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The Saturday Night Live queer canon

The highs and lows of the sketch show’s LGBTQ history

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On April 13, 2019, Saturday Night Live made history, airing the show’s first sketch starring a gay porn star.

The nominal star of “The Actress” is Oscar winner and four-time host Emma Stone, playing the title character, who must deliver one line in a gay porn scene. Her character’s character, Deirdre, is an underwritten mess of contractions, and The Actress is determined to untangle them, even as the filmmakers’ disinterest to her process borders on hostility.

While Deirdre slip-sliding across that lube-drenched set was accessible to the broadest of SNL audiences, gay viewers recognized the added authenticity of casting gay porn star Ty Mitchell as the porno’s faithless godson. There was no mistaking where “The Actress” was coming from: This was a new queer sketch for — at last — new queer times at Saturday Night Live.

“The Actress” was written by a pair of SNL writers, Julio Torres and Bowen Yang, two of the brightest lights in the young queer comedy scene. Torres has been steadily making a name for himself as an authorial voice on SNL in a way few writers have since John Mulaney left the show. His highly esoteric perspective has manifested in niche sketches like the Avatar-themed “Papyrus,” but most delightfully in a string of queer-themed sketches that bring a diversity of perspective that has not always been available around Studio 8H.

Saturday Night Live is deeply rooted in a boys’ club mentality. The struggles of women to gain an equal foothold on the show have been a throughline behind the scenes, and the last two generations of female-forward comedy on the show have been hard-won. But as women have had to go the extra mile to make their way on SNL, the hope for an authentically LGBTQ perspective at 30 Rock seemed to be an even steeper hill. Forget “representation,” even; the show premiered in 1975, and Kate McKinnon became the first openly lesbian cast member in 2012. Terry Sweeney was the only out gay male cast member in SNL history until the brief run of John Milhiser in 2013.

Still, for a show that is predominantly, painfully straight, there’s actually a decent history of queer-related sketches on SNL, even if a great many of them have been from a straight perspective. Gay audiences have long been used to finding odd angles at which to latch onto the culture, so it’s no surprise that we made do with what SNL gave us. The new era of queer representation in the writers room has been a long time coming: In addition to Torres and Yang, the show boasts the talents of Sam Jay, Alison Gates, and veteran James Anderson, who, along with alumna and current Wine Country star Paula Pell, provided a good deal of the queer POV during the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Maya Rudolph years.

Looking back at the show’s history, queer content has come in a few distinct forms. Tracking the evolution of these forms across the years can give us an appreciation for just how far Saturday Night Live and we, its fitfully patient (and just as often impatient) queer audience, have come.


Straight guys playing gay as funny

As the poet Monique Heart once said, facts are facts. And the facts are that the earliest and enduring approach to SNL’s take on gayness has been to confront the audience with the juxtaposition of inarguable straightness — sometimes defined by archetypes like sitcom dads, bro-y teens, or superheroes; sometimes defined simply by the fact that the characteristic SNL cast member defaults to straight — performing over-the-top gayness, often obliviously.

The point of this joke isn’t always to point at gay behaviors and laugh at how weird it is to see, e.g., Paul Rudd and Bill Hader furiously making out in a “Kissing Family” sketch. Or to watch Ben Affleck as a friend of the Boston Teens (Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch) get gay married. But that’s more often than not how these sketches shake out.

While this type of sketch feels outdated, it still recurs in some form — “New Beginnings Summer Camp,” about a gay conversion camp run by closeted counselors; “Marcus Comes to Dinner,” about a father recognizing his son’s gay-porn-star boyfriend — albeit slightly evolved.

Notable examples

Lyle, the Effeminate Heterosexual

A sitcom parody in which Dana Carvey played Lyle, a lisping, flouncing, wildly effeminate suburban family man who just can’t understand why everybody seems to think he’s gay. This sketch recurred only twice, in 1989 and 1992, and both instances are almost unwatchably offensive by today’s standards. There’s a reason why Lyle is never mentioned among Carvey’s celebrated coterie of recurring characters.

