In 1985, Terry Sweeney joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, doubling as a member of the writing staff. Like five of his other cast members in that low-rated and critically panned season, he was fired from the show after only one year, but not before he managed to get in some memorable impressions. He impersonated Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Brooke Shields, Joan Rivers, Patti LaBelle, Nancy Reagan, and, on the rare occasion where he got to play a male public figure, Ted Kennedy.
As SNL’s first openly gay cast member, and the first openly gay cast member on any network television show, Sweeney found himself frustratingly typecast. He had plenty of original ideas, but outside of impressions of female public figures and gay caricatures, there wasn’t much for him to do. In a 2017 interview, he explained, “If there was a part for a game show host, they wouldn’t put me in because, well, it wasn’t a gay game show host.” Sweeney added that he didn’t think there was necessarily any bad intent behind this: “They just did it because they didn’t know … ‘What do I write for a gay guy?’ ”
When Bowen Yang joined SNL in the fall of 2019, the show had a much better idea of what to do with him. Within the first few episodes, he made his mark with figures like Andrew Yang and fictional trade representative Chen Biao, as well as by playing characters like a SoulCycle instructor, the guy from the choking poster, and Bottle Boi. One early sketch that would become emblematic of Yang’s imprint on the show starred Harry Styles as a social media manager who accidentally fills up Sara Lee’s Instagram account with gay thirst comments. Like much of the material performed by Terry Sweeney, this sketch is firmly rooted in stereotypes about gay men. But unlike those ’80s sketches, this was written for queer people by queer people; Yang, who co-wrote the sketch, also appears as Styles’ disapproving boss, cautioning him, “We think it would be healthy if Sara Lee stopped having threesomes.” The writing makes no attempt to cater to a straight audience who might not be familiar with terms like twinks or poppers. It’s a sketch that expects straight viewers to do what queer viewers have been doing forever: learn to appreciate the humor within a culture that isn’t your own.
This is a conscious choice on Yang’s part. “I’m a firm believer in repetition,” he told NPR. “The more you see this, the more you’ll get used to it, and then the less you’ll have, like, an averse reaction.” This is an attitude he’s taken from his personal life, having grown up in a family that sent him to conversion therapy camp at 17. As he told the New York Times, “They just sat me down and yelled at me and said, ‘We don’t understand this. Where we come from, this doesn’t happen.’ ” Despite this, Yang’s relationship with his parents today is a healthy, supportive one. They’ve learned to accept him for who he is and have been making an active effort to understand him as best they can.
Although Sweeney’s coming out to his family was a lot less volatile, he also had to deal with a significantly less diverse, less understanding environment behind the scenes of SNL. Although he mostly got along with the other cast members and writers, he had to put up with a lot of jokes and comments that wouldn’t fly in today’s SNL writers room. The most famous example was when Chevy Chase, upon having Sweeney confirm he was gay, responded by telling him, “You can start by licking my balls.” Chase also pitched a sketch where Sweeney’s character would have AIDS and they’d have to weigh him every week. Chase was forced to give Sweeney a begrudging apology for his behavior, and would go on to host the show four more times and make several more cameos. Sweeney, meanwhile, was fired at the end of the season, and he never returned.
Whereas Sweeney never received the chance to expand beyond the limited roles of his debut season, Yang is thriving on the show and constantly expanding his list of characters, from a cocaine-obsessed frat guy, a French Canadian news anchor, and the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. The iceberg sketch is notable in that, although it’s definitely not the entire joke of the sketch, Yang’s character is clearly, emphatically gay. His amazingly flamboyant iceberg outfit and his makeup, slang, and hand gestures are all queer-coded. None of this is necessary for the joke, exactly, but the specificity with which this character is drawn helps makes the whole thing pop. There were plenty of ways Yang and co-writer Anna Drezen could’ve gone about writing this sketch, plenty of different directions they could’ve gone in that had nothing to do with queer culture. On a network comedy show that has historically prioritized a straight, white, primarily baby boomer audience, this was a bold choice, even if it shouldn’t have been.
Yang has received a ton of criticism and online harassment due to choices like these. Although a lot of the homophobia in YouTube video comments or popular Reddit threads related to him is blatant and easy to dismiss, it’s often dressed up as an annoyance about his lack of range. “Bowen Yang is too … gay,” was the title of one post published on the Live From New York subreddit a year ago. (If you sort the subreddit’s posts by controversial and set the time range to “all,” this post is the very first thing that shows up.) This argument has persisted throughout Yang’s first two years on the show, despite sketches like “Murder Durdur” and “Celebrity Sighting” showing that he’s definitely capable of playing a straight character.
Another common critique is that his portrayal of flamboyant characters is offensive and homophobic in itself. This criticism was most prevalent in the aftermath of Shane Gillis being fired from the show in 2019 for using racist and homophobic slurs on his podcast. Gillis’ fans brigaded the SNL subreddit to complain about his treatment from the show, leading to posts like “Can anyone show me how bowen yang is funny?” in which the poster tried to draw a parallel between Gillis’ use of homophobic slurs and Yang’s use of queer-coded characters, arguing that it was hypocritical for the show to have fired Gillis but not Yang. But portraying a queer male character in a flamboyantly feminine manner isn’t offensive; what’s offensive is the assumption that effeminate men are inherently off-putting, inherently insulting to queer people.
The radical nature of Yang’s performance on SNL is not just that he’s normalizing queer characters on network TV, but that he’s normalizing queer men who make no attempts to restrict themselves for a straight audience. As Yang noted in an Instagram story back in February of this year, responding to the criticisms and harassment aimed at his alleged reliance on queer affectations, “It’s so strange and dissociative that those identifiers are considered character games.” After all, cast members like Beck Bennett almost always play masculine, straight-presenting characters, but never receive the same kind of criticism. Audiences are used to straight characters’ sexuality not having anything to do with the joke of the sketch, but if a gay character’s sexuality isn’t a punchline, then its inclusion requires an explicit justification. Yang is challenging this double standard, one sketch at a time.
The question of why Yang finds it so important to challenge these assumptions could be explained in part by Terry Sweeney’s statements as to why he decided to come out in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, in a period when doing so could (and did) have such a negative impact on his career: “I did what I thought was the right thing to do.” Thirty-six years, later, Yang says, “I kind of don’t really care about how my tenure on the show is perceived in any particular way, other than … I want this to facilitate something better for the next person.” This is what makes Yang’s first two years at SNL so important to LGBTQ+ viewers and aspiring performers. And at a time when 81 percent of Asian and Pacific American LGTBQ+ youth still don’t feel comfortable being themselves around their family, his presence on the iconic show is vital for them too. Every time he plays a queer character, he’s widening the scope of what’s considered normal. He’s proving that there is in fact a place for unapologetically queer comedy on such a mainstream show, and widening the boundaries for how an effeminate man can act on TV. This is something Sweeney didn’t have the creative freedom to do back in 1985. But in 2021? Yang got free rein, and he’s not letting his opportunity go to waste.