It was almost three years ago that Saturday Night Live ran a skit in which a group of burly auto-shop workers fessed up to secretly loving the lip-popping, wig-swishing, ultra-sissy antics of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Last night, RuPaul, the drag queen who brought the queer underground art of cross-dressing to the cultural center, made his debut as SNL host. The episode should have been a victory strut, but it mostly felt like remedial reading.
The 59-year-old RuPaul would seem to live for gigs such as hosting SNL. Though he’s famous for drag, he really places himself in the model of an old-school showman, equally eager to joke, act, sing, and emcee. Drag Race emphasizes his leaderly qualities, and he’s long sought other projects to anchor, including a new Netflix comedy and a short-lived daytime talk show last year. As he reminded the audience in his monologue, RuPaul’s journey to stardom started in the ’80s with him shlepping from one dingy NYC venue to another. “Back then, New York was full of drugs, streetwalkers, and seedy nightclubs,” he said. “But it wasn’t all good.” That was one of the best lines of the monologue, which was otherwise largely a string of catchphrases.
An unusual number of the night’s skits featured the host playing himself: in glamorous drag as he made over Pete Davidson’s doltish recurring character Chad, and as himself out of drag, reading to children at the public library. In both cases, the underlying gag was in queer culture meeting the straight world.
As Chad was tucked and buffed into a would-be supermodel, RuPaul drooled in excitement about his protégé. But his protégé just drooled, uninterestedly. Davidson’s cheekbones (as RuPaul’s character suspected) did end up suiting itself to makeup—and it’s hard not to wonder if his eyes were styled to resemble a certain famous ex of his.
The library skit then made a play on the somewhat controversial rise of “drag-queen story hour” at public-education facilities. Here, though, RuPaul didn’t actually read books to kids. Rather he read those books to filth—a.k.a. slung insults at them. Some of the shade on display was, in fact, very funny: “The Eiffel Tower is not in the woods!” he quipped at the iconic cover for Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline. But rather than attempt to build momentum around the mockery of children’s literature, the show repeatedly cut to parents and library workers reacting to RuPaul’s spectacle with shock or amusement. The impression given was that queer play couldn’t be indulged for what it was and instead needed to be processed through clueless, square intermediaries.