Maya Rudolph: The Fresh Air Interview The comedian spent seven seasons on Saturday Night Live and went on to star in the raunchy comedy Bridesmaids. Now she's exploring what's funny about parenting in the new movie Friends with Kids and the TV series Up All Night.

Maya Rudolph: The Fresh Air Interview

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Maya Rudolph, recently returned to "Saturday Night Live" to host the show that she appeared on for seven years. On SNL, she was known for her portrayals of Oprah, Beyonce and Whitney Houston, and as the co-host of "Bronx Beat" with Amy Poehler. Last year, she co-starred in the hit film "Bridesmaids."

She's currently co-starring in the NBC sitcom "Up All Night" as a daytime talk-show host, and she's in the new movie "Friends with Kids." It's about two best friends, played by Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt, who also directed the film. They each want to have children, but neither has found their mate. So they decide to have a child together and co-parent while they continue to pursue romance with others.

They've soured on the idea of marriage, watching what's become of their married friends with children. Maya Rudolph plays one of those friends. In this scene, Rudolph is with her husband, played by Chris O'Dowd. She's kind of offended that their friends have decided to have a baby together while remaining just friends.


CHRIS O'DOWD: (As Alex) Why are you so upset?

MAYA RUDOLPH: (As Leslie) Why? Why? Because it's an affront to us.

O'DOWD: (As Alex) To us - like specifically, to us?

RUDOLPH: (As Leslie) To all normal people who struggle and make sacrifices and make commitments to make a relationship work, yes. It's insulting to us specifically and in general.

O'DOWD: (As Alex) What? OK. OK, Judge Judy.

RUDOLPH: (As Leslie) Judge - what, you don't think it's insulting to our way of life?

O'DOWD: (As Alex) Our way of...

RUDOLPH: (As Leslie) What?

O'DOWD: (As Alex) We're not Mormons or old-timey people. We don't exactly have a way of life, babe.

RUDOLPH: (As Leslie) You know what I mean.

O'DOWD: (As Alex) It's a brave new world, honey. There are test-tube babies and surrogate babies, and "Jon and Kate Plus Eight." I don't think that two friends having a kid together because it might be her last chance is the worst thing that I ever heard.

GROSS: Maya Rudolph, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here. So you play the mother of two in "Friends with Kids." There was a time, I think, when actresses dreaded reaching the age when they were cast in the mother roles because those roles were unlikely to either be interesting or to be central to the movie. Think that's changing?

RUDOLPH: I do. I mean, I've never worked more.


RUDOLPH: I never really worked before. It's funny. I think since I've become a mother, I've worked quite a bit more. But I also - you know, I've noticed a lot of my peers have been writing, and it definitely feels like it's in the air. It's in the ether. I think I've always said yes to projects, whether I'm pregnant or not, and I've been pregnant three times within the last six years. So sometimes my characters have to become pregnant in order for me to work, but I just - I think I like working. So I just keep going to work.

GROSS: Were you pregnant when you made "Away We Go," in which the character's pregnant?

RUDOLPH: No, I would...

GROSS: See? What a waste.

RUDOLPH: That would have been very helpful.


GROSS: You should have coordinated that better.

RUDOLPH: It was probably for the best. I was in a much better mood.

GROSS: You and Kristen Wiig are both in "Friends with Kids," and of course you both were in "Bridesmaids." Starting with like, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig and you - and your writing partner from "Saturday Night Live," Emily Spivey, who writes for your sitcom, "Up All Night" - it seems like, you know, now only - only in the recent past have the women from "Saturday Night Live" kind of emerged to do projects together, writing roles where women were really central; as opposed to singular women, you know, leaving "Saturday Night Live" and hoping they could find roles.

RUDOLPH: Yeah, a lot of us come from improv theater backgrounds and sketch comedy groups, where - which is, actually, where I met Emily Spivey. I met her at The Groundlings in Los Angeles, oh, 15 years ago, and we used to perform together in the Sunday Company - which is the same for Amy and Tina, at Second City in Chicago.

