NEW YORK — When Cheri Oteri was a cheerleader in high school, she had no team spirit. Now it's a case of having too much.
That's the premise of one of the most popular skits on Saturday Night Live and one that has helped catapult Ms. Oteri's career.
Since her first season last year, Oteri has fast become known as "the girl in the cheerleading skit." Oteri and her co-star, Will Ferrell, play two cheerleaders who didn't make the high school cheerleading squad. But, since they have so much team spirit, they show up - in uniform - and cheer anyway at basketball games and in the most unlikely places you'd find a cheering squad: chess matches and swimming and wrestling meets.
When the season premire airs this Saturday, however, viewers may not see Oteri and Ferrell bouncing around saying "I know what this team needs ... the perfect cheer." "There's been such a demand to see it," she says. "We talked about not doing it - at least not for the first few shows - to let the new characters develop and emerge."
Even though it has became a successful skit, the problem now is trying to keep the material fresh and funny. "It has become this thing that has become very difficult because you always want to surpass yourself," Oteri explains. "It's such a big responsibility because you always want to make it as good, if not better, than the last one."
In person, Oteri comes across quite differently. Her demeanor is more subdued than the bubbly brunette that enters our living rooms every Saturday night. When we met last week in her Rockefeller Plaza office, she was reading a women's magazine, and the lighted candle on her desk created a relaxed and calming atmosphere. She greeted me with a smile and started to reflect on her first year at SNL.
"[Last season] far surpassed my expectations," the native from Philadelphia says, explaining that the timing was just right. "It was all new people, and so we weren't stepping on anyone's toes. We were all just so happy to be here."
The writer-comedian was discovered at the Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based improv/sketch comedy group more than a year ago. When she moved to New York last year, she recalls that Entertainment Tonight wanted to do a "Day in the Life of Cheri Oteri" piece, and she had a few doubts. For starters, she told them, her typical day may appear dull.
"I don't go to the gym; I have a stairmaster at home. I don't have a slew of friends that I meet at a coffee shop and say 'Hi guys, sorry I'm late,' and I don't come in swinging in the latest fashion. My life is not like that," she says candidly. (Producers of the TV program eventually aired an interview with Oteri last season.)
This summer, the actress made two movies scheduled for release in 1997. One stars Jim Carrey in which she plays his quirky receptionist, and the other is with Mike Myers (an SNL alum). She plays a flight attendant.
These characters aren't far from the memorable ones she plays on SNL, which range from the annoying to the quirky to the sappy. For instance, on SNL she plays a hyperactive kid who isn't afraid to say what's on her mind; a woman named "Rita," who yells at kids from her porch; and "Deb" - a high school girl in the '70s who's dating "Jimbo" (also played by Mr. Ferrell) - who's always on the verge of tears. She also impersonates Barbara Walters.
"I was really scared to [portray Ms. Walters] because Gilda Radner made this impersonation so famous." But after watching and studying several tapes on her, Oteri has made it her own.
She also isn't limited to female characters. She has played Ross Perot and a boy in a Jack Handy skit. As a female cast member, surrounded by a majority of male writers, Oteri has found that she must write her own sketches in order to play funny characters.
"If you're sitting around waiting for a man to write for you, you're going to get frustrated. If I waited around to be written for, you wouldn't see me on the show. Or if I was, you'd see me saying "Honey, dinner's ready," or "Daddy, when are we going? But it's really not a negative thing. You just have to prove what you can do."
The 5-foot star says that after working at jobs where she'd sit around and wait for 5 o'clock, she's finally found something she feels passionate about. At SNL, she sometimes works until 3 a.m. Oteri says she's the perfect example of someone struggling with no money one day and making it big the next.
"This is my dream come true. I feel very blessed, and I'm still in awe."