- Why we need to practice changing
- How much of our lives is determined by almostness
- Moving past the “winning” and “losing” paradigm for illness
- When we can stop being afraid (and how maybe fearlessness is for psychopaths)
- Loving people’s uniqueness
- Why allowing yourself to feel big emotions can be daunting, and how love, beauty, and maybe even magic can be present simultaneously
Cecily Strong is an actress and comedian best known as standout Saturday Night Live cast member. She has entertained viewers with a variety of beloved SNL characters featured on “Weekend Update,” and earned rave reviews for her impressions of Jeanine Pirro, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Melania Trump. Cecily previously cohosted “Weekend Update” alongside both Seth Meyers and Colin Jost. In 2015, she headlined the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. She will next star in the Apple TV+ musical comedy series Schmigadoon. She lives and works in New York City.
You’ve probably seen Cecily on Saturday Night Live (streaming on Peacock and Hulu), or on the 2016 version of Ghostbusters (streaming with the premium subscription on Hulu). You can also watch her latest movie Schmigadoon! On Apple TV now.
You can follow Cecily on Instagram.
You can find me, Kate, on Instagram, on Facebook, on YouTube, and on Twitter. Or follow along on my website (and subscribe to my weekly email!), here.
Kate Bowler: It’s a fun little game that improv actors play. You’ve probably heard of it. To adapt to any scene and any scenario and any character thrown their way, they learn to accept it. It’s called yes and. Yes and the notary public was on a bicycle. Yes and the bicycle was in space. Yes and the spacecraft had an independent personality with a penchant for murder, notarized murder. At least that’s exactly what I would want to watch if asked by a television executive. But the reason why we have to practice something this wonderful and ridiculous is that in life, adapting to changes both good and bad in real time is often incredibly difficult. We can become brittle people who break instead of bend and instead of saying yes and we want to say no, but but I wasn’t ready. But he wasn’t supposed to get sick, but she wasn’t supposed to leave. None of this was supposed to happen. I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens, a podcast where I talk to brilliant and kind and funny people of what they have discovered when life hasn’t turned out like they thought it would or should. And my guest today is no exception. She is an expert in yes and during a season in which none of us wanted to change and again and again, we were forced to. My guest today is the talented and hilarious Cecily Strong. You probably know her from Saturday Night Live, where she has been making people laugh as a cast member since 2012. And you can’t miss her brand new musical parody called Schmigadoon! That’s on Apple Plus, where she plays a woman trapped in the 1940s musical world until she finds true love. And it is so funny that I watch it every Friday, which is heretofore Schmigadoon Friday. And she just wrote her first book. It is a heartfelt memoir called This Will All Be Over Soon. Cecily. Hello. I’ve been looking forward to this forever.
Cecily Strong: Oh, hello, Kate. Me too. You were one of my my first email correspondences and it was so exciting. And I remember sitting on my porch and just like weeping- good weep with reading what you said and it just it’s so exciting to finally get to talk with you.
Kate Bowler: Thank you my dear. I, I admire you for a million reasons, but one is that you’re obviously someone who knows how to respond to real people in real time. I wondered when you first knew that you were that kind of person, that you could make those little changes that make other people laugh or at least kind of follow you down that path of surrealness.
Cecily: That’s so funny that you say that, because I guess I’ve never thought of myself that way, because I’m so awkward. When I feel like there’s rules, you know, like I have a hard time ordering a pizza over the phone or something and I’m talking to people when I think there’s rules. But I think once there’s not rules and it feels like someone wants to talk to me, I can, that’s like where I enjoy meeting people because that’s where I’m comfortable.
Kate: Yeah, yeah.
Cecily: It’s like, oh, good. We don’t have to know how to do this. Right. All right, I’ll meet you there.
Kate Bowler: This helps explain why I’m really bad with formal people. What you’re describing is like the second you know you’re down to break something? Do you think maybe you were, were you like an especially sensitive, intuitive kid? Because I bet someone like that would know the rules or maybe know when she’s allowed to break them.
