Just as every generation seems to look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses, muttering to themselves about how “things were better back then,” all Drag Race fans seem to inevitably find themselves bemoaning the changes in the franchise. There’s the loss of the “everybody loves puppets” mini-challenge; the homogenous nature of the talent shows; and maybe, most prominently of all, the downfall of the Snatch Game. It just feels like the last few iterations of the iconic challenge haven’t felt quite right.
And lately, it hasn’t been the fault of the queens themselves. Sure, there were some poor performances (and, dare I say it, “canned bits”), but the aggressively edited nature of the season means that nobody really got the chance to do much of anything. Looking back over the list of queens, and the celebrities that they (almost) all impersonated, there are barely any jokes that come to mind; even the high queens and the winner feel like blips. And then there was the seven-queen-pileup that was season 14, with only DeJa Skye’s Lil Jon winning, and all the other queens put into a lip sync smackdown that ended up with the most predictable outcome imaginable.
She remains “hopeful for a future where queer people have opportunities to flourish outside of a fake competition to make a few rich old gays richer.”
Maybe I’m just being too nostalgic, and every Snatch Game has the same edit structure of a few great queens, one or two bad ones, and everyone else just getting a joke or two here and there. But this feels worlds away from the top three of Bendelacreme, Adore, and Bianca back in season five; of the legitimately interesting – even daring! – character choices like Little Edie or Marlene Dietrich. There have been recent attempts to revitalize the format itself: Canada Vs the World did a Snatch Summit that reframed the Q&A (and serving as another reminder of just how talented Icesis is; her dry, cutting Donatella is exactly the kind of comedy that the challenge seems to be missing these days), and the Snatch Game of Love has become a mainstay on All Stars.
But the thing is, Drag Race has always had a bit of a comedy problem. More than anything else, broad, slapstick comedy wins big where other comic styles fall flat for Ru and his squirrel friends. It’s no wonder that, comedy challenge after comedy challenge, Michelle Visage—who normally gives what seem like actually meaningful and actionable critiques!—describes herself and her co-judges as “greedy bottoms,” who always want more. I almost expect that this time next year, when we’re in the weeds of season 16, someone (probably The Hilarious Ross Matthew) will make a joke about being a size queen; that contestants should always go bigger if they can. There are some exceptions to this rule: the mime artist played by Olivia Lux; Cracker’s turn as Dr. Dill in the original Bossy Rossy challenge; and Snatch Game performances like Little Edie, Dietrich, and (again) Cracker’s criminally underrated Dorothy Parker. But by and large, there’s a house style when it comes to Drag Race comedy, and that style is, Whatever Ru Finds Funny.
“Make me laugh.” That’s the best, most frequently given piece of advice Ru will provide to anxious queens in the walkthrough that takes place before Snatch Game, when everyone introduces their character to the often-inscrutable host. Making Ru laugh, and making Ru like you isn’t just the way to win Snatch Game, it’s the best way to win the show. And over the last few years, this cheat code has been almost aggressively broadcast by Ru during these pre-Snatch Game chats. Ru has gotten more vocal with suggesting exactly who these potential Drag Superstars should impersonate. And because this is Ru, and these are the comic stylings of Drag Race, this tends to mean painting characters in broad brushstrokes. Things like telling Chorizo May to play Cher with an accent, or telling Jonbers Blonde to play Saint Paddy, which the latter actually did. And more than that, it worked.
Maybe this is me putting on a Drag Race tinfoil wig, but it feels like the easiest way to coast through Snatch Game is to let Ru recommend a (bad) character, do it anyway, and you’re guaranteed to be safe. The same thing happened in the season 15 Snatch Game; initially, Anetra was planning on just performing as Gordon Ramsey, but was told by Ru that it would be funnier if the role instead became the chef’s “Drag sister.”
While are lots of things that show the slightly aging, creaking bones of the Drag Race franchise, its moments like this that reveal how much the show can unnecessarily limit both itself and its contestants. It’s ironic that so much of the comedy of Drag Race, and Snatch Game in particular, boils down to the old trope that things are funnier if they’re said by a man in a dress. For a show that’s gone out of its way to try and change its own outdated ideas about drag—and, this season in particular, is trying to approach the art form in a backdrop that’s more political, almost existential—that this is still something that the show insists on doing.
This approach to comedy feels almost like a microcosm of the politics of someone like RuPaul: formerly at the cutting edge, but now comfortably in the middle of the status quo; wanting to push the envelope a little, but not so much that it alienates the audience of the show as it gets wider and wider. Back in season 7, the idea of “boy drag” was anathema to the Snatch Game, but Kennedy’s performance as Little Richard (the highest point she reached both times she appeared on the show) was a paradigm shift for the show. But with something as long-running as Drag Race, and given the show’s figurehead, it makes sense that even these once groundbreaking moments would end up reverting back towards some kind of mean.
Over the last few years, the US seasons of Drag Race have kept trying to have some kind of meaningful response to the slightly more eyebrow-raising parts of its own past; but every time it seems like it might be out, Ru pulls it back in. For a show that’s obsessed with finding contestants that it deems “the future of drag,” even a mainstay like Snatch Game will continue to feel underwhelming until it finds a way to break out of the confines put on it by both the history of the show, and Ru himself.♦