With SNL, Other People, Chris Kelly Breaks the Comedy Ceiling

Chris Kelly
Chris Kelly

When Chris Kelly took the stage at the Ace Hotel theater in downtown Los Angeles this summer, he thanked the actors, producers, and community that helped him make his new film Other People — a dramedy inspired by the death of his mother from cancer. He also recognized the broader significance of the moment. Flanked by stars Molly Shannon, J.J. Totah, and Zach Woods, the out director and writer drove home the importance of screening his first feature film at the closing night of the Outfest LGBT Film Festival.

“Growing up as a little gay kid, and even in high school and college in dealing with coming out, it was always a very important for me to see films and television shows with gay characters leading gay, interesting lives, and seeing movies and TV shows being written and directed by LGBT people,” he said. “So to be one of those people at this festival, I don’t take that lightly.”

The venue also didn’t escape his notice; Kelly took a moment to admire the architecture of the Spanish-Gothic building, a majestic movie palace originally built in 1927 as the United Artists Theater.

“This is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever been in. It looks like an evil church underwater,” Kelly marveled to the laughter of the crowd. (Indeed, before its current restoration by the Ace, church services had been held there in the 1990s. A neon “Jesus Saves” cross used to hang on the exterior.)

The off-the-cuff line was funny and observant — an appropriate reflection of its speaker, who was recently named as the first out gay head writer for Saturday Night Live, a post he will share with Sarah Schneider in the show’s 42nd season. “If you do have to step out to go to the bathroom during the movie, you can. But if you do step out, it is homophobic towards me, so try not to,” he also quipped before bowing offstage.

This ability to vacillate between serious and side-splitting is immediately apparent in Other People. When the lights dimmed in the packed three-story theater, the first scene the audience saw is a family piled on a bed and clasping one another in the moment of its matriarch’s death. The sobs begin, but a comedic moment immediately breaks the tragic tension. Then, time rewinds, reestablishing the viewer, who now knows full well what is to come, in the year prior to the mother’s death.

Leading with a death in a comedy was a risky move for Kelly, who was advised by a producer early on to take a more conventional plot structure. But for Kelly, the structure felt important to the story he was telling. In a recent interview with The Advocate, he recalled how it felt real to his own life experience.

“One of the things I remember about being home with my mom was there was a point where it was very clear medically that she was not going to make it,” recounted the 30-something filmmaker, who helped care for his mother before she died in 2009. “I remember that feeling, God, it’s so weird to know how this ends.

“But what is the middle going to feel like?” he asked himself at the time. “What do we do in the days, in the weeks, in the months, until she dies? How do we fill these days? How do we make the most of this? I wanted the audience to feel that frustration.”

There is much frustration on display in the hilarious and heartbreaking Other People. Over the course of the film, Shannon’s character, Joanne, who first appears as a joyous figure in a shimmering party dress, loses her hair, her voice, and ultimately her life.

In this “middle” time, her son, David (Jesse Plemons), travels from New York City to Sacramento to care for her. He has his own demons to conquer. A gay 20-something, David still struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, as does his father (Bradley Whitford). His job as a writer on Saturday Night Live has recently ended, as has a relationship. He hides these struggles from his mother. He wants to convince her he’s all right. He wants her to die thinking his future in love and life is secure.

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All in all, it’s a lot of emotional weight for a comedy to carry. Which is why Kelly wanted Shannon for the role. As a veteran of Saturday Night Live and films like Wet Hot American Summer, Shannon is renowned as a comedic actress. But parts in more recent productions like Mike White’s The Year of the Dog proved she could also handle drama with equal skill.

“She makes the movie so much funnier,” Kelly said of his leading woman. “But she also makes the movie that much more real and tragic and disturbing, because you don’t want to see Molly Shannon go through that.”

“She was always one of my favorites,” added Kelly, who as a teen grew up as a fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. “I would memorize her sketches and perform them. I was obsessed with her. She was so great.”

Likewise, Shannon knew she wanted the part “the minute I closed the script.” In fact, she called Kelly the same day expressing her interest. Although they both share a work history at SNL, the NBC comedic variety show was not the connection in this instance. Her management gave her the script, and she fell in love with the story and its “complicated family dynamic.”

"I just found it beautiful," she told The Advocate at the film’s Los Angeles premiere last week. "And as a mother, I really related to it, that you would just do anything for your kids, and just how close they were. ... She would have done anything to fight for more time on earth with her children."

Among the "100 things I love" about Other People, Shannon also praised a sex scene between her son's character and his ex-boyfriend (Zach Woods). "I’ve never seen a scene like that before," she said. "I thought it was so real, full of heart, and complicated."

Other People shines in its portrayal of complicated gay characters — a rarity in film and the comedy genre in particular, where gay jokes and stereotypes run amok, if they exist at all. David struggles with his sexuality, but he is not defined by it, nor is it a punch line. He’s not a token. Numerous complex queer characters inhabit the world of the film, including David’s friend Gabe (John Early), his ex Paul (Zach Woods), and a friend of the family, Justin (the 15-year-old J.J. Totah), a gender-noncomforming young person who almost steals the movie with a hilarious drag performance.

The existence of these characters is not happenstance. Previously, the out screenwriter stressed how it easy it could be for Hollywood to incorporate more complex LGBT characters — as evidenced by Other People.

“I think there’s no mystery to writing gay characters. You can just write them!” Kelly told the U.K.'s Gay Times, adding, “There’s all sorts of them! And they eat food and hang out with friends and their mothers die just like all the best straight characters.”

To The Advocate, Kelly reaffirmed his commitment to LGBT stories, promising, “Anything I write will have gay characters in it, because we need more characters on television and in movies. If not me, then who?”