Cecily: I think I was probably similarly intuitive. It’s a very nice word that you’re using. I, I think I was certainly interested, curious and and felt like I was a bit of an outsider or I would call myself like an alien. And I think there’s something like I observed people and wondered things. And I think a lot of that is part of comedy. And especially like seeing the silliness and situations that maybe isn’t as clear right away because people are more focused on communicating and I’m like what’s happening with the back of their shirt or something.
Kate Bowler: You have one of the most exciting jobs I am aware of. I mean, your job is like a whole world where you sounds like you like live at the studio and you have these creative partnerships and then you try to make these million characters and then see which ones fit. And then all of it get then gets watched by millions of people like totally normal job stuff. And I guess one of my most favorite things about watching you is your willingness to immediately accept and embrace the absurd. There is there’s so much magic, I think, in the absurd. So, I wondered what is the most absurd character that you’ve created and what like silly little details did you latch on to in order to dream that to life?
Cecily: Oh, God. I mean, I’d like to think. If most of the ones I enjoy the most are are sort of absurd, even my impressions aren’t real impressions that sort of me getting to play kind of a clown and do something goofy. But I think, yeah, anything weird. I remember there was one sketch we did with Michael Keaton and it was this bizarre Southern couple who he was a scientist and she said he’s a scientist and they were making their house into a smart home. But all his inventions was like there was a, you know, pardon my- I also enjoy a potty humor, too. And it was like they had a smart couch because a tube would go up through your pants and to see how you were feeling or something to how you wanted to sit that day. But it was just at the beginning of the sketch they finally go to the door. They go, I wonder where our guests are I’m just going to go check the door. And she goes the door and they’re all standing up there and they’ve been out there for a while, but nobody rang the doorbell or knocked or so I like- that was one detail I really loved.
Kate: And yeah, there’s the there is something really amazing about your- the like, I think everyone imagines that, like at a corporate retreat, they’re going to have like a trust fall where people fall, but like you’re like fully embrace doing that every week.
Cecily: Yeah, that’s a great I’ve never heard of it that way. I keep saying it’s like a controlled chaos, but it absolutely it’s like a trust fall.
Kate: Like catch me.
Cecily: They have I mean, they’ve they’ve done a good job. I always feel like I’ve been caught in some way.
Kate: One of the most surreal aspects to life, I guess, is maybe like the almost-ness of it, like when things almost work out and then they don’t. Like I, I almost had a healthy body and then I didn’t and I almost had two kids and then I didn’t. And you were on a very steady path toward a very clearly everything will work out life. And then this last year it was really turned inside out. Like so many people, you really experienced this season as one of tremendous loss. And so if you don’t mind, I wondered if we could if we could talk Owen: red headed and bird loving and playful and kind Owen
Cecily: I’ll like start at the end because then you get to go back. So in January, 2020, I lost my thirty year old cousin Owen to glioblastoma, which felt very sudden, even though he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been living with it for a year and ten months or so. But I was very convinced that Owen was going to beat brain cancer. And I still think it never beat him because it never took his spirit. And so I think, like, that’s a big part of the fight, too. And so it never fully beat Owen. But so then getting to go back when I was an older cousin, I only have a couple of cousins. I have a small WASPy family, so there’s only a couple of us. And I knew him and his little sister Leda as my younger cousins. And they were- I was a little older. So they were kind of like these funny, quirky little kids. And it was like I could hold Leda like a baby and, you know, and it was I only knew them that way. And then sort of they lived in New York and I lived in Chicago. So I didn’t see them much. I you know, once I went to SNL and I auditioned in New York, it was sort of all of a sudden Owen came back into my life first and then Leda came back into my life. And I didn’t have the most stable, normal family relationships. So having someone- they just kept showing up and being around and like I would be doing events or something, and they found out about them on their own and would show up, and it was like, how did you know about this, why you’re here? You would come that. And it was sort of they just kept showing up. And then I was like, these are I discovered that they were very cool, exceptional, smart people. And then the other wonderful thing that I have that I treasure so much is that once he was diagnosed, it sort of led the way, you know, there was no need to not say things to each other. So it was I got to say how much I loved Owen and Leda and I got to hear from them how much they loved me. And we got to say it to each other really often. And like, I have those, you know, the modern letters in my text messages. I have that in my phone forever, that I have a year and 10 months of saying I love you.
