MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Watching comedian Gilda Radner in the first years of "Saturday Night Live" was to watch a master shapeshifter who happened to be sidesplittingly funny.
(SOUNDBITE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" MONTAGE)
GILDA RADNER: (As Roseanne Roseannadanna) Dear Roseanne Roseannadanna.
(As character) That's so funny, I forgot to laugh.
(As Baba Wawa) Hello, I'm Baba Wawa. And welcome to Baba Wawa at Large.
(As character) What's all this fuss I keep hearing about violins on television?
BLOCK: Her character veered from the perpetually confused Emily Litella to nerdy teenager Lisa Loopner, from the belching, staggering punk rocker Candy Slice to manic Judy Miller bouncing off the walls in her Brownie uniform. Gilda Radner was just 42 when she died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Now, the documentary "Love, Gilda" explores the joys and struggles that animated her comedy. Lisa Dapolito is the director and joins me from New York. Lisa, welcome to the program.
LISA DAPOLITO: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: You had access to Gilda Radner's written journals, also audiotapes that she made and a whole bunch of interviews. Let's listen to part of the film where we hear her talking about what is at the root of her humor.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LOVE, GILDA")
RADNER: When I think back on my life, I always felt that my comedy was just to make things be all right. I could be prettier than I was. I could be people that I really wasn't. I would use comedy to be in control of my situation.
BLOCK: Control of my situation - Lisa, what's she talking about there? What's the situation?
DAPOLITO: She was a chubby child, and people would make fun of her. And she just loved people. And she wanted to fit in. So she found that, by being funny, she could make friends. And then in that way, it puts her in control of the situation.
BLOCK: Make them laugh before they hurt me, she says.
DAPOLITO: Yeah. It was her defense mechanism. So it was, you know, it's very upsetting to know that she felt so bad about herself at times.
BLOCK: And ultimately was, as an adult, hospitalized for an eating disorder.
DAPOLITO: Yeah. I mean, that was one of the things that I found in the journal that I didn't really know, and I don't think many of the people who were close to Gilda knew the extent of her eating disorder. She checked herself into a hospital. And she kept a diary of how hard it was for her every day to keep from not throwing up, from not bingeing. It's really heartbreaking. And if you look at the five years of "SNL" and you go to Season 4, you can just see how skinny she was.
BLOCK: The title of her autobiography, "It's Always Something," is a line from one of her characters she's probably best known for, Roseanne Roseannadanna, who was on the news on Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live." She had that big black trapezoid of hair and that scrunched-up face. Let's listen to one of her scenes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
RADNER: (As Roseanne Roseannadanna) A Mr. Richard Fanner (ph) from Farlane, N.J., writes in and says, Dear Roseanne Roseannadanna. Last Thursday, I quit smoking. Now I'm depressed. My face broke out. I'm nauseous. I'm constipated. My feet swelled. My gums are bleeding. My sinuses are clogged. I got heartburn. I'm cranky. And I have gas.
RADNER: (As Roseanne Roseannadanna) What should I do? Mr. Fanner, you sound like a real attractive guy.
RADNER: (As Roseanne Roseannadanna) You belong in New Jersey.
BLOCK: (Laughter) Lisa Dapolito, what's it like for you when you listen to that now?
DAPOLITO: I think that character is another side of Gilda that she was - she was never afraid to not look good and to just go for it.
BLOCK: Yeah. A lot of the film seems to focus on this question of how hard it was for her to not be those characters, who she was when she wasn't in those costumes on that stage.
DAPOLITO: Well, I think Gilda's whole mission, I think, in life was to love and be loved. And her relationship with an audience was one of the ways that she really got love and was able to give. So that was a symbiotic relationship between Gilda and an audience, and I think she just loved that.
BLOCK: Loved it, but it does seem like there's a tension there. There's a part of her journal where she says, at one time in my life, I was famous. And it seemed like everyone knew me. But she wonders whether she'd be happier out of the spotlight. She fantasizes about being a checkout girl or a shoe salesman and not being on display for all those people.
DAPOLITO: Yeah. I think at some point during her "SNL" years, it really changed for her. And for Gilda, she loved going out into the world and meeting people and observing people. And then people would start to recognize her everywhere she goes. And her friends said that she was really, really mobbed no matter where she went. So I think it started to change how she felt. And I think she grappled with being the center of attention. And then also, you know, just wanting to be somebody who's just normal going out into the world.
BLOCK: Yeah. When Gilda Radner got sick and ultimately was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she talked about that in her audio journal.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LOVE, GILDA")
RADNER: I've gone to doctors and seen that they're just looking at Roseanne Roseannadanna Or Emily Litella and not really seeing that here's a person who is sick, who has complaints.
BLOCK: When you were looking through Gilda Ratner's journals and listening to those audiotapes that she made, were there parts when you felt, I'm getting too close, this is just too personal, and I just am uncomfortable with exposing that side of her?
DAPOLITO: Well, they were very personal, but the way that Gilda tells the story and the way that she writes, you just want to listen to her over and over again and read her over and over again. And everybody who started coming into the team - the editors, transcribers, producers - we just wanted to listen to Gilda and just read what she wrote because it's not only - it's deep and dark, but there's also funny. And it's also inspiring.
So even when in Gilda's audiotapes when she's talking about her cancer and she's finding out her cancer came back or she thought she was OK but she had to go back to the hospital and have another operation or another round of chemotherapy, there's still always hope with Gilda. There's always something that makes you feel like, wow, if you can go through this, I can do it too.
BLOCK: That's Lisa Dapolito. Her documentary, "Love, Gilda," is out now. Lisa, thanks so much for talking with us.
DAPOLITO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.