Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Live has never been a gender-balanced show, just as it’s never been consistently funny. These days, things are starting to change.

Saturday Night Live has never been famous for an even male-female ratio. For every Gilda Radner there has been a John Belushi, a Bill Murray, a Chevy Chase; For every Jan Hooks, a Phil Hartman, a Chris Rock, a Mike Myers. Whether the imbalance reflects politically incorrect casting or a simple lack of worthy female talent is anyone’s guess for those on the outside. But one thing’s for sure: whenever one thinks of the superstars created on the Studio 8H stage, they tend to think of actors possessing a Y chromosome.

But the tide changed during the 2001–2002 SNL seasons.

The season produced both the largest and arguably most talented lineup in SNL history, featuring the powerhouse talents of Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and the show’s first female head writer, Tina Fey.

Of course, SNL has featured some noteworthy female comics in the past such as the aforementioned Radner and Hooks as well as Jane Curtin, Nora Dunne, Cheri Oteri, and others. However, as talented as these ladies were, they were usually solitary figures on the stage, practically the token ‘female comedians,’ not unlike the equally misrepresented minority actors.

Now, for once, women make up a formidable force in the cast. Due to their sheer numbers, they’re more visible on stage as Fey works the respected Weekend Update and the others show up in recurring sketches such as ‘Gemini’s Twin,’ ‘The Delicious Dish,’ ‘The Donatella Versace Show,’ and ‘Nicole, the Girl with No Gaydar.’ And it’s refreshing, to say the least, to see all-girl scenes played by all girls, not handing laughs over to men in drag.

Sheer volume is not the only reason why the female cast is so notable. Each actor bears comedy pedigrees from esteemed companies such as the Groundlings and Second City, and fine college educations with alma maters such as Northwestern and Dartmouth (because, after all, the funniest people tend to be the smartest people). More importantly, though, the actors possess formidable talent, sharp comic sensibility, and a notable stage work ethic. Each performer is capable of filling a spectrum of roles as a comic actor. Each is capable of being a star but not a ham (a recent contrast being that of Ana Gasteyer’s more understated characters versus Molly Shannon’s typically noisy, flailing performances.) As a team and as individual comics, these ladies in a season alone have leapt hurdles that have kept female comics in the background of SNL.

Funny Doesn’t Have To Be Pretty

Just like Gilda Radner’s Lisa Lupner, these actresses aren’t afraid to get ugly for laughs. Rachel Dratch shows up as a nerdy young man named Sheldon, a homely NPR deejay, a senile grandmother, even the drooling, morbidly deformed child of Angelina Jolie and her brother. And Dratch isn’t the only one: all the actors are quite capable of shedding body consciousness. This hasn’t always been the case with SNL: Victoria Jackson seemed perpetually stuck playing the dumb blonde and Janeane Garofalo, who has made a pretty penny capitalizing on body issues in her career, seemed hindered by it when she was on the SNL stage. However, leggy, gazelle-like Maya Rudolph can play a screaming Donatella Versace one minute and an awkward 13-year-old the next. Ana Gasteyer, instead of hiding last season’s pregnancy, utilized her bulging belly in an inspired commercial for a pregnancy test (‘Could I be pregnant? I’m not sure if we’re ready’ she ponders while she looks as if she’s at least 10 months pregnant).

Nothing is less funny than a female performer too self-conscious of her looks: she seems distracted by her body and it distracts the audience as well. Everything is funnier, though, when female comics shed their socially acceptable primness and put humor first. Most of SNL’s notable male comics, whether falling down (Chevy Chase) or baring down (Chris Farley) made us laugh by wholly losing their inhibitions and it’s refreshing that these female actors aren’t afraid to do so either.

More Than Just A Pretty Face

Part of this female cast’s superiority, even over some previous female SNL groupings, is its range of talent. Unlike some other SNL actresses who seemed only to exist to the public eye while onstage, these actresses boast additional talents and experience such as musical background, writing, producing, and even founding the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Though some SNL alumnae found critical success only after their term (e.g., Julia Sweeney with her critically acclaimed God Said ‘Ha!’) many were never heard from again. However, several of the current members such as Dratch, Fey, and Poehler were relatively well-known as performers even before they were connected with SNL, which is a subtle reminder of their talent; they don’t need SNL to be successful.

What makes these current comedians so strong is that each brings a particular talent or strength to the show, whether it’s a particular skill or a particular brand of comedy, and is doing more than just filling a female quota. We get the feeling that SNL is lucky to have them on board, and not the other way around.

Walk Softly But Carry A Big, Funny Stick

While none of these comedians have exactly become household names the way some of the men on the show have done in the past, none of them fade into the background. Each has played memorable characters in scenes and has developed her own onstage persona. What’s nice, though, is that the comedians don’t seem intent upon making audiences think that their onstage persona is the same as their offstage persona (the way that we would, say, think of David Spade as a sarcastic wiseguy or the real Chris Farley as a loud party animal). Each of these female comics has played a recurring character but thankfully, so far it seems that none of them are banking on them becoming pigeonholed.

