SNL’s Debbie Downer, On The Upswing


From her days as Boston Teen Denise “Zazu” McDonough to her recurring appearance as Debbie Downer on “Saturday Night Live” from 1999 until 2006, Rachel Dratch has amused millions. In 2012, after becoming pregnant by accident at nearly 44, she penned an autobiographical book, “Girl Walks into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle” (Gotham), about her journey from singlehood to motherhood and partnership with her baby’s father, John Wahl.

While her focus has recently been on Wahl and son Eli, 3, Dratch is gearing up for more comic appearances, including a Nov. 3 comedy showcase in memory of comic Gilda Radner, which will benefit Gilda’s Club Northern New Jersey and feature fellow performers Brooke Shields and Gilbert Gottfried. Dratch spoke with Jewish Week about comedy, motherhood, and her idol, Gilda Radner. This is an edited transcript.

Q: I loved your character Denise from the Boston Teens sketch. Is she rooting for the Boston Red Sox in this year’s World Series?

A: Ah coahse!

How did you come up with that character?

The sketch started out at Second City with Tina Fey and me. It was based on my high school experience [growing up in Lexington, Mass.], kids I remember from classes and woodshop. In one “SNL” episode we listed the nicknames of people from my high school.

What have you been up to recently?

I’m mainly doing mom things. At first, when I wasn’t working on “SNL” I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ But I’m enjoying spending a lot of time with Eli right now. [In terms of acting,] I just did an episode of the “The Middle,” [a sitcom] on ABC where I play a middle school principal.

Tell me about this upcoming benefit show in New Jersey?

I was approached by [writer and producer] Alan Zweibel, who is active with Gilda’s Club. He wrote with Gilda a lot, and they were best buds. He asked me to do it. Gilda was an idol of mine. I was always like, ‘Omigod, I want to be like her.’ So to do something in her memory and to benefit women living with cancer is a great opportunity.

I just watched a video of one of your sketches where your character, Debbie Downer, delivers the line, “Now it’s official. I can’t have children.” Ironic given the way things worked out for you.

Actually, I remember when I delivered that line I was a little afraid of jinxing my self, as far as having kids.

I read that your pregnancy was accidental. But you knew you wanted children?

I had always thought I’d have kids, but I was getting older, [which] caused me anxiety. I was like, ‘Is it something I want or something I just think I’m supposed to want?’ So that was confusing. I thought I might be resentful of being a mother on my own and having to do everything on my own.

Any advice for women on this subject?

Eli’s Dad is in his life and he’s very helpful. So I have another person doing half the stuff, so maybe it’s easy for me to say, but if I could give any advice to [a woman] in that position I’d say investigate single motherhood.

You’ve spoken also about having your child over 40 and not buying into the idea that women can’t.

Since I’ve had a child I’ve met a lot more women over 40 for whom it happened naturally and also with help. My friend from college had a baby at 46 totally naturally. I don’t want to give false hope, but it’s not necessarily like the minute you turn 40 forget about it completely and there’s no hope of ever being a [biological] mother. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with keeping an open mind.

Are you raising Eli to be Jewish?

I had an extreme situation. We were like, ‘Omigod, we’re having a baby!’ We were dating with a newborn, so the Jewish thing was like 100th on the list.

What about now?

We will raise him with Jewish influences. He went to Jewish pre-school last year, and it was fun when he came home singing Shabbat Shalom songs.

Still Laughing – A Comedy Tribute to Gilda Radner,” will take place Sunday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Bergen County Academies Auditorium in Hackensack, N.J. The show will include standup, SNL clips, and improv. Tickets, $29-$59, are available at