Way before TV became a same-sex playground, Terry Sweeney paved the way by being an openly gay Saturday Night Live cast member in 1985, wearing dresses on camera and stripping himself of any artifice off camera. The groundbreaking Sweeney did side splitting impersonations of First Lady Nancy Reagan on the show, along with other edgy characterizations, and the whole time he was open, honest, and unapologetic about being a gigantic, hilarious homosexual. And now, he garners even more points with his new book, Irritable Bowels and The People Who Give You Them (available for pre-order on Amazon beginning Aug. 7), a wittily engaging series of stories culled from his fascinating life and career. I got ahold of Sweeney to talk about the enviable choices he’s made through the years.
Hi, Terry. Congrats on the book. Why did you do a collection of autobiographical essays rather than an actual memoir?
I wanted to reintroduce myself as a funny writer who’s a pundit. I didn’t want to go, “Here’s a memoir.” I wasn’t famous enough to do a memoir. Eddie Murphy—that’s the kind of memoir people are gonna read. But this is a bunch of funny stories. I wanted to do a David Sedaris thing and show I have writing ability and not focus on “Poor me, I didn’t get hired.” I didn’t want to beat that drum because I’m not that person. I’m happy and show how can I go around setbacks.
But you got a quote from Alec Baldwin?
He’s funny. He’s great. He’s good at comedy. Some people go, “You had to put his name on his cover?” I go, “Oh come on.”
I love the essay about how you pretended to be the lunch delivery guy for SNL so you could penetrate the office and drop off your sketches. And it worked! Jean Doumanian hired you as a writer in the early 1980s.
I didn’t have a plan until I got there and I saw big, black security guards, the type who never smile, they look people up and down and just nod at the elevator. I was standing there, thinking, “How am I gonna get past these guys?” I went to the deli and got all these sandwiches. I knew from my relationship with African Americans that they don’t like when a white person says, “Hey, delivery,” and throws it at them. So they actually pushed me to the elevators and got me upstairs. Macho security guards in general don't like to be bossed around...they give the orders. I gambled on the two no-nonsense black dudes not putting up with some white delivery guy shoving bags and bags of take-out at them. My first lover was a big, no-nonsense black dude, so I should know.
They were talking about Louis, the regular delivery guy, so I was standing there, waiting for the elevator, like “Hurry up, hurry up”. I had no agent, no representation, no friends on the inside. And I got hired as a writer. That year, Jean Doumanian was executive producer and they ended up being out for blood that year. They wanted Lorne Michaels back. You can’t change SNL. Well, [head writer] Michael O’Donoghue showed up at some point in the season. He goes, “You people are ruining my show. You need to let your inner demons out. You’re too safe and middle class.” He gave us spray cans and made us spray expletives on the walls!
Three years later, you were hired back, this time as a performer on the show. Was Nancy Reagan your most famous character?
I think so, definitely. I got a lot of mail and a lot of press about it. Ron Reagan Jr. hosted one show and we had a great time. It was political commentary about it, too. It was the Nancy that the press was always hinting at. Someone who was not so concerned with what was happening domestically, with AIDS, or any of the other big issues — but with having the right china in the White House. I remember when a speech writer of hers wore a denim skirt in the White House. Well, Nancy happened to turn a corner and she stared at that denim skirt, looking at it the entire time she walked down the hall. She didn’t say a word, but I’m sure that woman never wore denim in the White House again.
Was it a huge responsibility to be openly gay? It was such a big deal back then.
It was such a big deal. The cover of People magazine was “Rock Hudson Has AIDS.” There was an AIDS frenzy going on. You didn’t even understand how you got it. If you had a gay waiter, you wondered if he washed his hands. There was a lot of misinformation and hysteria. But I said to Lorne, “I am openly gay and I‘m not going to go in the closet or give interviews about my fiancé who died and I never got over it or ‘I don’t have time to find the right person.’ ” I’d been to so many funerals and I wasn’t going to join in the shame by hiding in the closet. It would have been a disservice to my friends who had died, my friends who were sick. If you were gay, you were always going to memorials or to visit people in hospitals. Straight people were able to go merrily along their way, but this disease was picking off talented gay people one by one. I thought, “I’m not gonna do that. I don’t care if this is my big break. At the end of my life, I want to live with myself.” I didn’t sign the morals clause in my contract. I just said no. I have to give Lorne and [NBC exec] Brandon Tartikoff credit for going along with that.