And actually, Kristen and I did not cross paths at The Groundlings, but she came out of there as well. And for me and my group there, there seems to be this - I don't know. We all seemed to share the same sensibilities, in terms of writing for each other - with each other and for each other.

I like comedy as a group sport. I mean, there isn't any comedian I know that doesn't love to kill - as they say, or crush. But you want to be funny, but I think that especially with the stuff I did at "Saturday Night Live," I found that when the sketch as a whole is funny, you know, you put the best people in it.

And I'm used to working with people, great people. And when you know their voices, you have so much fun writing for their voices. And we all sort of come from that school, literally. And I personally think it's a more enjoyable way to play.

GROSS: Do you think that there's a kind of story, or a kind of character, that you and women writers that you've been working with have come up with, that men might not have thought of?

RUDOLPH: I don't know. That's a good question. I mean, I was surprised at the way people perceived the idea of "Bridesmaids," and how they thought it was meant to be a women's movie. And then a lot of men, especially men on the street, would stop me and say: You know, I didn't think I was going to like it, but my wife took me. It was funny.

And I remember thinking: I've never, I've never set out to write a funny movie, or be a funny in a movie as a woman. I am a woman. I don't really have a choice in the matter. My goal is just to be funny.

So I think one of the magical ingredients about "Bridesmaids," and why I think people responded to it, is that we just found it funny. And we felt like we spoke the way that we really speak, and we tried to find the things that we thought were the funniest.

GROSS: You know, "Bridesmaids" was both praised and criticized for showing that women could do a gross-out scene. And this is a scene where everyone's in their bridal outfits at the wedding - you know, at the bridal store, and they all simultaneously start to feel the symptoms of the food poisoning that they've all gotten. And they all simultaneously lose control and run to the restroom. And you're trying on your bridal gown, and then you're overcome. The restroom's taken. So you have to like, run across the street, hoping to find an available restroom someplace else, and you're overcome in the middle of the street.

So a lot of people think like, yay, they proved women can do a gross-out scene. Did you, like, set out to prove that? Or did you just think, like, oh that'll be funny? Like how did that scene come about? Like, what was the genesis of that scene?

RUDOLPH: The scene was not originally in the film, and I think it was born out of the idea that both Judd and Paul felt like Kristen's character, Annie, really needed to screw up even further.

Originally, we went to the bridal shop, and she had forgotten to make an appointment and couldn't afford the dresses that Helen wanted to get. And a lot of those things are still there. But they thought: What could she do that could really just show that she is just - she just has no handle on this whatsoever? And it was: Oh, take everyone somewhere terrible for lunch and - so that they all get food poisoning.

And when I first read it, the revised scene, I was - my character was written as, I was running across the street, and I jumped as though I'd been shot by a bullet. And it was really - I just thought: God, that sounds terrible. I don't want to do that.

GROSS: Too broad? Too broad?

RUDOLPH: Nothing's ever too broad for me. It just sounded really like, it was so far from reality. And I thought - I think what we all silently came up with - and we've talked about it since - which is, no one really discussed it but what every single woman found in playing that scene is, we were trying to make it seem like we were OK and we had everything under control.

And that was never really discussed, and that's what I find really fascinating about that scene and why I think it plays kind of beautifully - is that we all sort of improvised trying to keep it together as best we possibly could.

GROSS: I wanted to know who's going to pay for cleaning the restroom, and for the dresses that were probably terribly soiled.

RUDOLPH: Yeah, definitely not Annie - definitely not Kristen's character. I'm sure Helen took - I'm sure Helen wrote a check.

GROSS: Right. OK. So "Bridesmaids" is about a friendship between two women - or three women; it's kind of like a friendship triangle. And I want to play a friendship scene between you and Kristen Wiig. And in this scene, Lillian, your character, has flipped out and gone missing from your own wedding, and no one can find you.