The Ambiguously Gay Duo

The most popular and well-known of the Robert Smigel-produced TV Funhouse animated segments, the obliviously homoerotic adventures of Ace and Gary played on the long-standing joke about Batman and Robin being secret lovers. The joke is that these very straight, archetypal heroes — voiced by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell — have no idea how gay their costumes and mannerisms and un-self-conscious touching come across to allies and enemies alike. (Consistently, the best parts of these sketches are when the supervillains would be like, “... We’re all seeing it, right?”) While it would be disingenuous to say that nudge-nudge innuendo-based humor like this is no longer indulged even among gay people, make no mistake that Ace and Gary were pitched to and appreciated by an overwhelmingly straight audience.

The cream of the crop

While in many ways, the joke of “Schmitts Gay” is that classic SNL bros Adam Sandler and Chris Farley turn out to be the kind of beer-swilling horndogs who dig cock, there’s something about the sketch that has always been a bit more welcoming than its era would suggest. Rather than direct the audience to laugh at Sandler and Farley’s gayness, the sketch served to make the predominantly straight audience laugh at what their typical horny beer commercials would look like with scantily clad men instead of women. And it had the courage to stand by the parody and make the men genuinely sexy. While Dana Carvey’s Lyle made me feel ashamed and self-conscious, “Schmitts Gay” legit turned me on.


Campy stuff gay audiences appreciated

The most enduring, queer-related SNL bits that gay audiences actually enjoyed leaned into camp. Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks playing the Sweeney Sisters, all rouged up and striving; Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon a decade or so later desperately hoofing it as Debbie Reynolds and Ann Miller in “Leg Up!”; Lucy Lawless busting out a shockingly flawless Stevie Nicks impersonation for “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup.”

Much like the bulk of campy* pop culture that queer people have always had to adopt as our own, almost none of this addresses gayness directly. But it does seem to have been pitched to gay or gay-adjacent audiences — past and present — in a way that feels decidedly, comedically queer. It’s what makes Bravo’s programming wildly entertaining, and why SNL’s “The Real Housewives of Disney” was such a bullseye.

*In the wake of the Met Ball-cultivated culture of paranoia around using the term “camp” incorrectly, know that I take an “I know it when I see it” attitude toward campiness, and challenge the rest of you to take your pedantic asses on a much-needed vacation if you can’t deal with it.

Notable examples

Attitudes

You’ve gotta be a true-blue, late-’80s queer to even remember Attitudes, the Lifetime network talk show starring soap-opera star Linda Dano and a revolving-door cast of cowering blondes (Nancy Glass was one). But anyone who does remember it also remembers the note-perfect SNL parody, in which Nora Dunn inhabited Dano’s massive shoulder pads like she was born in them, and both women steamrolled their guests with stream-of-consciousness patter until the clock simply ran out. A forgotten piece of ’80s iconography, but what are we queers if not cultural archaeologists?

Christina Aguilera as Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones

There’s an almost mathematical precision to how this sketch embedded itself deep in the hearts of gay men. Start with a Sex and the City parody, raised to the power of guest host Christina Aguilera, raised to the power of she’s playing Samantha Jones (aka the SATC character most obviously written from a gay male perspective), raised to the power of Aguilera’s shockingly good impersonation (we stan an unexpected talent!) ... and suddenly we’re in the stratosphere. (Regrettably, as is the case with far too much gay-embraced pop culture from our youth, there is a transphobic land mine waiting at the turn of the sketch, which never stops being a bummer.)

Lulu Diamonds

Melissa McCarthy’s best SNL sketch of all time (sorry, Sean Spicer) saw her play a voluptuous, Mae West-adjacent screen star whose brassy come-ons were frequently undercut by klutzy mishaps. McCarthy has always been the perfect example of an actress who can take a concept that sounds lousy on paper (the joke is that she ... falls down?) and make it sing with sheer performance. God bless and keep Lulu, and the three closeted gay guys who competed for her affections.

Ariana Grande’s The Sound of Music

Gay men were bound and determined to declare Grande’s SNL stint legendary anyway, so it’s a good thing she backed it up with this parody of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” where an eavesdropping Maria stays salty and calls out all these catty nuns for coming for her so rudely.

The cream of the crop

Liza Minnelli Tries to Turn Off a Lamp

I’d love to know what exact level of stoned a Broadway gay had to be to come up with this sketch, which essentially takes Kristen Wiig doing a B-minus Liza Minnelli impersonation and sets her upon one nigh-impossible task: turning off a lamp. (And quickly! They’ve got Cats tickets!) The result is absurd, insane, and just insider-y enough (“will a Fosse neck do it?”) that the intended audience knew they were being seen, at long last.


