How a Campy Game Show Gag Became ‘Drag Race”s Most Intimidating Challenge

When it comes to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” there’s no more legendary — or more daunting — challenge than “The Snatch Game.” A staple of the Emmy-winning reality competition, now in its 14th season, this “Match Game” riff sees the likes of Beyoncé and Liza Minnelli share the stage with the likes of Melania Trump and Marlene. Dietrich as each drag contestant puts their identity skills to the test.

Since arriving in the show’s second season, “The Snatch Game” has solidified itself as the moment in any given season where RuPaul and his fellow judges can determine who can truly go all the way. That’s because the challenge distills the essence of what a great drag queen – someone worthy of being crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar” – needs in her arsenal. There is humor, of course. And the ability to think on the spot. But the challenge also requires the queens to dig into pop culture to deliver killer lines, while shedding light on something about their own approach to drag.

One of the reasons ‘Snatch Game’ takes such a prominent place in this now global franchise is the way it perfectly captures what ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ first envisioned itself as: a showcase for the best and the worst. brightest in contemporary drag culture dating back to the 20th century. queer culture while modeling and elevating a decidedly queer 21st century sensibility.

As Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez said in “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life”, when the queens play “Snatch Game”, they “pay homage to a form of drag who made huge inroads into the mainstream acceptance of queer performers and performing styles in 20th century America. Casting as beloved divas such as Judy Garland, Donna Summer, Cher and Britney Spears is an age-old tradition, yet here, like every other episode of “Drag Race,” the queens are tasked with perfecting their own brand of drag for a one-person audience.

At the root of this pun is a simple saying: make RuPaul laugh. With Ru living out his own Gene Rayburn fantasy on the show, “The Snatch Game” lives and dies how much fun the bespectacled host is having. Whenever a queen is called to offer her answer to the game’s ridiculous prompts (“There’s a new dating app for drag queens. When you sign up, the first question they ask is, ‘What’s the size of your [blank]?’”) she has the chance to shine. Or flounder.

While training queens, Ru recently opted for a well-known piece of advice: keep it simple. “All the bitches come here and think you’re Meryl Streep,” he thought during a Season 12 practice session. This way you won’t have to work so hard.

There are many ways to fail “The Snatch Game”. You can choose a thin sketch of a character (like the “Cash me outside” girl). You can create one-note joke performances (like Whoopi Goldberg being obsessed with weed). You can rush an iconic artist who may not be ready to be sent (see the many attempts to make Beyoncé a reality). You can have a hard time pranking Ru (no matter who you choose; it’s something queens whose first language isn’t English clearly have a hard time with). But there is always a surefire way to win.

RuPaul never asked his queens to become award-winning actors in the space of a TV episode. Instead, he used this game show format as another way to test them. To see how (and if!) they manage to complete the brief. To show why they deserve a shot at the crown. What sets these versions of pop divas, historical figures, and reality TV personalities apart from those imitators of yore (your Jim Baileys doing Judy Garland on stages large and small, for example) is this imperative to reveal something of themselves in their performances. Bailey, after all, wanted to disappear into Judy, not shine through her.

But for “Drag Race” competitors, it’s a desire repeated over and over by the judging table week after week. No matter the challenge, they are called upon to tap into the self-revealing aspect of dating.

Just look at recent challenge winners to see queens who have navigated that tightrope of a march with the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and flair the show demands. Aquaria, for example, scored a win in season 10 by getting closer to her own personality: “Melania is as cold and distant as I am,” she explained. “So I thought I’d use my weakness to my advantage.”

Knowing she would be underrated as a “look queen,” the eventual winner not only performed for Ru’s comedic sweet spot (political humor at the ready), but did so while delivering a just enough biased version of the former first lady (“Any hole is a goal!”) that made her stand out. Like all great “Snatch Game” performances, the choice, the lines, the look and the delivery told a story. And, more importantly, they told Ru something about Aquaria itself – in this case, that there was humor to be found in even the coldest and darkest places. more unlikely.

Likewise, Gottmik’s choice last season to deftly weaponize her own vocal fry to deliver an utterly bizarre take on Paris Hilton helped cement her flirtation as being in conversation with notions of frilly femininity; Symone’s fun bits as Harriet Tubman (yes, really) also placed her drag squarely on black history. Silky Nutmeg Ganache’s daring take on Ts Madison in season 11 allowed him to harness his larger-than-life charm to end his competition, which many had called too much, while Shuga Cain played his own Firecracker energy in a feisty portrayal of Charo in all his cuchi-cuchi glory. Queens are rewarded for striking the right balance between playing a character and playing themselves. Or rather show who they are by playing someone else: a meta-commentary on the function of drag as RuPaul intends it.

Therein lies the heart of any great modern “Snatch Game” performance. Rooted in pop culture (or even history, as Rosé’s heavily accented Mary Queen of Scots proved last year), queens need to create a persona that shows range but also (ideally) extends their finely crafted brand of drag. Such a tailored choice should make Ru laugh and wow the judges, but it should also tell them something about the Queen’s own voice, her humor and ultimately her point of view.

Perhaps Miss Vanjie, who knows a bit about bombarding this particular challenge, summed it up best: “You’re not doing right, bitch, everyone will remember your Snatch Game.” It’s not a if and a but. Whatever you do, he will follow you like the shadow will follow Peter Pan and haunt you until death do you part.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.