SNL star Kate McKinnon. JESSE DITTMAR / NYT
Opinion

Kate McKinnon Should Quit SNL

Kate, it's time

The time has come for Kate McKinnon to leave “Saturday Night Live” – that’s the truth. Yes, even though she’s their most potent star this season and even though things are looking good for her – a little “Saturday Night Live,” two movies a year. After seven long years, it’s time for legendary producer Lorne Michaels to be courteous enough and mentor enough to throw her out of the nest. Or, better still, for McKinnon to fling herself headfirst out of the experimental, forgiving and expectations-lowering hothouse that is SNL.

No woman has spent more time than McKinnon in the offices and studios of 30 Rockefeller Plaza as an SNL repertory player. Of course, we’ll always have Kenan Thompson, who holds the somewhat dubious record for SNL longevity – 15 seasons – but that’s less of an achievement and more like a school pupil who keeps having to repeat the year. McKinnon is currently the outstanding star of the cast, almost with no competition, and certainly the most versatile and interesting member of the team. The fact that in past seasons regular supporting players were needed, such as Alec Baldwin in the role of Donald Trump and Melissa McCarthy as White House spokesperson Sean Spicer, is an indication of something. So, at the moment it’s very convenient for everyone to have McKinnon stay where she is, even though it’s clear that the eggshell is already pressing on the overgrown chick.

McKinnon was born and raised in Sea Cliff, a town on Long Island, New York, population less than 5,000, to Laura and Michael, a parent educator and an architect. She has a degree in theater from Columbia University. Within a year of her graduation she was cast in “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” where she spent three seasons and won an array of prizes that marked her as a rising star in the world of comedy. “I learned quickly that that was a major fluke and then didn’t get paid again for a long time,” she told Lili Anolik in a Vanity Fair cover story in November. Still, in 2012 she was snapped up for SNL.

From the outside, McKinnon seems to have followed a paved, well-weeded path that led her easily and quickly to her present enviable status. This isn’t your standard story of the de rigueur centerfold, the tough childhood, the pitfalls along the way, the despairing auditions and the long years of waitressing. That’s intriguing, alongside the fact that McKinnon is – there’s no ignoring this after her unvarnished, self-surrendering photo session with Annie Leibovitz in the Vanity Fair article – an American beauty from dreamland, with the dimples and the million dollar smile, the blond hair and the green eyes. Her looks almost conflict with the fact that she is funny in a bluntly physical, sometimes almost masculine way. Far from making a big deal out of her appearance, she almost works against it. Often, McKinnon blurs her beauty, possibly as part of a larger plan, which is astonishingly successful, to be funnier than anything else.

Hillary my sister

McKinnon entered the mainstream consciousness largely in the wake of her imitation of Hillary Clinton, after the former First Lady launched her campaign against Donald Trump. Unlike Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump a year ago, McKinnon’s imitation of a woman she reveres exuded warmth and affection – exactly the qualities Clinton lacked, and which McKinnon succeeded in imparting to her indirectly. The 2015 sketch in which the two cooperated almost looked like part of the campaign, with Clinton playing a barmaid and McKinnon playing – well, Clinton.

In the Vanity Fair interview she said, “I love doing impressions of politicians because the task is always to imagine the private lives of these people whose job it is to project an image of staunch, unflinching leadership and grace, and that’s just not how human beings, in their heart of hearts, work. In doing that for Hillary Clinton, who I admire so much, I started to feel very close to her, just trying to imagine her inner life.”

That joint path, whose end more or less coincided with Trump’s victory and the stinging loss sustained by Clinton and the liberal voice in the United States, was marked by McKinnon playing Clinton in a performance – laced with grief far more than with humor – of “Hallelujah” (by Leonard Cohen, who had died a few days before). There wasn’t a dry left eye that night.

The soft penetration into the mainstream, together with the fact that she was identified with the Clinton camp, and her lesbian identity, which she never made a fuss about, made McKinnon the darling of the liberals, who are already starting to bemoan her necessary departure from SNL. “The thought of Kate McKinnon one day leaving ‘Saturday Night Live’ makes us queasy. But it’s inevitable,” Marcus James Dickson wrote on GoldDerby in October. But to love is to let go.

Marvelous madness

What sets Kate McKinnon apart from the other cast members on SNL is that she’s a genuine actress. She doesn’t signal acting, like many of the show’s comedians, she doesn’t remain “Kate McKinnon playing a character,” in the way that Tina Fey, for example, is always Tina Fey, even when she’s imitating someone. McKinnon’s impressions are always sufficiently round to be human, vulnerable and arouse affection. That was the case even when she did U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions a few weeks ago, in a personification that recalled Gollum from “The Hobbit.”

McKinnon’s spark of madness, which is unmistakable even when she plays respectable straight characters such as Theresa May, Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton (and others that are not necessarily respectable, such as the amazing character of Ms. Rafferty, who is serially abducted by aliens, or Barbara DeDrew, the ageing cat lover), is always somehow affable madness. The combination of her being a true actress (with a theater degree to prove it) and her performances as a successful comic who doesn’t cast a pall by endlessly repeating the same gags and shticks, quite easily landed her a role in the all-female cast of a 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters,” directed by Paul Feig, and this year in Lucia Aniello’s comedy “Rough Night.”

From this point of view, McKinnon has been able to break the SNL jinx: she is appearing in films that have not been tailor-made to fit the regular characters of Lorne Michaels. At the same time, she hasn’t yet shone outside SNL, not in “Ghostbusters,” though she was very cute, and still less in “Rough Night” as a positive Australian who wears a permanent smile.

In 2016, after 23 consecutive years in which no one from the SNL cast won an Emmy, McKinnon did it. In 2017, she won two, and positioned herself definitively as a comic force to be reckoned with – a status that is hardly self-evident in general, but also specifically on SNL. In fact, it’s been some time since the show produced a truly star comic: not since Tina Fey (who left in 2006), Amy Poehler (left in 2008) and Kristen Wiig (left in 2012). Maya Rudolph, who was a type of promise, left in 2007, but never really made the big leap into the mainstream. Molly Shannon (left in 2001), whose temperament suited the boisterous tumult of SNL, is too offbeat and generates too much unease to be a stable comic presence, and isn’t cast in lead roles.

Before them, the last woman to succeed in carving out a true career for herself, detached from the umbilical cord that connects directly to Lorne Michaels, was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who left SNL in 1985. Betwixt and between, came a prolonged wilderness of female comics who didn’t survive on the outside without the 30 Rockefeller Plaza incubator.

For the moment, then, all eyes are on Kate McKinnon, and everyone is waiting to see when she’ll make the leap of courage, stop being that funny woman on “Saturday Night Live,” and proceed with head held high onto the playing field of the big guys, where you have only yourself to rely on.

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