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Molly Shannon on being a mom, SNL, Tilly the Trickster and more

Former Saturday Night Live star Molly Shannon shares the inspiration behind her book-turned-musical Tilly the Trickster and the best thing about being a mom.

Photograph: Avik Gilboa

While Molly Shannon may be best known for the Saturday Night Live characters she's played during her career (hello, Mary Katharine Gallagher!), the actor has spent the last few years starring in tons of other productions, writing a children's book and, most importantly, being a mom to her two kids, Stella, 9, and Nolan, 8, with husband Fritz Chesnut. This month, her popular children's book Tilly the Trickster gets the stage treatment in New York City. The musical, put on by the Atlantic Theater Company's children's division and opening on Saturday, September 21, tells the tale of sassy little Tilly and her talking dog, Peppermint—families can expect slapstick comedy and plenty of pranks to keep kids laughing the whole way through. We caught up with Shannon by phone from the set of Fox's Raising Hope (the actress is also up for an Emmy for her recurring role on HBO's Enlightened) to talk about her book-turned-musical, the best part about being a mom and SNL.

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What inspired you to write Tilly the Trickster?
Growing up my dad was a trickster. He had a really silly sense of humor. He'd put wigs on and he was always encouraging us to play jokes and be silly! He liked to have fun. I took that from him and gave it my own kids. When they were little, they'd play tricks and get so excited. We're three generations of tricksters.

What do your kids think of the book?
They would give me input on it! I'd ask their opinion along the way: "Do you like this or this? Does this make sense?" If their friends were over, I'd ask them if things made sense too. I'd use them as test market research! My daughter once said, "Enough with your book!" I also wanted to make the book for litte boys and girls. I really ran over that stuff with them a lot. My son loves action—I added in the part where the dog flips on water, crashes into a table and knocks over breakfast.

Tell us about the musical adaptation from Atlantic for Kids.
Everyone involved is so talented, so I let them do what they do. I gave them the freedom to be creative, but they were so collaborative and easy to work with. They'd send me material about how they were going to write it and send me the music. The songs add so much to it. When I saw it for the first time—when they did the first reading—I couldn't believe I was seeing it come to life. It's going to be so cool to see little kids watch it. It's one thing for me to watch the show, but I really get the most excited to see how they like it. Friends tell me that their kids want them to read the book over and over again. That's the biggest compliment!

Any favorite part of the show?
There's a great song with the principal—he acts all, "You're going to be sent home," but then he admits that he was a trickster when he was little. I love that! The dog is very intellecutual and sees through everything. He says things like "Oh, this family is ridiculous."

Your kids were born in NYC, but your family currently lives in Los Angeles. What are some of your favorite things to do in the city when you visit?
We go to Teardrop Park with the big slide. They love that! We've been going there since they were babies. We also got to Chelsea Piers a lot. You know what else they love: It's such a tourist thing, but the Marriott Marquis hotel with the revolving restaurant. We also go back to our old neighborhood—the West Village and the Meatpacking District.

What kind of mom are you?
I'm a very happy mother. I think I'm easy going. I waited a long time to have kids and I was really ready to focus on it when I decided to do it. I feel so fortune that I built up a career and was able to continue to maintain it while I had kids. It's made me a more happy mother. I ask my kids: "Do I seem 'ugh' or 'happy mom' and they say, "You seem like a happy mom." My mom died when I was four in a car accident, so I appreciate all the silly liltle things with my kids because my mom wasn't there. I don't take it for granted!

Saturday Night Live was such a big part of your life!
I haven't been back there for awhile, but I feel like I'm always a friend of the show. I'm still friends with all the people and Lorne [Michaels].

So many of the former SNL cast members now have kids.
I know!

Maya Rudolph just had her fourth.
Oh yeah!

You could have a new show with all the SNL kids.

I know! We are still friends. We all see each other—for the ones that are out in Los Angeles—and many of our children play together. We're a tight knit group!

Do you have a favorite SNL character that you played?

I loved the Joyologist—I played her right before I left the show. I also did the bad stand-up comedian named Jeannine Darcy. I had fun doing her. And I love Mary Katharine Gallagher and Sally O'Malley. They were all different types of characters.

Have your kids seen old episodes of SNL?
Never! No! It's not because I block them. I just want it to be about them. And I get embarrased! I want them to know I love my work, so, yes, they know about it, but I haven't shown them yet. Their friends will say, "I've seen you in Superstar. I saw you on this or I saw you in that." I don't want them to be out of the loop, but I keep it low key.

What would Mary Katharine Gallagher have to say about Tilly the Trickster? Would she like it?
Oh my god. Here's a funny story: When the kids were little, they saw a magnet of her and they thought I looked weird. They want me to look like mommy—not her! They want me to always look the same!

What message do you hope kids take away from the Tilly the Trickster production?

I want them to know that you wouldn't do tricks to make someone feel bad. It's all in good fun—nothing that would hurt someone or be mean. It's about being creative and silly and fun and planning something together.

Tilly the Trickster runs from Sat Sept 21 to Sun Oct 13 at the Linda Gross Theater.

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