The Enduring Appeal of Joan Cusack, Eternal Quirky Sidekick and Friend
Cusack is the goddess to which all sidekicks bow—yes, on TV too.Photo Courtesy of Showtime TV Features
On March 27, 2001, ABC premiered the sitcom What About Joan. It starred Joan Cusack as Chicago-area school teacher Joan Gallagher, who was engaged to Kyle Chandler’s Jake. The series followed their various goings-on, as well as the lives of their friends and associates played by the likes of Tony-winner Donna Murphy, Breaking Bad’s Jessica Hecht, and Wallace Langham (best known as the head writer for The Larry Sanders Show). James L. Brooks, who co-created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was an executive producer.
Despite all that pedigree, What About Joan was bad. Like really bad. Attempting to capitalize off of successes like NBC’s Friends, plots involved things like Jake and Joan meeting judgy relatives or deciding whether they’re comfortable discussing their previous sex lives with each other.
The series only barely counts as being on for two seasons, as it was yanked after the second episode of Season 2. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it a cumulative Tomatometer (or rating score) of 38 percent. Ken Tucker, then the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, summed it up in his review by writing that “I’d be doing Joan Cusack a disservice if I merely said that her foray into weekly television, the sitcom What About Joan, is pretty much a bust and let it go at that. Cusack deserves better, on every level.”
Because there is no denying the magic that is Joan Cusack.
Most people who recognize the power of Cusack will tout her film work; her best supporting actress Academy Award nominations for Working Girl and In & Out, voicing cowgirl Jessie in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. Or they’ll talk about the time she yelled at her brother, John Cusack, in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and for participating in a tracking shot of an event that would now be done over Slack in Brooks’ classic, Broadcast News.
But people tend to take for granted her TV work. She was underutilized during her brief stint on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and she is the only person to win an acting Emmy for Showtime’s long-running dark comedy Shameless (Former series star Emmy Rossum was robbed of even a nomination for Season 4, but that’s not important right now).
Either way, Cusack’s career is best highlighted by her ability to take a small role (the quirky co-worker not at all involved in the main characters’ love triangle; the sex-crazed agoraphobic who wants to “see the Burning Man”) and “make her own thing out of it.”
That last quote is from actress Kether Donohue, who is known for her own scene-stealing character work in shows like FXX’s You’re the Worst and CBS’s B Positive. We became friends after I interviewed her during YTW and bonded over our shared understanding of what it’s like for a woman to excel after society tells her to take a back seat. (In college, a friend told me that I would play the best friend in my own life story. As a late Gen-Xer who grew up on Cusack’s oeuvre, I take this as a compliment).
“I love how she plays her characters; I just like the gusto she adds to the characters,” Donohue said when we spoke a few weeks ago for this piece, adding that “it’s the thing she does in between the lines… the characters she plays have a quirk to them that are just very fun.”
Or, as Donohue said her grandmother would describe it, “she has a moxie to her.”
“I really love and admire how Joan plays her parts and the special Joan-sauce that she adds to characters,” Donohue explained.
It’s still a huge honor to Donohue that her high school acting teacher, who cast her as a step-sister in a production of Jerry Chase’s comedic play, Cinderella Wore Combat Boots, once told her that he hoped she’d grow up to have a career like Cusack’s. “I always found it so freeing to play just goofy, out-there kind of parts,” she said, reflecting back on that time.
Cusack is the goddess to which we, and others like us, bow. We’re clearly not alone in our adoration; there’s also Matt Harkins and Viviana Rosales Olen, who are known for founding a pop-culture tinged museum in their Brooklyn apartment called THNK1994. Although that abbreviation officially stands for Tonya Harding Nancy Kerrigan 1994, the figure skaters are not the only women who were big in the ‘90s now celebrated via the museum’s merchandise. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt I purchased from its online store that reads “Cast Joan Cusack More.”
“’Cast Joan Cusack More’ is one of the first shirts we started selling,” the THNK1994 founders said via email. “We wanted to sell shirts that simply stated universal truths. Britney’s instagram is art. Interstellar was too sad. Cast Joan Cusack more.”
Why do they think she’s so endearing?
“People truly crave a dash of her in our movies and TV,” the founders continued. “Most recently we were watching Instant Family. It’s a great movie. But right at the very end, Joan is there as a kooky neighbor and it’s like OK this movie just got even better. Can’t say it’s true, but someone on Twitter once said that they do try and cast Joan more but she refuses to leave Chicago.”
This is also part of the problem. Cusack is a dedicated Chicagoan. A 2001 article of Crain’s Chicago Business states that she had enough sway to get What About Joan filmed in the Windy City. Shameless is set in Chicago and often films there. Wikipedia taught me Cusack also owns what looks to be a very adorable gift shop called Judy Maxwell Home. And while she does leave the city for special occasions, like a few episodes of the second season of Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, these stays don’t seem to be long term. Who knows why she dropped out of HBO Max’s upcoming series, Julia. But perhaps it was because the Julia Child biopic would be filming in Boston?
So while the onus may be on Cusack to get out there and explore film stages outside of Cook County at some point, it’s also on us to not forget her. When you’re thinking of actors who deserve more credit, don’t forget to ask yourself: what about Joan?
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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