Saturday Night Live has not always gotten gay people right. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some “ugh SNL is so homophobic we should cancel it” screed. Even skits that haven’t aged so well — the one where Billy Bob Thornton plays a “confirmed bachelor” pilgrim at the first Thanksgiving comes to mind — are still funny in that “oh, the noughties” kind of way. But, the show has often lacked a gay sensibility.
Enter Bowen Yang.
Rarely has an SNL featured player made such a splash so early in his tenure. Though only in his second year on the show, Yang was the undeniable star of SNL this past season. Remarkably versatile, he hilariously and memorably portrayed Fran Lebowitz and held his own against heavyweights like Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon.
His performances regularly go viral, generating conversation and laughter across social media and transcending the show itself to become memes and cultural touchstones. From his Lebowitz impression to his character Chen Biao, a fictional Chinese trade representative, Yang has proven his chops, and his Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor came as no surprise. What should be equally obvious to viewers and members of the Television Academy alike is that Bowen Yang deserves to win.
If there was ever any doubt that Yang is the reigning king of Saturday Night, that question was settled in April. Appearing with icy blue makeup on his face and a bedazzled white sportscoat, Yang took to Weekend Update as the iceberg that sank the Titanic. “This is always a really weird time of year for me,” he says, a wink in his voice. When Colin Jost asks about the night the Titanic sank, however, Yang-as-Iceberg is none too pleased. “That was a really long time ago,” he insists. “I’ve done a lot of reflecting to try to move past it. It’s one very small part of me, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface that you can’t see.”
It is ludicrous. It is also ingenious. Only wanting to talk about his album–“a hyper-pop EDM new disco fantasia”–he resents the very relevant and fair journalistic questions Jost is asking. The iceberg that sank the Titanic doing what is essentially a Barbara Walters Special should not have worked as a sketch, but it does. It is the perfect send-up of the confessional one-on-one interview celebrities (like disgraced country singer Morgan Wallen, who appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America in July to explain his use of a racial slur) give to repair their damaged reputations.
Yet the iceberg is also every pretentious gay hipster I have ever met. He is that kid who DJs once a week at the local gay club and thinks that makes him the next David Mancuso. It is a caricature that could be offensive in lesser hands, but Yang makes it relatable and hilarious. It is unapologetically in-your-face, proud-as-f*** gay.
I can’t think of any other SNL cast member in my lifetime who could have nailed this kind of character. Bill Hader tried with Stefon, the club kid and love interest of Seth Meyers’ Weekend Update host. Stefon is one of those characters, like the Roseanne Roseannadanna or Church Lady, who is so iconic, so quintessentially SNL that it is hard to see him as anything other than funny. And he was. Hader nailed that performance every time Stefon snickered his way next to Meyers (even when obviously breaking character).
It is important to acknowledge that this is Saturday Night Live. Sketch comedy means every character is going to be a caricature to some degree, and the point is to make you laugh. Thinking too deeply about it defeats the purpose. Getting offended is pointless because it is all meant in good fun.
But knowing who your audience is makes a difference. With Stefon, gay people were not the intended audience. With Yang’s iceberg, we definitely were. Suddenly, SNL can do sketches that speak to a whole new audience because Yang brings a perspective that was sorely missing, if not in the writing room at least among the show’s stars.
He brings another perspective as well—one SNL has rarely deigned to present. Yang may be only the third openly gay male SNL cast member, but he’s also the fourth cast member of Asian descent in the show’s 46-year history. Luckily for us, Yang and SNL have embraced this perspective, delivering some hilarious and heartfelt performances in the process.
Perhaps most notable was a monologue he delivered back in March. Addressing a rise in hate crimes against AAPI people, a clearly frustrated Yang again took to Weekend Update to tell folks what they could do to help. His initial suggestions included “six ways you can check in on your AAPI friends and tell them they’re so hot” and “amplify these Asian voices who want more Paneras in North Brooklyn.” When Colin Jost skeptically asks if this is really something Asian Americans are concerned about, Yang scoffs that “it is for the ones in my neighborhood.”
Yang deftly injects the monologue with humor before going on to address the severity of the situation. “What can I say to address how insanely bad things are?” he exhaustedly exclaims after Jost continues to needle him. “If someone’s personality is ‘punch an Asian grandma,’ it’s not a dialogue. I have an Asian grandma. You want to punch her. There ain’t no common ground, mama.” His pain is obvious, but so is his determination not to let it stop him from laughing – and making us laugh, too.
These kind of public service announcements often come off as heavy-handed. Yang, however, manages to keep the laughs center stage, even while addressing something so serious. It’s a remarkable balancing act, one few comics or actors–and perhaps no other current SNL cast member, save Kate McKinnon–can accomplish.
While being both openly gay and Asian are certainly welcome perspectives to an increasingly diverse SNL cast, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Yang as either the “gay cast member” or the “Asian cast member.” At the end of the day, what matters the most is that Yang is simply effin’ funny. In skits that have nothing to do with his identity, he never fails to make me howl with laughter.
His performance as Elton John in Pete Davidson’s “Stu,” a Christmas send-up of Eminem’s “Stan,” stands out as one of the funniest impersonations this side of Melissa Villasenor (the show’s best mimic and impressionist), and he more than held his own against Kate McKinnon and pop superstar Adele in a COVID-19 fortune teller skit that can best be summed up as catharsis through gallows humor.
In one of his best sketches yet he appeared opposite SNL legend Kristen Wiig, who played a USO performer on Christmas Eve 1944. Wiig’s character selects Yang’s character to join her on stage and they perform an anachronistic R&B song about a cheating husband being caught by his faithful wife. Except Wiig and Yang reversing genders, to the confusion and delight of the gathered troops. The choreographed dance moves, the hammy Mid-Atlantic accents, and the crackling chemistry between Wiig and Yang makes it one of the most hilarious things I have seen on television in the past year.
It is rare to find someone so consistently funny. That Bowen Yang managed all of this in only his second year as an SNL cast member is astonishing. It is no wonder he is the first featured player to be nominated for an acting Emmy. And by God, he deserves to walk away with it.