Live from New York, it's . . . Maya Rudolph!

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In a Saturday Night Live skit, rocker Axl Rose (Matt Damon) prepares to indulge in the latest creation by fashion designer Donatella Versace (Maya Rudolph)--her microwavable "Versace Pockets." Photo: nbc/norman ng

Maya Rudolph--B.A., Art (photography), Porter College, '95--keeps SNL audiences in stitches

As a little girl in the late 1970s, Maya Rudolph begged her parents to stay up late to watch her favorite show, Saturday Night Live. "I remember crawling into my parents' bed when they were watching it. I fell in love with Gilda Radner; I just wanted to be her when I grew up," recalls Rudolph. "It was just one of those things where I thought 'I want to do that when I grow up; I want to do that when I grow up'--and the feeling never went away."

Today, the performer who as a 5-year-old wowed her Los Angeles family with impersonations of Roseanne Roseannadanna--one of Gilda Radner's signature characters--is living her childhood dream as a Saturday Night Live cast member. Rudolph treats viewers to an eclectic mix of characters--from fictional high schooler Megan to buttoned-down presidential adviser Condoleezza Rice to over-the-top fashion designer Donatella Versace. And though this is her third full season with the show, she's "still kind of shocked" at the way things have turned out.

"This show is a forum that allows me to get out all these things I want to write and perform; for me it's the greatest job in the world," says Rudolph, who joined the cast after being spotted by a Saturday Night Live scout while working with the improvisational Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles. "I have all these different characters who need to be brought to life."

Rudolph says most of her characters have a great need to be accepted and loved--"and then there's Donatella. She gets away with murder," Rudolph notes. "We've created a character based on a person, but at this point it's so insane, it doesn't even translate into normalcy anymore."

Not that the designer appears to mind. "I spoke to Donatella recently. She really liked it, which made me really happy, but she also kept giving me pointers, like, 'If you're going to do me, you can't wear fake diamonds,' things like that."

A character much closer to Rudolph is Megan, the gawky cohost of the school-based show, Wake Up, Wakefield. "That's really based on my own life, anyway: junior high, unrequited love."

Describing the Saturday Night Live creative process as "a complete free-for-all," Rudolph says that all the cast members do considerable writing as well as performing.

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Photo: NBC/Mary Ellen Matthews

Rudolph's musical parodies, which she describes as a "guilty pleasure," are especially popular. In one recurring parody, she and cast member Ana Gasteyer portray the singing group Destiny's Child--as Gemini's Twin. "That stuff is so ripe for parody that it's really fun to do. We get to make music videos, and wear the most stupid costumes you've ever seen." Destiny's Child even joined Rudolph and Gasteyer on Saturday Night Live. "They were such good sports about wanting to play along with the whole thing."

Rudolph's experience with bands is hardly limited to Saturday Night Live parodies. She toured the United States and Europe with The Rentals band after graduating from UCSC.

Music--parody or not--has always come easily to Rudolph, whose mother was singer Minnie Riperton, and whose father, Dick Rudolph, is a songwriter. "My brother and I used to go on the road when we were really little, before we had to be in school, so I was raised around music," she recalls. "Music was always in my house, it's always been in my head, and it's probably the place where I feel the most comfortable if I'm doing a sketch for the show."

One of Riperton's hits, "Lovin' You," was a lullaby for her daughter. Sadly, Riperton developed cancer at an early age, and died when Rudolph was not quite 7 years old, a shock that Rudolph thinks turned her toward comedy. "It probably pushed me to find more lightness. I've always been the kind of person who likes to make people laugh; I like to be on stage, and I've always been a ham," she says. "But I think when something like that, that's so out-of-control, happens in your life--especially when you're a little kid--you definitely try to find a way to make light out of darkness. I think a lot of comedians feel that way. We take things so seriously and it's so depressing half the time, that we just have to laugh."

That lightness has been on display not only on Saturday Night Live, but in various film roles. In Rudolph's latest movie, Duplex, she plays Drew Barrymore's friend in a movie that also stars Ben Stiller. She enjoyed working with the film's stars and director Danny DeVito, but isn't quite sure what the finished product will look like. "They had me come in and let me do a bunch of different things, so I actually don't know what's going to be in the movie."

Despite living in New York, Rudolph hasn't forgotten about her years at UCSC--"giving my mind a chance to roam"--and likes to work references to the campus and the city into Saturday Night Live skits.

"You write what you know, and I know Santa Cruz," she said. "Maybe I'll mention Porter dorms one of these days."

-Louise Gilmore Donahue

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