'SNL' Alum Talks Complicated Legacy Of Playing Androgynous Icon Pat

Comedian and actor Julia Sweeney says criticism of her recurring “Saturday Night Live” character Pat broke her heart, before she was told years later how empowering some people found the bit.

Sweeney, who was on “SNL” from 1990 to 1994, looked back on Pat’s legacy while chatting with People magazine during a panel celebrating the show’s upcoming 50th anniversary and the role the Groundlings improv theater played in its history.

During her four seasons on “SNL,” the actor regularly starred in sketches as Pat, a nerdy but sweet character whose gender ambiguity was the main joke. Other characters in the sketches would try to suss out Pat’s gender, always to no avail.

While Sweeney saw Pat as someone who embraced their androgyny, she said the character initially drew criticism from people in the queer community, including her friend, “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway.

“There were some people in particular... saying that Pat was derogatory towards nonbinary people and that it was really an upsetting thing as a person of indeterminate gender herself or themselves to even see Pat,” recalled Sweeney, who also played the character in the critically reviled 1994 movie “It’s Pat.”

Roseanne Barr appears opposite Julia Sweeney as Pat during a 1991 sketch on
Roseanne Barr appears opposite Julia Sweeney as Pat during a 1991 sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Sweeney looked back on her character's legacy in a new interview with People. NBC via Getty Images

The “Work in Progress” actor admitted that Soloway’s criticism “just broke my heart, because I felt that I carefully wrote all the jokes to be about the people’s uncomfortableness with Pat, not Pat being uncomfortable with Pat’s self.”

“To me it was an empowering nonbinary thing — and that it was perceived that way was very upsetting,” Sweeney, who has never confirmed Pat’s gender, went on.

Over the years, however, Sweeney learned that many nonbinary and transgender comedians identified with Pat, finding the character a rare representation of someone who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles.

Last month, Sweeney met with a team of trans comedy writers to see how she could “reinvent” Pat. She said she left the meeting feeling “proud” of what she brought to the world with the character.

“A lot of the people who were there, well, all of them loved Pat,” Sweeney told People. “They were little kids when they saw Pat and felt that was a transformative thing for them to see.”

“For me, that was so emotional,” she added. “And when I left, I was really crying all the way home, because I felt like for the first time in 30 years, I felt proud of Pat.”

Sweeney said talking to the group of trans comics made her realize how much Pat meant to many people, letting her leave the meeting with a new perspective.

“Now I feel like, Oh, no. It was good and it was important, and now all these trans people that I met, this group of 10, all told me how important it was for me to have done that,” she said. “So now I feel, okay, that was okay.”

Last year, Sweeney told her fellow “SNL” alums Dana Carvey and David Spade how she’d change her approach if she were ever to reprise the role of Pat.

“If I did it again, I would make Pat more enigmatic and make it clear that it was about the other people and not Pat,” she said during an appearance on the “Fly on the Wall” podcast. “Almost more Charlie Chaplin-esque. Like, just people ― not talking much. Just about everyone else’s reactions.”

“Not that Pat, the character Pat, is anything like the Charlie Chaplin character,” she told Carvey and Spade. “But that the way [Chaplin] was enigmatic, and let everyone else be reacting to him while he was doing physical things, would have been the way I think it could have succeeded.”