Kate: It’s amazing how the- I don’t know, like whatever. Not that there’s just like whatever formality or politeness or hesitation goes away and like this there’s so much beauty there when you can immediately and suddenly and overwhelmingly just like love the crap out of people.
Cecily: Yeah. And you can say it. And it’s not- that it’s accepted and and reciprocated and given back in a very simple way. There’s not there was nothing complicated about it.
Kate: Yeah. Yes. It sounds like at the beginning that hope felt a lot like certainty, like he’s going to be OK and everything will. I know that feeling. I feel so much, at least in my life, like my confidence and believing with and to be honest, I’ve always liked that when people love me in that way. I’ve loved it when they were certain for me even. Yeah, even though that always felt complicated, I was always so grateful when people were like they felt like they were betting on me.
Cecily: Yeah. I think it’s like I don’t know that I could do it any other way. And it was sort of it’s at least for me to wrap my head around something like brain cancer. It was like, OK, well, then we’re certain and I’m I want to be on that team. I’m on the certain team. And that’s why I also love his oncologist, Dr. Henry Friedman, because I remember, you know, Owen texting me. He’s the first doctor that’s used the word cure. And it’s like everybody should have a doctor that uses the word cure in some way. You know, that’s just like it’s an unpredictable illness. There’s no saying that it can’t go the other way. We expect the worst, but it can go well. And I mean, Owen lived for a long time, especially for brain cancer. And so I think- and lived so well.
Kate: He had such a like a beautiful and a courageous way of continuing to live. It sounds like he kept like he gave himself permission to keep changing and growing and creating.
Cecily: And I think, you know, that’s why even the doctors looking at his last MRI were shocked that he was like standing and talking and laughing for as long as he was because of the size of his tumor. And it was like he must have been more uncomfortable physically than he ever let on. And it was just like but that his spirit was so strong that it made him stand.
Kate: Yeah, I just this reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Sunita Puri. She’s like a palliative care doctor. And she wrote this lovely book called That Good Night. And I remember before we talked, I was very weirded out by the field of palliative care. I assumed it meant, you know, like letting go and people not having faith and confidence in me. And I was always pretty overwhelmed. But one of the things I liked about her framework for both people who are, you know, like on a whole spectrum of health was that it was always kind of imagining that, like when we look at a person, like what whole world can we imagine for them? Like, what’s the best, most beautiful version of their life without the then anticipation? But like, I guess it was kind of a better language for not hoping for the best or planning on the worst, but having this vision of like, how do we accept the finitude of your circumstance? And I guess, I mean, palliative care for people who go on to get better as well as people who are who decline. And I first, since I thought that was such a good framework for like how to maybe have a big language for hope is somewhere between the kind of everything is possible and nothing is possible that there’s people who look at us and are like, yes, what is possible today? Like where? How can we live there with you?
Cecily: How wonderful that those people exist and we can find them because it’s, you know, just hearing you say that, it is like if the goal is just being alive, well, none of us will get that goal. Like, none of us get to live forever. And so we can’t be like a failure and just hope that can’t be the good news. The good news has to be today. Yeah. And how we’re able to spend our time.
Kate: Yeah, I like that.
Kate: You had this moment where you were all together. Right before the pandemic, and then when covid hit, as if all at once, like the whole world was swept into a kind of grief, I wonder what that experience taught you about the relationship between isolation and grief. It must have been very hard to suddenly be pushed into a world on your own.
Cecily: Yes, well, it’s very strange because it was not until I isolated that I really started even being able to process it because before then, it was like, I have to be in public and I have to be doing my job and I really don’t know how to tell people how, yeah, set like that. I’m carrying this thing that I’m thinking about all the time. That’s like I might start crying at any moment. And so it’s sort of I’m working around that as opposed of working in it and through it and with it. And then it just felt like I, I don’t know, maybe I won’t always be as magical realism or magical thinking, but it felt like the world stopped for me for a bit in January. And then it was like and then it stopped for everybody. And it was like, well, of course it did. Of course, the world’s upside down. How do we lose someone like that? The world is upside down.
