Catherine O’Hara Talks ‘Beetlejuice,’ ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ ‘Home Alone’ and Her Early Exposure to Gilda Radner at USC Comedy Festival

Ingmar Bergman had Liv Ullmann. Woody Allen had Diane Keaton and Christopher Guest had Catherine O’Hara — that’s how actor John Michael Higgins summed up the stature of O’Hara’s work on screen with Guest and other top directors during a wide-ranging Q&A held Saturday as part of the sixth annual USC Comedy Festival.

The Emmy-winning O’Hara was honored with the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Masters of Comedy Award at the festival, in recognition of her long, and often underrated, career in film, TV, stage and sketch comedy.

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The Oakie Foundation honors the lives and work of two comedy legends, Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie. Jack Oakie won a supporting actor Oscar for Charlie Chaplins’ 1940 satire “The Great Dictator.” Victoria Oakie was a comedy trouper who had supporting roles (as Victoria Horne) in numerous films, most memorably opposite Jimmy Stewart in 1950’s “Harvey.”

In reviewing O’Hara’s career with Higgins, a veteran of Guest’s hit ensemble comedies “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and “Best in Show” (2000), the pair discussed memorable moments from the O’Hara canon. Who can forget that iconic scene in 1988’s “Beetlejuice” when the cast breaks out into a chorus of “Day-O.” Or her many laugh-out-loud moments as Kate, the mother of Macauley Culkin’s Kevin, in 1990’s “Home Alone.” Or the infamous wig stylings and crazy accent of O’Hara’s Emmy-commanding turn as Moira Rose on the PopTV/Netflix comedy “Schitt’s Creek.”

During the course of the conversation, O’Hara shared that her path to the world of improvisational comedy was helped along by the fact that her brother once dated a then-unknown Gilda Radner. During her early years, the Toronto-born O’Hara described herself as always looking to real life for material she could use on stage. “Whoever I met that day, if I listened to some great conversations on the bus or streetcar, I could use it that night in improv,” O’Hara told the crowd. “Improv makes you study human being. It teaches you character development.”

The night was filled with uproarious anecdotes from her Second City TV days. She recalled missing a meeting with director Tim Burton that might have changed everything for her. She remembered watching an actor literally talk himself out of gig and be replaced with Jack Nicholson. And she dished on the the evolution of Moira on “Schitt’s Creek,” which ran for six seasons from 2015-2020.

O’Hara’s early career was influenced by her working with future mega stars — including Martin Short, John Candy, Victor Garber, Gilda Radner and her longtime screen partner Eugene Levy — while performing in the cast of a Toronto production of musical “Godspell” in the early 1970s. However, O’Hara’s most outrageous tale was one about the private tour of the Vatican – a honeymoon gift from Burton, who did wind up directing O’Hara in “Beetlejuice.”

Previous Masters of Comedy honorees have included writer-directors Paul Feig and Judd Apatow and casts of “Frasier” and “Black-ish.” USC leaders told festival attendees that the university is proud to have one of the nation’s first academic programs centered strictly around comedy.

“What we wanted to do is build a community and a critical mass of collaborators, and mentors for the students plus coursework, to create events like this and honor comedy practitioners,” said Barnet Kellman, who is co-director of the USC Comedy program. “Everybody loves comedy, but it, doesn’t get the respect and we don’t honor our luminaries in comedy the same way as we do with the Oscars.”

As the evening came to an end, Higgins paid tribute to his former co-star. “It’s an incredible amount of work and she did it backwards in high heels basically,” he said, nodding to the famous observation about Ginger Rogers’ work with the legendary Fred Astaire.

O’Hara closed with sage advice for students of comedy. “Be conscious of the foot you’re going in on and make sure it’s the foot you want to stay on. Treat yourself with the respect you hope to one day earn if you haven’t already. Last, but not least, any talent you’ve been given in my mind is God-given and I think it’s your job to nurture it, take care of it and work with people who deserve to have your talent in the room.”

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