From boundary-breaking cast members and writers to musical guests who sang the soundtrack of our lives, queerness has played a role in the long-running comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live — quite literally from the very beginning. So, without further ado ... Live from New York, it’s the queer history of Saturday Night Live!
While viewers didn’t know it at the time, its first LGBTQ+ host appeared in the first season when Lily Tomlin had the honor of hosting the episode. Tomlin’s monologue was a delightfully strange reading of her journal, and audiences were treated to her classic characters of the precocious Edith Ann and telephone operator Ernestine.
In season 11, SNL added its first out cast member, Terry Sweeney. His partner, Lanier Laney, also joined that season as a writer. During Sweeney’s one-season tenure on the sketch show in 1985, his characterizations of Nancy Reagan, Joan Collins, and Joan Rivers were standouts. However, he left the show after his first season, reportedly having endured behind-the-scenes homophobic bullying by Chevy Chase, a former cast member who had returned to host SNL. It would be 27 years before another out cast member would join the show.
Danitra Vance also joined SNL in season 11, becoming the series’ first lesbian cast member, although she was not out professionally at the time. Unhappy with the choice of characters she was asked to play, which included That Black Girl (an actress repeatedly being overlooked for her race) and Cabrini Green Jackson (a professional teenage mother and motivational speaker), Vance also left the show after season 11.
Although writer Paula Pell had been making her mark on SNL with characters like Debbie Downer and the Spartan cheerleaders beginning in season 21, it wasn’t until season 32 that she was named head writer, a gig that lasted for two seasons. Not only was she the first only queer woman head writer, but she was only the second woman, period, to hold that title in the series’ long history (after Tina Fey).
In 2012, Kate McKinnon became the series’ first out woman cast member. She began as a member of the repertory company and was promoted to full castmate in her second season. She had quickly become an icon of the show for her incredible celebrity impersonations and wacky, frequently queer characters.
The hilarious Bowen Yang joined the cast of SNL in 2019 and made history as its first out Asian cast member. He quickly became a scene-stealer and made further history just two years later when he was nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy for his role on Saturday Night Live, the first time a “featured” player had earned that nod.
Thirty-five seasons after Danitra Vance joined the cast and became the first queer (but closeted at the time) Black woman on the cast, Punkie Johnson made history as the first out queer Black woman. Her bits on “Weekend Update” have quickly been a highlight of the segment.