Sassy Gay Friend and the Half-Life of Shakespeare Adaptations

Curator's Note

Sassy Gay Friend, a character created by Second City comic Brian Gallivan in 2004 and used to launch the Second City online comedy channel in 2010, demonstrates Linda Hutcheon’s assertion that our delight in adaptations comes “from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise.” The recurring joke of the series involves the insertion of a Sassy Gay Friend into tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth immediately before their female characters are scripted to harm themselves, thereby interrupting the plot of the play to prevent such tragedies from occurring. Online discussions of SGF have largely centered around whether the figure, with his jaunty puns and “stupid bitch” catchphrase is a postmodern reinvention or merely reinforcing a tired stereotype, but charting the figure’s rise and fall in popularity can give us some insight into the way adaptation functions as “a work that is second.”

Such theories of adaptation help explain why Sassy Gay Friend quickly lost audience interest after moving away from adaptations of major Shakespeare plays towards less familiar literary works: in order to operate effectively, an adaptation (or “second”) needs to be sufficiently recognizable to an audience accustomed with the originary text (the “first”). As a result, only Shakespeare’s greatest hits can receive such treatment – a Sassy Gay Friend video interrupting Pericles would be an impossible sell. We can see this phenomenon at work by looking at the relative views of the various videos.

The SGF Hamlet video, uploaded to YouTube in February 2010, has over six million views; the next month’s Romeo and Juliet has only slightly fewer, and Othello comes in with just over 3 million. Viewership of the series drops precipitously, however, as soon as the SGF takes on less familiar canonical works: his Great Expectations video has less than 900,000 views, while Cyrano de Bergerac can barely gain a few hundred thousand. Such numbers suggest that there is a finite number of classical works of literature that are widely enough known by the general public that they may be successfully adapted and spoofed. As Sassy Gay Friend’s popularity increased, the font of recognizable Shakespeareana that Gallivan could draw from was rapidly depleted. The cultural touchstone of Shakespearean tragedy thus both enabled Sassy Gay Friend’s immediate popularity and ensured its downfall.

Comments

Tripthi Pillai's picture

Not So Sassy, When All's Said and Done

Great post. The SGF’s interventions are remarkable not only because they work themselves into popular canon pieces, but also because they dramatize a popular resistance to Shakespeare tragedies. Not only is the narrative a familiar one, but so too is the variation. Like the many rewritings and retellings of Hamlet that focus on keeping the female protagonist alive and vocal (Lisa Klein’s Ophelia, Jean Betts’ Ophelia Thinks Harder, Margaret Atwood’s Gertrude Talks Back come to mind), Gallivan’s SGF is a product of, and in turn caters to, a comfortable or moderate liberal logic that, congratulatory as it is, refuses to push its consumers to the provocative edge of cultural or critical analysis. The feminism and the queerness of the SGF series is pitched strategically at the level of common sense, something the viewers may already have been tuned to in their studies of the texts at high school or in their core classes at college. Notably, also, the SGF only intervenes in his girl friend’s life, playing on the familiar trope of the woman’s gay male adviser-friend or life coach. Hamlet could use an SGF (Horatio doesn’t count as sassy), a life coach who calls him a “stupid bitch” after injecting him with a dose of common or uncommon sense. But instead the female character emerges once again in the Second City adaptations of Shakespeare’s popular plays as the one who can and therefore must be reshaped into a creature whose comfortable transformation appeals to the audiences of the moment. I enjoy the SGF series. But it is rooted within systems of comfortable (common sense or mainstream) feminism and queerness, systems with which many readers/viewers are already familiar. I would love to see a radical queer-feminist production featuring the SGF. Perhaps that would revitalize Second City’s play on popular Shakespeare.

Gregory Steirer's picture

The Normative Gay Friend

Excellent post, Sarah. And I very much agree with you, Tripthi. The Sassy Gay Friend, employing “common sense,” functions as a figure of containment, taming excessive passions and what appear to be socially harmful or unproductive desires. In doing so, he reframes tragedy as comedy and integrates the heroines into a “functional” affective order. How much more interesting it would be to see a Queer Gay Friend, intervening to help Shakespeare’s characters more happily embrace the barbed edges of their excessive and/or unsanctioned desires. Baz Luhrrman’s Mercutio is almost such a figure. As is (maybe) Annie Lennox’s chanteuse in Jarman’s version of Marlowe’s Edward II.

Britta McCreary's picture

Agreed

Perhaps, too, as Second City moved on to lesser-known works, the SGF appeal began to lose its edge. I agree with Tripthi and Gregory; a reinvention of this character (or the integration of a less predictable character) could lead to a rejuvenated viewership.

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