You can choose almost any movie based on a “Saturday Night Live” character and use it as an example of how not to make a movie. The “SNL” films are good for that. Someone should compile them into a textbook for film students to study. If nothing else, it would probably reduce the number of film students.
But for my money — and who else’s money would I be talking about? — the worst of the batch is “It’s Pat,” a 1994 hate crime against comedy starring early-’90s “SNL” cast member Julia Sweeney as her iconic character, the loathsome, creepy androgyne whose running joke is that no one can tell what gender he or she is. Short of coming out and asking, that is, which apparently cannot happen.
Pat worked well enough as a recurring “SNL” character the first thousand or so times it popped up on the show, then grew stale, whereupon Lorne Michaels and company only used it another five hundred times. Once America was completely tired of it, Pat got its own movie, released 18 months after the character had last appeared on the show. Because if there’s one thing “SNL” is good at, it’s striking while the iron is hot. I expect the Mr. Peepers movie to be released any day now.
What works as a sketch character doesn’t necessarily work as a fully developed movie character, though. There is only one thing funny about Pat. You can’t tell what gender it is, and every time you think it’s about to say something that will clarify the matter, the statement turns out to be neutral and you’re back to wondering. Pat has no hobbies, occupations, or personality traits that would apply only to a man or a woman. In fact, Pat has no real personality traits at all. Obviously, this is who you want to make a movie about: a character who is, by definition, unknowable.
I point all of this out to help you understand that while “It’s Pat” is a cinematic disaster of tragic proportions, it’s all the sadder because it was entirely preventable. Setting forth to make “It’s Pat” was like scheduling a second trip for the Titanic after it had already hit the iceberg. Julia Sweeney, Dave Foley, Charles Rocket, and Kathy Griffin are just a few of the frozen corpses left clinging to the wreckage.
To make Pat function as a movie character, the writers added some things to its personality. For example, Pat is now an insensitive, oblivious jerk who is incompetent at every job it tries and does idiot things like sneeze in someone’s food while working as a sushi chef. You can see how this will make people enjoy Pat as the central character in a feature film. The plot has Pat meeting a person just as androgynous as itself, a willowy hippie type named Chris (Dave Foley), the logic being that if a story only has one joke your best option is to double it.
Pat and Chris fall in love. They become one of those freakish couples that you see walking around at state fairs and motorcycle expos that make you think, “Wow, look at those hideous freaks,” before you realize that they have found love and yet you remain single. The other people in the movie find Chris and Pat bizarre, too. Pat’s neighbor, Kyle (Charles Rocket), a happily married man, becomes obsessed with Pat — obsessed with finding out what Pat is, and in love with Pat, too. If this were the kind of movie that had any thoughts, you might believe it was making a statement about true love being greater than gender labels. Since it is not that kind of movie, Kyle tries to spy on Pat in the bathroom to see if it pees standing up.
Pat has another neighbor, a radio DJ named Kathy Griffin, played by Kathy Griffin. This was back when Kathy Griffin was still trying to have a career, before she gave up and made a career out of not having a career. Pat stops by the radio station one day in the middle of Kathy’s call-in show, takes over the phones, and is given Kathy’s job. This is after Pat happens to meet the mildly popular underground rock band Ween (as themselves!) and is featured in a music video of theirs playing the tuba. Why the tuba? Because the tuba is a big, funny instrument, you see. Just imagine Pat carrying a tuba around! You’d be thinking, “I can’t tell if that person is a man or a woman — and on top of that, he or she is burdened by an enormous brass instrument that makes farty sounds! MY SIDES ARE BEING RIVEN WITH LAUGHTER!”
No, but I am being unfair. The tuba thing only lasts a few seconds. The bulk of the film is devoted to the hilarious fact that — follow me closely here — Pat’s gender is unclear. Oh, did I already mention that? Are you annoyed with me for repeating it? Well, talk to me after you’ve heard it constantly repeated for 77 minutes. Near the end of the film, a group of street punks confront Pat and demand to know its sex. This is the first time Pat has ever realized that people don’t know what gender it is. Now feeling very self-conscious, Pat rushes to a hair salon to get a makeover and a new look … yet won’t give the stylist any clues about what sex it is, even though Pat is now painfully aware of its ambiguity. That’s why Pat went to the salon. Somehow, in the cut from one scene to the next, the filmmakers forgot what they were doing.
Not that I blame them. If I were responsible for this mess I’d let my mind wander, too. Even watching it was hard, as I kept thinking I’d rather be watching something funnier, like “United 93,” or the drowning of a bag of puppies. At least the puppy drowning would be shorter and wouldn’t keep repeating the same joke.