Molly Shannon, of SNL and ‘Superstar’ fame, is the Catholic school girl in all of us
With my palms together and fingers pointed up towards heaven, I slowly walked down the aisle of St. Teresa of Avila in Summit, N.J. Wearing a white rose pinned to the lapel of my new navy blue blazer, second grade me prepared to finally meet the greatest celebrity in human history. Not only that, but the second most important celebrity in my young mind sat two thirds of the way in the back to the left. It was the aunt of another first communicant: Molly Shannon, or as we knew her in my household: Mary. Katherine. Gallagher.
I am not sure how our love affair with the character of Mary Katherine Gallagher began in our family, but I’m fairly certain I had most of the PG-13 1999 film “Superstar” memorized by the time I made my first communion in 2004. In the fall of 2001, when our family first started at Our Lady of Peace School in New Providence, N.J., my older sister dressed as Mary Katherine Gallagher for Halloween.
I am sure my mother was mortified wondering what the adults at this new school might think. I’ll never forget our tough, parochial principal greeting us that morning. Looking at my sister, Mrs. Pollak stuck her hands under her armpits and said, in classic Mary Katherine Gallagher form,“Sometimes when I get nervous I stick my hands under my arms and smell them like this” before bringing her fingers to her nose and inhaling deeply. In that moment, we knew we were home in the Catholic school system. We felt like superstars.
Of course on the surface there are plaid skirts and scowling nuns and frustrated priests complaining about broken toasters—but there is also something richer underfoot.
Molly Shannon rose to fame on “Saturday Night Live,” joining the cast in 1995. During her six seasons on the show, she developed beloved original characters like Sally O’Malley, Mary Katherine Gallagher and Jeannie Darcy, the unfunny standup comedian. After leaving SNL, Shannon found success mostly in a number of supporting roles, guest spots and voice roles. Shannon starred in “Year of the Dog” (2007), but more recently you may have seen her on HBO in “Enlightened,” “Divorce,” “The Other Two,” “The White Lotus” or “I Love That for You.”
There is something deeply Catholic about the comedy of Molly Shannon. Of course on the surface there are plaid skirts and scowling nuns and frustrated priests complaining about broken toasters—but there is also something richer underfoot. Shannon’s memoir Hello Molly! explores and exposes the roots of that richness. Her friend Rob Muir writes, in a letter shared in the memoir, “You stood out because you weren’t doing jokes, you were doing characters, not caricatures. Sure some of your characters were over-the-top, but they were always rooted in truth. You found not only the humor in the characters, but humanity.” More than the costumes and settings, it is that humanity at the heart of Shannon’s comedy which makes it Catholic to the core.
Hello Molly! begins with tragedy, in a prologue titled “The Accident.” When Shannon was four years old, her family attended a graduation party together in Mansfield, Ohio. On their way home to Shaker Heights, Shannon’s father Jim sideswiped another car on the freeway before swerving hard to the right and hitting a telephone pole. Her mother, cousin and baby sister were killed in the accident, while she survived alongside her father and older sister Mary. Human mortality was made real and tangible to a young Molly Shannon. A heartbreaking photo taken near the time of the accident captures the confused despair on her face. It juxtaposes the deep sadness a four year old should never have to express against a mundane painted yearbook photo backdrop. Somehow life moves on.
In one of the most touching moments of the memoir, Shannon shares how a priest at St. Dominic School was the first person to acknowledge how sad she was. Father Murray held her hands and, in his Irish brogue, sympathized with her—a four-year-old child. He knelt down after Mass and said, “Molly. I know you lost your mother. That’s very sad. That’s very hard. You lost your sister, Katie. You lost your cousin. So sad, so hard for you. God bless you.” He recognized her sadness. Faith offers us something even when it appears the world is offering us nothing. In recognizing her sadness, Father Murray offered Shannon a way to move forward.
Unsurprisingly, Shannon’s memories of a Catholic girlhood are hilarious. She would get up early in the morning with her sister and watch “Mass for Shut-Ins,” a broadcast for disabled Catholics. They would guess how many people would wear glasses in the Communion line. She would build churches and confessionals for her Barbie dolls, where they would confess to Father Stretch Armstrong.
Molly Shannon's ability to respond to struggle with joy and positivity is admirable. It is a quality at the core of so many of her characters. It is what makes her a superstar.
The funniest and most unhinged story from the memoir follows Shannon and her childhood friend Ann Ranft as they hopped on a plane from Cleveland to New York at thirteen and eleven years old. Shannon’s father loved dares and thought hopping a plane would be the world’s greatest stunt, but he didn’t think they would ever do it. Skipping dance class, they made their way to the airport, walking right up to the gate and lied, asking if they could quickly say goodbye to their sister on the plane. Once on board they took two seats in the back and ducked their heads. As the plane began to move, they sat in their dance tutus in disbelief, held hands and began to pray the Hail Mary.
The complicated relationship between Shannon and her father pushes the book forward. It is a throughline we return to again and again. Shannon’s father was endlessly supportive, to the best of his limited abilities. He would let her wear whatever she wanted. When she developed holes in her Keds, he told her they built character and showed the shoes were worn. He gave her the freedom to be herself. Widowed, he played the role of both mother and father: provider, accountant, chauffeur, laundress, cook, cleaner and more. He would “pop some Dexamyl,” cleaning pills as they called them, and clean the house all day and night. After finishing he would play Judy Garland music, “And… Everything. Was. Perfect.” This memoir is a portrait of the loving bond between a daughter and her eccentric father. He is a character that feels familiar, I think because so much of his humanity is in the best of her characters.
Mary Katherine Gallagher’s feisty, dramatic grandmother is clearly a reflection of Jim Shannon, the man who, after his dog bit him, bit his dog back. Sally O’Malley’s physicality on “Saturday Night Live”—her ability to kick, stretch and kick at fifty, fifty, years old!—is a response to Shannon’s father’s physical limitations from the accident. Her limp is his limp. Her eccentricity is his. Her power is his power.
Marketed as a “compulsively readable, heartbreaking memoir of resilience and redemption,” Hello Molly! delivers. Shannon describes her spiritual philosophy simply: “Struggle is meaningful.” Her ability to respond to struggle with joy and positivity is admirable. It is a quality at the core of so many of her characters. It is what makes her a superstar.