Saturday Night Live, since its inception way back in 1975, has always been a haven for powerful comediennes of the day. Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, and Tina Fey comprise just a small portion of the funny femme fatales that have mesmerized audiences live from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center. It’s near impossible to mark who of these women has left the strongest impression on SNL viewers in its 40-year run, seeing as the comedic landscape has evolved to an unthinkable degree since the days of Vietnam and Saturday Night Fever.
It does seem, however, that each generation of SNL has had a leading lady. In the early 2000s, Fey led the pack of comedians as the head and writer of show and as a co-anchor of SNL’s Weekend Update. After Fey and the wildly popular Amy Poehler left the program, viewers saw that Kristen Wiig quickly filled the hole left by the comedic power couple. Wiig won over SNL fans with her long list of wacky characters—characters quite unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Wiig, like her predecessors, quickly found popularity outside of SNL, starring in films like Bridesmaids, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Martian.
In this sense, SNL has acted as the launching pad of more than a handful of careers for comedians throughout the last couple decades and lately, probably to no one’s surprise, it seems as the immortal entity has chosen its next protegee. Since her SNL debut in 2012, the same year Wiig left the show, Kate McKinnon has consistently stolen the spotlight in almost every skit she’s been featured in.
It’s easy to liken McKinnon to Wiig. Both became the leading women of their SNL generations in an extraordinarily quick amount of time, launching from the featured cast to the repertory cast in around a year. But whereas Wiig gained her popularity with characters like Target Lady, Penelope, Gilly, and Dooneese, McKinnon has garnered a reputation for doing spot-on, off-the-wall impersonations.
It’s easy to imagine that McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impersonation is one of the factors that got her the job at SNL in the first place. That impression alone could have earned her spot on the program until Clinton falls out of the political limelight, but McKinnon’s abilities reach far further than just the presidential candidate. Over the last few years, McKinnon has introduced audiences to her iterations of Justin Bieber, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Dame Maggie Smith. Few SNL stars have ever topped McKinnon’s long list of impersonations and, this only being her fourth season on the show, McKinnon has more than enough time to introduce more celebrities to her version of them.
While impersonations are, on the one hand, McKinnon’s strong suit, the comedian has many more abilities to boast. For one, she does not simply perform her characters, she becomes them. The only time McKinnon has notably broken character is in the hysterical alien skit McKinnon’s character has a rather unexpected encounter with extraterrestrial life. After explaining that the aliens would take turns “gently battin’ [her] knockers around,” McKinnon let a slight grin grow across her face and trampled over a quick stutter before saying that the aliens’ tests “felt super off the books.” McKinnon has this stunning ability to separate herself from her characters, never allowing the hilarity of the situation to present itself in her performance. Instead, McKinnon merely provides a vessel for comedy, in its purist form, to flow through.
SNL, at least in the last 20 or so years, has always needed a reigning queen to preside over the rest of the cast. These queens have gone on to shape the world of comedy, imprinting their marks at the heights of the television and movie industries. Fey went on to write and star in 30 Rock, Poehler made the wildly popular Parks and Recreation, and the two have come together for collaborative hits like Baby Mama and Sisters. Wiig wrote and starred in Bridesmaids, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and is now starring in the Ghostbusters remake (alongside McKinnon, no less).
As McKinnon takes her next few steps in the entertainment world, will she follow in the tracks of her famed predecessors or go on to blaze her own trail? Only time will tell, but for now we can all rest assured that SNL’s reigning queen has a strong hold over her castle. Long live the queen.
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