Kate: It does feel impossible. There’s something that just feels absolutely impossible about losing someone who should live. It feels like there’s there must have been some kind of reordering of the universe that happened when I was asleep. And then now. Yes.
Cecily: And it certainly made me like, well, I have to change my thinking because the rules I know like, that wouldn’t allow, there’s no way to, like, be OK after that. So I just have to change my thinking. You know, the palliative care providers can word that much better, that there’s like there has to be that I think the end goals just change. Yeah. Or just not end goals. Goals. Yeah.
Kate: I think a lot about fear. Like what the what, what the right relationship to fear is partly because in the 90s I was given too many, no fear shirts that were Hypercolor and that I remember always thinking, you know, and especially growing up in a Churchie tradition, you know, that that fear was always the enemy and that that certain kinds of people conquer fear. And you know, that I just really wanted to be like the Bear Grylls of my own life. And I I don’t think it’s possible to think around fear when it’s real and it’s shaping the way we live every day. There just has to be something in there about.
Cecily: I think it’s like psychopathic, actually. I think it is to not have it.
Kate: I remember I was trying to have this wonderful psychologist and I was like, I’m not really sure how to I’m not sure what the right relationship to fear is when when we’re never going to be over it. Like I you know, I live with chronic cancer or if the world is living with, you know, the fear of global earth plague. And we all have to live with the reality that things come undone so quickly and that we lose people we can’t live without. So, like, how am I supposed to live with this thing? And like, what is this like? I mean, what would you do if I was, like, afraid of heights and we would take you up to a building and we would keep you there for a long time. And it’s called exposure therapy. And I was like, OK, so in that scenario, what would happen if the roof caved in multiple times? He was like, oh, I guess I would take a lot longer.
Kate: I think at this point what I’m hoping for is like. It can’t just be that exposure to the world being scary somehow cures us or helps us adjust to the right relationship with fear, I guess is we may be allowing it only to take up the right amount of space, like enough to illuminate the things we’re supposed to love.
Cecily: Yeah, I don’t you don’t want the math to be like if you are exposed to loss all the time, then you get good at it or something. You don’t want that to be the math. Yes.
Kate: No, and I think we probably come up with a billion versions of people who have had all kinds of loss and then just became impervious to it. Or I don’t ever want bad things to happen to people, she said lovingly. But I do sometimes feel like there’s a certain amount of it, like the like cracks us open a bit so that we can just see it in other people.
Cecily: Yeah, I remember. I think you talk about the before and the after, and I remember I lost my friend Erica when I was 19 and then I remember watching two best friends go through a sudden tragic loss and just feeling like I’m so sorry that we share this now, but because I know that your life has changed now. Yeah. You know, and seeing it happen to someone else and being like, there’s nothing I can do. The world changed today.
Kate: You had all kinds of. Losses this season, there was Hal your brilliant and creative coworker on Saturday Night Live, and it was at such a time when everybody was like, I mean, just trying to understand how covid worked and thinking about surface to air transmission. And everyone’s looking at numbers. And you’re not thinking about numbers. You’re you’re thinking about a face. Mm hmm.
Cecily: And especially there’s something about Hal being so unique and strange and brilliant and genius and eclectic and being like if that’s one of the 600 people who passed away that night in New York City, that’s how overwhelming it is and why I like the numbers seem impossible.
Kate: Yes, I always feel that way, though, with like the particularity of our life, but also our pain is like, why is it that it’s so hard to look into somebody’s life and remember, like it’s not their life or love in general, it’s not their loss in general. Like it’s, it’s the insane beauty of that one little tiny light and somebody else,
Cecily: Yes, and I think the particulars are going back to what we were talking about earlier with comedy. It’s like I’ve lived a life of exploring those particular, you know, like that’s what you do in comedy or especially in character work. And so I see people in that way. And it’s it’s sort of, you know, loving people in that way. And I’ve always thought, you know, like the nicest gift anybody could ever give me is to be thoughtful of me and consider it and to think about me as a unique human being. And then I would feel the most loved. That’s how I how I- my love language, I guess. Yeah.
