In her current one-woman show, Julia Sweeney shares the story of how she acquainted her teenage daughter with her most famous “Saturday Night Live” character, an adenoidal social misfit of uncertain gender named Pat.
As Sweeney tells the tale, they sat together reviewing one of her old performances and she watched as a withering look of despair crossed her daughter’s face.
“I don’t know, Mom,” her daughter told her. “It really feels like that character is just about making fun of someone where you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman.”
It has been nearly 30 years since Sweeney introduced television audiences to Pat, a graceless but good-natured geek whose ambiguity confused bystanders who were curious to know Pat’s gender, but felt too uncomfortable to ask directly.
Sweeney played the role in more than a dozen sketches that placed Pat in everyday settings — a gym, a drugstore, a barbershop — and in parodies of films like “Basic Instinct” and “The Crying Game.” Pat became one of the most popular “S.N.L.” characters of the 1990s, with help from an opening jingle whose lyrics asked viewers to “accept him or her” for “whatever it might be — it’s time for androgyny, here comes Pat.”
But the character also has an ugly underside that its creator never intended. Over the years, Pat has become a cultural cudgel used to mock those with unfamiliar gender expressions — an all-purpose insult hurled at people who do not fit conventional definitions of masculinity or femininity.
Abby McEnany, the co-creator and star of the Showtime comedy series “Work in Progress,” said she has been called Pat because she is a lesbian who happens to resemble the character.
“That sucked, because it was never a compliment,” McEnany said. “It was aggressive. It was bigotry.” Even in the bathroom of a lesbian bar, McEnany said another woman confronted her and said, “Ugh, who are you? Pat?”
“It’s like, wow, I can’t even find a safe space in what’s supposed to be a safe space?” she said.
Jill Soloway, the creator of the Amazon series “Transparent,” said that Pat typified a dehumanized depiction of real people.
“What we saw happen on ‘S.N.L.’ was shame embodied and turned into an it — a thing, not a person,” said Soloway, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
The Pat sketches, Soloway said, were a reflection of how people are expected to adhere to gender stereotypes and “everybody who doesn’t do that is subject to a wide array of bullying and hatred.”
Sweeney is well aware of Pat’s complicated legacy and the pain that the character represents to many people. As she asks herself in her one-woman show, “My God, what did I do? Was I the Al Jolson of androgyny?”
More sincerely, Sweeney said in a recent interview that she took this criticism seriously and empathized with anyone who was insulted in this way. “As a person, of course I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she said.
But, she added, “As an artist, I don’t want to never hurt anyone’s feelings.”
The problem of Pat represents an increasingly persistent debate in comedy: What happens when a joke, character or routine is re-examined outside of the era in which it was made and is deemed insensitive by contemporary standards? Should its creator still be held accountable for that material, and what if anything is owed to audiences who may have been offended or hurt by it?
Comedies are continually revisited with fresh eyes and subjected to new scrutiny, whether the 1980s-era teen movies of John Hughes, which have been reproached for male chauvinism, or TV shows like “The Simpsons,” where the character of Apu has been criticized for perpetuating racist stereotypes.
While audiences and performers can be reluctant to have these debates, Sweeney is open to further consideration of her work and she plays herself in a story line on “Work in Progress,” which premieres on Dec. 8, that reckons with the consequences of Pat. But she does not disown the role.
As Sweeney explained it, “I didn’t do that character to make anyone feel bad,” she said. “On the other hand, I created a character and then people happened to look like that character. I’m not responsible if they take it negatively, either. So that’s a complicated situation.”
Sweeney created Pat while she was still a member of the Groundlings, the Los Angeles comedy troupe, in the late 1980s. She said that she based much of the character’s behavior on a socially awkward officemate she worked with as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, who drooled and stood too close to people when he talked.
But Sweeney felt she could not pull off the character if she played Pat as a man. So she made Pat androgynous in appearance and oblivious to other people’s uncertainty about Pat’s gender.
“Pat doesn’t know that Pat comes off in an androgynous way,” Sweeney said. “Pat is actually very sexual — heterosexual. We just don’t know if Pat’s a man or a woman because of how Pat presents Patself.”
When she played Pat this way at the Groundlings, Sweeney said, “That was the biggest laugh. The androgynous jokes were easy. As soon as another character has an agenda, the jokes come quickly.”
Pat was one of several characters that Sweeney performed in her “Saturday Night Live” audition and one that she did not expect to catch on after she was hired there in 1990.
“I thought I was going to do it once and be done,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to become this thing that people identified with.” But as Pat grew increasingly popular on “S.N.L.”, Sweeney said the ways in which the character was being used to demean other people — what she called “the icky part” of the role — became clearer to her.
