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 AfterElton.com 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 — not just in
whether it’s “funny,” but whether it’s offensive or irreverent, subversive or
cloying.

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 — 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 [AfterElton.com’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
up.”

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 AfterElton.com in what may be a slightly optimistic
assessment.

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 — 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!

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