HOW KATHY NAJIMY CHANGED THE 90′S

Sometimes, lying in that in-between space in the dead of night, where tired becomes numb and sleep scatters further away the faster she chases, even Kirstie Alley asks herself how Veronica’s Closet stayed on the air for three years. The answer, of course, is Kathy Najimy.

But hadn’t Kathy Najimy done enough? Though there isn’t an Oscar (even a Golden Globe) among them, Kathy Najimy’s IMDb page reads like a list of reasons why, for better or worse, the ’90s was the ’90s: Veronica’s Closet, Hope Floats, The Bride of Chucky. Jeffrey, It’s Pat: The Movie, Hocus Pocus, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, thirteen years as the voice of Peggy on King of the Hill and finally – arguably Najimy’s greatest achievement (America’s?) – Sister Mary Patrick in Sister Act.

Yes, by the time Just Shoot Me put on a fat-suit and started waddling around NBC as Veronica’s Closet in 1997, whether they knew it or not, Americans had already come to depend on Kathy Najimy to shield us from lukewarm material, Sandra Bullock’s highlights or a comeback as ill-conceived and uninvited as Kirstie Alley’s.

So because we do not award a Purple Heart for such unflappable bravery in the face of Kirstie Alley, it is only fitting that we define Kathy Najimy’s greatness by material Kathy Najimy created herself. Specifically, just over six minutes in the middle of the 1991 taping of her two-woman stage show with Mo Gaffney, “Parallel Lives.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4dZX1eoDwU

It takes place about an hour into the performance. Gaffney and Najimy are a pair of boozy, bawdy bluehairs from the Upper East Side, trying to order sandwiches in a vegetarian cafe. Gaffney exits. We are only sort of disappointed to see her go. Left alone on the stage, Najimy begins a familiar story: an elderly woman visits her nephew and his male companion. Sassy jokes. Snaps on the punchlines. An eye for antiques. We see exactly where this is going. But how original was anything by 1991? What was left to be done that Americans hadn’t already seen in a Madonna video or an episode of Jenny Jones?

Though she is futzing with her mink shawl and holding tightly to her character’s facial tics, something in her physicality begins to shift to stillness. Something in her voice shifts from caricature to something else. Something in Kathy Najimy draws the entire house close into her wide, misty eyes. We’re listening closer than we thought would be asked of us this evening, having already settled into an hour of sketch comedy and tampon jokes.

This comedy just became a drama. Is she setting us up for a laugh? But Najimy’s performance only seems to be getting stranger, retreating further with every line from simply telling us a story, a story we swore we had already heard. She is no longer walking us through an anecdote in the past tense, but experiencing something in the present. She goes from relaying the dialogue from her nephew Michael to channeling him, giving him a voice, pausing after his lines for a response.

“So what you are telling me then, Michael, is that you are a homosexual?”

“Yes, I am. Please, Aunt Maddie. Please don’t hate me.”

“Hate you? I’d never ever hate you. Michael, I love you.”

The transcript on its own might have been cut from a made-for-television movie from the same year.

And still, it all manages to feel like a surprise. Oh, this is not a familiar story to her. Oh, she understands how hard this is for him to say. Oh she is not setting us up for a joke. This is not a comedy anymore, but something else. And so, in a theater in San Francisco, as the AIDS crisis has reached full-tilt madness, two years before Congress passes a bill prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving in the military, five years before Congress passes a bill defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Kathy Najimy looks directly into our eyes and says, “Alright, honey. This is my new dream for you: you met someone you love. You are happy.” And whether the ’90s were ready to admit it or not, they could never pretend to be the same. Something in the air had shifted; from the way things had been to the way things ought to be.

Shame on you, Kirstie Alley. May you gain it all back.