“Is this what you think gay people are like?”

Throughout the years, there has been a very specific genre of gay-themed sketch on SNL that portrays gay or gay-coded characters as bizarre, alien-like creatures with weird hair and shiny clothes and exaggerated mannerisms that seem vaguely nonhuman. It plays into certain party-gay stereotypes and probably would make a lot more sense to NYU graduates, but the persona tracks with absolutely no version of actual gay people. And while these sketches are often funny in their absurdist envelope-pushing, they don’t feel authentically queer.

Notable examples

Mango

Fun fact: The very first Mango sketch was performed with guest host Brendan Fraser. Less fun fact: Remember how Mango wasn’t even gay?? Chris Kattan’s absurdly alluring Euro-androgynous stage performer would bewitch whoever was hosting that week, leading to an overwrought obsession that was part Crying Game and part Union Square performance art. The joke, of course, was that Mango was not gay, but just the ephemeral, unknowable Mango. Which, honestly, could play as a kind of post-gender thing today if the show ever wanted to ask Kattan back.

Jeffrey’s

Gayness as a kind of arch, intimidating pose, struck by people who are more fashionable than you and wouldn’t hesitate to cut you down with words, has been an emergent genre of gay comedy (particularly gay comedy pitched to straight men). It’s not demeaning to gays, but it’s not really for them either. The concept of the “Jeffrey’s” sketch fits that bill, and it’s fine, with Sean Hayes’ and Will Ferrell’s utter inability to keep a straight face making it a legend.

The cream of the crop

Stefon

I mean, obviously. Famously the co-creation of Bill Hader and John Mulaney, Stefon is a purposefully absurd take on a more-outré-than-thou art gay who’s both sexual and un-sexual at the same time, is probably on drugs right now, and (in Hader’s hands) can’t keep from breaking. Stefon is a legendary SNL character for a reason, but despite butting up against gayness from all angles (including actually marrying Seth Meyers in his final regular appearance), there’s a reason why Stefon was never fully embraced by the gay community as their own. Mostly because he’s not. He’s trashy-art-gay as written by a straight man. While Mulaney manages to be the rare straight comedian who can reference gayness in a lot of different ways without ever being insulting, we can still tell when a sketch is or isn’t coming from inside the house.


Impersonations of gay celebs

Impersonations have been one of the cornerstones of Saturday Night Live since the days of Baba Wawa and Chevy Chase’s klutzy Gerald Ford. With an admittedly miniscule sample size to choose from, how has the show done with gay celebrities? Honestly, pretty well!

Notable examples

Jon Lovitz as Harvey Fierstein

In retrospect, it’s both hilarious and awesome that Fierstein — a New York theater legend who enjoyed a few select moments of crossover spotlight with Hairspray, Torch Song Trilogy, and Mrs. Doubtfire — was at one point famous enough to qualify for SNL parody. Lovitz’s take on Fierstein was as an insecure (but proudly out!) theater queen who was half gay male Linda Richman and half a needy host begging for validation from the celebrities he interviewed. The sexual politics were far from perfect, but the impersonation felt more or less loving.

Kate McKinnon as Ellen

The impersonation that put McKinnon — the first out lesbian cast member on SNL — on the map hits every button when it comes to the talk show host’s mannerisms, vocal inflections, and dance acumen. The only thing that could make these sketches even more accurate (and plugged into gay discourse) would be to needle Ellen for routinely giving money to adorable white gay teens.

The cream of the crop

Kristen Wiig as Suze Orman

Paula Pell has talked about how Orman would come up to her after Wiig’s sketches aired and rave about how accurate they were. The financial-advice guru made famous by Oprah was parodied six times by a note-perfect Wiig from 2008 to 2010, with special attention paid to her halting. Speech. Pattern. As well as her affinity for severe gay haircuts and expressive jackets.

Problematic AF

These two sketches don’t fit elsewhere in the rubric, but pretty much demand acknowledgment in any discussion of SNL’s history of gay-themed comedy. And not for great reasons!

It’s Pat

Variations of “It’s Pat” were performed seven times between 1991 and 1993. The sketch featured the great Julia Sweeney (most recently seen playing mom to SNL’s Aidy Bryant on Shrill) playing an ambiguously gendered, deeply amiable character named Pat. While the comedy came from the confusion and discomfort of those around Pat rather than anything overtly cruel, it’s still undeniable that none of this would fly today, and with good reason. Starting with the “It” in “It’s Pat,” these sketches were emblematic of the way the culture treats gender ambiguity and nonconformity — at arm’s length and with heavy suspicion. Pat is an artifact of a bygone era, at least in mainstream comedy, and it’s not like we find dinosaur fossils particularly funny either.

