maya rudolph
Photo: Fotos International/Getty Images
The Grown Ups actress always dreamed big. But it wasn't until a surprising talk with her father that her fantasies came into focus.
The Grown Ups actress always dreamed big. But it wasn't until a surprising talk with her father that her fantasies came into focus.

As a kid, I loved to make people laugh. Once, at a friend's house, when the Pretenders' song "Brass in Pocket" came on the radio, I started lip-synching and dancing—basically doing a full-on performance in the living room. All the adults were clapping, and the more they laughed, the more I turned it up. I thought, "Yeah! This is good! I've got an audience. This is what I want."

I used to sneak into my parents' bedroom and watch Saturday Night Live. At 5, I already knew who Gilda Radner was, and I loved her character Roseanne Roseannadanna. I'd always imitate her around the house—I didn't even need a wig because I already had the big hairdo! Gilda's husband was Gene Wilder, and I dreamed of marrying a funny guy like him someday. I also loved Mel Brooks movies. That whole world was like a big party that I wanted to get invited to.

In high school I entered some improv competitions, but by the time I got to college, I was studying everything but comedy: photography, women's studies, filmmaking.... And then one day in my senior year, my father asked me what I planned to do after I graduated, and I told him point-blank: "I want to be on Saturday Night Live." It's amazing that he took me seriously—that show has a very small door to squeeze through—but he just said, "Great. Now you need to figure out how to get there."

After that talk, I realized that becoming a comedian is a job, not just a dream. I needed to invest in a comedy education. I had heard of the Groundlings, a school for improvisation and comedy writing in Los Angeles. And at the time—around 1995—three members of the SNL cast were former Groundlings: Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, and Cheri Oteri. (Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell would join within a few years.) So about six months after I graduated from college, I auditioned to take classes there and was accepted. (I didn't realize then that the audition was just to weed out the ax murderers! If you weren't totally crazy, you were in.)

The Groundlings became my graduate school: I studied there for about four years, and I ate, slept, and drank improv and sketch comedy. I learned how to write pieces and how to use my singing in performances, and I got to perform with a bunch of other weirdos, who became like family. The craziest thing was, I received word that I had been made an official Groundling on the same day I flew to New York to start a job at Saturday Night Live. That conversation with my dad gave me focus, and that's important no matter what you do in your life. It's like, Don't just think about it. Do it.

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