A college roommate of mine once passed her on the street in New York, and immediately burst into "God Loves a Terrier.") But her success serves to highlight the absence of other successful female sketch comedians, even as it contradicts the stupid, misogynistic, Christopher Hitchens-supported drivel that women aren't funny. Few people of either gender are as funny as she is (and that certainly includes the vastly overrated, intellectually lazy professional contrarian Hitchens). Hopefully, more women will follow in her path to join the already-swelled ranks of male comedians, neurotic Jews and otherwise, and carry on the tradition O'Hara took up from Gilda Radner. They will have a fine role model.