So your friends call Annie, the Kristen Wiig character. And since she's already flipped out, you kind of kicked her out of your wedding, and so your friends have called Kristen Wiig's character to see if she knows where you might be.


GROSS: So she goes to your old apartment and finds you there, under the covers.


GROSS: And then you're telling her about how you've been thinking about how much things are about to change, now that you're getting married.


RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) Sorry I kicked you out of my wedding. It's my fault.

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Annie) No, it's my fault. I think I'm the one with the mental problems.

RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) Yeah, wasn't it my turn to be crazy? The bride's supposed to be crazy, right?

WIIG: (As Annie) Yes, technically.

RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) You kind of stole all the crazy.

WIIG: (As Annie) I out-crazied you. Everything's going to be OK.

RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) Yeah? How do you know that? At the rehearsal dinner last night, I told Dougie I had to go get Q-Tips and all of a sudden, I realized I was driving here. I came here. I realized this is the last time I'm going to be here in this apartment, with that couch and this bed, and take a bath in my bathtub - because you know how much I love my bathtub.

WIIG: (As Annie) It's a good tub. I slept in there on my 30th birthday, remember?

RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) I remember. Everything's going to change. I mean, I'm not going to get to live five minutes away from you. And it makes me so sad.

WIIG: (As Annie) Well, don't be. Don't be sad because things are going to change, but they'll be better, you know. You're going to take this huge, great, beautiful step. And Dougie loves you more than anything, and so do I.

RUDOLPH: (As Lillian) But what about you? What's going to happen to you?

GROSS: That's my guest, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig in a scene from "Bridesmaids." And Maya Rudolph is co-starring in a new film, called "Friends with Kids." So were you able to draw on your actual friendship with Kristen Wiig in doing scenes together?

RUDOLPH: For sure, yeah. We super-bonded on this movie, but I started working with her at "Saturday Night Live." I was actually on maternity leave when she started. And when I came back, you know, I was lucky enough to get to work with her and be thrown into what I refer to, sometimes, as the comedy army together. You're sort of bonded for life when you work with people there.

You know, you cry together, you eat together, you laugh together - and I don't know why I said cry first.


RUDOLPH: That's not what people think about when they think about working at "Saturday Night Live." But, you know, it's a really intense schedule to - six-and-a-half-day week, and they're late hours, and you're writing. And sometimes it can be very, very challenging. And she's just one of those people that I clicked with right away, that felt like an old friend. And I was so in love with her work when I first saw her on the show and wanted to work with her immediately.

And she's a great - she's a good girlie-girl, and that scene that we just heard is actually - it's really nice to hear because it's a combination of the script and Judd. All I remember him saying was: Make sure you get in my line, you stole all my crazy - you know.


RUDOLPH: But I hear the two of us really talking to each other the way that we really would, and I really feel proud of that.

You brought up the cry together; that "Saturday Night Live" was a place where you could bond together and cry together.


GROSS: Can you remember an instance where you were reduced to tears?

RUDOLPH: Oh, well, I don't mean just about the show. I mean, when you work at "Saturday Night Live," you're there all the time. I mean, for me, before I had children, I was - everything about my life was devoted to "Saturday Night Live." And you're also - you know, you're writing,as well as performing, and you're there sometimes on Tuesday nights until - you know, I'd usually stay till 6 or 8 in the morning.

GROSS: Whoa.

RUDOLPH: And you're exhausted, you're loopy. You've eaten McDonald's at 4 in the morning, which is terrible for anyone. You know, and you've had three shows in a row, and you haven't done any of your laundry, and you have no food in the fridge. And, you know, it's really difficult to be there for anyone else in your life when you're doing the show because of the hours that it demands.

