As someone who loves comedy, I have an appreciation for “old” sketch comedy. I love watching Monty Python with its countercultural '60s aesthetic, and Laugh-In was the king of kitschy Hollywood cocktail party humor. I even get into the deep cuts like Ernie Kovacs, Your Show of Shows, and more, including a very deep appreciation for Saturday Night Live and the original “Not ready for prime time players,” like Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and John Belushi.
Like everyone who’s watched SNL, I have my favorite period, which was the late '80s to mid-'90s, with Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and more. I’ve fallen off lately with SNL. I feel it’s a bit stagnant and even regressive in its comedy, kind of like its obsession with playing Vice President Mike Pence as a closeted camp gay. Which, as you know, is not merely offensive to gay people, but the premise was already cliché in the 1990s.
Look, this is an LGBTQ website that talks about LGBTQ issues. And I’m sure I or some other writer has written about how offensive the concept of a closeted conservative is, which hurts real closeted folks. Just about every think piece writer in the LGBTQ community has beaten on this dead horse at one point or another. But let me take a different tack with it.
The joke that Mike Pence or any other anti-LGBTQ person is a closeted homosexual is hacky, lazy comedy that only comes from the mind of a lazy, hacky, unoriginal comedy writer.
Yes, this includes you, mister hot shot SNL cast and writers. You’re doing hack comedy, and that’s why your show objectively sucks these days. I mean, sure, Colin Jost and Michael Che, as head writers, spend their time alternating between the kind of jokes only the Harvard rowing team finds funny and the jokes that only Ricky Gervais would smile at, but playing Pence as a closeted camp gay who gets progressively gayer in his excitement and lust for Trump, all set to a Queen song? Well, Christ, that’s what you would expect from an Akron, Ohio, improv troupe … or class. That someone bought with a Groupon.
The joke of a closed homophobe goes back to at least the '70s, if not earlier. Now, there are certain fundamentals of comedy such as slapstick, the rule of three, satire, and more, but there are some things that are well … hacky. For example, look at old Catskills humor like, “Take my wife … please,” followed by a rim shot. It's the quintessential “bad stand-up joke” because it was so overdone in the era when it was funny, it helped contribute to its own demise. The sitcom idea of the fat, shlubby husband with the disproportionately hot wife, Seinfeld exclaiming “WHAT is the DEAL?,” and black comedians doing 10 minutes of “White people do it like this [nerdy and repressed], black people do it like this [over-the-top, emotional]” are all things we recognize as lazy comedy.
And now the “secretly closeted conservative homophobe” is a cliché joke. Sorry, brilliant comedy writers who used to work at The Harvard Lampoon, but it’s pretty lame. But not as lame as thinking the Lampoon is still on the bleeding edge of comedy. As a member of the LGBTQ community and someone who likes comedy, here’s a better idea on how to play someone like Mike Pence. Play him as a virulently homophobic religious nut.
I know that your improv workshop and your comedy writing class all tell you otherwise, to play to the opposite or unexpected, but your improv coach is the last guy from his stint at Second City to not work in TV comedy, and your writing coach laughs way too hard at McSweeney’s and The Borowitz Report. Trust me, it may play well to someone in Peoria, but if you want to actually be clever and original, try playing Pence as he is; that's funny enough.
I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but hear me out. You could do it where he goes into random fits of disturbing psychosis describing how much he cares about gays to try to save them from their sin. You could do it like a Dr. Strangelove kind of thing. Maybe you could play Pence as some sort of Stepford Wives cultist; really lean into the fact that he calls his wife “Mother” but we never, ever see her. Like that is a Norman Bates from Psycho opportunity just lying on the table right there and no one is taking it.
Now, I get that not playing Pence as a closeted camp gay doesn’t give you, the performer, the chance to do your gay accent and mannerisms you perfected that summer of your sophomore year in college, or you, the writer, to demonstrate your familiarity with gay culture as you understand it from remembering old Robin Williams bits from the '80s. Like really, dude, would it kill you guys to update your references from show tunes and Liza Minnelli to Drag Race and Beyonce? But really, my straight, cisgender friend who’s closest contact to gay culture is the guy in costuming and makeup, at least try to do something original with the opportunity to mock Pence.
Please. Not for me as an LGBTQ person, but as a comedian sitting here watching you perform the same joke in 2019 that stopped being funny around the last time Alec Baldwin was genuinely funny on SNL, maybe the “Schweddy Balls” era.
Amanda Kerri is an Oklahoma-based writer and comedian and regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.