When comedy veterans Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch decided to write a Christmas movie spoof that they would also star in as Mrs. Santa Claus-type innkeepers, they went all-in for authenticity beginning with where and when they shot Comedy Central's A Clusterfunke Christmas.
"One of the tropiest factors about [Christmas romcoms] is that they are all shot in Vancouver in July," Gasteyer tells The Advocate, adding that the entire city is essentially a "Christmas factory" built for churning out each year's slew of new holiday fare.
At a time when Hallmark, Lifetime, and streaming services are offering Christmas movies with queer characters like last year's Happiest Season (Gasteyer costarred) on Hulu and Single All the Way on Netflix, the Saturday Night Live alums paid attention to detail of past holiday romcoms and in their movie set out to flip the script on the stereotypical representation of LGBTQ+ folks.
A Clusterfunke Christmas, which premiered in late December but is packed with laughs perfect for any time of year, unfolds in Yuletown, a village made for Christmas. It's replete with free-flowing hot chocolate, all the strudel one could possibly devour, snowy vistas, and Cheyenne Jackson as Frank, the hunky lumberjack of a nephew to spinster sisters Hildy (Gasteyer) and Marga (Dratch). Conflict arrives in the form of Holly (Vella Lovell), a jaded city gal whose mission is to buy the Clusterfunke Inn out from under the sisters for a mega-resort. Of course, Holly and Frank get off on the wrong foot before their chemistry becomes the movie's central romance.
Along the way, Holly interacts with the local townsfolk, making Percy Sleigh (Nils Hognestad), who owns Percy's Closet, her new gay best friend. Or is he? becomes a thread of the film. With Percy, Dratch and Gasteyer borrowed from decades of coded queer characters in holiday movies denied romance and full lives. But Percy was in good hands with Gasteyer, Dratch, and director Anna Dokoza. On the surface, it appears Percy's true identity is repressed, but he turns out to be a happily married, fully realized gay man, and Percy's Closet is a store specializing in home storage systems.
About including the character of Percy, who leans into and breaks down stereotypes of holiday romcoms past, Dratch says, "I've seen a few where, it's gay, but they're not going to say anything about it. It's clear they're not going to get together. They leave their sexuality completely out of it and sweep it all under the rug."
"Ana was keen on doing the character of Percy and calling it out," she says. "We wanted to touch on that. We wanted to do it in a way that hopefully, works and that hopefully, people could laugh at while still seeing the point."
Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch
On giving LGBTQ+ folks and Percy a platform in their spoof, Gasteyer says, "The landscape is changing. It's 2021, but you're still talking about if you look at these annual lineups of, whatever, the hundred best holiday movies of the year, you're still only going to get one with a same-sex partner, maybe two."
For Hognestad, playing Percy in the film that calls out to all those decades of erasure in holiday movies, was affirming.
"Ana and Rachel wrote such an open-hearted and loving character that is the epitome of 'gay' without making fun of him or the LGBTQ+ community; instead finding humor by playing off the audience's assumptions," Hognestad tells The Advocate. "They've crafted a genius way of lovingly sending up not only the tropes of LGBTQ+ people but all people and how they're perceived in the Holiday MOW [movie of the week] world."
"By lovingly sending up these tropes, they are, in fact, being inclusive of everyone," Hognestad says of the women who've collaborated for years since their SNL days on projects including Amy Poehler's Wine Country.
"I was very emotional booking and playing this role. I was so nervous to play Percy because I was scared to play my first gay character in a movie and how I would be perceived as a result," Hognestad adds. "I grew up at a time where I hid in the basement to watch Ellen DeGeneres come out to Laura Dern on TV because I knew no one in my life or in media who was like me. When I got caught watching it, I felt dirtier than being caught with porn. I was ashamed of myself for a long time and actively worked at loving myself."
"If I had grown up seeing a Percy Sleigh in a holiday movie, I think I would have permitted myself to be a Percy Sleigh a long time ago," he says.
The character of Percy isn't the only way Dratch and Gasteyer upend the status quo. They flip the primarily white history of holiday romcoms by casting Lovell as the lead and with townsfolk who call out the typical lack of racial diversity in all those snowy Christmas villages.
Casting Jackson, who is gay, as the straight beefcake in the romcom was another win for queer folks in the movie. When it came to who should play Frank (look out for the very silly and hilarious Frankincense joke), it was a no-brainer for Dratch.
Cheyenne Jackson and Vella Lovell
"I've known Cheyenne for years. When we knew we were doing this, he's the first person that popped into my head. Like Ana has said, 'He's from Idaho and he grew up chopping wood.'"
"He's such a heartthrob in appearance and yet he understands the nuance of comedy and he's really good at playing it right down the middle. Both he and Vella Lovell are actually fantastic dramatic actors in their own way," Gasteyer says. "It's hard to find somebody who is intelligent about the comedy, but not winking at it."
Of course, Dratch and Gasteyer, who began writing A Clusterfunke Christmas early in the lockdowns in 2020, are LGBTQ+ icons in their own right -- funny women who've delivered memorable characters for years and who've formed a real sorority collaborating with other SNL alums like Poehler, Paula Pell, and Maya Rudolph, who appears in A Clusterfunke Christmas as the angel Shaniah Gary, an off-brand Mariah Carey type famous for singing "All I Want For Christmas Is Fruit."
The working relationship Gasteyer and Dratch have formed over the years fed into the Clusterfunke comedy. Taking on tropes about women of a certain age in these types of films became the central part of their characters Hilda and Marga.
"It was kind of fun to just lean in and tell this sappy love story together, but also to have a great time. Like the joke where we are these Mrs. Claus/old frumpy matrons because that's all you really have the shot to do is either be a breeder or Mrs. Claus in these movies," Gasteyer says.
"We had a really good time kind of leaning into the comedy of those ancient spinster women who are secretly only 40. It's incredibly fun and we immediately had a shorthand around what would be funny about the old gray buns and the matronly bosoms. It was just a natural fit. I'm thinking about it. It's so much easier to do it with a female colleague."