And so we actually - I say cry together because, you know, especially the women, you start to help take care of each other. You know, you help look out for each other, look after each other and talk to each other about what's going on in your life elsewhere. And, you know, so it's - I mean, at least my group was like that.

I sort of feel like I came from the co-ed touchy-feely group, you know. The men, too; it was a very gentle and lovely group of dudes as well. And you know, it's - I love that we have that history, and I love that we were able to implement it in these characters because I think without it, it just becomes a story about, you know, people getting ready for a wedding. And I don't think that was ever the intention of this movie at all.

GROSS: Has your life changed a lot since "Bridesmaids"?

RUDOLPH: It's changed a little bit, yeah. I mean, people don't think my name is Maya Fey or Amy Rudolph or Tina Rudolph.


RUDOLPH: They think I'm the lady that pooped in the street. So that's always nice.

GROSS: Yeah, there...


RUDOLPH: It's an advance in life.

GROSS: Let's talk a bit about "Up All Night." You play a daytime talk-show host who has a big personality but is also very insecure, including being insecure about ever finding the right man. Your producer is a new mother, and you're so uncomfortable around children.


GROSS: So it's an interesting character. I'm going to play a short scene here. And this is a scene - it's Valentine's Day; you've just done your Valentine's Day show, the daytime talk show that you host. And then you were going to cook your boyfriend a, you know, beautiful Valentine's Day dinner but of course, your assistant ends up like, really doing the cooking.


GROSS: So here you are with your boyfriend at that dinner, and he is played by Jason Lee.


RUDOLPH: (As Ava Alexander) Happy Valentine's Day.

JASON LEE: (As Kevin) Happy Valentine's Day, Ava. This looks - uh, really good.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Thank you. So you like it? Not that I care, just whipped it up, whatevs. Badda-bowl.

LEE: (As Kevin) It's uh, really tasty.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Yay. Here, cheese? Funny story, actually. I was slicing jalapenos, and I rubbed my eye, and I was a mess.

LEE: (As Kevin) Oh, crazy.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Kevin, are you enjoying the meal I prepared for you, or should I just go and (bleep) myself?

LEE: (As Kevin) I'm sorry, Ava. I just had the worst day at work. We lost a big contract, and I had to let my assistant go. And I couldn't even get a damn cup of coffee because we didn't have any coffee filters.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Can't you just forget about it, and simply enjoy my beautiful meal?

LEE: (As Kevin) My God, Ava, I'm trying.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Well, try a little harder. I bought a spatula today. I pranced around that kitchen like Doris Day in my apron - in one of those movies where the husband is clearly gay, and I have to pretend not to notice. And this is all I get?

LEE: (As Kevin) I had an awful day, and what am I - supposed to be moon-walking in your kitchen because you heated up some chili? Look, I appreciate it but...

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Well, not enough.

LEE: (As Kevin) Well, you don't care about my problems enough.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) I made you flan.

LEE: (As Kevin) I hate flan.

RUDOLPH: (As Ava) Everybody hates flan.


RUDOLPH: I like flan.


GROSS: That's my guest, Maya Rudolph. So, I should mention, you know, that in the pilot, the original pilot of "Up All Night," which I saw, you didn't play a TV talk-show host. You played a high-powered public-relations person - you know, a high-powered publicist. And before the series hit air, there was like, a new version of the first episode, in which you were the talk-show host. And of course, one of the characters you've played is Oprah, and this character isn't Oprah, but I'm sure there's something you can draw on from having played her.

RUDOLPH: Yeah, I mean, I think when they first started out, people really expected me to be playing Oprah because I played her. But they wrote me this bananas character that has absolutely nothing to do with Oprah. You know, she has this very loose grasp on reality, self-important. She's nuts, which I love. I like - nuts enough.