Kate: That’s so good. Love me in particular.
Cecily: Oh, yes. Tell me something that’s like not like you’re nice.
Kate: You’re that oh. Generic woman comma segue comma
Cecily: I would just swoon you know, like those are always the most swoon worthy loving things when someone says here’s something particular about you that I’ve noticed and thought about.
Kate: Yeah. I wouldn’t even want like I’m just thinking of like the most romantic I would not like you’re beautiful or something if I was really going to get choosy. I wanted to be like your face. Like what. Like the it’s all about the dumb little details, you know.
Cecily: Yes, I agree. There’s someone saying, like, I like that your teeth are pokey or something like spiky, you know, just the specifics, because then you know that you are living in someone’s mind in that way if they’ve thought it. But then I know they’ve thought about me like I’ve thought about them.
Kate: Yeah, that’s right. With that wonderful, obsessive particularity. That is love.
Kate: Totally. Yeah. This long season alone, I mean, alone, but together, but alone, but together has been like mentally complicated, I think, for all of us to, like, sift through. And I kind of wondered what you thought about. Sounds like kind of two a.m. post philosophy class where I’m slightly intoxicated. As I’m going to tell you, this
Cecily: Those are my favorite times.
Kate: So I, I think a lot about the looking back feeling like you tell a story about this beautiful memory you have of own. And he’s visiting the show and there’s this amazing celebrity there, Chadwick Boseman, and who, you know, would also pass away quite suddenly. And you have this garbage photo of that night, a medium good photo of that night.
Cecily: Pretty bad, yeah.
Kate: And I said, yeah, and. And now, looking back, there’s such a desire to, like, have a have like an artifact, like have something from the past that helps, like tell us the story about what it was really like. And I, I think about that a lot. Like how much do we borrow from the present to give it to the future? Like we try to take the right picture or we or we like write it down. Or anyone who’s tried to open a scrapbooking store in the 1990s, like understands like the archiving feeling by us. But that’s like a kind of a complicated impulse, isn’t it?
Cecily: For me, it certainly feels that way. And something I’ve never been good at. I’m very much like, well, I don’t want to miss any if I’m enjoying something, I don’t want to miss a second of it as I’m doing it. You know, we should all have just wedding photographers and now and then war journalists around every day. They’ll get it right. They’ll do it for us.
Kate: Yes. War journalists is exactly right.
Cecily: War journalists and wedding photographers. We need those.
Kate: So that we can live forward. But still, would that be nice? But then to still have it looking back. Yeah, yeah, you’re right. We have this beautiful line. “It’s OK to not treat every moment like it’s may be the last. And if it were what I want to spend the time getting a good iPhone photo?”
Cecily: I think I get to I mean, just saying the last already, obviously that makes me tear up and I just, yeah, I love an Irish goodbye better that way than. Because I’m I’ll get it too sentimental and I just want it to be a good moment. It’s not like I can escape what I know is sort of there, but I don’t have to just live in that. It’s like, well, what’s the enjoyable thing? You know, let’s enjoy this, too. Yeah.
Kate: You are so funny and wildly talented. And I wondered if that’s maybe been kind of a hard combination for you to allow yourself to be both funny and vulnerable and kind of like stick the landing on these multiple things that are so hard to do at the same time.
Cecily: Yes. I mean, you know, you’re speaking a much kinder terms in thank you than I have ever given myself. But I think yes, I’ve always I think it is in comedy for sure. You know, there’s a lot of cynicism, but I honestly have always felt worse for my friends and colleagues who can’t be vulnerable ever, because they’ve decided this is comedy and you have to have this very tough skin. And then I think, like, well, how do you work any of your stuff out? How do you ever feel anything? Because I know you feel things. Who do you get to tell anyone? Yeah, I wish more people felt like they had the permission to do that. Like, who cares if you haven’t up until this point? Today can be the day you say you love something or someone you know.
