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Fresh from her hosting at the Emmy's, Jane Lynch is with us. Actress, comedian, and track-suited menace from the hit TV show Glee. She's the author of Happy Accidents.

Actress Jane Lynch speaks before the rollout of the red carpet for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.  (AP)
Actress Jane Lynch speaks before the rollout of the red carpet for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. (AP)

Actress and comedian Jane Lynch was all over the Emmys Sunday night. Host and Emmy nominee at the awards extravaganza. In trademark style – big, bold, winking, sly, in your face.

Lynch got her acting breaks late. With “Best in Show,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”. And, of course, “Glee.” She plays Sue Sylvester, the scowly, acid-tongued cheerleading coach in a track suit who finally busts out playing Madonna.

Jane Lynch is out with a new memoir of growing up gay and driven to show biz.

This hour On Point: Glee star, big star, Jane Lynch.
-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Jane Lynch, actress, comedian, host of the 2011 Primetime Emmy Awards.

From Tom's Reading List

The Associated Press "Lynch took a long, varied path to stardom on "Glee" — her biggest role to date — and recalls her struggles and triumphs."

USA Today "In the past two years, the actress, 51, became a big-name star via Fox's Glee, won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a People's Choice Award, married clinical psychologist Lara Embry and began renovations on her Laurel Canyon house. She hosts the Emmys on Sunday. And she squeezed in a memoir, Happy Accidents (Voice, $25.99), on sale Tuesday."

Reuters "Viewership for the 2001 Primetime Emmy Awards fell 8 percent from last year to just over 12 million Americans who watched Jane Lynch host the heavily promoted TV show that drew mixed critical reviews."

Playlist

“Never Did No Wanderin’” by the New Main Street Singers (A Mighty Wind)
“Ohio” by Carol Burnett & Jane Lynch

Excerpt

The Call of Comedy

I was now twenty-five years old when I went back home to Dolton, back to the house where I grew up, on Sunset Drive. When I walked into my old bedroom, still with its green-and-yellow shag carpeting and bedspread, there was a big “Welcome Home Jane!” banner, with balloons and everything. I turned to my mom and, half-joking, half serious, exclaimed, “You can go home again!”

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Mom was happy to have me home as well. “Look, Jane— I organized your books,” she said, waving her hand at the shelves.

“By author or title?” I asked.

“By height.” And there they were, perfectly arranged from smallest to tallest.

My mom’s excitement was short-lived, though. The balloons in my room hadn’t even lost their helium when she started urging me to apply for a regular job, to start my backup career.

“You could work as a secretary,” she said.

My mom had been working at Arthur Andersen for years. She was an old-school secretary: she typed an outrageous number of words per minute and knew shorthand. I was a college
graduate with an advanced degree; I considered myself vastly overqualified for secretarial tasks. I had no interest in working at Arthur Andersen.

But even with my inflated sense of self, I knew I needed a job, so I called and got an interview. Dressed in one of my mom’s suits and looking like a young Janet Reno, I went downtown to their offices. I took the English test that they gave all new sub-management employees . . . and failed. Yes, I was college educated and I even had a master’s degree, but I didn’t know the first thing about the proper form for business letters.

My mother was so embarrassed.

[…]

My career as an office worker was a nonstarter, but I still needed to make money. Fortunately, I was able to take my prodigious Shakespearean talents to a new, more challenging, venue: America’s Shopping Place.

It was 1987. America’s Shopping Place was one of the first homeshopping TV shows in the country, part of television’s new retail frontier. It stayed on the air into the wee hours of the
morning, with live hosts describing products and taking phone calls from insomniac shoppers. I showed up at the studio for what I thought was an audition. It turned out their idea of an audition was to throw me into makeup and put me on the air. There I was with a pretty young woman named Kendy Kloepfer in front of two huge cameras waiting for the red light to come on. Kendy was a sweetheart and exactly the kind of girl they wanted on the air—feminine, adorable, and good on her feet. I was not as feminine or adorable as they wanted, but I was good on my feet.

Kendy and I would stand in front of the cameras, talking about whatever we were supposed to be selling—cubic zirconia jewelry, electronic flea collars, grandfather clocks. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the best training in the world for an improv actor. Television home shopping was uncharted territory, so we had to fl y by the seat of our pants and make things up as we went along. We’d smile into the camera and do our pitch. “Flea season is upon us!” or “Now, this bracelet is a delightful way to say ‘I love you’!” Then they’d switch to a close-up shot of the product so we could read the product specifications out of a wire-bound notebook. Then the camera would suddenly be back on us, and we would have to be ready with a big smile and a clever line.

I loved everything about the job—being on camera, improvising, bantering with Kendy. The problem was that the producers did not love me. They wouldn’t even look up at me when
I came into the studio chirping “Hey, everybody!” They never fired me, but they never told me I had a job either. I would get a call a few hours before I needed to be there. I’d drop whatever I was doing to show up to do the graveyard shift of America’s Shopping Place. Did I mention I loved this job?

