There are those moments when I think to myself, “Lorelei, keep you’re your trap shut”. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. This is clearly one of those moments where I don’t.
There was a sketch on SNL last weekend that’s got all kinds of folks up in arms this week. It was one of SNL’s standard fare commercial parodies starring guest host Jesse Eisenberg and several other cast regulars. The sketch was a commercial for a fictional product called, “Estro-Maxx”, an estrogen supplement for male to female transsexuals hoping to speed up and simplify their gender transition.
I haven’t watched SNL regularly in years, so I had no idea about this sketch until this morning when I opened up Facebook and saw several of my friends and acquaintances from the trans world expressing their horror and dismay over this particular sketch. Some were even calling for a public apology from NBC as well as a removal of the offending sketch from all media and future broadcasts. In short, it was a shit-storm.
So, trans-activist that I am, I clicked the link, ready to formulate my own facebooked expressions of dismay but also trying my best as a comedy person to keep an open mind. One minute and 55 seconds later, my impressions were similarly divided.
As a transwoman, I was deeply unsettled by the depictions of a transwoman with a beard and one with a mustache. I was also jarred as an activist by the sloppy pronoun usage in referring to these transwomen.
But as someone who has spent most of their life studying, performing and working in the comedy field, I couldn’t help but think maybe there was something there. I’ll admit, I did laugh a couple of times. Not a hearty laugh, but enough of a chuckle to count. I still felt somehow offended, but there were details that kept nagging at me.
As it happened, I had to get to work and get on with the day to day of paying the rent and living life. But I kept an eye on the opinion threads through the day, wanting to feel out how other people were reacting.
The more I thought about the sketch though, the less offended I was. There were little details that made me have to think. Inferences I made based upon what I know about comedy and from a lifetime of eagerly staying up late to hear Don Pardo say, “Live from New York!”
When I got home just a little while ago I watched it again and discussed it with my friend Widow Centauri, who I met while she was doing standup and I was running the show at The Hollywood Improv. Here are the conclusions that I’ve come to.
(click the link below to watch the actual sketch on NBC.com)
First, yes it is offensive. It’s comedy though and sometimes comedy ain’t pretty and almost all comedy is offensive to someone. Even “self-deprecating” comedy is simply making the comic themselves the butt of the joke. They are offending themselves. And before you shout, “What about Bill Cosby?!?” at me. Just consider how his kids must feel about his jokes. Or Noah?
The line between when people feel offended and when they laugh, tends to lie in direct proportion to how actually funny the joke was. I’ve seen comedians get away with the most incredibly, outrageously, the-ACLU-should-be-alerted, offensive material, because the audience just couldn’t help but laugh! Because it was super-friggin’ funny!! Because it was delivered well and the timing was just so.
Now the folks at Saturday Night Live have to turn out a fresh show every seven days. An hour and a half of material that people are going to reasonably expect to be funny. But that isn’t always going to be gut-busting. With that much pressure, some of it will be “merely” clever. Kinda funny. Hopefully at least smart.
So, back to the sketch. It was kinda funny and the more I examined it, kinda smart too. It works on a number of levels. Transsexual folks are only one of them. It’s a very effective skewering of all those commercials offering health products to women. Menopausal women especially. On that level, it’s a pretty note for note replication of one of those commercials. For it to work as satire though, you need an unexpected element. For that, in this context, transsexual women are perfect.
On deeper reflection, I am forced to believe that this was in no way meant to be a skewering of transwomen. Though there are women-with-beards presented, it in no way resembles the standard “gender-panic” type joke that you usually see pointed at transpeople in the popular media. It is nothing like Letterman’s tasteless joke when Amanda Simpson was appointed by President Obama last year.
In fact, given the very specific reference levels of the sketch, I would say that it was written and performed by folks who, while they may not be perfectly sensitive, are at least familiar with and surprisingly informed about transpeople in real life. There were elements of the sketch that, while easy to miss in the first flush of reaction, were pretty trans-specific. Like the idea that the initial stages of gender transition are never as quick or as dramatic as some of us would like it to be. Or showing transwomen as respectable people living our daily lives, in positions of power even!
I also read a number of comments from transpeople around the internets who noted that for once, we were not portrayed as over-sexualized freaks. Heck, most of the women portrayed in the sketch weren’t even in dresses. They were mostly in casual pantsuits! They were probably dressed the closest to how actual (or at least, white, middle-class) transwomen dress that I’ve yet seen on television.