Who, indeed? Hollywood struggles massively with a lack of LGBT representation. A report released this week by USC Annenberg showed that there were no lead LGBT roles in the top 100 films of 2015. Other People is an independent film, but its success could inspire others to follow suit in placing LGBT lives front and center.

The gears may already be shifting. Out comedian Billy Eichner, a friend and former collaborator of Kelly’s who also walked Other People’s red carpet, sees the industry in a crucible moment for diversity.

“I definitely see that tide turning. I think we’re seeing a bigger variety of gay characters and people across the LGBT spectrum,” said Eichner, who pointed to the complex queer portrayals on his own Hulu show, Difficult People, as examples of this shift.

“It’s not just about being the wacky neighbor anymore,” he said. “We’re fully fledged out characters. We’re funny, yes. But we can be mean and we can be bad and good and as complicated as anyone else, which of course we’ve always been, but we haven’t been necessarily represented like that.”

Kelly has also observed the "push" for diversity, which he is grateful for, even as a viewer.

"I want to see content and television shows and movies and I want to read books about people who are different," he said. "I don’t want to read stories about straight white men all the time. I crave movies and TV shows about women and gay people and transgender people and people of different cultures and religions. You want to be, Oh, my God! I haven’t seen enough of this."

"The more stories there are with more people, the better," he added.

There are other encouraging signs of change. Earlier this year, Seth Rogen apologized for the “blatantly homophobic” jokes in past films like Superbad. The recent news of Kelly’s appointment as a head writer of SNL is also a reason to be hopeful. “It’s huge,” confirmed Eichner, who praised the “sheer talent” it took for Kelly to earn the post.

Zach Woods, who portrays David’s ex-boyfriend in Other People, also acknowledged the cultural and political import of Kelly’s new position.

“That’s really a part of mass culture. That defines the satirical narrative with elections,” said Woods, who took care to praise the accomplishments of the person before his identity. “I think he’s a brilliant comedy writer. But as an ancillary benefit, yes I think it’s good that there will be a gay head writer at SNL.”

When asked about the significance of the new role, Kelly recalled sharing a moment with Schneider where they realized, “This is cool. I’m gay and you’re a woman, and we’re helping to cowrite the show.” Kelly is proud of this achievement. But for him, thinking about this importance in a “macro sense” can be intimidating. First and foremost, he has a job to do.

“I very rarely step outside of myself and think about myself so much in this way,” admitted the first-time filmmaker, referring to the slew of questions that can accompany promoting a production, particularly one that hits so close to home. 

“I’m happy for myself now,” he said. “I'm happy for the little teenage closeted gay boy of my past who would record SNL on VHS tapes and then perform them the next day for his classmates.”

“Goddamn, that is humiliating to now think about,” he added, laughing.

The promotion of Kelly and Schneider in the writer’s room could mark a new era of pro-LGBT comedy for SNLVanity Fair noted that their ascendance — as well as the recent firing of cast members Jay Pharoah, Taran Killam, and Jon Rudnitsky — marks “a huge step away from toxic bro humor” that marred some of its recent seasons. The show has received criticism in the past year for Rudnitsky’s "queened-up" portrayal of out anchor Anderson Cooper in a skit.

Kelly had no comment on Rudnitsky’s portrayal. However, he did say he believed Rudnitsky’s “intention wasn’t to do anything disrespectful. … I don’t think he was remotely trying to be hurtful or stereotypical.” And in comedy, intention is key.

“On a larger scale, separate from Jon, I think it’s important to think about what you write, and to always try to be on the right side of the joke,” Kelly added.

When asked whether comedians should think harder before telling gay jokes, Kelly said it can be done. However, it is a delicate dance.

“I weirdly feel like anything, any topic or anything can be funny, and it’s just in the way you do it,” he said. “There’s a way to be on the right side of a joke and the wrong side of a joke. And I just think people should be thoughtful in general.”

Kelly pointed to a skit he wrote with Schneider that also ruffled some feathers in the LGBT community, "Dyke & Fats," which starred out comedian Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, as an example of being on the right side. The 2014 sketch is a parody of a '70s cop show, starring buddies-in-uniform Les Dykawitz (McKinnon) and Chubbina Fatzarelli (Bryant).

“That was such a celebration of Kate and Aidy’s friendship and them claiming and having fun with the way that they’re often first described. Kate is often first described as a lesbian, and Aidy’s body is often talked about in articles,” said Kelly, adding, “If we ruffled feathers, I don’t care. I stand by that 100 percent. I truly love that sketch so much.”

As for his own writers’ room, he feels he does not need to draw a line regarding gay jokes.

“I don’t need to set a line,” he stated. “I don’t work with people who I don’t feel understand the line.”

Kelly acknowledged that homophobia does exist in the comedy world, where antigay and other bigoted jokes still rear their heads in clubs and standup routines. But he has observed a change in the culture of what's acceptable.

“I feel like we’re moving slowly but surely, month by month, year by year into people realizing more and more, you can’t go onstage and make a derogatory gay joke, you can’t go onstage and be blatantly sexist,” he said. “Obviously, some people are always going to laugh at this. But those people suck. And you just gotta trust that slowly but surely, it’s not going to work for them.”

Saturday Night Live’s new season begins in October. But for now, Kelly is taking a moment from the frenzy of press and promotion to celebrate Other People, its release, and the woman it honors.

“Ultimately, what this began as was me sitting down writing about my mother," he said. "I’m proud that I got to tell her story onscreen, and I got to hopefully show her in a positive way and give people a little taste of who she was.”

“I just have to keep reminding myself, That’s cool,” he concluded. “I’m lucky I got to do it.”

Other People is in select theaters this weekend. Watch the trailer below.

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