But it was all to no avail, because no matter how good I was at improvising my enthusiasm for jewelry and housewares, I was not feminine and adorable enough. I was no Kendy Kloepfer, and the producers tried to replace me as quickly as possible. They actually auditioned my potential replacements on the air with me. These young and inarticulate pretty girls were always half my height, so the producers would pop an apple box next to me for them to stand on. But they would still come up no farther than my ear. I had to show these girls the ropes, knowing that if I trained them well they would take away the first
livelihood I had enjoyed. I did so as cheerfully as I could, hoping the producers would notice how magnanimous I was and change their minds and let me stay.

I remember one poor gal was completely out of her league and unable to say anything interesting about anything. While she was selling a cubic zirconia tennis bracelet, the director had prompted her through her earpiece: “Tell them who they can buy this for.” She intoned, dead-eyed and flatly, “You can buy this for your mother. You can buy this for your sister. You can buy this for your aunt. You can buy this for a girl cousin . . .” The director begged into my earpiece: “Jane, stop her!!!” And I heroically saved the day.

[…]

At around the same time, I auditioned for The Second City, an improv comedy theater. I’d sent my headshot and résumé to pretty much every professional theater in Chicago. I remember you had to call the theater’s audition line, dial and redial, and hope that one time you’d be lucky enough not to get a busy signal and your call would go through. This would net you one audition spot among the hordes who would be ushered through like so much human cattle. Everyone got about two minutes to perform a monologue from whichever script was being produced. These general look-sees rarely got anyone anything, but I rarely snagged one in the first place.

I wanted desperately to get an audition at the Goodman Theater or the Body Politic, but I also sent my stuff to The Second City improv theater. I was surprised when I got into one of
their big open-call auditions.

Improvisational theater scared me. It required basically making something out of nothing. You had to be quick on the draw and get right to the punch and somehow be consistent with
your metaphors. There were no set rules for an improvised scene other than to accept everything that comes at you (called “yes and” in the parlance). There were no parameters, no structure to work within. Basically, one would need to enjoy freefalling. I needed the certainty of the script. I was not one to “go with the flow.”

At the time, I failed to see that this was what I had been doing all along on America’s Shopping Place. I just didn’t see improvising as one of my strengths. And at that time, I had my sights focused elsewhere. I was a serious theater actress. . . .

But there I found myself, auditioning on the stage at The Second City, making stuff up. I don’t remember being funny or even particularly inventive, just that I had fun goofing around. Out of nowhere, I was cast as one of the two women for a new touring company. I honestly had no idea why I had been cast, but I was just thrilled. I had a paying gig and I was going on tour! I threw my whole self at and into it.

Although the form is commonly referred to as “sketch comedy,” at The Second City we spoke of performing “scenes.” At their best, these scenes were grounded, human, and very real. The pathos was wrapped up in some sociopolitical context, with themes that were liberal and envelope-pushing, like gays or Vietnam. Someone might wear an occasional wig or funny glasses, but otherwise there was no big gimmicky shtick. It pleased me so much. I just loved it and took to it immediately.

I didn’t have to face my fear of performing improv, because we did set scenes on the road—the touring show was a “best of” past Second City scenes, scenes that had started as improvisation in Chicago and had been reworked and cultivated for the main stage before finally being sent out on the road. The heavy lifting had been done for us, and we just had to perform the finished product.

Being part of this ensemble in which I played a bevy of different characters in one performance, singing a song here and there, was a brand-new high for me. Where had this been all my life? A whole new world opened up. I loved and enjoyed the heck out of my fellow cast mates and delighted in traveling from burg to burg with them. Plus, I was touring to exotic locales like St. Louis and Kansas City via a twelve-person van, which, despite sounding horrid to me now, was enormously exciting at the time.
This work also scratched my itch to be a part of a greater whole. We were an ensemble and we had to work together for it to work at all. We were a pretty selfless group in that regard. I
remember everyone being very supportive of one another, and I think we may have been unique in that way. (I have heard horror stories about members of past companies devouring one another.)

Once again, I had had a fixed idea of how things were supposed to go, but this time, instead of trying to control everything, I let things happen, and The Second City popped up out of nowhere into my life. Suddenly I was in a whole new place and ensconced in a whole new way of creating, and I felt like I had found my people: people who lived to laugh and find the
funny. I showed my classically trained, uptight self the door.

Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Tim Meadows were all touring with The Second City when I was there. I got pulled off the road and onto the main stage in Chicago
when they needed someone to step in for Bonnie Hunt when she got married. I stayed on as an understudy for the main stage show, usually stepping in for Bonnie or Barb Wallace. I
was quite diligent with my understudy duties. I went to the show every night and sat on the bench in the back of the house where I could watch for free. I was up on everything that went on: I knew every line and every move of the current revue, and I went over and over the songs and the choreography. When they called, I was ready, and you’d never have known I hadn’t been in the show for the whole run. I felt so proud of myself I thought I would be rewarded for my good work by getting a spot of my own in the cast.

From Happy Accidents: A Memoir by Jane Lynch. Copyright © 2011 Canyon Lady Productions. Published by Hyperion/Voice. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

This program aired on September 20, 2011.

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