Well, TV has finally done it, finally come to grips with the invidious “y” people. No, we’re not talking about those semiadorable puppies on thirtysomething—candidates for the just-like-us acting award, all of them. We’re talking about Eileen Swift, the self-absorbed stockbroker on NBC’s new sitcom Day by Day—a woman who believes “values are something you get at Saks after New Year’s Day,” a woman who rents her coffee-table books (“no one actually reads them”) and a woman who, when asked by an adorable tyke to explain the difference between alligators and crocodiles, responds, “Alligators make better shoes.” As played by three-season Saturday Night Live veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Swift is white wine that’s soured, quiche gone bad, TV’s first yuppie bitch from hell.
The premise of Day by Day—which had an unprecedented triple-episode debut on Feb. 29 before settling into its regular Sunday night slot two weeks later—is that two of Swift’s high-powered workaholic friends (Linda Kelsey and Doug Sheehan) have quit their jobs to open a day-care center. Aghast as she is at this career move, Swift still manages to be on hand every episode, generally disparaging the kiddies (“yammering little shrimps”) and occasionally teaching them such fundamental skills as how to polish shoes. Hers, of course.
“I play an ass,” says Louis-Dreyfus, 27, who’s hardly gingerly when describing Day by Day’s spiciest character. “I’ve known people like her, but she’s more a conglomerate of different yups. She’s definitely the ’80s type.” But let the record show that this is not a case of typecasting. Swift hates children; Julia, according to her husband, Brad Hall, 30, “would walk across a fiery pit to goo-goo and ga-ga a baby.” Swift probably sends her underwear out to be dry-cleaned; Julia finds sorting and folding the laundry a “cathartic” experience.
Not that she needs much emotional purging. For a comic actress, a notoriously neurotic breed, Louis-Dreyfus is a remarkably well-balanced woman. Her parents—Judy, a writer, and William, a businessman—divorced when she was 1, but Julia says she has no torturous childhood to weep about. “I got along wonderfully with my mother, my stepfather [Dr. Tom Bowles, dean of George Washington University Medical School], my father and his wife,” she says. “The word step was never used in any of the homes. I just had two fathers.”
Raised in Washington, D.C., Julia appeared in all the plays at the prestigious Holton-Arms School for girls in suburban Bethesda, Md., where classmates included such politicos’ daughters as Susan Ford. A fond memory: “Susan dressing up as Goldilocks for Halloween and her Secret Service men dressing as the Three Bears.”
At Northwestern University, Louis-Dreyfus was introduced to improvisational comedy—her signature role was Tammy Faye Bakker and this was in 1980. Julia was also introduced to fellow acting student Brad Hall, her future husband and future SNL partner. In their junior year, while performing in 1981 with an improv group Brad had co-founded, they were spotted and signed by SNL producers. Brad anchored the news; Julia became a standout with her Linda Ronstadt and Liza Minnelli parodies and as the host of The Julia Show, a talk program in which celeb guests sat and listened to her prattle endlessly about herself. “I’m not 100 percent embarrassed by things I did, but some of the stuff wasn’t funny,” she admits. “You were always having to come up with new material and always gambling. It was like graduate school.”
When their final SNL semester ended in 1986, Julia and Brad moved to Los Angeles and, after rooming together for five years, tied the knot last summer in Santa Barbara, Brad’s hometown. They will soon move from a rented home to their own cottage in the Hollywood Hills. They’ll be living high in those hills with their new sources of income. Brad and Julia are about to star in a Chicago production of Dr. Guitar and the Hip Men, a rock and roll musical he’s written. Julia, of course, has Day by Day.
“Julia is very important for the show,” says Day by Day’s co-creator Andy Borowitz. “There are a lot of little kids on it, and there was a danger of them making things too sweet and Hallmark card-ish. I wanted someone very sharp to cut through all that.” Julia has the requisite edge. For the sake of the character, says writer Janis Hirsch, “she can be as venal as the day is long.” In fact, Louis-Dreyfus is so good the writers are sorry they can’t grant her lifelong goal. “She’s always wanted to sing I Am 16 Going on 17 from the Sound of Music while doing a striptease,” says Hirsch. “We haven’t been able to quite fit that into the show.” But they’re taking it day by day. Just give them time.
—By Joanne Kaufman, with David Hutchings in Los Angeles