I think she wants to join in on the bandwagon on these shows that promote a healthier lifestyle for women. And I think that without mentioning Oprah in that same breath, I mean, you can't talk about daytime TV and that kind of daytime TV, where self-empowerment is involved, without nodding - giving a nod to Oprah because she's the pinnacle. But it's always fun to play the actual talk-show part. I love - it's like playing house. That's the part I really like doing. You get to sit there and have a guest and say things that only talk-show hosts say, and...

GROSS: Like what?

RUDOLPH: Like, we'll be right back, or my guest today is, or...

GROSS: Oh, I get to say that.


RUDOLPH: I know. It's fun. Like joining us today on our program - you know, that authoritative - I think I borrowed the authoritative tone of Oprah's, the lower part of her throat when she speaks that I find incredibly authoritative, which is somebody who, when you're watching them, makes you feel like you're being held by the shoulders, and you're - everything's going to be OK.

GROSS: Give me a sense of that lower part of the throat thing that you're talking about it.

RUDOLPH: That thing that's sort of like this, that feels like today on the show, I'm going to cradle you in my arms like a baby. And if you need powder, I will make sure that I have the finest talc for your bottom.


GROSS: I get it. Maya Rudolph will be back in the second half of the show. She co-stars in the new movie "Friends with Kids." She co-stars on the NBC series "Up All Night," and in the film "Bridesmaids," she played the bride.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Maya Rudolph. She co-stars in the new movie "Friends with Kids." In the hit film "Bridesmaids," she played the bride. And in the NBC series "Up All Night," she plays a daytime TV talk show host. She was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" from 2000 to 2007. A few weeks ago, she returned to "Saturday Night Live" as the host.

It was great to see you recently hosting "Saturday Night Live," you know, returning there as a host.

RUDOLPH: Thank you.

GROSS: And you seemed genuinely moved to be back there in that position. So just tell us a little bit what it felt like, and if you ever thought you would make it to that position of being back as a host.

RUDOLPH: Yeah. Well, that place is very special to me. It really, truly was my childhood dream. And like I said before, you know, a lot of beauty, you know, love and pain goes into their first loves. And it was tough sometimes, too, and it can be frustrating when you don't get your pieces on or, you know, things get cut at the last minute or you, you know, you flubbed a line. And, I mean, I still remember the lines I flubbed. And when you do them live and...

GROSS: Such as? Yeah?

RUDOLPH: I remember in the national anthem, there was a line that always made Kenan laugh when I was rehearsing it. And I used to say - and I'd always say it for him, because it tickled him. And I would say, instead of singing gave proof to the night, I would say: (Singing) Gave a little bit of proof.


RUDOLPH: And I'm such a, like a - I don't know. I got really nutty about it, and I overshot it. And I just said: (Singing) Gave a little proof. And just the fact that I didn't say bit of still haunts me to this day. It's really stupid.

GROSS: Why is that such a big deal?

RUDOLPH: I said it at dress. I don't know. I think I wanted it to be perfect...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

RUDOLPH: ...which doesn't really exist. But when something is live - you know, I knew what I wanted it to sound like, and I really - I felt like I had a really strong piece and I - you know, it was one of the first pieces that I ever thought of on my own that was simple and thought, oh, I know exactly how I'm going to play this. I know how I'm going to do it. It's simple and it's straightforward, and I know I can do it. And so I just had a lot of - I put a lot of pressure on myself. And...

GROSS: And what was the context for singing that?

RUDOLPH: I was supposed to be singing the national anthem at the World Series, and my character just over-sang it, sort of - the idea for it came from watching one of those clips of people auditioning for "American Idol," and they had a medley of people singing the wrong lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." And I remember there was a girl that sang: (Singing) Buy me some eanuts and Apple Jacks.


RUDOLPH: And that kind of gave me the idea.


GROSS: I want to play another one of your sketches, a recent one from when you returned to host the show. And in the sketch, you're Beyonce. And so it's Beyonce and Jay-Z, and you've just had your first child, Blue Ivy. And some of their celebrity friends are arriving to see the new child. And at this point, LL Cool J has just walked in, and you're telling him about the birth.


