A Brief LGBT History of Saturday Night Live

A Brief LGBT History of SNL

Last week Saturday Night Live announced Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly as the head writers for its upcoming 42nd season. This makes Schneider only the third female head writer on the show, while Kelly takes his place in history as SNL’s first out gay man to take on the mantle. In celebration of this milestone, we’re taking a look at the hilarious highs and rocky lows of SNL’s gay history.

The Players

Terry Sweeney (Season 11)

The only out gay man to be a member of SNL’s cast to this date, Terry Sweeney was part of the ill-fated 11th-season cast and was dismissed at the end of just one season, though he was in good company (Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall were all part of that fired group as well). Sweeney has said in interviews that Lorne Michaels was nothing but supportive of his decision to be out of the closet. During his season on SNL, Sweeney hilariously played women in dozens of sketches, most memorably Nancy Reagan, as seen below.

Danitra Vance (Season 11)

Danitra Vance, a lesbian, is tied with Sweeney for first LGBT cast member on SNL, though she was not out publicly during her lifetime. She is also the first black female to become a repertory player. While she was notoriously plagued by limited and stereotypical roles on the show, her amazing talent shone through in every part she took. Whether she was translating Romeo and Juliet as part of a “Shakespeare in the Slums” project or pointedly criticizing the difficulties black women face in casting with “I Play the Maids” or the recurring “That Black Girl,” her support of social justice was always apparent. She resigned from the show in the wake of so many of her castmates being fired, but she never stopped writing and performing socially aware comedy during her too-short life — she died of breast cancer at age 40 in 1994. Here she is impressively performing a message about consent that deserves to go viral in today’s comedy world.

Damon Wayans Gets Fired (Season 11)

Before becoming a household name on In Living Color, Damon Wayans was briefly a member of the same SNL cast as the previous two entries on this list. Allegedly bored with the limited roles he was being offered, Wayans decided to shake things up one night by playing a cop character as gay. While the choice is, um, interesting, it definitely does not support the simple premise of the sketch, which is basically that Jon Lovitz is the Monopoly Man and finds ways to work in references to the game. Lorne Michaels is known for his intolerance of actors going off script, and Wayans was fired over this stunt. The good news is he has gone on to have a successful comedy career and create his own hilarious roles.

Kate McKinnon (season 39-present)

Only the second openly LGBT cast member in 42 years, Kate McKinnon has become a breakout star. So many of her characters and impersonations are the standout moments of their episodes, from Russian peasant Olya Povlatsky to the intoxicated Sheila Sauvage, from a swaggering Justin Bieber to a desperate-to-please Hillary Clinton. She had a gangbusters summer, with a part in Finding Dory and a show-stealing role in Ghostbusters. She and Ghostbusters costar Leslie Jones have not yet renewed their SNL contracts, so let’s keep our fingers crossed. The show needs her during this insane election cycle.

The Hosts

Lily Tomlin (Season 1)

The first LGBT person to appear on Saturday Night Live was then-closeted musical guest Janis Ian, who appeared on the very first episode to sing her pensive hit “At Seventeen.” The first LGBT host of the show was Lily Tomlin, who similarly was not yet out of the closet. She was also the show’s second female host and sixth host overall. Tomlin brought her classic precocious little girl character Edith Ann to the show, in addition to performing in several other sketches. Here is her brazenly apathetic telephone operator Ernestine.

Alan Cumming (Season 25)

While there were six to eight LGBT hosts before him (a few never did come out), bisexual actor Alan Cumming has the distinction of being the first out LGBT person to host SNL. It’s sad that it took two and a half decades for that to happen, but it’s nice to note that there have been about a dozen since then. Here he is with Ana Gasteyer’s depressive doll fanatic Deana, clearly relishing the fun of an outrageous role.

The Sketches

“Schmitts Gay” (Season 17)

It’s hard to say whether this sketch is laughing at the idea of men touching other men or whether it’s lampooning the sexism in beer commercials, but either way it’s nice to see Chris Farley and Adam Sandler play these gay characters just like they would any other characters (as dumb, horny bros). This sketch feels more open-minded than many of its ilk, and all the men in ’90s Speedos don’t hurt the concept.

“Mickey the Dyke” (Season 22)

The ’90s were not a great time for LGBT humor on SNL. Too often the jokes were just “look how hilarious it is for two men to kiss.” Whether it was Chris Kattan’s characters getting called homophobic slurs or the disturbing sketch where Adam Sandler plays a mentally challenged adult getting aggressively harassed by Alec Baldwin as his scoutmaster, the humor often didn’t quite land for LGBT audiences because it was a bunch of straight people making the jokes on our behalf. Nowhere was this more evident than with Cheri Oteri's recurring character Mickey the Dyke. The sketch seems to think that just calling someone a dyke is a great punch line, and in the sketch below, we see the real emotional turmoil of coming out to one’s family played in a broad style. And it ends with Will Ferrell saying something vaguely horrifying about his abilities to turn her straight. Not their best.

“The Ambiguously Gay Duo” (Season 24)

Similar to the issues with Mickey the Dyke, recurring TV Funhouse cartoon “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” (voiced, surprisingly, by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell) seemed to be making fun of the existence of gay people, playing up stereotypes, and mining humor in gay panic. As these bits went on, they evolved into more of a visual gag where everything the duo did looked like graphic sex. The earlier entries in the series, like the one below, relied heavily on the idea of gay characters being outrageous. It admittedly was nice in the ’90s to see gay characters on SNL, but the way the other characters react to them is unfortunate.

Dyke and Fats (Season 39)

This is how to call a character a dyke and make it funny. Once the show had an actual out lesbian star and an out lesbian writer, it started to do a better job of understanding the nuance of playing LGBT themes for comedy. This sketch is not just about telling a lesbian character that she is still OK. It’s about just letting her be awesome. And the difference between this sketch and those involving Mickey the Dyke is basically stated by the characters at the end: “You don’t get to call us that. Only we get to say it. Those are our words.”

The Writers

Paula Pell (Seasons 21-39)

Paula Pell was the second female head writer on SNL (after Tina Fey) and the first openly LGBT head writer. She is responsible for writing countless SNL sketches, including those showcasing middle-school music teachers Bobbi and Marty Culp, the Spartans cheerleaders, Debbie Downer, and Alec Baldwin’s “The Tony Bennett Show.” For the last few decades she has brought a voice of diversity to the show, and SNL is better because of her. Below is the Suze Orman sketch she wrote for Kristen Wiig, and it is brilliant.

James Anderson (Season 26-present)

Pell’s most frequent writing partner is James Anderson, who is also gay and who has been working on SNL for nearly as long. Chances are you’ve seen the sketch he came up with that is a commercial for “Homocil,” a drug that makes parents stop worrying if they have a gay child. Whether you’ve seen it or not, it’s worth watching now.

Chris Kelly (Season 37-present)

SNL has had several gay and lesbian writers over the years, though it’s not always easy to know exactly who they are. Chris Kelly will certainly be getting attention this year as the new head writer. In the past he and Sarah Schneider, his writing partner, have written largely for the women of the cast, having contributed the “Dyke and Fats” sketch above as well as several of the show’s recent music videos, including “(Do It on My) Twin Bed” and “Back Home Ballers.” He’s also a writer and creative consultant on Comedy Central’s Broad City and has written and directed a semi-autobiographical film, Other People, starring Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon, which comes to theaters in September. Below is one of our favorite Kelly-Schneider sketches. While SNL’s LGBT history has been hit-or-miss, with Chris Kelly at the wheel, its future is looking bright!

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