The Big Gay Sketch Show, premiering tonight, marks the first foray of Logo (AfterEllen.com’s parent company) into the realm of sketch comedy. The good news? It mostly works.
Co-executive produced by Rosie O’Donnell (remember how funny — and blue — her pre-talk show stand-up routines were?) and directed by out actor-director Amanda Bearse (Married With Children), this half-hour ensemble sketch show features a cast of eight performers and parodies the best and worst of pop culture from a queer perspective.
Whether it’s digging deep into television history with The Honeymooners and Facts of Life sketches, or staying current by lampooning Project Runway and bad home-and-garden programming, BGSS is a satisfying alternative to the relentlessly straight (and usually male-dominated) world of television sketch comedy.
And the talent is substantial. The women — Julie Goldman, Nicol Paone, Kate McKinnon and Erica Ash — particularly stand out. Goldman is an out stand-up comic who played the Shane-esque character Drea in the L Word parody The D Word, and she can be seen in recent episodes of AfterEllen.com’s She Said What?
Her turn as butch "Rhonda" Kramden in a sketch spoofing the ’50s sitcom The Honeymooners is particularly inspired, and her chemistry with Paone (who plays her domestic partner, Alice Kramden, but is "straightish" in real life) is perfect. In fact, Paone very nearly steals both the first and second episodes of BGSS with an array of spot-on impressions. My personal favorite is a sketch featuring Paone as the annoyingly irrepressible Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch on her first day as a greeter at Wal-Mart. The scenario alone is gold, and Paone hits pay dirt with her bellowing impersonation of the leggy octogenarian.
The show isn’t without its rough patches. The overblown laugh track is unnecessary and distracting, and BGSS at times suffers from Saturday Night Live syndrome — when a one-note sketch is stretched far beyond its comedic capacity. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Horatio Sanz!) In particular, the first few sketches on the premiere episode fall flat. But stick around for the Project Runway spoof (the first skit in Part 2 here), as it’s a much better indicator of what the BGSS cast has to offer.
The men of BGSS deserve better than the mostly tedious material with which they are working. Predictable gags about bears (both hairy gay men and mammals, get it?) and being gay in the (icky) womb just aren’t that funny, and it’s clear that the guys can handle more challenging stuff. Stephen Guarino stands out as a gifted impressionist and talented physical comic, and I hope BGSS makes better use of his skills in future episodes.
Still, when a sketch works on BGSS, it works big. A successful sketch about lesbian speed dating in the second episode that could have devolved into just another lame U-Haul joke is taken to new heights by the comedic skills of Goldman and Kate McKinnon (who is also openly gay). You may cringe at the accuracy of the stereotype, but you’ll laugh while you’re doing it.
And there’s something particularly satisfying about seeing a queer read of Facts of Life (also in the second episode), with Jo and Blair learning the kind of "very important lesson" that has only heretofore been imagined in lesbian fan fiction. When the gay subtext of a straight television show that queer viewers have always recognized is brought into focus and lampooned, it really does seem revolutionary. I’m hoping that we might get a revisionist take on my other favorite childhood shows in the future. (Laverne and Shirley as exes who still live together? Charlie’s Angels as three same-sex-in-the-city types?)
What was perhaps the most pleasant surprise is how successful the lesbian-oriented sketches were in comparison to the ones about gay men. Yes, of course I know that we’re not competing. But whether it’s programming on Bravo or Logo — or even in terms of recognition at the GLAAD Media Awards — LGBT ventures tend to be heavy on the "gay" and light on the "lesbian." Having seen this play out time and again, I expected the same with BGSS.
But each of the actresses on BGSS is memorable and multitalented, and the lesbian-centric sketches are consistently funny. Whether it’s a result of the acting, writing (one of the writers is out comic Rebecca Drysdale, named as one of the "10 Comics to Watch" by Variety in 2006) or both, BGSS is the rare sketch comedy show in which women (and lesbians) don’t seem like an afterthought.
BGSS faces inevitable comparisons to mainstream sketch shows like NBC’s long-running Saturday Night Live and Fox’s Mad TV and In Living Color. The success of SNL has hinged on the ability of its most talented cast members to develop memorable recurring characters. Similarly, the strength of both Mad TV and In Living Color is in the willingness of each to "go there" with the sort of sociopolitical humor that the modern incarnation of SNL (save for its brief and brilliant Tina Fey era) usually avoids.
With its cast of mostly queer performers and its residence on a gay network, BGSS has a unique opportunity to do both of those things well. If the first two episodes are any indication, it looks promising.