Twenty-five years after the popular character’s final appearance on “Saturday Night Live” — and the box office bomb feature film based on the character — Julia Sweeney has a lot to say about Pat. As part of her current one-woman show, “Older and Wider,” Sweeney tells stories of her time from 1990-1994 as a cast member on “SNL” and her experiences in Hollywood. Pat comes up naturally — though that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing in the three decades since the character’s mainstream debut.
Sweeney showed her teenage daughter an “It’s Pat” sketch, only to get the response: “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.” In the same show, Sweeney asked herself, “My God, what did I do? Was I the Al Jolson of androgyny?”
Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times spoke to Sweeney — as well as notable critics of the Pat character, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway and “Work in Progress” co-creator and star Abby McEnany — about the character and its legacy. From the character’s origins during Sweeney’s Groundlings days to its appearance in over a dozen “SNL” sketches, Sweeney explains that the character was based on a male co-worker she had when she was working as an accountant at Columbia Pictures. However, since she didn’t feel like she could successfully play the character as a man, she went the route of androgyny and obliviousness when it came to people not knowing Pat’s gender.
“I didn’t do that character to make anyone feel bad,” Sweeney told The New York Times. “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.”
But people did take it negatively, twisting the intent of the character past comedy. Sweeney brought up public appearances where she’d play Pat, only to realize that the character was the malicious butt of a joke, and a moment where her when her former college sorority asked for her blessing to use a pledge button with Pat’s image and the caption “Pledge No Pats.” That’s when Sweeney realized the character was telling some viewers “anyone who doesn’t look like a man or a woman is someone we can point at and laugh at.”
“I’m always open to me doing something wrong,” she said. “Because I have done so many wrong things.” But Sweeney doesn’t believe that Pat should be swept completely under a rug, even though she acknowledges the “icky part” of what came with the character’s success.
While Soloway told The New York Times that Pat taught a generation of viewers to see gender nonconforming people as outsiders, she added that while she wishes Sweeney would offer “a huge blanket apology to all nonbinary people for making fun of their essence,” not doing so “doesn’t make her a bad person.”
Comedian Abby McEnany shared that sentiment about Sweeney, declaring, “She and I do not see totally eye-to-eye on Pat, and that’s O.K., because I love her.” McEnany’s upcoming Showtime series, “Work in Progress,” includes a plot about how Sweeney — who plays a version of herself on the show — “ruined” her life with the Pat character. But McEnany doesn’t really harbor resentment over Sweeney herself. “Julia Sweeney didn’t ruin my life,” McEnany said. “What ruined my life is people’s bigotry and their reaction to this character.”
“But times have changed so quickly that even things that seemed right three years ago are no longer right,” Soloway added. On that, she and Sweeney — who currently plays Vera on “Shrill,” mother to “SNL” cast member Aidy Bryant’s Annie — agree.
“Don’t dismiss everything,” Sweeney said. “Because norms and expectations that we once accepted are going to keep changing.”