‘SNL’s Julia Sweeney Wrestles With the Legacy of ‘It‘s Pat’

‘SNL’s Julia Sweeney Wrestles With the Legacy of ‘It‘s Pat’

The original reason Julia Sweeney invented Pat, a character she created while still an improv player at the Groundlings? “At first, I was trying to play a man, but I didnt feel like it was very convincing,” Sweeney told Dana Carvey and David Spade on the latest Fly on the Wall podcast. “And so I thought, Ill just make a joke that you dont know if its a man or woman to cover for my lack of acting ability. But now I probably wouldnt think that. I could just play a man if I wanted.” 

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That’s not the only way Sweeney would reconsider the character of Pat these days. As Carvey notes, Pat has surged in notoriety in the last few years. Pat turned gender identity into sketch comedy fodder and “you were way ahead of the game on that,” Spade noted. 

“Or behind,” responded Sweeney, showing more self-awareness than either of the podcast’s hosts. As LGBTQ+ voices have asserted themselves in the cultural conversation, the idea that an androgynous character would get laughs simply based on their ambiguous gender identity has become increasingly problematic. But Sweeney argues that Pat was never supposed to be the butt of the laughs. 

“I always thought the joke was mostly about the people around Pat who were so flummoxed, so freaked out. We said at the beginning, the jokes are not on Pat,” she explained (although she admitted that Pat looks weird, drools and is generally annoying). “People aren't gonna laugh at Pat for Pats androgyny. Were laughing at the people around Pat who can’t stand that Pats androgynous. Thats a subtle comedy thing.”

Very subtle. Sweeney acknowledges that the distinction was too muted and understands why audiences today reject the character. But Carvey, who can’t believe there was never a Church Lady/Pat team-up sketch, still didn’t quite get it. “Forget about whether Pat is a man or a woman — she’s just a funny character,” he argued. “The way she moved, the way she talked, it was just a funny character.”

But how can one “forget about whether Pat is a man or a woman” when that’s the entire basis for the character’s very existence? Even the theme song that introduced each sketch promised, “It's time for androgyny — here comes Pat!”

“If I did it again, I would make Pat more enigmatic and make it clear that it was about the other people,” Sweeney argued. “Almost more Charlie Chaplin-esque, not talking much and just about everyone else's reactions — the way (Chaplin) was enigmatic and let everyone else react to him doing physical things. That would have been the way that I think it could have succeeded.” 

“But,” she added, “no ones asking me to do that.”  

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