Jane Lynch

How she makes pop culture’s nastiest villains some of the most likable characters on TV.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

When Jane Lynch’s new sitcom Angel From Hell debuted on CBS last week, it marked the third consecutive evening that Jane Lynch’s manic comic stylings had anchored a chunk of prime-time network real estate. As emcee of NBC’s Hollywood Game Night on Tuesday, she demonstrated her ability to read from a teleprompter, wrangle celebrities, and understand the rules of various weird contests. Hosting the People’s Choice Awards on CBS on Wednesday, much of her shtick revolved her being old, lesbian, and a bad dancer—but an approachable old, lesbian, bad dancer, a “slightly more masculine Neil Patrick Harris,” as she put it. And in Angel From Hell, she personifies the ultimate CBS comedy character: Over the course of the 30-minute premiere, her character, Amy, insulted several people, struck one man, made a pass at another, boasted of having participated in “degrading role play,” burped loudly, experienced explosive diarrhea, and attempted to convince a mild-mannered dermatologist that she was her guardian angel and not just a creepy stalker.

Lynch has a long history of playing characters who are constantly in danger of being arrested or committed. Her most famous role is as Glee’s track-suited tyrant Sue Sylvester, who morphed from the sharp-tongued cheerleading coach of the early episodes into a cartoonishly evil figure six years later. By the time it came to an end, the show was totally untethered from reality—Sylvester’s duties as a high school principal mostly involved plotting against her school’s show choir, sabotaging the careers of its successful graduates, and disparaging people’s looks—but her over-the-top shenanigans were hard to look away from because Jane Lynch always commits. (And while we might remember her attack-comedy bits, this Sue-percut, produced by Slate to commemorate the show’s finale, proves that Sylvester had her sappy side, too.)

Jane Lynch excels at portraying—and is often cast as—full-throttle, sexed-up, hyperconfident female wack jobs. From The L Word, where she played Joyce Wischnia, a cocky lawyer equally devoted to fighting for lesbian rights and seducing her clients, to Two and a Half Men, where she was a therapist who offered bad advice to all the titular men and half-men, to Party Down, where her Constance Carmell was a delusional failed thespian keen to pass on the secrets of the actor’s life to other cater-waiters with Hollywood dreams, she always seems to play the assertive oddball who’s incapable of doing anything in half-measures.

In Angel From Hell, Lynch once again works in an antic mode. She plays Amy, an itinerant street magician, one step away from homelessness, who claims to be the guardian angel of Allison, a beautiful, blond Beverly Hills dermatologist. Amy freaks Allison out by reciting secrets from her past, the date of her first period, the identify of her first crush, how many days have passed since her mother died. She claims to have Allison’s best interests at heart—in the pilot she convinces her to ditch her dead-weight fiancé—but she could also be a random stalker with good Googling skills.

In her memoir, Happy Accidents, Lynch expresses puzzlement as to why she is “so frequently cast in the role of an authority figure, since the core of these characters does not match mine.” She went on, “I don’t have that kind of confidence. I certainly don’t experience the level of delusional cockiness I can portray in a role. But authority is so often projected onto me, in art and life.” Lynch’s height—she’s 6 feet tall and is therefore one of the few women on television who always wears flats—and her preference for trousers and short hair surely drive part of that projection. In her memoir, she says, “I get that I am tall, and that I walk the man-woman line energetically, and that now I have a history of being seen in roles meant for men, who are just granted more authority,” though she still doesn’t “understand why people see me as so absolutely self-assured.”

Throughout her career, Lynch’s affect has at times created casting dilemmas. Fresh out of an acting MFA at Cornell University, she got a part-time gig she adored at an early home shopping show called America’s Shopping Place, but the producers would never offer her a full-time job, because “no matter how good I was at improvising my enthusiasm for jewelry and housewares, I was not feminine and adorable enough.” Then in her first big movie—she played a forensic scientist in Harrison Ford’s movie version of The Fugitive—there was a fuss over wardrobe. Lynch was cast in a role originally written for a man, but the wardrobe person didn’t want to put her in the leather jacket the character had been assigned in the original script, because she was afraid it would read as lesbian on Lynch. (She later got another one of the few nonmanic parts in her career, as Julia Child’s sister Dorothy in Julie & Julia, because of her height. Writer/director Nora Ephron told her, “You’re the tallest actress I know”—essential since the real Child sisters were both over 6 feet tall.) 

But at this point, Lynch has figured out a way to leverage her air of authority to ideal comic effect. As is appropriate for someone who made her mark in Christopher Guest movies (she had roles in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration), even when everyone around her has their weird level set to 11, hers always seems to be at 12. And even this weirdness is shot through with a unique purposefulness. Compared with the many quirky female characters defined by traits like “adorkability,” Lynch offers something far more potent and strange. Her quirkiness is never hapless or goofy; she always seems resolutely in control.

For whatever reason, Middle America loves lesbians—at least when they’re on television, that is, chatting (or playing games) with celebrities, hosting awards shows, or interacting with normals on Twitter. (Lynch has 1.93 million followers.) Ellen DeGeneres may be similarly ultra-confident and deadpan, but Lynch’s persona has long had considerably sharper edges. And for a human female whose measurements are as close to Barbie’s as it’s possible to imagine, tall, skinny, blond, Lynch carries herself with a surprising awkwardness.

So even while playing cartoonishly loathsome villains, she conveys an air of vulnerability—she might earn her living by insulting people on television, but her klutziness makes her come across as a truth-teller rather than as simply mean. In this regard, she’s the 21st-century equivalent of 5-foot-10 Bea Arthur, another actress who was often called upon to burst the bubbles of deserving targets with her sharp tongue. It’s safe to laugh when Sue Sylvester makes fun of Mr. Schuester’s “butt chin,” because viewers know that Jane Lynch would never mock their own dimples.

It’s always dangerous to project an actor’s biography onto the characters she’s hired to play, but Lynch often wears her lesbianism in sneakily subversive ways. Take, for example, the second episode of Angel From Hell, when in Amy’s desire to connect with Allison, she tries to wangle an invitation to Allison’s home, to get her to go to a bar with her, and most of all to meet her family—something Allison is determined to avoid. It’s hard not to notice that these are classic stages in a lesbian’s courtship of a woman who has heretofore identified as straight. This could have been clunky and cringe-inducing. But in Lynch’s hands, it’s a surprisingly persuasive and subtle dynamic, smuggled into a boilerplate network-TV story that is nominally about a woman figuring out if the weirdo pursuing her is an angel or if she’s in fact mentally ill. Sometimes it seems like only Jane Lynch can liberate uptight America’s id.