Skip to main content

The White Lotus' Molly Shannon On How Childhood Tragedy Inspired SNL's Mary Katherine Gallagher

Kitty giving Rachael a back-handed compliment after crashing her and Shane's honeymoon on The White Lotus

Comedy and tragedy go hand in hand in the case of many comedians. Saturday Night Live, and comedy in general, can be an ideal playground for finding balance. That seemed to be the case for SNL alum Molly Shannon and her character Mary Katherine Gallagher. Creating and introducing the iconic character was a healing moment for Shannon, although viewers didn't know it at the time. The White Lotus star revealed the childhood tragedy that inspired the iconic SNL character.

Although few may have guessed it from her talent for delivering laughs, a tragic moment sent Molly Shannon’s family down a life-changing path. When Shannon was 4-years-old, she lost her mother, youngest sister and a cousin in a tragic car accident. Unfortunately, the horrific moment was compounded by the fact that her father was behind the wheel. He had been driving while under the influence. He ended up surviving but with life-threatening injuries. After the tragic accident, Shannon and her older sister went to live with their aunt while their father recovered. The catastrophic life-changing moment left a lasting effect on The White Lotus star.

Unfortunately, a young Molly Shannon didn’t know how to cope with loss and grief. According to Shannon, she decided to keep her thoughts and feelings about the situation to herself. The SNL alum described to the Los Angeles Times what it was like losing both her mother and sister in a single moment.

I was very heartbroken and very sad and just trying to hold it all together as a kid. There’s no way that you could feel that type of deep pain about your mother and your sister being dead, so you just hold it all in, and it comes up later in life.

Grief and loss can be hard feelings to process for anyone, especially for a 4-year-old girl. Molly Shannon did what she thought was best at the time, when she didn’t yet have her comedic skills or other outlets to help her cope with the ordeal. Experiencing such a dramatic life change left the future actress feeling many emotions.

The SNL alum found herself getting angry over her mom not being part of her daily life anymore. At the same time, Molly Shannon recalled missing her younger sister as she experienced certain milestones. Eventually, as she got older, Shannon finally found an outlet for her grief and loss during her time on SNL. The Transylvania star explained she channeled her younger self into the iconic character:

[Mary Katherine] was really based on me, how I felt after the accident — really nervous, accident-prone, wanting to please, fucked up but full of hope. I just exaggerated everything I felt as a little girl and turned it into a character. . . . I didn’t care if I cut myself or I made myself bleed [performing the role]. I did not give a shit. I looked at it like punk rock. I was reckless, and because of what I went through, I just didn’t care about anything.

Learning the pain and tragedy behind such a funny character may cause some to reevaluate Molly Shannon’s various SNL skits. Knowing the character of Mary Katherine Gallagher that delivered so many laughs was based on Shannon's tragic experiences is a surprise, but good for Shannon that she found such an outlet. The character is still regarded as one of the best to grace Studio 8H. Now, the Promising Young Woman star got to channel her motherly love on The White Lotus. The satire recently wrapped up its first season on HBO with a second season in development.

Adreon Patterson

A boy from Greenwood, South Carolina. CinemaBlend Contributor. An animation enthusiast (anime, US and international films, television). Freelance writer, designer and artist. Lover of music (US and international).