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.
A similar dynamic surfaced in the “Thirsty Cops” sketch when RuPaul, Ego Nwodim, and Kate McKinnon flamboyantly hit on a man who’d been pulled over for a traffic stop. It made for the second time in the night that Davidson played the figurative and literal straight man. A better riff on similar themes: the cut-for-time sketch in which RuPaul and Bowen Yang deliciously restaged the 1984 Dynasty scene often cited as the definitional demonstration of what “throwing shade” means. RuPaul and Yang played coal miners rather than wealthy socialites, and the transposition of femme fierceness into a stereotypically masculine environment made for basic, if effective, yuks. Again, though, the show overplayed the fish-out-of-water angle, this time by focusing on other (butch) miners gawking at the tiff.
Thanks in part to cast members Yang and McKinnon, this season of SNL already rated as highly gay, and some of its best moments have made queer in-jokes broadly accessible (see the Sara Lee sketch’s quotable line, “must get rid of toxic in community”). A drag queen serving as host absolutely represents progress—but the way in which RuPaul was used as a novelty prop almost felt like a rewind to an era before Drag Race. If the episode will be remembered at all, it will be for Justin Bieber showing off his mustache or for yet another dutiful re-creation of a Democratic debate. Or it’ll be for the “Weekend Update” bit in which Chloe Fineman impersonated the actresses nominated for Oscars, the event set to overshadow this surprisingly un-fabulous chapter of both SNL and the RuPaul story.