It’s been a rough few years for Rachel Dratch.
After a steady climb up the comedy ladder—a stint with the famed troupe Second City, several seasons on SNL, landing a lead role in 30 Rock—she tumbled. In 2006, NBC replaced her on 30 Rock with Jane Krakowski. After languishing on the studio shelves, Spring Breakdown, a rowdy girl-power chick comedy, was released straight to DVD. When Vanity Fair listed the top dozen women in comedy in 2008, she didn’t make the cut. (“Dude, that was a dark day,” she told New York. “I was like, Oh, there’s everyone I worked with.”) And her opportunities dried up.
She booked gigs—a guest spot on Wizards of Waverly Place, a voice-over gig on Adult Swim’s cartoon Assy McGhee—but they weren’t the prime roles she had been working toward. What happened? The petite brunette with the slightly froggy eyes is too unattractive to be a star, apparently. In her new memoir, Girl Walks Into a Bar …, she explains:
I am offered solely the parts that I like to refer to as The Unf---ables. In reality, if you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t point at me and recoil and throw up and hide behind a shrub. But by Hollywood standards, I’m a troll, ogre, woodland creature, or manly lesbian. … Trolls, ogres, and woodland creatures can be done with CGI, so that leaves yours truly to play the bull dykes.
Other roles offered to her: “[l]esbians. Secretaries. Sometimes secretaries who are lesbians.”
Dratch is careful to make it clear that this isn’t a case of debilitating low self-esteem. On CBS This Morning, she noted, “don't think that about myself, but this is like what I was seen as in the whole Hollywood scene. ... In real life, I'm gorgeous, beautiful." (The last two words came with a distinct whiff of self-deprecation, though.)
Delightful as Dratch is in interviews and in her book, there is something uncomfortable about this framing. If we accept the premise, that Dratch hasn’t cracked Hollywood because she isn’t good-looking enough, then there would seem to be a feminist obligation to support her, to buy all her DVDs, go to her movies on opening night, protest the studio heads who reject her. Indeed, on Jezebel last week, Dodai Stewart was outraged on Dratch’s behalf: In a post titled “Hollywood Thinks Rachel Dratch Is a Troll (But if She Were a Dude, She’d Have Her Own Show),” Stewart demanded, “where is Rachel Dratch's Garry Shandling/Larry David-esque TV show?”
But was Dratch really a victim of Hollywood’s insane beauty standards? What if her particular brand of acting—and she has admitted that she is more a character actor—just isn’t right for leading-lady-dom? Am I betraying feminism if I say that I’m just not a huge Rachel Dratch fan? She seems like a lovely person. Girl Walks Into a Bar’s discussion of her unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy is funny and honest and poignant. I’d love to get drinks with her. But as much as I strive to support smart, funny women on TV and in the movies, Dratch’s work doesn’t appeal to me.
In brief spurts, she can be hilarious. Exhibit A: her attempt to name 20 white people, while wearing a Snuggie, during an appearance on Billy on the Street.*
Exhibit B: Her very first “Debbie Downer” skit on SNL, during which she came dangerously close to losing it entirely.
But those two bits are an exception. Her frequent appearances on the first season of 30 Rock—after she was replaced, Dratch appeared in different little roles, like an Eastern European hooker and a figment of Tracy Jordan’s imagination—were somewhat discordant with the rest of the show. 30 Rock can veer into the ridiculous, but it doesn’t include much sketch comedy—and her Barbara Walters impersonation, for instance, was straight-up sketch. The 2009 movie Spring Breakdown should have been her breakthrough vehicle: She co-wrote it and starred alongside Parker Posey and Amy Poehler. It was initially hyped as a hilarious celebration of women’s friendship; when it was announced that the film would bypass theatrical release, an anonymous source gave Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood the same dose of feminist outrage: “This is pure and unadulterated hatred of female driven projects, especially comedies, at that studio.” Except the movie just wasn’t very good—and though there were some bright spots, Dratch’s character wasn’t one of them.
Dratch’s post-SNL struggle isn’t unusual. Though many who get their start in improv end up big-name stars (Fey, Steve Carrell, Will Ferrell), there is not a straight line between bringing down the house with Second City or the Groundlings and headlining mainstream comedies. The acting required is different, more subtle, even when a film is infused with slapstick. Dratch is best when she’s cranked up to 11—and that energy is neither sustainable for the actress nor enjoyable for the audience or the actress over a 90-minute film (or 22-minute show). What is funny in a four-minute dose grows stale quickly, hence tiresome SNL films like It’s Pat, The Ladies Man, and A Night at the Roxbury.
What makes Dratch different from the others who faded after SNL is that she is candid about the dearth of work coming her way—and, perhaps more importantly, that she has so many champions among the leading ladies of comedy: Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph. Fey cast Dratch as the lead in 30 Rock, and when NBC replaced her came up with the crazy scheme to keep her in the show. Poehler has helped promote Girl Walked Into a Bar … with a madcap interview on the Daily Beast. That comedy sisterhood is part of what so makes me want to like her: She is considered hilarious by women whom I consider hilarious. In the Daily Beast piece, Poehler says, “I thought Dratch was the funniest person in the room” when the two first met. But maybe Dratch’s brand of humor is one that most appeals to other comedy insiders—not a general audience.
If Dratch were more comely, would I enjoy her comedy? I suppose it’s possible (and if, subconsciously, that’s the case, it would worry me). Despite her self-deprecation, Tina Fey is gorgeous. But Rudolph and Poehler, though both beautiful, are a little unconventional-looking for Hollywood. Poehler says she and Dratch have in common “short stature [and] big-eyed mugs. Conversely, Chelsea Handler is very conventionally hot, and I don’t find her funny in the least. But maybe the best rebuke to Dratch’s argument at the moment is Lena Dunham, whose HBO comedy Girls is about to debut to already rave reviews, despite that fact that she spends significant time in the show examining her rolls of fat.
Perhaps Dratch’s career is looking up now. She recently filmed an NBC pilot called Lady Friends with Minnie Driver. Should NBC pick it up, I hope Dratch wins me over. I want to like her acting, want to find her hilarious and prove Hollywood wrong. But right now, I’d rather read another Dratch memoir than watch her in a sitcom.
*Correction April 12, 2012: This article originally misspelled the brand name of the wearable blanket sported by Rachel Dratch. It is a Snuggie, not a Snuggle.