Veteran actress, singer and overall force of nature Elaine Stritch is back on ’30 Rock’ this week, playing Jack Donaghy’s domineering but loving mother Colleen. In the Mother’s Day-themed episode, airing May 6 at 9:30PM ET, the entire staff of ‘TGS with Tracy Jordan’ has to contend with their moms dropping into their crazy lives in the ‘TGS’ offices.
Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, has a lot more to contend with than just his mom, as he’s trying to juggle relationships with the challenging Avery and the comfortable Nancy. Having to deal with Colleen in the middle of all that should make for a fun episode.
The always-outspoken Stritch sat with me earlier this week to talk about being on the ’30 Rock’ set, how she got the energy to do her Stephen Sondheim-based cabaret show at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, what it’s like to play Alec Baldwin’s mom and what she would do if she were hosting ‘SNL’ this week instead of fellow octogenarian Betty White.
Elaine, how are you doing today?
I’m OK. I just took my blood sugar and I’m 113. You don’t know anything about it probably, but that is such good news, I can’t tell you.
You’d be surprised. A lot of sitting watching TV doesn’t do wonders for the blood sugar, even when you’re younger.
Yeah. I’m a brittle diabetic. And when it’s normal, you just feel so good and life is just a bowl of cherries, and everything’s going to be OK. And then it goes wrong, and everything depends on your blood sugar, so if I don’t get across in any other way in this interview, everybody, don’t get diabetes. Take care of yourself. And stop eating … [sighs] … stop eating all that food! [Laughs] Order saute`ed spinach once in a while, OK?
Yeah, have a salad, right?
Have a salad. Have an eggroll, Mr. Goldstone. Have a salad. They really are good!
You can make them pretty good if you try hard enough.
That’s right. Anyway, we’re in agreement about that. Now let’s talk about the real s**t.
How many times has this been now, playing Jack’s mom?
I don’t know. But I’m on it rarely. And I just was talking to someone about this the other day. That’s good. I think it’s good. I think it’s tasteful, I think it’s smart producing. I think this should not be a mother that’s around all the time.
Colleen Donaghy is referred to a lot more off camera than you’re actually on the show.
And that’s the best thing, dramatically. I think there’s such a thing as overkill. She’s a very, very zowie woman. You know, she walks in a room and people know she’s there. You’d better believe it. She’s always got an opinion. A lot of mothers, you know, typically have that quality. But she’s funny. And humor is dangerous. I’ve always felt that. And so she gets away with murder. That’s what humor is. It gets you away with murder. And she knows exactly how to, as the kids say today, push his buttons. And at the same time, she’s pushing them with love, you know what I mean?
It’s kind of a passive-aggressive-slash-aggressive relationship.
Yes, exactly. But it’s full of humor. On both sides. He didn’t lick it off the ground. Did you ever hear that expression? That’s my dad’s expression. When he would say, when somebody would say to him, “By God, George, your daughter is talented,” his first line was well, “She didn’t lick it off the ground.” Now you don’t get that do you?
Basically meaning that you didn’t just pick it up from nowhere.
Yeah! “She got it from Midge and me, my wife and myself. That’s where she got it from!” And he wanted the world to know it. He’s with General Motors. He doesn’t take any s**t from anybody.
Who approached you to play the role to begin with? Was it Tina Fey? Lorne Michaels?
I don’t know. I don’t know who approached … what do you mean? My agent. They asked me if I’d like to play Alec Baldwin’s mother, and I said, you know, no problem at all. No problem at all. Because my opinion of Alec Baldwin is very high. And the way I criticize him is almost on the same level. I just love him to death. I think he’s, ugh, he gives talent, he’s so talented, it’s just a little scary. You know?
Did it surprise you that, knowing that he’s been a dramatic actor for the most part, most of his career, that he can be this funny?
Oh my God! It’s part and parcel! It’s the name of the game! You can’t be funny unless you’re tragic, and you can’t be tragic unless you’re funny. But the one thing at the bottom of all this is humor. And humor’s complicated. Oh boy, is it complicated. Oh my God.
