"Emily Litella" was a fictional character played by comedian Gilda Radner in a series of appearances on Saturday Night Live. Based on a person in her early life, Emily Litella was a popular character in Radner's comedy repertoire.
Emily Litella was an elderly woman with a hearing problem who appeared 26 times on SNL's "Weekend Update" op-ed segment in the late 1970s. Attired in a frumpy dress, sweater and Lisa Loopner glasses, Litella was introduced with professional dignity by the news anchors, who could sometimes be seen cringing slightly in anticipation of the malapropism they knew would follow.
Gilda Radner (as Litella) peered through her reading glasses and, in the character's trademark high-pitched, warbly voice, read a prepared statement in opposition to an editorial that the TV station had supposedly broadcast. These sketches were, in part, a parody of the Fairness Doctrine, which at the time required broadcasters in the United States to present opposing viewpoints on public issues. Litella became increasingly agitated as her statement progressed. Midway in her commentary, it became apparent that she had misheard and/or misunderstood the subject of the editorial to which she was responding. A typical example:
What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a "deaf" penalty? It's terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!
The news anchor interrupted Litella to point out her error, along the lines, "That's death penalty, Ms. Litella, not deaf ... death." Litella would wrinkle her nose, say, "Oh, that's very different...." then meekly turn to the camera and say, "Never mind." When Litella played against news anchor Chevy Chase (whom she often called "Cheddar Cheese"), he was somewhat sympathetic to her. But when Jane Curtin took over the anchor role, she scolded Litella, "Every week you come on and you get it wrong," to which Litella replied, "Bitch!"
Other misheard topics to which Litella responded included "saving Soviet jewelry" [Jewry], "endangered feces" [species], "violins on television" [violence], "presidential erections" [elections], "conserving natural racehorses" [natural resources], "firing the handicapped" [hiring], and "making Puerto Rico a steak" [state]. About the last of these topics, she complained, "Next thing you know, they'll want a baked potato with sour cream!"
Radner based Litella on her childhood nanny, Elizabeth Clementine Gillies, known as "Dibby", who was allegedly hard of hearing. The running gag "Never mind" became a lighthearted catchphrase of the era.
In her first appearance on SNL, the character of Emily Litella was an author who appeared as an interview subject on a show called "Looks At Books". Though she had the same wavery voice and somewhat frumpy wardrobe as she would in later episodes, Litella did not appear to have a hearing problem in this appearance. All subsequent SNL appearances by Litella were at the newsdesk, and featured the by-now much more familiar "editorial reply" iteration of the character.
Outside of Saturday Night Live, Radner played the character briefly on The Muppet Show. At the top of that episode, Miss Litella is discovered backstage by stage manager Scooter, where she is vociferously complaining about the indignity of her appearing in something so silly as, "The Muffin Show;" whereupon Scooter gently persuades Miss Litella that she would be appearing on "The Muppet Show," not "The Muffin Show." After hearing this reassurance, she withdraws her objection, and meekly apologizes to Scooter by saying, "Never mind."
The character also appeared in Radner's 1979 one-woman off-Broadway show, Gilda Live, in which Litella took a job as a substitute teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant, replacing a teacher who had been a victim of a stabbing by one of his students, which put him in the hospital.
Miss Litella further cautioned her new students to be very careful where they put their toes, as the regular teacher's "stubbing" was the third such "stubbing," as Miss Litella put it, at the school that week alone; and that the "stubbings" must be pretty serious, in order to have put their teacher in hospital indefinitely.
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