Julia Louis-Dreyfus Is Known As A Comedy Queen, But Her Life Hasn’t Always Been Funny

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus is thought of by many as one of the comedians of her era. She started out on Saturday Night Live, and from there went on to bigger and bigger things. But her personal life sometimes wasn’t always as funny as her performances. And neither was her time on SNL, as a recent interview attests to.

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Louis-Dreyfus was born into a wealthy family. In fact, her father, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, was a billionaire. For generations, the Louis-Dreyfuses controlled the French Louis Dreyfus Group, a shipping conglomerate which ultimately made them very rich. However, Louis-Dreyfus’ parents divorced when she was very young. From there, life wasn’t always easy.

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In 2009 Louis-Dreyfus told WebMD, “I come from divorced parents. And it wasn’t always amicable. There were major complications at the time. Divorce wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now. I had no friends whose parents had split up. I grew up living with my mother and stepfather in Washington, D.C., and visited my father and stepmother in New York on weekends. It seems antiquated now, but I had to learn how to deal with it.”

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Then, the young Louis-Dreyfus discovered that she had a talent for being funny. In 2018 she told the Washington Post, “I was in some silly show, and I was supposed to faint. I was a queen, and it wasn’t meant to be funny. But I fainted, and everybody laughed, and I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know why they laughed but I liked how they laughed.’”

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Louis-Dreyfus created a little comedy troupe with her friends, one of whom was future Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Edson. Edson told the Washington Post in 2018, “We just lost ourselves in these improvised plays and the performances… We would just stay in it for hours, and I think it’s just because she [Louis-Dreyfus] was so good.”

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Louis-Dreyfus headed to Northwestern University in 1979. And while she was there, she won a place in the student-run comedy group The Mee-Ow Show. After that, she met the man who would become her husband, Brad Hall. He had set up a group called the Practical Theater Company, and Louis-Dreyfus became part of it.

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In 1982 the company put on a show called The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee. It garnered attention from all the right people. The showrunner of Saturday Night Live during that time was a man named Dick Ebersol. Accompanied by SNL writer Bob Tischler, he happened to see the performance. They were bowled over by the talent of the show’s leading lady.

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Ebersol hired the four people in the show – Hall, Gary Kroeger, Paul Barrosse and, of course, Louis-Dreyfus – for Saturday Night Live. At the time, Louis-Dreyfus was the youngest woman ever hired for the show. It was a massive step forward for her career, and she would stay on SNL until 1985.

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After leaving SNL Louis-Dreyfus was cast in Seinfeld, although it nearly didn’t happen. In fact, she won her role because casting a woman was a stipulation to getting the program commissioned. But Seinfeld went on to become a massive success, with Louis-Dreyfus playing the character of Elaine across nine seasons.

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While Seinfeld was on the air, Louis-Dreyfus started a family. She tied the knot to Brad Hall in 1987 and during the ’90s had two children with him named Henry and Charles. These boys spent some of their early childhood on the Seinfeld set, being entertained in the nursery while their mother worked.

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Louis-Dreyfus won a lot of accolades for her work on Seinfeld. She picked up a Golden Globe, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1996. And yet, when Seinfeld came to an end, she seemed to have trouble finding another hit.

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The actress did some voice work in the Pixar film A Bug’s Life and on The Simpsons. She showed up as herself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, too. But that was about it for the first years of the ’00s. In 2002 she starred in a new sitcom called Watching Ellie, which was thought up by her spouse. But by 2003 it had been cancelled.

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For a while the media speculated about a “Seinfeld curse,” implying that no performer from the show would be successful again. But they were wrong. In 2005 Louis-Dreyfus began starring in a sitcom called The New Adventures of Old Christine. It was a hit, bringing the actress back to public attention.

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Such was the success of The New Adventures of Old Christine that Louis-Dreyfus picked up a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 2006. While accepting the award on stage she declared for all to hear, “I’m not somebody who really believes in curses. But curse this, baby!”

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And the actress’ new wave of success only continued from there. The New Adventures of Old Christine ended up running for five seasons in the end, and in 2010 Louis-Dreyfus received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then came another massive TV success for her – the satirical show Veep.

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Veep was an absolutely massive hit, and Louis-Dreyfus received critical acclaim. She ended up winning no less than six Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in a row. By the end of Veep in 2019, Louis-Dreyfus had received more Emmys and Screen Actors Guild Awards than anyone else.

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Yet while Louis-Dreyfus was winning all those awards, she was also fighting some distressing private battles. When she picked up her 2016 Emmy award, she wept and revealed that her father had passed away just a couple of days prior. She dedicated her award to him, saying, “I’m so glad that he liked Veep, because his opinion was the one that really mattered.”

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The following year Louis-Dreyfus was dealt yet another blow, even though her professional life was going well. The day after she picked up her September 2017 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress, she made an important announcement on her Twitter account. She had been diagnosed with life-threatening breast cancer.

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Louis-Dreyfus wrote, “One in eight women get breast cancer. Today, I’m the one. The good news is that I have the most glorious group of supportive and caring family and friends, and fantastic insurance through my union. The bad news is that not all women are so lucky, so let’s fight all cancers and make universal healthcare a reality.”

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Lots of people instantly came out in support of Louis-Dreyfus, including Tony Hale, Christina Applegate and Rosie O’Donnell. And HBO, the producers of Veep, released a statement saying, “Our love and support go out to Julia and her family at this time. We have every confidence she will get through this with her usual tenacity and undaunted spirit, and look forward to her return to health and to HBO for the final season of Veep.”

