Lesbians are Finally in On the Joke in Sketch Comedy

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The Unsolicited Project’s “50 Shades of Gay” parody cracks me up. Actually, most of The Unsolicited Project’s videos, available on YouTube, get at least a snicker, if not a full-blown guffaw.

In the last several years, queer women have posted uproarious queer satires, parodies, and skits all over the Internet. These aren’t just home videos with handheld cameras or amateur clips with moderate production values like the seminal “Hi, I’m Ilene Chaiken” video; these are professionally produced clips posted in places like Buzzfeed.

This wave of high quality queer comedic videos represents a positive development in the evolution of queer comedy for two reasons. First, the videos go beyond what has traditionally been used by the mainstream comedic establishment for laughs—jokes written by heterosexuals intended for a heterosexual audience that mocks stereotypical lesbian appearance and behavior—by presenting jokes in which queer women are both the producers and the consumers. The lesbian has gone from being the perennial object of the joke to being a participant in the joke (and still sometimes the object of the joke). Second, the videos are expanding viewership by their accessibility to internet users of every orientation and nationality.   

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The timing is not coincidental. These queer parodies could not have happened without the years of comedic development that came before them. For decades, the network TV sketch comedy shows Saturday Night Live and MadTV (which went off air in 2009) aired queer-themed skits that shaped the general public’s—and to some extent, the queer female community’s—familiarity with “lesbian” stereotypes. The humor and tact of these skits varied widely, at least in part because the shows had limited time, limited resources, and knew their predominately heterosexual audiences wouldn’t be familiar enough with queer culture to appreciate nuanced skits. Nevertheless, they laid a foundation upon which later queer comedy videos were able to build without having to retread old ground.

Another major predecessor was The Big Gay Sketch Show, which aired on LogoTV from 2007 to 2010. Although initially poorly reviewed by Variety as mediocre and insufficiently funny, it got better by Season 3. The show was the first of its kind in directing queer-centric comedy to queer viewers but was handicapped by the fact that LogoTV was a cable and satellite channel, meaning that its viewership even among the queer community was low (full episodes can now be viewed online) and probably all but non-existent among straight viewers.    

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Although The Big Gay Sketch Show alumna Kate McKinnon is bringing the gay to her new SNL gig and doing it fantastically, in some ways the torch for queer sketch comedy has been passed to the Internet. In recognition of the visibility broadcast TV sketch comedy has brought to the queer female community, we submit the following skits from those shows as some of examples of broadcast sketch comedy’s portrayal of lesbians.    

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SNL, 2008: That famous Ellen Page skit. Six years before Ellen Page officially came out, she came out. This Paula Pell-penned skit speaks for itself: “Why can’t I just hug another woman with my legs in friendship?”…at a Melissa Etheridge concert, with special guests the Indigo Girls and Ellen DeGeneres. This skit may have gone over the heads of many straight viewers, but queer women watching will recognize it as the moment everyone realizes you’re queer but you.   

MadTV, 2002: “Just for Lesbians.” What is the greatest contribution of lesbians to society? Sensible haircuts. You can get “The lady golfer” or “The UPS driver,” but “The Anne Heche” is no longer available. Buuuurn. This skit is slightly offensive to lesbians (great, another slightly predatory lesbian), but kudos for MadTV for using a simple idea like a haircut to highlight some of the most prominent stereotypes about the lesbian community.

SNL, 1992: “Lesbian Holiday Party.” Glenn Close, her partner, and their lesbian friends gather to celebrate Christmas…uh, Holiday…with what may be the most lesbian stereotypes ever on TV: Birkenstocks, short haircuts, matching slacks, flannel and a puffy vest, rattails, “communication,” feminism, professional basketball, cats, home repair, and long-term monogamous relationships. As over the top as it is, somewhere, a variation of this party probably has actually happened… 

SNL, 2014-: “Whiskers r We.” In Whiskers r We, a recurring skit, McKinnon plays sexless lesbian “cat lady” Barbara, who runs a cat shelter and produces cat adoption infomercials. While showing off adorable kittens, Barbara is always flanked by a new cat lady girlfriend who is oddly obsessed with touching Barbara inappropriately while on screen. Melissa McCarthy played frumpy Tabbytha; Amy Adams played cute but desperate Ashley, Reese Witherspoon played spacey Purrsula, and Charlize Theron played creepy, looming Cat. The skit, having made its point about lesbians being badly dressed cat ladies but little else, now is just an excuse to see adorable kittens. 

What has been your favorite lesbian sketch?

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