RUDOLPH: (as Beyonce) It was perfect, LL. We were in the hospital, just me, my husband J and Kanye.



RUDOLPH: (as Beyonce) First, my water broke, and I was like: (Singing) Haaa. And then I went into labor, and I was like: (Singing) eh, eh, eh.



RUDOLPH: (as Beyonce) And then the baby came out, and I was like: (Singing) hoooo.



RUDOLPH: (as Beyonce) And asked my doctor: (Singing) Did I have a boy?



RUDOLPH: (as Beyonce) And he said no, you had a single lady.


GROSS: That's my Rudolph on "Saturday Night Live." What we don't see is visually is that, you know, every move that you're making is like one of Beyonce's dance moves.


RUDOLPH: So every time you move your arm, it's like a choreography move.

That's awesome. I don't even remember what I did. I just was trying to be the incredible Beyonce. I was just - I don't know. I don't know what I was - somebody said the same thing. They said I can't do that thing with your neck, and I said what was I doing with my neck? I don't remember. I kind of went, I go...

GROSS: You're doing it where you...

RUDOLPH: My memory goes white.

GROSS: Where your head kind of goes - moves forward and back, forward and back...


GROSS: a dance kind of way.

RUDOLPH: A little neck movement.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maya Rudolph. She's an alum of "Saturday Night Live." She's co-starring in the new movie "Friends with Kids." She played the bride in "Bridesmaids," and she's in the series "Up All Night."

Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Maya Rudolph. She co-stars in the new movie "Friends with Kids." She co-starred in "Bridesmaids" and was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" from 2000 to 2007.

And we're actually having a little technical difficulty here. So we'll have the rest of that interview for you, I hope, momentarily.

Digital technology is really wonderful, but occasionally something goes terribly, horribly wrong, and when that happens, we have trouble playing back the interview, as we're having right now. I recorded interview with Maya Rudolph yesterday. And guess what? We can go back to the interview with Maya Rudolph. Here's the rest of it.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Maya Rudolph. She's an alum of "Saturday Night Live." She's co-starring in the new movie "Friends with Kids." She played the bride in "Bridesmaids," and she's in the series "Up All Night."

We've heard you sing comedically, but I'm sure you can sing for real. And your mother, the late Minnie Riperton, was a very popular singer. She was best known for her 1975 number-one hit "Lovin' You," in which she sang a phrase that was perhaps, like, the highest notes ever on a pop record.

RUDOLPH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And what was it like for you when - I don't even know if you were old enough to understand the level of your mother's fame.

RUDOLPH: No, probably not, because in '75 I was three years old. But it was - what my parents were doing seemed normal, because that's what they were doing when I was born. You know, my mom was music. So, you know, music poured out of my mother, and I'm sure I heard it, you know, before I even got here, you know, when I was in her belly. And music sounds and feels very normal to me.

And my dad wrote all those songs with my mom. And so there was - my dad was always playing his acoustic guitar - his, like, Brazilian kind of chord changes. That's my dad's style. He's really adorable. And, you know, he's got his kind of thing that he still plays till this day that I - it feels like home, you know, when I hear my dad pick up an acoustic guitar and sort of play these Brazilian-esque sort of chord changes. I feel like a kid.

They were on the road a lot. We used to - my brother and I - my brother's four years older than me. My brother Mark, we used go with them, I think when we were very little, simply because my mom did not want to be away from us. And I think very quickly - I think my mom went out on the road really quickly after I was born, and then immediately said to my dad bring the kids. We're all going, because I can't be away from you guys. And so my dad ended up playing guitar with her on the road, as well. And I don't totally remember that. But I do remember, you know, losing a tooth, I think, in Reno or something and getting like a, you know, some sort of chip from the casino or something.

GROSS: So let's hear your mother's hit, "Lovin' You." And this is from 1975. This is Maya Rudolph's late mother, Minnie Riperton.


