The Ambivalently Gay Viewer: “Saturday Night Live”’s Mixed Record on Gay Humor

The first time Saturday
Night Live
showed a gay character, it was in November 1975, on the show’s fourth episode, in an ad parody entitled
“Long Distance.” In it, a gay man reminisces about the joy of dressing in his
mother’s clothes. After all, “It’s the next best thing to being her.”

In one of this season’s latest episodes (airing on 3/15/08),
host Jonah Hill confesses to cast member Andy Samberg that he’s been secretly
dating Andy’s father.

These two sketches, separated by more than thirty years,
couldn’t be more different in sensibility, and the reaction couldn’t have been
more different among gay viewers. In 1975, gay activists protested the “Long
Distance” sketch, and the sequence was actually edited out of a 2005 late-night
rebroadcast on NBC.

The 2008 segment? “Talk about committing to a sketch,”
commented one reader. “That’s how you do a comedy sketch about
gay guys without resorting to cheap, insulting stereotypes.”

How has SNL
treated gay issues and characters over its long life? It hasn’t necessarily
been a steadily upward trajectory, from early offensiveness to current
enlightenment. Some earlier sketches show a surprising degree of sensitivity,
while jokes from even the current season rely on the most hackneyed of gay
stereotypes. But this is to be expected on a show that’s run more than thirty
years, with literally hundreds of writers and cast members all contributing to
the stew.

It’s also simply the nature of television comedy, which is
rarely subtle and instead usually relies on broad stereotypes of all sorts and
underlined punch lines. The point is to make a mainstream audience laugh, after all.

Meanwhile, comedy is notoriously subjective &#8212 not just in
whether it’s “funny,” but whether it’s offensive or irreverent, subversive or

In interviews with those currently involved with the show,
the current SNL producing team seems
more sensitive to gays and gay issues than ever before. And after viewing much
of the current season, it does seem like worst anti-gay humor is a part of
SNL’s past.

But many gay viewers have long been ambivalent about the show. Are these changes enough to draw them back?

A Comedy Revolution

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Saturday Night Live. It’s not just because it launched the careers
of literally dozens of comedy superstars, from John Belushi and Eddie Murphy to
Michael Myers and Adam Sandler. It literally popularized a “new” kind of
comedy &#8212 the irreverent, often ironic, sometimes raunchy, and frequently topical
humor that we now take for granted.

Before SNL, sketch
comedy meant the irony-free The Carol
Burnett Show.

“Carol Burnett was hysterical,” says Michael Serrato,
formerly a cast member on The Big Gay
Sketch Show
on Logo [’s parent company]. “But Saturday Night Live was young. That’s
why it created so many stars. Consistently, whether it was a good cast or a bad
cast, it was young and fresh and modern, and the world just wanted to spoon it

True, SNL’s
quality has waxed and waned over the years, from some high points to some
groaningly low ones.

Saturday Night Live
is three things you love and one thing you hated,” Head Writer and Weekend Update co-anchor Seth Meyers tells in what may be a slightly optimistic

Currently in its 33rd season, SNL is no longer the touchstone of
contemporary comedy that it once was. Cable shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report are now much fresher cultural barometers.

Still, SNL, once
the ultimate outsider and home to the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players, has
somehow ended up a cultural institution. It’s like 60 Minutes or Barbara Walters &#8212 television comfort food, the kind of
thing the show itself is known to parody. It may not be as hip as it once was,
but assessing the quality of the latest cast, or the cue-card-reading skills of
the latest celebrity-turned-stilted-host, is still a national pastime.

But for gay viewers of SNL,
there’s always been something more to discuss: its gay humor, which has often
relied on negative stereotypes and has sometimes made gay viewers feel like
they’re being laughed at, not with. It’s one of the great ironies of
contemporary comedy that while it prides itself on being “irreverent” and
“edgy,” it has so frequently dutifully reinforced traditional norms and
attitudes when it comes to gay people.

“I think generally we reflect the culture,” admits SNL producer Mike Shoemaker. “The
culture has changed.”

Next page… Mango and Gays in Space!

Hot Pants and Feather

Over the years, American comedy has derived plenty of laughs
from repeating, without irony, stereotypical characterizations of minorities. SNL may have broken many comedy rules,
but it didn’t initially break this one, especially when it came to gay men.

In a 1980 skit,
soldiers are tested for homosexuality by being quizzed with questions such as
“What was Judy Garland’s first movie?” and “Who is the Mayor of San Francisco?”