The sketch really could have been quite a positive piece overall. But then came the facial hair. And you could almost hear a thousand transsexual and transgender people go “Booooo!!! Hissssssss!!!!” And honestly, if it had been me, an actual, honest to Gods, transgender woman, writing the sketch, I would not have gone there. But it wasn’t me, it was a bunch of (as far as I know) young-ish, cisgender guys.
Folks whose job it is to come up with, write, perform and often produce themselves, fresh funny material in less than six days every week for several months a year. And hopefully not offend anyone too badly. A job I would kill for, but by no means an easy one.
I actually thought, upon examination, that the “Estro-Maxx” sketch had a lot in it that was specifically applicable to transpeople, potentially funny to us and not necessarily a lot of other people. But SNL has a lot of other people watching who also need to be made to laugh.
So, beards on transwomen. In comedy terms it’s an unexpected juxtaposition of elements. One of the basic building blocks of comedy, put a couple of disparate things together and build the yucks. It ain’t always pretty, but it’ll make the Coors Lite buying segment of the viewing public laugh and keep them tuned to an otherwise oddly specific sketch.
But wait! It goes a little deeper than just that even. When we first see the bearded transwoman, she’s going through an airport security scanner. The bored looking guard overseeing this doesn’t even blip at the women with obvious facial hair going through the scanner until he sees the scan and the scene implies he’s seen her genitals, at which point he finally reacts.
I kept thinking about this and it seemed to me, the more I thought about it, that this was actually a pretty astute observation of how genitally obsessed people in our society can be. I can tell you from personal experience that I encounter this sort of thing all the friggin’ time!! People will be completely unfazed by the fact of a six foot four woman with a gameshow announcers voice towering over them, but they cannot let go of the idea that my genitals might not be the standard issue for most women!!
But then, the guard does not react with the boring old, standard issue comedy, shock and horror, total disgust face. The guard actually seems interested and happy! He even shows up in the final tableau!!
The mustache on the other hand, I can’t defend except to say that for some reason it was a hilarious mustache in and of itself. Seriously, you could show me 30 seconds of just that ‘stache and I’d be laughing my fool head off. But probably it wasn’t appropriate for the sketch.
All told, I did not think the “Estro-Maxx” commercial parody was the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages or even close to the funniest thing I’ve seen on SNL. (“Wake Up And Smile” was. Trust me, Google it. It’s friggin’ twisted) And I can well understand why many of my transsexual/transgender sisters and brothers are so offended. But I have to say that I found it surprisingly smart and somewhat funny.
It’s never fun to be the butt of the joke, but I can tell you one thing. When they’re making fun of you on Saturday Night Live, it means people are paying attention. You are important enough to make reference to.
And transpeople are that! We are finally beginning to be heard. The media juggernaught has taken notice and the advertisers will not be far behind. That is something SNL got dead right.
Now, the question is, what do we do with that spotlight?!?!
As far as SNL is concerned, I know what I’d like to see. I’d like to see a transsexual/transgender host or even cast member!! If Lorne Michaels and NBC want to make a gesture to the trans community I have a suggestion.
Let me host!!!
I’m a Second City trained improviser, actor, writer and sketch comic who has been doing comedy one way or another since I could first make words come out of my mouth!! And I’m also a genuine Bona-Fide transsexual woman! Heck, I’m even a transgender celebrity. A columnist, an activist AND a pageant queen. I was the very first Miss Trans New England!!!
How do you like them apples!??!?!
And if one transgender woman’s not enough for ya, I’ve even got funny friends!! I’m sure my friend, stand-up comedy veteran and also genuine bona-fide, etc., etc., transwoman, Tammy Twotone could be convinced to join me! You could get a Comedy Transwoman Two-fer!!
So whaddya say Mr. Michaels??? Will you let me host?
How about you internet friends? My trans sisters and brothers and everyone else reading this??? Do you want to see a flesh and blood transsexual woman making the funny for you on national TV?? Do you want your voices represented?
Then make it so. Time for us to grab control of that spotlight ourselves.
Get out there and tell SNL and NBC that you want Lorelei Erisis to deliver that famous line, “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!!!”