“Run your finger randomly through the dictionary and pick an adjective, because it was thrilling, it was exciting, it was satisfying, it was terrifying, it was boring, it was horrible. It was everything.” This is what Anne Beatts had to say to an interviewer about her five-year tenure as a Saturday Night Live writer a week before she died. The groundbreaking comedy writer died last week at age 74.
We can imagine the thrilling and exciting parts. Being part of one of the coolest clubs ever, one that included John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, and presided over by the one-and-only Lorne Michaels. Beatts told of so many all-nighters spent at 30 Rock, squeezing humor out of the foibles, trends, and obsessions of the late 70s, that she had a bed installed in her office. She and another female writer on staff, Rosie Shuster, would sometimes order breakfast up to the office and tip the delivery guy in joints.
The terrifying and horrible parts surely stemmed from being a woman in a decidedly man’s world. She was one of three women in the show’s original writer’s room, a space that made her feel “like Wendy on the island of Lost Boys,” as she later put it. Back in the 70s, no one made it easy on her, particularly Belushi. “He would often refuse to be in sketches that we had written, and would tell Lorne to `fire the girls,'” she told Dan Reilly of New York Magazine’s Vulture. She once wrote a skit without putting her name on it, just to make sure Belushi would do it (which he did).
At National Lampoon magazine, where she became a writer after graduating from college, Beatts was known for her “dark, aggressive” humor. She co-wrote a parody advertisement for Volkswagen that showed a photo of a VW Beetle floating on a lake with text that referred to the Chappaquiddick incident: “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”
“She had a lot of courage,” fellow writer Shuster told the Associated Press. “She got out there and fought for what she believed in, and that was great for me. She could really pitch an idea at a meeting. There was a definiteness about her that made you think you needed to make a mark.”
She added a refreshing woman’s perspective to the testosterone-fueled comedic canon, sometimes flipping the joke. One of the sketches Beatts wrote was about a school for female construction workers who learn catcalls to use on male passersby.
Of Beatts’ many sketches and characters, probably the most memorable is “The Nerds”—snivelly Lisa Loopner (Radner) and snotty Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray). Todd would often give Lisa noogies while holding her in a headlock, and a regular element of the sketches would be Todd making fun of her flat chest. One of Lisa’s favorite retorts was calling him “Pizza Face.”
After Saturday Night Live
The Nerds was something of a forerunner to Square Pegs, the teen sitcom that Beatts developed, starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker. For the show, Beatts hired five female writers and only one man, which won her kudos for helping nurture the careers of other women. The series revolved around two high school girls trying anything to be popular.
“When you’re not popular and you’re standing on the sidelines, you develop a keen sense of observation,” Beatts told Rolling Stone during the making of Square Pegs. “At some point, I learned those observations could be funny, and that being funny was a way of being popular.”
Her success with the show was without precedent. “Mary Tyler Moore had Grant Tinker, Carol Burnett had Joe Hamilton and Lucy had Desi; Anne Beatts has chutzpah,” wrote People magazine’s Joshua Hammer. And it’s easy to see that Beatts made possible the careers of Tina Fey, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Samantha Bee and any number of women who have taken over the boys’ club and made it their own.