The riotous cherub that is Kate McKinnon may have been a relative unknown when she joined Saturday Night Live’s cast in 2012, but for those familiar with her brand of comedy on The Big Gay Sketch Show, she had all the makings to be a stand-out. McKinnon’s fondness for weirdos in all their forms pushed SNL’s boundaries for such fare. Throughout its run, the show has been home to many an oddball character known for their exaggerated behavior and strange worldviews, but McKinnon’s bunch brought that to another level.
Where McKinnon initially garnered attention for her spot-on Justin Bieber impersonation (made all the more hilarious since it crossed the gender divide), she would go on to create a series of truly strange—almost surreal—characters that fit alongside major impersonations of political figures. Her dazzling originality and her heartfelt approach to impersonating others earned her the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, beating out great performers from more critically acclaimed shows. If you’re wondering what makes her stand out among the current SNL cast, check out her ten best characters below.
10. Olya Povlatsky
Over her many appearances on “Weekend Update,” the beleaguered Povlatsky—who always wears a babushka—paints a bleak picture of life in rural Russia. Sharing her travails with the bemusedly stunned Seth Meyers and, later, Colin Jost, Povlatsky manages to put a sarcastic spin on the horrors of life thanks to her straightforward delivery. That tone couches her extreme hunger and abject poverty in a matter-of-fact style that underscores her awful circumstances to hilarious effect.
9. Angela Merkel
McKinnon’s impersonations tend to fall within the political spectrum—as opposed to celebrities, though she does many of those as well—and her exasperated German Chancellor Angela Merkel shines in that category. With a hearty German accent, a heavy dose of nihilism and a self-deprecating nod to her hair, dress and makeup choices, McKinnon portrays Merkel as the strong leader she is while making her strength and level-headedness the diving board off which sharply crafted punchlines can jump.
8. Justin Bieber
From Bieber’s smarmy way of cocking his head, to his deep crouches of seduction, to his constant hair sweeps, McKinnon inhabits the Canadian pop star’s physicality to an almost uncanny degree. Rather than have a male cast member play the Biebs, McKinnon’s gender-bending impersonation further highlight his boyish—bordering on immature—nature. Although McKinnon’s Bieber has appeared throughout her time on the show, the pièce de résistance may have been when she lampooned his Calvin Klein ad opposite Cecily Strong as model Lara Stone.
7. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
If there’s one way to characterize the way McKinnon approaches impersonations, it has to do with idealism versus reality. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a folk hero among American women as she battles more conservative minds on the Supreme Court, and McKinnon plays her with added verve. Speaking honestly about contemporary politics and matters of justice, McKinnon’s Ginsberg doesn’t hold herself back from offering up several “Gins-burns” as she lampoons court decisions, contemporary headlines and more.
6. Mrs. Rafferty
Here’s the rub with SNL characters: if McKinnon dusts off Mrs. Rafferty for more sketches (she’s only done two so far), it might rank higher on a list like this. But often characters lose their impact with every sketch, so in a way it’s probably best if McKinnon caps it to those two appearances, during which the chain-smoking Mrs. Rafferty has survived an alien abduction and her heart stopping for 55 minutes with greatly different (and far more perverse) experiences than her friends. Rafferty is another one of McKinnon’s strong, straight-forward, and utterly surreal women, and her deadpan, resolute delivery only makes her absurd stories that much funnier.