Nothing much seemed to have changed by 2005, when, in the
reoccurring sketch “Gays in Space,” a limp-wristed gay space crew, wearing
silver uniforms and short-shorts, make lewd sexual references and catty
comments while sipping cocktails. At one point, they encounter a ship run by a
lesbian crew who wear flannel and have their hair styled in mullets.

In other words, the
message from SNL has frequently been
clear: gay men are lisping, cross-dressing queens who love shopping and Barbra

The producers of the show are aware that SNL has sometimes taken heat for their
portrayal of gays, but caution that the creative team is not a monolithic group
with one single comedic approach to gay comedy.

“The personnel [at SNL] is always changing,” says Seth Meyers. “It’s the people who work here on any
given year, on any given week. We don’t always look back in the past and see
what we’ve done because we weren’t here in the past.”

Meanwhile, one of the
show’s head writers, Paula Pell, is an out lesbian. In fact, she recalls
reading the online reaction to some “lame gay references” in a sketch she’d
written. “Everyone was saying, ‘They don’t get it right, because it’s such a
straight show,’” Pell says. “But it was a gay person who wrote it! It wasn’t a
straight perspective, just me being old.”

Indeed, the show has
occasionally subverted gay stereotypes and even parodied those who traffic in
them. A sketch
from the fall of 2007 about the outing of Harry
Albus Dumbledore parodied an apparently clueless J.K. Rowling and
an even more clueless Larry King’s attitudes about gay people.

Meanwhile, Chris
Kattan’s popular 1990s “Mango” character was an effeminate, melodramatic go-go
dancer who swishes and slaps his butt (always to the tune of Everything But the
Girl’s “Like The Deserts Miss The Rain”). But Mango, who was eventually
identified as at least quasi-gay, is also portrayed as an object of male
desire. In nearly every skit, he is romantically pursued by a straight,
(usually) male celebrity &#8212 David Duchovny, John Goodman, Ben Affleck, Matt
Damon, or Samuel L. Jackson &#8212 who just can’t get Mango out of their minds.

Kattan definitely
camped it up, but given that the stereotype usually features effeminate men
romantically pining after masculine straight men, it was refreshing to see the
stereotype reversed.

Finally, there was
Julia Sweeney’s gender-bending “Pat” (1990-1994). SNL made people’s discomfort with an indeterminate gender the butt
of the joke, not necessarily Pat him/herself.

Hogwarts and Ass-Bury Park

In the world of sketch
comedy, gay men aren’t just limp-wristed interior decorators; they’re also
obsessed with sex. It’s another gay stereotype that SNL has frequently resorted to for easy laughs.

“The first same-sex
couple in New Jersey was married Monday in Asbury Park,” Jimmy Fallon reported
in a March 2004 Weekend Update segment. “Really, in all of New Jersey, the gay
dudes had to get married in a place called Ass-bury Park? Really? C’mon.”

Meanwhile, in a
November 2007 Weekend Update segment, Seth Meyers reported on the news that
Harry Potter’s Albus Dumbledore isn’t just gay; he has “hogwarts.”

Next page… Canteen Boy and Schmitt’s Gay Beer.

Perhaps the low point
for SNL and gay men was a February
1994 skit called “Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster.” Canteen Boy, supposedly 27
years old but with a child-like naiveté, was a recurring character played by
Adam Sandler. On a camping trip, the Scoutmaster, played by host Alec Baldwin,
tries to make sexual advances on Canteen Boy. When the Scoutmaster initiates a
game of Truth or Dare, Baldwin says,
“I’ll tell you a truth, Canteen
Boy! You know what I hate? Underpants!”

Alec Baldwin, Adam Sandler

(Photo credit: NBC)

The current producing team insists the show has become more
sensitive to gay issues. “I’ve been here 13 years and I’m gay, and I don’t
remember ever being so offended by something that I came in and said like, ‘We
cannot do this,’” Pell says.

An Enormous
Penis-Shaped Car

SNL hasn’t always taken the most obvious approach to gay male sexuality. In Robert Smigel’s reoccurring cartoon
feature, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” superheroes Ace and Gary, voiced by
gay-friendly comedians Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, repeatedly find
themselves in situations that seem more than a little “gay” &#8212 driving around in
an enormous penis-shaped car, or flying through the air while crouched together
as if having sex.

The Ambiguously Gay Duo was a reaction to the
“’nippleization’ of the Batman movies in the late 90s,” Smigel told in 2006. “The crotch and ass shots, the nipples on the uniforms .
. . the growing obsession with the sexuality of superheroes. Why not leave
Batman and Robin alone? They do good work. What difference does it make?”

