Tea Party Princess

Victoria Jackson went from the big leagues of comedy to the rabid right of modern politics

The couple wed in Los Angeles in 1984 and two years later had a daughter they named Scarlet. Soon, Victoria snagged a role on the sitcom pilot Half Nelson as Hollywood security guard Joe Pesci's ditzy blond secretary. The show was canceled after six episodes, but she bought her first house—a two-bedroom Lookout Mountain bungalow in Laurel Canyon—with the paychecks.

She was a regular performer on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where in one of her most memorable bits she channeled Patti Smith, singing about being an "angry woman" while doing tricks on a balance beam.

In 1986, she flew to New York to audition for SNL. Executive producer Lorne Michaels, she remembers, curled his lower lip and lamented her lack of comedic characters. So the next time she was on Carson's show, she continued the audition by doing impressions of Diana Ross and Edith Bunker and inventing a character: a glum boss interviewing Carson for a job. She joined the SNL cast that season. With a new baby in tow, she and Nisan bought a four-bedroom Colonial in Weston, Connecticut. They split time between the two homes.

Jackson’s handstand, which she learned at age four, earned her attention on SNL.
Giulio Sciorio
Jackson’s handstand, which she learned at age four, earned her attention on SNL.
Jackson rode the Tea Party Express bus with Herman Cain.
Courtesy of Victoria Jackson
Jackson rode the Tea Party Express bus with Herman Cain.

But Michaels's trepidation had been spot-on. Victoria's castmates included Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Dana Carvey. She couldn't keep up. "I lived on pure adrenaline," she says. "You always think you're going to get fired. You're always competing with your cast members for airtime."

Coming up with characters and premises for skits was a supreme struggle. She confesses that one of her funnier sketches—"Victoria's Secrets," in which she wore lingerie and throatily fumbled at being sexy—was a product of begging castmate Jon Lovitz and writer Conan O'Brien for ideas as they walked down an office hallway.

Her nasal voice nixed nuanced impressions. Besides doing back bends and reading poetry on the "Weekend Update" news desk, impressions of Roseanne Barr and Zsa Zsa Gabor were her only recurring gags.

Critics and former castmates haven't been kind. Nerve.com recently ranked her dead last of 92 all-time cast members and wrote that her "cute-ditsy-idiot act got pretty thin, [and] it turns out it wasn't an act." And in the 2002 book Live From New York, an oral history of the show, castmate Jan Hooks sniped: "I just have a particular repulsion to grown women who talk like little girls. It's like: 'You're a grown woman! Use your lower register!'" (Victoria, by the way, claims her weird voice is the result of a medical defect: a "congenital palatal insufficiency.")

"Look, I'm not qualified for this," Victoria recalls thinking. "Maybe this is my mission field. I'm supposed to tell my cast members about Jesus!"

But Hartman didn't want to talk about the Son of God. And Lovitz asked how Jesus, "a grown man," could have fit in his mother's womb to be born again. When Victoria left audiocassette box sets of the Bible in each castmate's mail slot for Christmas, they were angrily returned.

Writer and performer Al Franken, now a Democratic U.S. senator for Minnesota, cornered her once, Victoria says. He said he was "offended" by her "ditzy" act. "Maybe I'm overcompensating," she retorted, "because everybody here is dying and going to hell, and I'm supposed to tell them about Jesus."

Franken went white, she says. "He never talked to me again."

Victoria struggled to make the leap to film acting. Her biggest role was as a co-star in 1988's Casual Sex?, an insipid rumination on sexual relationships in a post-AIDS world. It flopped. "The movie is exactly like the real thing," The Washington Post opined. "Kinda empty, kinda unfulfilling, and you feel just awful afterward." Victoria also played "Weird Al" Yankovic's love interest in UHF. Again, not a Brando-esque turn.

Besides the film proceeds, Victoria was making $20,000 per weekly episode of SNL, according to divorce records. In 1991, her ill-conceived marriage to the fire-eater finally came to an end. "He hated me more and more each day," she says. "One night he was fumbling around in the gun closet, and he was drunk, and I thought, 'Is he going to kill me?'"

A Connecticut judge ordered Victoria to pay Nisan alimony of 15 percent of her income, but not less than $3,000 a month, for three years. He also received a portion of the residuals from her films and, less financially momentous, her catalog of ditties such as "I Am Not a Bimbo" and "I Wanna Be a Slut." (Victoria sells her songs on a self-published CD called Use Me. "Even my friends haven't listened to it," she admits.)

Nisan declined to be interviewed for this story. Still in Connecticut, he's now known as "the Magic Genie." His website boasts he "offers quality magic tricks at discount prices. . . . He can even levitate one of the children! Fire effects are optional."

After the divorce, Victoria reconnected with her former fiancé from Miami, Paul Wessel. Also divorced, he had become a Miami-Dade Police SWAT officer. In 1984, according to Paul's personnel file, the tip of his pinkie was shot by his own partner in a firefight with a drug suspect. In 1991, with a single round, he killed an Opa-locka man who pointed a revolver at officers. At an inquest, the man's widow beseeched, "Why did they have to shoot him in the heart?" Paul's lethal actions were ruled justified. One year later, he used a shotgun to obliterate a pit bull that was attacking his partner. To date, Paul has been honored with 71 department commendations.

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