MINNIE RIPERTON: (Singing) Lovin' you is easy 'cause you're beautiful. Makin' love with you is all I want to do. Lovin' you is more than just a dream come true. And everything that I do is out of lovin' you. La la la la la, la la la la la, la la la la la, la la la la la la. Do do do do do do. Ah. No one else can make me...

GROSS: That's Minnie Riperton, recorded in 1975, a song that reached number one on the charts. Minnie Riperton is Maya Rudolph's late mother. Maya Rudolph's father co-wrote the song, and Stevie Wonder produced it.

RUDOLPH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And at the very, very end of that track, she sings your name...

RUDOLPH: I know.

GROSS: ...just as it's fading.




GROSS: Did that mean anything to you when you were old enough to realize that she was singing your name, that you were somehow included in her most famous song?

RUDOLPH: I always knew the song as having my name in it. And then as she went on to perform it, you know, in various places, she would add my brother's name or my brother's nickname. His family nickname is Ringo, so sometimes she says Ringo. I learned the story much more recently in my life. My dad told me that - I knew I was a very loud baby, but, you know, I think I cried a lot. I think I needed to be picked up a lot is my impression of it, or that I just screamed basically, but that my parents were always sort of playing that song. I think it was more originally a lullaby that they were sort of working on and playing, and I seemed to really perk up and love it.

And I've seen tons of pictures of me as a baby that my mom obviously took, where you sort of see the back of my dad's hand holding the guitar and then me with my hands up by my face, like, shrieking into delight. You know, I think I loved it. And I think before it had words and they were working on the song when we were living in Gainesville, Florida, which is where I was born, I think that was my lullaby, sort of. So I think that's probably why she kept the name in there, which is really sweet.

GROSS: Did you always sing?

RUDOLPH: I think that I've always sung. Yeah. I think I sing more than I realize I sing, yes - not really ever professionally or anything like that, just for fun. I think I sing sometimes to the point of annoyance, you know, because I sing things back to people. If they say that they'd like me to do something, then I say: (Singing) OK, I'll do it.


RUDOLPH: You know, and someone - when I was working with Kristen on "Friends with Kids," I came out to work a couple times. I flew out to New York to work, and then I'd come back out to California. And when I came back the second time, one of the women in the hair and makeup trailer said it's a lot quieter when you two aren't here.


RUDOLPH: I said: Why is that? She said: You're always singing crazy songs together. And I said: We are? And then we really - we talk about it now, but I didn't really notice that we did that all the time. I think it's - I think - I do have certain friends, my friend Gretchen and I, when we're together, we really annoy her husband, because we've been doing it since college, you know.

But I don't think I realized how much music was a natural part of my life - not in the sense that - I never considered myself a singer, but just music is very comfortable to me. And I - it was actually when I was at The Groundlings, I had a teacher, Mindy Sterling, who was one of my teachers, one of my favorite teachers, pointed out to me that I'm very comfortable singing and I should - and not everybody includes music in their pieces, and I should really look at it as a strength and something that I do, you know, one of my special skills, sort of. So, you know, don't-be-ashamed-of-who-you-are kind of thing, you know, embrace it and try to implement it in some of the pieces that you write.

GROSS: Now your father is white. Your mother was African-American. I know some young biracial people feel that they don't fit in in either African-American or in white circles because they're going to be an outsider wherever they go. And I'm wondering if you ever felt that way growing up.

RUDOLPH: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, I think I still feel that way sometimes. You know, you just want to have a perfect nose and straight hair and call it a day and not have people stare you, you know, when you're a kid and you have curly hair and - yeah.