But what’s the joke
here exactly? The sight gag of two superheroes in sexually compromising
positions? Or is the cartoon a parody of the heterosexual obsession with the
mechanics of gay sex? After all, the gay sex “acts” are usually seen from the
point-of-view of a straight character &#8212 a police commissioner or a super-villain.
In other words, maybe the cartoon parodies heterosexuals, not gays.

“Everyone relates to the bad guys in the cartoon,” Smigel
says. “We all have important business, we’d all like to take over the world . .
. but when it comes to getting to work, we’d all just rather hang and talk
about whether Tom Cruise is gay.”

Many gay viewers
embraced the cartoon. But as the sketch wore on, basically repeating the same
joke again and again, it did start to feel less subversive and more like just
another skit causing straight folks to giggle at the idea of gay male sex.

A better approach to
gay sex might be 1991’s “Schmitt’s Gay,” a hilarious parody of straight
male-directed beer ads. Sandler, who is housesitting, takes his friend Farley
out to see the empty swimming pool in the backyard. It doesn’t look like much
at first, but then he turns on the water, and it transforms into a party full
of hunky men, one of whom says suggestively, “You two look like you need to get
wet.” Looking up to the sky, Sandler and Farley clasp their hands in prayer and
whisper, in ecstatic unison, “Thank you!”

The parody perfectly
satirizes the corny sexism of straight male beer ads, but doesn’t play on gay
stereotypes or judge its gay protagonists. At the end, Farley, massaging the
shoulders of a handsome man in a Speedo, tells Sandler, “I think I’m gonna like
housesitting.” Sandler, likewise busy, says, “Uh… yeah!”

Next page… Homicil.

Frat-Boy Humor?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Cast members like
John Belushi or SNL’s tradition of
broad, frat-boy-type humor? Whichever it was, SNL’s reputation for ironic social commentary soon segued into
full-fledged Animal House-type

“They’re writing the show for straight men,” Serrato says.
“A lot of the time SNL does
interesting things, but ultimately [Lorne Michaels] is making a ‘man’ show.”

Sometimes the frat-boy mentality comes across in the use of “gay panic” as a source of humor. In a 1994 skit, “Dracula’s Not Gay,” John Travolta’s Count Dracula is sneaking up on some guests (Kevin Nealon and Janeane Garofalo) in his castle, about to suck their blood, when he overhears them speculating that he’s gay. Dracula is so disturbed that he abandons his attack and tries to convince them otherwise. When events keep conspiring to make them think he really is gay, he finally comes out and confesses he’s a vampire &#8212 apparently, this is less distressing than being thought of as gay.

“Comedy is best when it has an
incredibly strong point of view,” says Seth Meyers. “We find that obviously
with all kinds of identity comedy that we do. The stronger point of view you
have, the more laser-focused it is, the more people that are going to be
outside that point of view and think that it’s off base, but that’s sort of how
it works."

The opposite of “gay
panic” humor might be called “gay chicken,” after the frat game where straight
guys see how close they come to kissing without actually touching lips
(because, after all, kissing another guy is as bad as driving into another
car). Sometimes SNL has seemed
determined to communicate the idea that there is nothing more hilarious than the
sight of two men kissing or otherwise showing physical affection.

In one attention-getting ad parody in 1976, Garrett Morris
as a Marine approaches various men on the street. Finally, one seems receptive,
and he and Morris walk off arm-in-arm. The announcer intones, “The Marines.
We’re looking for a few good men.”

In an unfunny April 5
sketch in the current season, a creepy Christopher Walken sexually harasses a
male co-worker, eventually sticking a tongue in his ear (and later leaving to
choke him in the parking lot).

“It’s laziness on the
part of the writers,”
says, referring to the tendency to get laughs from same-sex affection. “It’s
three o’clock in the morning, and the writer doesn’t know how to close the
sketch. ‘Let’s have them kiss!’ But on
national TV, it’s got to be more than just, ‘We couldn’t think of anything

But while some in the SNL audience have always surely been
laughing at the “gay chicken” element of physical affection between two men,
you could also argue that by presenting homoeroticism in any context, the show
has also somehow served to legitimize it. After all, two men kissing can only
be “shocking” for so long, then desensitization inevitably occurs.