Kate: Yeah, I have noticed right after I say something really hard or just really kind of awful, like the desire to reach for the joke as fast as possible. I have a lot more like forgiveness for myself and for other people now because I, I mean, I do it too. It feels like it’s kind of like cool the engines sometimes, but the humor is kind of so wonderful because it’s it’s not just like I really kind of hate it when they call it like a coping mechanism, as if it’s a kind of crutch. It always feels like it’s it’s just a different way of telling the truth.
Cecily: Yes, I like that. People will ask that. And I guess because I’ve been having a lot of these conversations lately in some way or another describing humor jokes as a coping mechanism. It’s like I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s just always, that’s how I think. Yeah. That’s how I’m seeing things. As a little kid that I’d get in trouble in school because I talk to it because it was like I have to make a wisecrack. It’s always there. It’s a part of how I think about things. Yeah. And I just am like, oh, I enjoyed that. I should share it.
Kate: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s a fun like see it, say it, see it, say it. Thing that I like, which also just reminds me of like danger signs in the airport, just like if you see something say something.
Cecily: But when I see them I grab them.
Kate: I, I. I feel too like it’s we just need those bigger frameworks to feel the both and-ness of it, the yes and-ness of it feels like it’s that is a lot of work, because I think on the surface, people could look at you or I think anyone who has really great plans brewing and they think, oh, you know, wow, you’ve done so well, you did it. It’s done, but you’ve done so well. And I wondered if maybe like for all the people who feel like on the outside their lives look shiny, but that there’s a lot we carry. Maybe we could yes and this for a second. Yes and you are living a dream and carrying a lot of pain.
Cecily: For I don’t know why it was that particular loss that I felt it so much with Owen, that devastation and love can both be so huge at the exact same time. I’m feeling them at the exact same time. And it was so bizarre. And then trying to understand that. And I just remember, you know, in our early communications and watching your TED talk, too, and reading things that was like you have such a good way of seeing. It’s like, oh, good. This is a thing that is there. They both exist at the same time. One of my producers, who also a friend, lost his mother to GBM and he was celebrating her birthday, which was also my uncle’s birthday, and he’s in the cemetery and her stone. And she had I think it was Rilke, but it says feel everything, the wonderful and the awful or something. And it reminded me of a thing that you said, you know, the wonderful and the terrible and beautiful.
Kate: Yeah, I remember it from a guy named Frederick Buechner who had this great quote that was like something like this is the world beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. And yeah, I mean, I’ll be a little afraid. I’m just going to get to the end. It’s like be slightly afraid, but
Cecily: I think yes, you don’t- the fear is there, but it’s also like it’s that’s normal. And if you to not have one means then you don’t have the other and you’re going to have the bad no matter what, no matter how much you try to ignore it and run from it, you know, it’s there. Yes. It’s been the gift to discover that in that the sadness there’s been so much love and beauty and magic.
Kate: Yeah. Cecily you are someone who finds and excavates magic. You really are. You dig it out of people. And I’m so grateful we could do this together. Thanks so much.
Cecily Strong: Thank you.
Kate Bowler: Living in the tension between a life that has worked out and one that has gone to hell is well, where we find ourselves at one point or another. So maybe it’s our turn to play a little yes and. Yes, I have so much to be thankful for and this year hasn’t turned out at all like I thought it would. Yes, I feel joy and I lost someone I didn’t know I could live without. Yes, I want to make the most of today and my body keeps breaking. Yes, I am hopeful and this is daunting. Yes, I am trying to be brave and I am so afraid. So, bless you, dear one. You are trying to live in between those two words. Yes. And. That space of both is where the real work of life is found, where it takes courage to live, where grief can strip us to the studs and love can remake us once again, where our hearts can be both broken and keep on beating. Never sorry to be broken. Yes and. Yes, you are capable of great joy and great love and all of life comes with risk and fear. So bless you in that yes and today. Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Faith in Leadership, an online learning resource and a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up at Katebowler.com/newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me. Kate Bowler.