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Molly Shannon blows up

Molly Shannon is making a “Superstar” out of her “SNL” spaz, Mary Katherine Gallagher–though she isn’t getting her panties in a bind about it

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She’s prone to knock stuff over, she’s boy crazy, she smells her armpits when she’s nervous, and she’s a movie goddess — the latest Saturday Night Live character to hit the big screen. But there was a time when SNL‘s Molly Shannon thought her klutzy Catholic-schoolgirl character Mary Katherine Gallagher wouldn’t make it in showbiz. It was the early ’90s, and an SNL recruiter caught Shannon’s comedy act at the Upfront theater in Santa Monica. Shannon was offered an audition for the show, along with this warning: The four-eyed freak wouldn’t fly with SNL overlord Lorne Michaels. ”[The recruiter] said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do that character,”’ recalls Shannon. ”'[Michaels] will hate it because she’s dirty and weird.’ Turns out he likes dirty and weird!”

He’s not alone. Now entering her sixth season on SNL, Shannon, 34, is the show’s most popular presence — due in no small part to Mary Katherine. ”You can’t stop watching,” says ex-SNL writer Steve Koren of Shannon. Echoes Michaels, ”She has this incredible intensity that she controls, and you want to see what gets loose.” After supporting roles in Never Been Kissed and Analyze This, Shannon is now taking the lead in Superstar. The comedy, directed by Kids in the Hall vet Bruce McCulloch, finds Mary Katherine entering a school talent contest and hoping for a smooch from school stud Sky Corrigan (SNL‘s Will Ferrell). Gallagher also French-kisses a signpost, feels herself up, and, of course, learns a lesson: ”She accepts herself from inside,” says Shannon. ”There’s no makeover. She’s pretty to me.”

As far as SNL‘s big-screen adaptations go, Superstar’s crossover potential may not match that of, say, Wayne’s World, but Koren, who wrote the screenplay, does compare Shannon to one of SNL‘s more notable talents: ”She comes on with the energy of a Chris Farley,” he says. And like her late colleague, Shannon can trace her comic talents to personal demons. When she was 4, she was in a car crash that killed her 34-year-old mother, 3-year-old sister, and 25-year-old cousin. ”I’ve tried to transform that suffering into meaning through performance,” offers Shannon, a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who moved to L.A. after graduating from NYU in 1987. ”Mary Katherine is about longing — there was definitely a sadness that drove me.”

Shannon will step out of Mary Katherine’s plaid, pleated skirt for her next big-screen role, in the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey (Shannon plays a Who), scheduled for holiday season 2000. This is bad news for fans, since she’ll appear less on SNL this year while juggling production schedules. ”I don’t like missing the show,” sighs Shannon, who sports a diamond-cross necklace given to her by Michaels. ”But that’s the way it goes.”

Her absence may foreshadow the inevitable, since Shannon isn’t certain that she’ll return after her SNL contract expires this season. But it’s doubtful that she’ll permanently retire Gallagher’s oversize undies; there’s just too much pent-up adolescent heartbreak to draw from. Consider Shannon’s crush on a high school bully: ”He was so obnoxious, and I looonged for him. Once he was coming [down the hall] and I thought, ‘Omigod! He’s looking at me!’ He came up and said, ‘Take a picture, it’ll last longer!’ I went in the bathroom and just crumbled,” she remembers. ”Wasn’t that mean?” It’s okay, Molly — being a superstar is the best revenge.