During her time at “S.N.L.”, Sweeney said she was invited to be the grand marshal of several gay pride parades, which she interpreted as an endorsement of the character. But at other public appearances where she played Pat — say, the opening of a shopping mall in the Midwest — Sweeney said, “When I went there, I realized they were laughing at Pat.”
And Sweeney said she was aghast when her former college sorority asked her to give her blessing to a pledge button that displayed Pat and the caption “Pledge No Pats.” What Pat was telling some viewers, Sweeney said, was that “anyone who doesn’t look like a man or a woman is someone we can point at and laugh at.”
Sweeney did not ask to stop playing Pat on “S.N.L.” But after a 1994 movie based on the character, “It’s Pat,” was a resounding commercial and critical flop, she said, “To me, that was it — it had a natural end.” She left “S.N.L.” that same year.
But the impact of the character has lasted well beyond Sweeney’s time on the show. Soloway said that Pat was emblematic of an era in “S.N.L.” history when the program was tilted toward its male cast members, who often performed in drag, and when it “used gender as a way to say, A, we don’t really need women around to make women, and, B, we’re going to make fun of how ugly we are when we’re dressed as them.”
Soloway said that Pat had taught a generation of viewers to see gender nonconforming people as outsiders, rather than people who have the right to participate in art, media and comedy.
“We’re looking to be the person who decides what’s funny,” Soloway said. “The dream is to be able to walk into a room, being the subject and not the object — to not be afraid that we’re going to be pointed at for not fitting in.”
Soloway expressed admiration for Sweeney, describing her as “important to the history of comedy and the history of women in comedy.” While Soloway said they wished that Sweeney would offer “a huge blanket apology to all nonbinary people for making fun of their essence,” the fact that she did not, Soloway said, “doesn’t make her a bad person. But times have changed so quickly that even things that seemed right three years ago are no longer right.”
Sweeney said that she was willing to listen to criticism of Pat and did not dismiss anyone who felt hurt by the character. “I’m always open to me doing something wrong,” she said. “Because I have done so many wrong things.”
But she cautioned that even the most innocuous cultural offerings can boomerang in unexpected ways. For example, Sweeney said that her husband, whom she described as a “tall, thin, supernerdy scientist,” was bullied as a child because he looked like the character Poindexter from “Felix the Cat.”
“The person who created Poindexter, should they feel bad?” she asked.
Citing “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer,” another popular recurring character from her era of “S.N.L.”, she said, “If there were Neanderthals now, working as lawyers, they would be like, ‘People call me ‘Caveman Lawyer’ and I was traumatized by it.’”
While Sweeney considered it a worthwhile endeavor to look back at past efforts and consider how cultural standards have evolved, she said we should be careful not to reflexively dismiss performers or works that are deemed out of step.
In another 30 years, she said, “It could be that people will watch movies from now, that are the most politically correct, and you know what they might say? ‘I couldn’t listen to what the characters are saying because they were eating a hamburger.’”
She added, “Don’t dismiss everything, because norms and expectations that we once accepted are going to keep changing.”
McEnany, the “Work in Progress” co-creator, hasn’t been equivocal about her feelings on Pat; in her act, she has told a story that begins, “Julia Sweeney’s Pat made my life a living hell.” And in the debut episode of her series, she re-enacts an incident from her early 30s when she walked into a party and overheard a group of men say about her, “Oh, Pat’s here.” (The host of that party then kicked those men out.)
As she has reflected on those experiences, McEnany said, “Julia Sweeney didn’t ruin my life; what ruined my life is people’s bigotry and their reaction to this character.”
But while McEnany was preparing the pilot episode of “Work in Progress,” she and her collaborators decided to include a fictionalized incarnation of Julia Sweeney as a recurring character on the show — one who would be portrayed by the actress, and whom McEnany (who is also playing a heightened version of herself) would confront and later befriend.
McEnany did not previously know Sweeney before approaching her about the role, but she said that their real-life relationship has come to follow a similar trajectory.
“She and I do not see totally eye-to-eye on Pat, and that’s O.K., because I love her,” McEnany said. She added that, at a time when “there’s so much vitriol, you can be friends and love people that don’t think the same things about everything you think about.”
Sweeney said that she was saddened to learn about McEnany’s difficult history with Pat. “Of course I felt terrible,” she said. “I could see how that would be a very traumatizing thing, and I didn’t want her to have had that.”
There was no need to expunge her past Pat sketches from the historical record, she said, but no need to bring Pat into the present day, either, describing the character as a remnant of “a whole other world.”
Today, Sweeney said, “You would not make fun of somebody for being that way,” adding that the fundamental premise of the sketch would fall apart in a matter of moments.
“You’d be able to say, ‘What are your pronouns?’” she explained. “And Pat would say, ‘I’m so offended, they’re obviously — ’ And then the joke would be over.”