Actress and Author Julia Sweeney Knows If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother

Julia Sweeney
Julia Sweeney is one funny mother. The former Saturday Night Live actress, author, performer and overall cool mama has a great new book out called If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother. It’s full of funny stories about family, the adoption process and Julia’s razor sharp take on various topics. We spoke exclusively with Julia about the writing process, her new role in the Disney Pixar film Monsters University, and how to laugh through all of life’s experiences.


Let’s talk about the book title.

It comes from a pillow my mother gave me. Just like the book cover, it was embroidered just like that. My mother thought it was hysterical and I didn’t like it. It reminded me of Gilda Radner’s character. I had just
left Saturday Night Live and I felt that it wasn’t funny to me then. I nodded politely, put it in a closet and when she would visit I would put it out on her bed. And then when I had my daughter it was immediately
hysterical. It’s funny when you put it on your daughter’s bed but not when your own mother gives it to you.

Did your daughter Mulan get it?

Not in the beginning. When she was 6 or 7, she said to me, “This pillow is not funny. I don’t like it and I don’t want it in my room.”

What was the impetus for the book?

I had been writing for a long time about being a parent, but the impetus was when I did a 3-minute monologue Ted Talk about telling Mulan about the birds and the bees and it became a big deal. It got a lot of hits and
then people said I should write a book. I decided I had enough stories to write about, and the premise was that I had wanted to have some time alone, and finally I got it.


What was the experience like of writing the book? Did your daughter help you?

She’s involved as a subject of comedy! [laughs] She didn’t sit with me, though. Sometimes things happen and while they’re happening, I know they’re funny. Other times, it takes a while. Like the pillow; it took 15
years before I found it funny.

You’ve written several books, and I find that family is a unifying theme.

That’s true. In my book, God Said Ha!, I got cancer and my brother got cancer, and my parents came to help. This book is not about a huge family crisis, but I guess it is about family, and funny observations. They are
similar in that way.

I know it wasn’t funny at the time, but I laughed at the part with the Chinese Pat nanny and the car accident. The way you wrote it was so funny.

The challenge for me is to stop finding the funny moments and actually experience the difficult parts of it. There can be something horrendous happening and I’m laughing because I’m seeing the comedy. It’s like
a curse and a blessing.

Julia Sweeney

I would think that it would be a saving grace in a way.

Sure, it’s some kind of a coping mechanism. I’m not even sure how it started, but it definitely seems to alleviate stress.

So what did Mulan think of the book?

She wanted it to be pink.

Of course! Probably with glitter, too, right?

[laughs] I was like, “Pink? It has to be blue. The pillow is blue. We have to keep it authentic!” She’s only read about 1/3 of it. She knows about every story, though. She said to me, “Mom, I read 1/3 of your book, and
it’s really easy to read.” And I thought, “Is she complimenting me or not…?” [laughs] I explained to her that I have a conversational way of writing but I think she thought it didn’t sound literary.

What are your plans now with the publication of the book?

It’s interesting because my relationship with the book happens way before. So by the time I’m promoting it I’m not in the thick of it anymore. One of the reasons I write is to process the information, and then I’m really done with it. It’s interesting when you take a piece of life and you memorialize it in this form.

That’s very true. As a writer, you experience the moment, you write about it to process it, as you said. Then you might read it again one last time, but then it’s over. So I would think that it must be hard to keep reliving it and trying to make it fresh for people to whom this is completely new.

It is! And I think that’s where it’s good to be an actress. Not that I was ever such a good actress! [laughs] But I think that’s where it helps so that I can tell the stories again as if they just happened.

Now, how would you describe yourself as a parent?

What I want to be is available but not hovering. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, and I don’t want to demand that my daughter achieve certain things. I feel that I’m smarter emotionally than that. That
approach backfires, I think. And now that she’s a teenager, I think it’s an art to be nudging at the right moments—and I act like I’m doing this right, which I’m totally not—but doing this in the right way. So I think my style is nudging and being available at the same time.

It’s important to show your children that you also have a life apart from them, too.

It’s funny that you say that because Mulan has this new phrase and it’s, “Why do you have to have a life?!” [laughs] She’s saying it tongue-in-cheek, but she also half means it. Like she has a piano lesson today
and I’m here in NYC, and she’s like, “Why do you have to have a life?!”

Of course, you’re a mom. You’re not entitled!

I know! I say to her, “I should just be your assistant for the rest of my life!”

It’s a daughter thing. From the moment my daughter gets up she wants to know what we’re doing—and what I’m doing for her.

[laughs] Yes, that’s right! I’ve talked to other mothers and I think it breaks down that way sexually for boys and girls. My husband and I are trying to get Mulan to make her own breakfast, and not just grab a bagel or
cereal. Like make an egg or cut up some fruit, but if we ask her if she’s eaten she’ll say, “No, I’m not hungry. Are you making something?” and then wait for me to make breakfast.

That’s so funny. I’m telling you, our kids are so much smarter than us. I need my daughter to do things on my iPhone that I just don’t know how to do.

That reminds me of something funny that just happened. I do voiceovers and my voiceover agent in L.A. told me that there’s this new app where I can audition using my iPhone. I said, “What is…how do you…?” and she
said, “How old is your daughter?” I said, “13.” She said, “Okay, she’ll show you how to do it!” [laughs]

[laughs] Doesn’t that make you feel proud and bad at the same time?

[laughs] I thought, “I’m not THAT out of it!” And I didn’t see where she was going. I thought she wanted my daughter to audition, too!

What else do you have coming up, Julia?

Jill Sobule is a musician who I do shows with. I do this show with her called the Jill and Julia Show. She sings songs and I tell stories. We made a film of our show which we edited down to an hour and we’re going
to launch a website with that. And then this summer, we’re going on tour all through the Northeast. I tell a lot of the stories from the book and she sings songs. It’s really nice because the songs reflect on the stories and her music is so great.

Julia Sweeney

And then I’m doing a voice for a character in the new Disney Pixar film, Monsters University. I’m Mrs. Squibbles. She’s one of the mothers of the frat boys that Mike and Sully live with. I’m always walking in, being a
mom amongst all these guys.

Nudging, but available.

[laughs] Exactly!

Photo: Disney

I think it’s so cool when you can integrate your work life with your family life. Your daughter is such a huge part of your new book, and Monsters University is a film that she would want to see.

I totally agree. For the Jill and Julia Show, Mulan is our merch girl. And she’s really good at it. This summer she’s going on tour with us. We’re going to be in a van together for two weeks. She’s going to have the
credit card thing on her iPhone and she’s going to do the whole table. She’s been going on websites to see how to arrange a merch table. She wants to have stickers on the table too. And for me, it’s exactly what you say. I get to do what I love to do and I can bring her into it.

It’s not like you’re leaving her. It’s not work or Mulan.

That’s the traditional way. It’s an unusual thing in our modern society that mothers go away to work. Mothers always worked, but they did it at home with the kids at their feet. So to me, having Mulan with me
while I do what I love, feels completely natural.


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