In 2006, Will Forte
and guest star Steve Martin appeared in an oddly touching skit called “Close
Talkers,” about two men who stand just on the verge of kissing when they talk
to each other, yet never quite kiss. Although the skit got laughs from the
homoeroticism, there was also a suggestion of a repressed, Brokeback Mountain-style love which, along with the piano music
playing intermittently in the background, somehow gave the skit a genuinely
romantic as well as a comedic aspect.

Pell calls comedy of this sort “writing from the inside out.
You can really go quite far if it seems inclusive, as long as it has an
accurate point-of-view,” she says. She grants that comedians in the past have
used gay humor that was “lazy and lame, but now we try hard to write from the
inside out.”

Laughing At

As The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Real Time With Bill Maher have shown,
there is plenty of humor to be found in the idiocy of the homophobic right.
While SNL hasn’t done this as
consistently as those other two shows, they’ve had their moments. In a 1991 Weekend Update segment, the show
took on Norman Schwarzkopf, who had recently referred to Pentagon insiders who
criticized the Army as “military fairies. ”

Chris Farley [as Schwarzkopf]: Let me say right off that, when I used the term
"fairy," I was speaking colloquially. Where I grew up in New Jersey,
the word "fairy" was often substituted for other terms. For instance,
on my block, the Staten Island Ferry is called the Staten Island Gay Boy. And,
of course, we all believed in the Tooth Faggot!

The piece ridiculed
the claim — that would go on to be used by celebrities from Eminem to Isaiah
Washington — that words like “fairy” and “faggot” have nothing to do with

In 2001, Will Ferrell
was the star of the ad parody, “Homocil.”
He appeared as one of several parents suffering anxiety and discomfort because
of their effeminate (and presumably gay) male children. As the sons are shown
enthusiastically baton-twirling, gushing over “fabulous” tops, and offering the
family some crème brûlée that they have just made, the parents look close to
suicide. The voiceover runs:

"If you obsess
about things you can’t change . . . If you’re unable to cope with unforeseen
developments . . . If you avoid prolonged contact with your children due to
these anxieties . . . when taken regularly, Homocil reduces parental anxiety.
Homocil, until you come around. Because it’s your problem, not theirs."

Although the parody is
really just another form of “gay panic” humor, and it also gets laughs from its
stereotypically effeminate boys, it is notable for two things: one, for being
absolutely adamant that the sons cannot be changed, and that it is the parents
who have a “problem” and need to be helped; and two, the fact that the boys in
the skit are all under twelve. Prior to Ugly
’s Justin, this may have been one of the very few mainstream shows to
acknowledge that stereotypically gay traits aren’t things that sometimes just
suddenly magically develop when you are a gay adult.

Next page… Nealon’s porn reviews and Samberg wrestles with Ace & Gary!

“It’s written from a gay perspective,” says Pell, who
co-wrote the parody with James Anderson. “It was completely pro-gay on every
level in terms of just ‘get over it. It is what it is.’” But because the ad was
so specifically gay, Pell remembers thinking, “We didn’t want to piss off the
gay community.”

In 2004, shortly after
the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Tina Fey responded dryly to the pictures of naked
and heaped prisoners with the comment: “It’s a good thing there’s no gay people
in the military because otherwise weird sex stuff might happen.”

More recently, Andy
Samberg responded to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York
with the faux-romantic song “Iran So Far” (“You say there’s no homosexuals in
Iran . . . But you’re in New York now baby. . . So it’s time to stop hating,
and start living”).

Laughing With Us, Not
At Us

No doubt most gay
viewers yearn for a day when being gay in sketch comedy is something more than
a tired stereotype, or an insult to humiliate someone with. Since watching SNL has become a national pastime and gay people are a part of the
nation, they’d also like to be in on the joke. But as Pell suggests with the
notion of writing from the “inside out,” that kind of humor only comes from a
genuine familiarity and comfort with the community being joked about.

“There’s a difference
between pointing fingers at someone and pointing them at yourself,”

notes Serrato.

Over the decades, SNL has reportedly had a number of gay
cast members, but only one has been openly gay, Terry Sweeney, who left the show,
along with his SNL-writer partner,
after a single season in 1986. In fact, he was the first openly gay man on any
network television show ever. ( made repeated, unsuccessful
attempts to reach Sweeney.)

Of SNL’s current staff of 15 or so writers,
3 are gay, including Pell. Meanwhile, openly gay comedians have been invited to
audition to join the cast, including The
Big Gay Sketch Show’s
Serrato who got the call last year.

“It seems like they
were ready to take a chance,” Serrato says, even though he ultimately wasn’t
hired. “SNL is looking for not just
funny, but [cast-members who are] profound and different. And pretty girls.
Always pretty girls.”