I said a line the other day, and I’m very proud of it. Because sometimes a well-written line falls out of your mouth. And this worked for me in my head. I said, and it’s in my act at the Carlyle, my act about Stephen Sondheim. I compare Stephen Sondheim with humor, because humor is unanalyzable. You can’t analyze humor. You just have to get through it. And I don’t know what to do after I say that line. So I tell them that maybe they’ll get it when they get home. If they keep thinking about it. Because it does make sense. Humor is so complicated. You know?
When people sit down and try discuss humor…
You can’t do it. It doesn’t work. It pure and simply doesn’t work. You can get to a point so that you don’t get technical about humor. Don’t get … you don’t sit down to a script and say, “Oh, I know where I can get a laugh.” Don’t take that attitude. Read the script and understand what they’re talking about, what the point is they’re trying to get across, what I’m trying to say to my son Jack, in ’30 Rock,’ what I’m trying to get over, my ulterior motives, the things I’m trying to sneak in so he won’t notice it.
Those are the things to play for real. The whole friggin’ thing, you gotta play it for honest-to-God reality, and they will laugh. And you will be so gratified that you can’t stand it. You just fall in love with yourself when they laugh at you. It’s wonderful.
What’s the atmospehere on the set? Does Tina keep things light? Is it serious?
Tina Fey stays with it, the hard work of it, most of the time. And look what she does in a week. It’s just extraordinary. More is the pity, but there’s not a lot of time to sit around and talk about what you did last night, or who you’ve got a sneaker for. There’s just not a lot of time for that.
When you think she’s got an interview every five minutes, she’s on the cover of every magazine going, she’s just … that doesn’t come from a week of sitting on a set in a director’s chair, shooting the bull with another actor. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. And sometimes, I think it’s more is the pity, because a lot of laughs are lost.
Does it concern you that now all of a sudden, Tina Fey is being credited with making women funny, and people have forgotten all the funny women that came before her?
Oh, I don’t think they’ve forgotten all the funny women. Nobody’s forgotten Carol Burnett. Nobody’s forgotten … I just say [Fey] because she’s all over television suddenly. You know what I mean? Nobody’s forgotten these women. I haven’t forgotten Martha Ray. Oh, there’s so many comedians I could name.
I think Tina has brought a new turn to it. I think Tina’s introduced a new slant on comedy, but most really great comedians do bring a newness, an original attitude towards what’s funny and what isn’t. Certainly it’s different, but it’s not the first, my God.
I’m a big admirer of Tina’s. I think she’s different. She’s not the best thing that ever happened and nobody ever … I mean, come on, she’d be the first one to leave the room [if you told her that]. But boy, she’s good.
You and Tracy Morgan don’t do many scenes together, but do you see him around the set at all?
Oh yes. I don’t see him much, I hear him. That’s all I can say about Tracy Morgan. He’s a very talented kid, and he better behave himself or he’ll get no respect from me. He needs to behave himself. He’s a diabetic, like I am. We’re the same kind of diabetic, and you gotta behave yourself. You just got to. It’s a choice. It’s like people who take drugs. Make the choice: You wanna live, you wanna die, next?
He’s a likable fellow, and he’s so loaded with talent, and he doesn’t know what to do with some of it, and he doesn’t want to lose some of it, or get some of it. But this way or that way. He’s just spontaneous. He’s a spontaneous, dopey, wonderful guy. And I think he surprises himself. I don’t think he can understand himself yet at all. And what’s coming out is for real, though, I can tell you that.
You perform at the Carlyle is five times per week. Where are you finding the energy to do that kind of thing?
I find the energy from ten hours sleep. I find the energies from fruits and vegetables. I find the energy by sticking to my diet, my diabetic diet. I find the energy from taking my insulin on time. You understand what I’m trying to say? Where do you get the energy? You get the energy from taking care of yourself.
Would you ever want to do what Betty White’s going to do this weekend and host ‘SNL?’
Oh, well, it’s a job and half. That would scare me to death. But I’d take the challenge. I don’t even know that I’d wish for it, you know? Because I’d be very good at it. Very often, I say this about Sondheim’s material, if I get it right, it’s gonna be good. And I am going to get it right. That would be my attitude towards ‘Saturday Night Live.’
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by Joel Keller, posted May 6th 2010 4:08PM