On August 2, 1979, Gilda Radner’s one-woman show, “Live From New York,” opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. As one of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast members, she was known for her larger-than-life, zany characters and over-the-top physical comedy gags. With her cutting edge comedy, Radner ranks as one of the greatest comic geniuses of the twentieth century. It is no wonder that everyone from Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph to Lena Dunhamcite Radner as an influence.
Radner was born on June 28, 1946, in Detroit, Mich. to Henrietta and Herman Radner. Due to her parents’ busy schedules, she was mostly raised by her nanny “Dibby,” who became the model for one of Radner’s popular characters, Emily Litella. During her senior year, Radner dropped out of the University of Michigan to follow her sculptor boyfriend to Toronto. In 1972, she made her professional acting debut in “Godspell” with cast members that included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Martin Short. She then joined Toronto’s Second City comedy troupe, where she further developed her burgeoning improv comedy skills.
After making a name for herself in the comedy world as a featured player on the “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” she was the first person producer Lorne Michaels hired to be in the cast of his new late-night comedy show, “Saturday Night Live.” Between 1975 and 1980, Radner blessed the world weekly with her outrageously hilarious characters, often modeled after popular newscasters and female figures of the day. There was the lisping consumer affairs expert, Roseanne Roseannadanna, rock star Candy Slice modeled after Patti Smith and, of course, Baba Wawa, a parody of Barbara Walters. Her hilarious characterizations on “Saturday Night Live” earned her an Emmy in 1978 for Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music.
Starting on August 2, 1979, Radner brought her SNL characters to the Broadway stage for 52 performances. In her successful Broadway run, Radner was able to perform a racier compilation of her signature SNL characters, free from the watchful eye of the television censors. For example, she was able to sing her risqué tune, “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals.”
Radner passed away right in the middle of her career. On October 21, 1986, she was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and passed away on May 20, 1989. She was only 42 years old.
Today more and more women are making bold moves in the comedy world. They can all trace a lot of their success to Radner and her quirky band of characters that graced the Broadway stage almost 40 years ago today.