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By October, Dreyfus had completed a second round of chemotherapy. Alongside a picture of herself in a false mustache, she announced on Instagram, “Chemo #2: finito. We are NOT f***ing around here.” She quoted a line from Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” and then thanked Perry and her own Veep colleagues “for their hilarious and loving inspiration.”

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More positive news soon followed. In February 2018 Louis-Dreyfus shared her “first post op photo” on Twitter. She wrote, “Hoorah! Great doctors, great results. Feeling happy and ready to rock after surgery. Hey cancer, ‘F**k you!’” Ellen DeGeneres then dropped in, tweeting to tell the star that she looked “absolutely gorgeous.”

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In the midst of all this, there was another difficulty to come for Louis-Dreyfus. Her 44-year-old half-sibling Emma Louis-Dreyfus died after a seizure in August 2018. A toxicology report revealed that she had high levels of both alcohol and cocaine in her body. Her death was consequently ruled as an accident, brought about by an overdose.

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Louis-Dreyfus spoke about the death a few months later, saying she hadn’t done so earlier because of regard for her half-sibling. She was furious that some outlets had reported that she and Emma were estranged. She declared, “I would simply say I’ve kept this under wraps out of reverence for my dearest Emma. It’s been a very bad period of time.”

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But luckily, Louis-Dreyfus did start to recover from her breast cancer. In October 2018 she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to discuss it. At the beginning of the interview she joked, “I’m good. I’m here. I know we have to get this cancer shit out of the way, so bring on the questions.” Kimmel asked if she had beaten it and she happily answered, “Yes!”

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On the show, Louis-Dreyfus spoke about why she’d decided to go public with her diagnosis. She said, “Well, I did it for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, we had to stall Veep production because of my situation. A lot of people work for me, and I knew I couldn’t really keep it private because I had to tell everybody what was going on.”

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The actress went on, “And then I just sort of embraced that and I got a lot of positive feedback. I think people liked having the fact that I had a sense of humor about it. And also I think it’s an important conversation to have about health and healthcare.” She declared that she still wanted to fight for universal healthcare.

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Louis-Dreyfus told Kimmel, himself an advocate for better healthcare, “I very much considered the notion that, as someone battling this disease, the idea that I might not have health insurance – which I do, thanks to my great union – is completely terrifying… Healthcare should be for all. I believed that before. Now, I really believe it.”

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That year, Louis-Dreyfus received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. During her speech, she went into more detail about what her cancer battle had been like. By the time she reached her list of people she had to thank, she was outright sobbing on the stage.

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Louis-Dreyfus declared, “The old cliché about laughter being the best medicine turns out to be true. When I was getting my hideous chemotherapy, I’d cram a bunch of friends and family into the tiny treatment room with me… We really did have some great laughs. Of course, I was heavily medicated and slipping in and out of consciousness, so I was a pretty easy audience.”

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In December 2018 Louis-Dreyfus spoke to The New Yorker about her fight and how she was coping. She said, “You know if you get on a horse and you have really tight reins and the horse is galloping? I felt like I had really tight reins on myself. That’s what it felt like; I was just holding on tight.”

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Louis-Dreyfus had gone through, she told the magazine, “a rough couple of years.” And she went on, “I have a different kind of view of my life now, having seen that edge that we’re all going to see at some point. And which, really, as a mortal person, you don’t allow yourself to consider, ever. And why would you? What are you going to do with it?”

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In the interview, Louis-Dreyfus also had some surprising things to say about SNL, the show which had thrown her into fame. She said, “It was a very dog-eat-dog environment. I didn’t go in armed with a bag of characters from which to pluck. I came into it naively, with this notion that it would be ensemble work, and that writers would be trying to write for everyone. But it was very political and very male-centric.”

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In the months to come, Louis-Dreyfus would reiterate this. Almost exactly a year later, the actress described her time on Saturday Night Live as “brutal.” Speaking to Stephen Colbert at a fundraiser in December 2019, she detailed what she had experienced while working on the show – and not much of it was good.

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At the event Louis-Dreyfus told Colbert, “There were plenty of people on the show who were incredibly funny. I was unbelievably naive and I didn’t really understand how the dynamics of the place worked. It was very sexist, very sexist. People were doing crazy drugs at the time. I was oblivious.”

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Louis-Dreyfus went on, “I learned I wasn’t going to do any more of this show-business crap unless it was fun. It is important, it’s so basic, but I just thought, ‘I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to walk and crawl through this kind of nasty glass if it’s not ultimately going to be fulfilling.’ And so, that’s how I sort of moved forward from that moment.”

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Louis-Dreyfus has done quite a lot of metaphorical crawling through glass at this point, but she’s optimistic about the future. She’s also very happy that her breast cancer journey touched so many people, and that she was able to help them. In March 2019 she talked about that with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.

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The actress told Roberts, “I think I reached a lot of people. I was able to raise a lot of money for women who have had mastectomies, who need reconstruction but insurance doesn’t cover that. And I was really happy to be able to do that.” And she added, “The outpouring of support was quite overwhelming.”

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Unfortunately, there’s still a chance the breast cancer could return. In a 2019 Vanity Fair interview, she was asked her about her outlook on life. Louis-Dreyfus answered, “I’m still working it out, to be honest with you. I’m glad I got through [the breast cancer]. But there’s a part of me that’s still a little frightened, you know?”

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But frightened or not, Louis-Dreyfus has picked herself up and carried on. And many people are extremely grateful she did. For her birthday in January 2020 the actress posted a throwback picture on Instagram. Fittingly, among the comments was, “Happy birthday to you… your awesome comedy has changed many lives.”

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