The creative staff
maintains that “funny” is the sole requirement for getting a job on the
show &#8212 that other considerations don’t even come into play. “It does not serve
anyone to have cast members that are gay or black just because of that,” Meyers

Still, for whatever
reason, there have been times over the years when gays are in on an SNL joke even when most of the
heterosexual audience might not be.

In 1989, Kevin Nealon
“reviewed” some heterosexual porn in a Weekend Update segment:

Kevin Nealon: I was interested at first…then got
more interested…Then very interested…Then very
interested…Then very, very
interested…Then suddenly…not that interested.

But then Nealon “reviews” a gay porn movie, All About Jeff, featuring a cassette
with a picture of gay porn star Jeff Stryker:

Kevin Nealon:
I was horrified, disgusted… somewhat interested,
interested…very interested, then suddenly embarrassed, disgusted with myself,

Nealon’s porn reviews,
which were inspired comedy, were made particularly daring by the inclusion of
that gay porn movie, especially in 1989. And the photo of Stryker, an actual
gay porn star, seems pretty clearly a nod to gay people, one of whom must have
been consulted in the formulation of the bit.

When Ben Affleck
hosted the show in 2004, he made fun of the “Bennifer” obsession in the press
that year over his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, by showing off a series of
T-shirts he had made with compound names.

Ben Affleck: Now, this one is for the off-chance
that I get together with Marcia Gay Harden: [pulls out a fifth t-shirt that
reads "Ben-Gay”] Or.. or.. or, or.. in the unlikely, but.. wonderful event
— hope, hope — that Matt [Damon] finally comes around.

Clearly, Affleck (and
the SNL writers) were aware enough of
the gay male community’s then-obsession with Ben-and-Matt to poke good-natured
fun at it.

More recently, when Brokeback Mountain star Jake Gyllenhaal
hosted the show, he directly addressed his gay fans in his opening monologue. Granted,
he took it as an opportunity to don drag and sing a song from Dreamgirls, but the bit was still very

Meanwhile, over the
years, the Ambiguously Gay Duo has developed an unnerving fascination with
certain good-looking male cast members, first Jimmy Fallon and now Andy
Samberg. The obsession made Fallon uncomfortable, but Samberg has been more than
happy to play the part of the clueless “heteroflexible” guy, getting caught
“wrestling” the duo in his dressing room and reluctantly admitting that he did
what sounds like gay porn in an online video.

When the Ambiguously
Gay Duo offer to take Samberg and cast-member Jason Sudeikis to their secret
“Fortress of Privacy,” but only if they take off all their clothes, Samberg
can’t get naked fast enough &#8212 both a funny visual gag, but also a rare and long
overdue shot of SNL beefcake.

“As a comedian, you’re
always looking for a newer, fresher take,” says Meyers. “That’s Andy’s.”

Next page… Sudeikis and Armison invited to dinner.

Just Part of the

Perhaps the most
refreshing of all SNL skits involving
gay folks are the very few where we’re not the object of the joke, pro or con,
but simply included as background &#8212 just “incidental” characters who happen to be

In a 1994 sketch,
“Sexy Cakes,” a young man (Rob Schneider) is trying to buy a cake for a bachelor
party he is attending that night, at an erotic bakery owned by guest star
Patrick Stewart. The only trouble is that all the cakes are shaped like women
going to the bathroom &#8212 and no matter how hard Rob Schneider tries, he doesn’t
seem to be able to make Patrick Stewart understand that he doesn’t actually
find that sexy. Midway through the sketch, a gay couple enters to pick up a
cake they had ordered for a party that night &#8212 and they encounter exactly the
same problem as Rob Schneider. The sketch seems almost designed to emphasize
that the gay couple is normal, while Patrick Stewart is, to put it politely,

In an October 2007
sketch entitled “Jeremy & Stacia,” parents Bill Hader and Amy Poehler are
having a dinner party whose guests just happen to be a gay male couple,
cast-members Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen. The gay couple’s sexuality is
never mentioned, and the joke of the sketch is the way two parents are
oblivious to how obnoxious their overgrown children are.

“There was a time when it was hard to do something like that,” Shoemaker says.
“You didn’t want people to be misled by it, to confuse the joke.”

And in what is perhaps
an indication of just how much both Saturday
Night Live
and the world have changed, Seth Meyers admits, “I even don’t
remember that. That’s how naturally it occurred.”

Additional reporting for this article provided by Locksley Hall.