Saturday Night Live has had a number of memorable characters over the years—just think of Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who warns about the eventual fate of living in a van down by the river, or Debbie Downer, the buzz-kill queen who brings up her dead mother at the most inappropriate moments. But more recently, Bill Hader has made his mark on SNL history through his odd, yet popular, character Stefon.
Bill Hader’s character, Stefon, appeared on Weekend Update as the city correspondent for Seth Meyers. Encouraged to recommend family-friendly tourist spots, the flamboyantly gay Stefon inevitably fails as he recommends bizarre clubs, aptly described by Meyers as “a coked-up gay candy land.” Stefon’s popularity is undeniable; when he left the show, Weekend-Update was extended to cover a dramatic sendoff wherein Stefon and Seth Meyers get married. On the outset, Stefon is a bizarre character that perhaps should have been more distancing to the audience. However, using the humor theory of the Benign Violation, Stefon’s popularity can be explained.
The Benign Violation Theory, primarily researched by Peter McGraw, states that “humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.” A violation can be defined as anything that threatens a person’s understanding of how the world should be. Think, for example, of seeing someone slip on a banana peel. It’s a violation because someone is slipping and it’s potentially dangerous. It’s benign because the person’s okay, and you’re not the one embarrassed. This theory works in accordance with the type of humor used in the Stefon sketches.
When Stefon initially appeared (Season 34, Episode 7), he was pitching a movie with his brother, played by Ben Affleck. In this instance, the live audience is more hesitant, and there is not much laughter. The characters in the sketch are all uncomfortable with Stefon, and because he is so bizarre and unpredictable, the situation is not benign. When Stefon appears on the show with Seth Meyers, Meyers is already a loving friend who takes Stefon’s weirdness with patience and a smile. Bill Hader later commented in an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers that his favorite aspect of the Stefon sketches is “a person being patient with an insane person.” Because of this, Stefon’s existence on Weekend Update is in itself a benign violation.
Stefon’s jokes also fit this theory. The clubs he describes are filled with a mix of dangerously politically incorrect characters, completely random objects, strange sexual experimentation, dungeon culture, passes at Seth Meyers, and, of course, a super weird name. All of these seemingly offensive things are made benign by the fact that Stefon himself, being socially awkward, is completely unaware of the fact that they are weird or offensive at all—this is, after all, his life. A line from Season 36 demonstrates this: “This place has everything: geeks, sherpas, a Jamaican nurse wearing a shower cap, room after room of broken mirrors, and look over there in the corner! Is that Mick Jagger? No! It’s a fat kid on a slip and slide. His knees look like biscuits, and he’s ready to party.” All of Stefon’s observations about this place make it sound like somewhere no one would want to go, a complete violation—but his obvious enthusiasm makes the situation benign.
Stefon’s ignorant weirdness and politically incorrect statements make him the perfect character to utilize the Benign Violation Theory. The fact that Bill Hader can’t stop laughing at his own character gives the audience a clue as to well how well it works. In fact, Bill Hader laughing at the sheer hilarity of his own character is a fantastic example of the benign violation in and of itself.
by Merritt Mecham