As part of VH1’s week-long celebration of Black Women In Comedy, we interviewed Saturday Night Live alum Ellen Cleghorne who just completed her doctorate in performance studies with an emphasis on the irony of intersectionality of race and gender in comedy. The actress, stand-up comedian, and academic also joined our #AllJokesAside: Black Women In Comedy panel at YouTube’s New York space on March 22, 2017. She opened up about her comedy inspiration and her time on SNL and the criticism the show receives.
Cleghorne completed her undergraduate at Hunter College where she studied theatre, and reveals it was a mixture of Greek Comedy, stand-up comedy, and performance art that set the groundwork for her own subversive “underground” approach to humor. “As a Black person, you grow up listening to Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley [and] I memorized all of Eddie Murphy. I never knew that you could actually do [comedy] in the club but then one night I went to a club and was like, ’This is what we do,’ then I just started to do it.”
The self-proclaimed theatre person also counts Sandra Bernhard and Whoopi Goldberg’s solo work as major inspiration, citing Bernhard’s off-Broadway show Sandra Bernhard: Without You I’m Nothing as a touchstone. “I went to [her] show and then I bought the cassette tape of the show and had it in my Walkman and I could just listen to that for hours and hours, and over and over again until the tape popped. That was my get high and my feel good, walking down the street.”
The comedian did stand-up for twenty years, admitting that she would take her young daughter with her to the clubs in order to work out her material. “When I started out doing stand-up, I used to bring her with me because [her] father wouldn’t babysit for me when I went out to make the cash dollars so I would take her out with me and she would sleep in the back of the comedy club on 82nd and 2nd or at Catch a Rising Star or wherever. I would sleep her in the back and then [I] would put her back in the car and drive home after I would do all my sets around.”
When the Saturday Night Live audition came through her agent, Cleghorne notes it was just as much a big to-do as it is today but aside from auditioning with eventual co-star Siobhan Fallon (“a wonderful actress,” she says) her memory of the actual try-out is fuzzy. “Everybody did a character or a scene from a play or some of their standup [but] I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t remember [what I did].” Cleghorne’s eventual hiring was somewhat historical as she was only the second full-time Black female cast member but she says the importance of that was perhaps lost on her in the moment.
“I did not know at the time [that I was only the second Black woman]. It was a big opportunity but nobody was acting like it was a big opportunity, not anybody in my home, not anybody on the street. No respect, no cred [came] from it. They thought it wasn’t that big of a deal, [and] I was like, ’Damn, alright.’ I thought it was a big deal but I couldn’t get anybody on that bus for me.” The comedian says that attitude towards the long-running sketch series still runs rampant, “Even today, they act like it’s not a big deal, like if I go in for an audition, the nasty things that people say about SNL? I’m like, ’Whoa, they really don’t like that place,’” she continues, “I just think that people are haters. It’s a really good show.”
Dr. Cleghorne has nothing but kind words to say about her time on SNL and shuts down allegations made by her former co-star Jay Mohr, in his book Gasping for Airtime, that she was unhappy on the show. She cites SNL creator Lorne Michaels as a great ally during her tenure as well as writers Al Franken, Michael Shoemaker, and Robert Smigel. “People were really nice to me. They were very encouraging. One day, I gave [Al] a pitch and he said, ’Okay, now write it,’ and I was like, okay, and I started to write it and he said, ’No, no, no,’ and [he] sat me down and said, ’This is how you write a sketch,’ and he wrote it with me. That was how I learned how to write [sketch comedy]. It was magic, you could make what was in your mind into a three-dimensional reality, which was really a lot of fun.”
Franken may have helped the comedian hone her sketch comedy writing but she was the creative force behind memorable characters like Queen Shenequa and Zoraida the NBC page. “I created [the characters] and I wrote them [but] I would get help from the body of writers like Robert Smigel [or] David Spade, they would always throw in a joke, here and there. They were very collaborative.” It was actually during her time on Russell Simmons’ The New Music Report that Queen Shenequa made her national TV debut. “Queen Shenequa was a character that I had prior to joining [SNL] so I had an opportunity to write mainstream sketch comedy, pop culture sketch, prior to joining SNL.”
While the earlier years of SNL have been criticized for being a “boys club,” Cleghorne found comradery with her male counterparts. “I used to tour with Adam [Sandler] and David [Spade], Rob Schneider, and Chris Rock. We used to tour all the colleges because we didn’t make a lot of money so we made supplemental income by going on tour.”
During her time on SNL, Cleghorne did many memorable celebrity impressions from Natalie Cole to Patti Labelle. She debunks her Wikipedia page which credits her for impersonating writer-director Woody Allen and cites former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders as the most outrageous public figure she portrayed because of the subject matter of the cold open sketch after Elders made an infamous statement that made a statement “we need to teach young people about masturbation and that will help with a lot of the teen pregnancy.”
The actress and comedian left Saturday Night Live after four seasons for her eponymous sitcom Cleghorne! on now defunct WB network. At that time, she was the only Black woman to remain with the cast for more than one season. Later Maya Rudolph would stay with the series from 2000-2007. “I want to say I regret [leaving] but I really don’t. I mean I wish I would have stayed at Saturday Night Live but I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do [Cleghorne!] It was important at the time, for me but I did miss being on SNL.” Cleghorne! was canceled after one season.
Ellen Cleghorne continued to act and write after her time on SNL appearing in films like Coyote Ugly and Armageddon and writing on Roseanne Barr’s talk show The Roseanne Show. She’s also continued to collaborate with former SNL co-stars in films like Grown Ups 2 and Little Nicky. During this time, Cleghorne began to pursue higher education at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She completed her PhD after she returned to Studio 8H for SNL’s 40th Anniversary. With her dissertation complete, Cleghorne says she’s anxious to return to acting and writing full time but says finding an approach to making a “comeback” and creating new content can be nerve-wracking. “I really do want to do it. I’ve done a little standup, I would do standup again. I want to do more of it all but it’s a little bit scary.”