How did the other cast members react to your gayness?
For the most part, they didn’t have anything going on with it. Damon Wayans had a little bit. He’s from that African-American group that make, like, a limp wrist. He wasn’t comfortable, but he wasn’t mean to me. But he thought it was a joke to make fun of. I was like, “Oh, brother.” But mostly everybody was fine. The writers didn’t know what to write for me. Everything they put me in was either gay or in drag. I was like, “I can play a waiter. I can play this and that”. It’s always been a boys club and the women have to bake cakes and sit in their office. It’s more like the guy-guys were crazy about Randy Quaid.
Well, I never wanted to see Randy Quaid in drag.
Luckily, I look a lot better. [laughs]
What happened after you left the show?
After SNL, it was tough. I hardly could get jobs. At that time, people didn’t think gay was so funny. It was way before Will & Grace and Modern Family. The casting people would say, “Oh, we went another way.” I’d go, “Yeah, straight.”
When the gay TV boom finally hit, did you benefit from it?
I wrote movies and TV and that got me through. I kind of went behind the camera and I also did live theater. And I got cast on Seinfeld and Family Matters. Even last year on Baby Daddy.
Always as a flaming gay?
Or the officious fag. You know, “I’m sorry.” As a person, I’m not anything like that, but the mean queen was just another category that they liked. I play these roles and think, “I hope I’m not doing a disservice to my own people.” [laughs]
Did you ever play a straight character on SNL?
I played an actor in the closet because of AIDS. We were pushing the envelope. My character didn’t want to lose the job, so he got a motorcycle and talked tough. But the lights fell and I screamed! Anyway, I’m so happy the television environment changed, but up until Will & Grace, I didn’t even know I was the first openly gay person on network television. It’s true! People say “Paul Lynde?” No. “Liberace?” No.
Gay rocker Lance Loud was on An American Family in 1973, but that was PBS, not a big network like NBC. How did you meet your wonderful partner, comedy writer Lanier Laney?
I tell straight people we met in a private men’s club. But I met him at a leather bar, Chaps, in New York. It was pouring rain and he came in and had a trench coat on. At Chaps! He looked like Robert Redford to me. I was like, “Who is that?” I ditched the person I was with and got his number and we’ve been together ever since, for 33 years. We love each other even more now than when we met.
There are so few leather bars left in New York.
Ramrod had that downstairs dark room where people had sex. One night, I was walking downstairs to see what people did down there. I was dressed inappropriately in a V-neck cashmere sweater, and they threw me out. I had touched the railing and it was slightly wet and I screamed. The guy saw my sweater and said, “You. Out.”
Sort of like that sketch with the lights falling, lol.
Those leather guys wore Nazi regalia. They look so tough. I thought, “What do they talk about?” Well, one time I leaned in and one guy was saying, “That angel food cake is delicious. I’ve got to get the recipe.” The other replied, “It’s mom’s.”
I love your description of Hollywood in your book: “To me, Hollywood is like a beautiful, bitchy, bipolar frenemy who only calls you when she needs something, then forgets you’re alive. You know she’s crazy, but somehow you forgive her and let her back into your life and guess what? She totally screws you all over again.”
I moved to Topanga Canyon. Nobody came to L.A. to make friends. People just came there to make it. All this “Love you, love your work, you’re a genius” stuff. But then I wouldn’t get parts and I thought, “OK, this must be the only city where you can die of encouragement.”
Well, let me give you some more encouragement: Keep writing. You’re doing very well at it, hun.
Moving on to current LGBT talent on the tube: One way to figure out who’s on the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is to notice who’s missing from their bar gigs the week filming starts. Well, on the New York scene, the sassy Bob the Drag Queen, rubber faced Thorgy Thor, and wacky Jizzabella all seem to be missing. Just sayin'.