Many male SNL performers made good careers by taking their characters to the theaters, such as Dan Akroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers or Mike Myers and Dana Carvey with Wayne’s World. But more frequent are the actors who make lackluster movies based on half-baked characters (The Ladies’ Man and Night at the Roxbury). Whether this need to additionally bank on their SNL performances is unseemly greed or a more innocent ambition is a matter of opinion.

The female SNL movie vehicles, so far, have been of the direct-to-video variety such as It’s Pat! and Superstar. While no actor should be begrudged their chance to find fame and fortune, there’s something distasteful about an SNL comic who tries to turn a flimsy signature character into gold. It seems as if they are taking the easy, sloppy way to ‘success’ as opposed to focusing on putting in more time giving quality performances. After all, how many movies can be made about off-the-wall characters embarking upon a wacky adventure to find love and success? (Answer: Too many. Hopefully Chris Kattan is not tempted to make a Mango movie.)

The current female cast members, however, while certainly capable of stealing scenes or playing up recurring characters, are also capable of playing straight, at which Nora Dunne and Jane Curtin excelled. Perhaps no current example is more visible than Fey’s Weekend Update, as she delivers setups with a straight face but also erupts into absurd scenes with her co-anchor, Jimmy Fallon. Many SNL actors seem incapable of playing even the smallest roles without attempting the steal the scene (the most recent example being the recently departed Will Ferrell). However, with a willingness to play the occasional small or understated part, these female actors show that they’re more concerned about what’s good for the show than what’s good for themselves and their personal career.

Being Female Can Be Funny

In Amy Seham’s book Whose Improv is it Anyway? the author explores some of the gender issues in stage comedy, such as how, when how a woman enters a scene, she’s usually reduced to playing a stereotype such as the slut, the good girl, the uptight spinster. Seham remembers performing an improv scene with a male actor on stage and what happened after an audience member suggested ‘Sultan’s Harem’ as a location: ‘I entered the stage miming a notebook and pen, intending to be a reporter who had come to interview the sultan. But before I had time to speak, [the male actor] shouted, ‘Wife! On your knees!’’

Discrimination against women in comedy has been an issue before the inception of SNL, and continued even after SNL regularly put female comics on television. But while an actress can reject stereotypical female roles, she can still poke fun at her own gender, which Nora Dunne and Jan Hooks did skillfully with creations such as The Sweeney Sisters, even though they still were working in an era when SNL cast a small amount of women.

Rachel Dratch, turned down after her first SNL audition, had some negative feelings towards the show, which she articulated in an interview with the Argos Agency. ‘And then of course they didn’t hire any women. Then I heard that they hired three guys and that pissed me off…I would never expect SNL to have equal numbers, but I think right now it has nine guys and three women. I think that’s a lame-o ratio.’

Now with five female Repertory Players to seven males, the ratio is significantly less lame-o. As the actresses improve the numbers, they’re also finding new and interesting ways to express their female comedic point of view, with a keen eye on the current trends of female culture. Gasteyer and Rudolph’s ‘Gemini’s Twin’ mocks the inane manufactured girl power of MTV. Poehler on ‘Dismissed’ catches on to the competitive but self-humiliating taste of reality TV. Dratch notes the weaknesses of the supposed new face of feminism (according to TIME magazine) with her stuttering, wide-eyed impression of Ally McBeal. ‘My Lover’ and ‘The Delicious Dish’ represent intelligent women but also pokes fun at the oddball nature of hippy-ish female intelligentsia.

No doubt these touchstones to pop culture wouldn’t exist if these performers, who brainstorm and pen sketches along with SNL writers, did not represent in strength and numbers. In their own way, by tapping into female culture, these actors are doing a service to their female audience, who otherwise would be left with male-centered sketches, or, like Spade, Farley, and Sandler’s ‘Gap Girls’ or Jeff Richards’ ‘Drunk Girl’ sketches, somewhat insulting enactments of female culture.

Whether the rise in female numbers and talent is due to a more politically-correct attitude, the influence of Tina Fey, or a surge in available talent, the effect is completely refreshing, and, more important, entertaining. The only shame is that SNL is not at a peak viewership moment (some fans simply couldn’t make the transition from the Adam Sandler-era), and so these actresses are not as highly visible as they could be. But with their talent, intelligence, and humor, they ought to be household names. Poehler remarked in an interview with Girlcomic.net, ‘Girls will say, ‘Why do I always end up playing the girlfriend in scenes?’ I say, ‘‘Cause you’re always making yourself the girlfriend. You’ve got to give yourself something else.’’

These actresses have given themselves something else. And they’ve given us something else as well. And it’s about time.

Claire Zulkey is a Chicago writer whose work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal Online, The A.V. Club, and the Los Angeles Times. She runs the web site Zulkey.com and in fall 2009 will be publishing her first young adult novel. More by Claire Zulkey