Molly Shannon’s Memoir Is Filled With Mischief and Pathos

A Memoir
By Molly Shannon with Sean Wilsey
291 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

Some people break into show business; others burst. Like her famous character on “Saturday Night Live,” the nervous Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher, Molly Shannon was more of a battering ram, laying siege to the false-fronted structures of Hollywood with blunt, repetitive force. When you reach the part in her new memoir, “Hello, Molly!,” where the fortresses finally crumble for her, you want to get out the pom-poms and cheer.

Along with her genius for physical comedy and deadpan inflection — “don’t get me started,” she’d intone, as the mediocre stand-up Jeannie Darcy — Shannon has an uncanny knack for transgression in pursuit of higher truth.

Early in her career, she and a friend from drama school came up with something they called the Mamet Scam. They pretended to be assistants in the office of David Mamet, the notoriously Hollywood-averse playwright: arranging each other appointments with agents, casting directors and producers, drawing on their experience selling health-club memberships. (“Always be closing,” as Mamet wrote in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”) They ran this racket with energy for six months — Shannon getting a small part on “Twin Peaks” out of it — and were only busted once, by a talent manager for the Brat Pack.

Later, Shannon and another friend from an improv group called the Lumber Company created their own stage show, hiring musicians with money Shannon was making as a hostess at Cravings, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. They kept the show under an hour, with drinks, to tempt busy industry types. Shannon also invited restaurant diners, homeless people, her dentist. “There was nothing more important than packing the house,” she writes. “Pack it, pack it, pack it, pack it!” In front of those crowds, she developed another brilliant character, Sally O’Malley. In her stretchy red pantsuit, O’Malley is the patron saint of all 50-year-old women who refuse to roll over and become Norma Desmond but instead want to “kick, stretch and KICK!” (If you haven’t yet made O’Malley’s acquaintance, go watch the “S.N.L.” sketch in which she tries out for the Rockettes.)

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