Mickey the Dyke

This Cheri Oteri sketch premiered in September 1995, during a period of major overhaul in the cast and crew (Oteri debuted that year, along with, among others, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, and Colin Quinn, and writers Adam McKay, Paula Pell, and Steve Higgins). And while the Ferrell/McKay era is remembered for hits like the Spartan cheerleaders, there was a lot of experimental strangeness (see: Goat Boy), and Mickey the Dyke rode that ragged edge. She was a character who could have just as easily been conceived by homophobes or by confrontational alt queers. The joke is that this exceedingly butch lesbian named Mickey the Dyke is agonizing over whether to come out. You could see that being funny when delivered in the company of knowing familiars in, say, a drag club. In mixed company, all that straight laughter from the audience sounds mighty suspect. Astoundingly, this character recurred five times.

Genuine queer sensibility

While it might sound like faint praise to declare this a golden age of queer-themed comedy at Saturday Night Live, it shouldn’t: Consistently, the sketches emerging from writers like Torres, Yang, Jay, Gates, and Anderson have been among the strongest material on the show. And to disabuse any notions of millennial fragility, this is not a matter of the modern era’s punchlines being inoffensive. These sketches range from esoteric (Emily Blunt as the voice of a far-too-ostentatious sink) to experiential (a lesbian version of the Logo series Fire Island); some are pitched to the entire audience, while other are content just to be adored by the subset who will truly get it. And honestly? That’s fine. What unites them is that they all feel like they come from an authentically queer perspective. Let the Deirdre era shine on.

Notable examples

Homocil

The TV commercial parody is a pillar of SNL, and ripe for queering. (See also: “Xanax for Gay Summer Weddings.”) This one — a pharma ad for a pill aimed at parents of obviously gay children — flips the script, ever so subtly, by putting the onus on the parents. “Because it’s your problem, not theirs” can feel like a tossed-off tagline, but the shift in perspective of that messaging is so significant. Paula Pell has talked about how she and Anderson wrote this sketch the week she came out to her co-workers, laying her LGBTQ cred on the line that gay audiences would respond positively.

Totinos with Kristen Stewart

In a callback to a 2015 sketch about a happy housewife serving Super Bowl snacks to a living room full of her “hungry guys,” this 2017 sketch introduces Kristen Stewart and all her big lesbian energy into the situation. Soon enough, Vanessa Bayer’s character has been awakened to the notion that, er, Super Bowl snacks can be for her as well. “What about my hungry guys?” “What are you hungry for?” Submit this sketch to Cannes today and Stewart flies home from France with a laurel.

Dyke and Fats

Proof that modern-day queer sketches don’t always need niche appeal, this parody of a ’70s cop show goes where Cagney & Lacey feared to tread, making one half of its Chicago cop tandem canonically gay. (“It’s Dyke. Dyke is the gay one. Fats enjoys a good string of sausage links, is her thing.”) The sketch does a great job of traipsing through the stereotypes of a bygone era, stripping them of their power by calling them out by name, and then letting the audience in on the joke with the turn at the end, in which they chew out their straight captain (try to pretend it’s anyone but Louis CK) for using their affectionately blunt nicknames for each other. It’s perfect.

The cream of the crop

Wells for Boys

This sketch announced Julio Torres as a major voice for the new SNL, as clearly and proudly as if he’d stepped out on his own plastic balcony set. There is something so recognizably specific at the heart of this sketch about a particular type of insular, sensitive, dreamy little boy. As the commercial alludes to, it’s not that he’s effeminate — it’s like that, but that’s just part of it. This is the kind of budding creative soul who hasn’t reached the point in life where boys get to be creative little souls yet. On top of it all, Emma Stone’s soft, patient tone asking her son if he wants to watch Y Tu Mamá También, followed later by her “EVERYTHING IS FOR YOU” burst of rage at the other boy, puts her in the gay mom hall of fame. She’s the unexpected human undercurrent that makes this sketch deeply memorable and meaningful.


Joe Reid is a film and entertainment writer based in New York City.