It's interesting, because my parents really did a pretty great job making me feel normal at home, even though I don't really know what normal is. And I still - it's difficult because, you know, I mean, I my children are mixed. Everybody, you know, from this day forward, anybody that's part of me is mixed. I don't know - people - kids can be really cruel, no matter what you look like, and beauty standards are pretty bizarre.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

RUDOLPH: So it's difficult for anybody. You know, Barbies were just one color when I was a kid, and my dad told me later we didn't let you play with them because we thought it was - my parents were hippies. They thought it was bad for my self-image to just play with this, you know, white lady with blond hair and think that that was what beauty was supposed to be.

But I went to my friend Nicole Fram's house and played with them anyway, because she had a Barbie Dream House.


GROSS: Did you grow up with white and African-American friends?

RUDOLPH: The school I went to was probably, far more predominantly, white Jewish kids. I went to private schools in Los Angeles and I was the only mixed kid in my class. I think I assimilated pretty well, but I - I did OK but, you know, I got teased for my hair.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

RUDOLPH: I remember a kid, you know, pointing at my hair at a pool party, saying: Go under the water again. Then I did and he said: Your hair is like a sponge. And I'm still mad at him. And I'm almost 40.


RUDOLPH: No, I'm kidding. But it's like, you know, that stuff is so amazing, how it stays with you.

GROSS: Did you leave "Saturday Night Live" because you were pregnant? I can't remember.

RUDOLPH: I left when I had my oldest daughter, Pearl. I went on maternity after my fifth season, then I came back. Yeah.

GROSS: So why did you leave for good?

RUDOLPH: I left during the writer's strike, actually. When we had the writer's strike was my last year there. It was before Obama was officially in office, and it was just really hard. I lived here. I lived in California, and I had a little girl and she was still really small at the time, and it's really hard to work on that show with a small child.

And I also - my contract was up. I actually renewed my contract to stay a little bit longer, which I was happy to do. I mean, it would've - wild horses would've had to have dragged me out of there if I hadn't left to help raise my child with a little bit more sleep in my life and actually have a family, because I didn't want to leave.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to watch the show afterwards, because part of you wanted to be on it?

RUDOLPH: Yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: Did you watch very much?

RUDOLPH: It was actually really painful for a number of years. I sort of felt like the ghost of 8H. I kept, you know, when it was fall I would feel like I've got to get back to New York. And when I saw sketches that looked like my friends were having fun I would get very, very emotional and sort of broody for SNL. But it subsided. It's only those times when you really see people having fun that I still think, oh, yeah.

But then I remember writing nights, and I don't miss that at all.


RUDOLPH: I mean, Pearl was a big part of "Saturday Night Live" for a long time. I mean, I carried her while I was on the show until, you know, I think I was like five months pregnant or something when the season was over. And every time she goes into that studio she weirdly looks comfortable. I think she likes the sound of that place because it's somehow still familiar.

GROSS: So one more question. You obviously love singing and you sing really well. Your mother was a singer. You've done so many singing comedic sketches on "Saturday Night Live." If you were a professional singer, like what would - what's your biggest singing fantasy? Singing for real, as opposed to comedically.

RUDOLPH: That's the problem. Every time I - believe me, I grew up thinking oh, god, I want to, you know, be on a stage and sing. Because I saw my mommy do it. You know, when you're little and you see your mommy with a microphone in her hand you think, yeah, that's what I'm going to be. But every time I go to sing it's just a goofy voice.

I mean, believe me. You know, there's all these incredible singer/songwriters and these women, you see them on stage and you think: my god. Look how sexy and cool she is. But I just can't take myself that seriously. I really want to do a comedy dance record.

Like if you told me sing in your own voice, I don't know what that voice would be. But if you told me to sing as Gwen Stefani I would have no problem.

GROSS: Maya Rudolph, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RUDOLPH: Thank you, Terry. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Maya Rudolph costars in the new movie "Friends with Kids." It opens this weekend. Her NBC series "Up All Night" airs Thursday nights. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new HBO movie "Game Change" about John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, starring Julianne Moore as Palin. This is FRESH AIR.

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