LOS ANGELES — Just as I arrived for our lunchtime appointment, Molly Shannon came gliding up Larchmont Boulevard on a Trek bicycle, looking for ways to spread her personal brand of eccentric joy.
I was fretting about a fender-bender I’d recently had with my rental car, but Shannon told me not to worry. Dressed in a billowy sundress on a Friday afternoon in February, she walked around to the front of my car and eyed up the scuff marks near one headlight. Occasionally she waved back at passers-by who shouted, “Hi, Molly!” (It wasn’t clear if she knew these people or not.)
Then, in her own way, she explained that life can take away but it also gives back.
As a teenager, Shannon said she had applied to a selective private school — one whose acceptance might have put her on a track to an adulthood of influence and prestige, if not necessarily future roles on TV shows like “Saturday Night Live,” “The Other Two” and “The White Lotus.”
While she awaited the school’s judgment, she was also anticipating the arrival of her Sea-Monkeys, the brine shrimp sold to trusting children with colorful comic-book ads that depicted them as exotic pets.
And on the same day she learned the school had rejected her, Shannon said, “my Sea-Monkeys hatched.” She paused and added brightly, “So, you never know.”
That blithe attitude has been fundamental to many of Shannon’s best-known characters, like Mary Katherine Gallagher, the maladapted but plucky schoolgirl who was her signature role on “S.N.L.”
Shannon, 57, is more knowing than her oblivious characters, but she shares their determination to forge ahead happily no matter the circumstances, and that spirit is vivid in her new memoir, “Hello, Molly!”, which will be released by Ecco on April 12.
But before readers get to Shannon’s picaresque tales of her upbringing and career, they must first follow her account of one of the darkest days of her life and the automobile accident that devastated her family.
As I sat down with her to review the harrowing details, Shannon told me, “It feels very vulnerable to open yourself for people but I wanted to be brave and just push through it.”
On the night of June 1, 1969, when Shannon was 4, her father, Jim, was driving the family back from an all-day party to their home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He had been drinking, and had taken a nap earlier that afternoon. About 90 minutes into the trip, he sideswiped another car and then swerved into a steel light pole. Though Molly and her older sister, Mary, survived with injuries, their younger sister, Katie, and cousin Fran were killed in the collision; her mother died later in the hospital.
Shannon lived with relatives while her father recuperated. When she returned home, school was a blur. “I was like, why is everyone so chipper?” she said. “They were like, ‘The wheels on the bus go — ’ and I was like, I’m exhausted.”
While the accident could have also ruptured the relationship between her and her father, Shannon said that they grew close in the years that followed. “Harboring blame or resentment or anger doesn’t do any good for anyone,” she told me. “He pulled himself up and went on to raise two daughters. He did his very best and he was proud of me. I admired him.”
By Shannon’s own reckoning, her father was a puckish influence — a stylish dresser with a salty vocabulary who filled the home with Judy Garland music after he’d spent the day on a housekeeping spree induced by diet pills.
Her father cajoled her into outrageous behavior, like stowing away on a flight to New York when she was 13. “He was wild,” Shannon said. “He’d take simple stuff like going into a candy store and be like, ‘Let’s pretend we’re blind,’ asking, ‘Is this chocolate?’”
Yet within their community, Shannon’s father was regarded as a capable (if permissive) parent. Alison Doub, a childhood friend of the author’s, recalled, “In my family, we would say, ‘Jim Shannon’s doing such a wonderful job with those girls.’”
Shannon went on to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and perform in student productions, including a comedy revue where she created an early version of her Mary Katherine Gallagher character.
After graduation, Shannon toughed it out in Los Angeles, working as an office temp and a restaurant hostess and occasionally landing appointments with agents by running a scam where she and a friend pretended to work for David Mamet. (According to Shannon, she was only busted once.)
Though Shannon believed her future was in dramatic acting, she landed reliable representation and, eventually, her slot at “S.N.L..”
“I was looking for clients and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Steven Levy, who became one of Shannon’s first agents and is now her manager. “She was literally bleeding. Her knees were bleeding and her elbows were dripping blood. When she did Mary Katherine Gallagher, she was so committed that she threw herself into the wall.”
“Hello, Molly!”, which Shannon wrote with Sean Wilsey (“Oh the Glory of It All”), goes on to recount her time at “S.N.L.” She joined the long-running sketch comedy show in 1995, and several of her hit characters — including the unapologetically over-the-hill dancer, Sally O’Malley — were in some way inspired by her father’s theatricality.
Then, as Shannon was preparing to leave “S.N.L.” in 2001, she learned that her father had come out as gay in a phone conversation with Levy. Weeks later, in a private moment when Shannon thought that her father was about to share this with her as well, he instead disclosed that he had prostate cancer.
More weeks went by before Shannon found the courage to ask him: “Have you ever thought you might be gay?”
She writes that her father answered without hesitation, “Most definitely.”
Jim Shannon died in 2002, moments after he had advised Molly to get married and have children and complimented her on her small role in the comedy “Analyze This.”
Molly Shannon, who married the artist Fritz Chesnut in 2004 and has two teenage children, told me she found value in unfurling her personal story from the moment of the accident — a tragedy that dictated the course of her earliest years but which she would not let dominate her life.
“It gives you a resilience,” she said. “You’re able to jump over obstacles. Maybe I wouldn’t have taken that first chance if I hadn’t had those disadvantages.”
Shannon said the crash left her with a sense of loss that she will never fully be able to dispel. “I couldn’t believe that good things could last,” she said.
For example, she said, “When I first started at ‘S.N.L.,’ I didn’t want to hang anything up in my dressing room. I was afraid this might all blow up. I always felt like disaster was right around the corner.”
The writer-director Mike White, who has cast Shannon in projects like “The White Lotus,” “Enlightened” and “Year of the Dog,” said that her book had a candor that is rare in show-business memoirs.
“In a way that’s not didactic or earnest or preachy, she’s giving you the keys to how to live,” White said. “How do you move through loss and turn your life into something beautiful? It made me feel like I need to stop complaining about whatever bumps in the road I’ve experienced.”
Shannon will next be playing a star personality on a fictional home-shopping network in the Showtime comedy “I Love That For You,” which has its premiere April 29.
To this day, she said she thinks of herself as a graduate of “the Jim Shannon school of acting”: “He loved theater but he didn’t have the confidence to be a performer,” she said, adding that before nearly every new gig, “I always ask myself, do I still really want this? Did I do it just for him?”
But her father, she said, remains the part of herself that doesn’t care if she is recognized for any particular performance as long as she is approaching her work with a positive attitude.
Nor is Shannon much concerned about how readers might react to the side of herself that she reveals in “Hello, Molly!”
By way of explanation, she shared a story from when she was a restaurant hostess, and would invite the customers to see her after-hours comedy show.
One guest seemed like she would be especially receptive to her material, Shannon said: “She was an Irish Catholic mother of five, and I invited her to my show. I thought, well, she’s Irish like me.”
But the performance did not get the reception she expected. “She was disgusted,” Shannon said. “She thought Sally O’Malley was so bawdy, and how dare you curl your pants up like that?”
This criticism did not bother Shannon in the least. “I thought, Jim Shannon approves of everything,” she said. “He gave me great freedom,” she said. “He was like: That’s. My. Molly.”