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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whiskers R We may have a rotating staff that doubles as DeDrew’s many turtlenecked lovers, but McKinnon has the sketch’s mainstay on lock. The cat-obsessed senior DeDrew revels in puns as much as she does pussies, and when she isn’t giggling about her latest quip, she’s trying her darndest to keep her co-worker’s hands off her while still promoting the temperamental cats available for adoption. The sketch is ripe for play in all forms, and funniest of all is watching McKinnon trying to keep things going while the episode’s host does her best to knock things off track.
Women in Hollywood have made immense strides from where they started at the industry’s birth, but senior actress Debette Goldry appears on roundtables and talk shows alike to remind everyone how things used to be. Delivered in McKinnon’s matter-of-fact style, which makes the outrageous seem normal and therefore somehow more outrageous, Goldry outlines all the horrible ways Hollywood and its powerful men treated her. By downplaying what she’s experienced—from being give drugs to wake up to being treated similar to a monkey—Goldry lands her criticism more sharply than she would if it she recognized and understood all she’d been through.
McKinnon had serious shoes to fill when she took over playing Clinton from Amy Poehler, who had been handling the political figure during her time on the show. McKinnon could have gone big, exaggerating Clinton’s features to a cartoonish degree, but instead she inhabited her quietly and with the kind of composure that won big laughs by playing opposite Larry David as Bernie Sanders and Alec Baldwin as Trump. Following the 2016 presidential election, McKinnon provided a somber, telling moment at the piano that dove past easy laughs and instead played straight for the heart, showcasing her ability to inject empathy into any character.
Sovage can be found at any local watering hole in the dark hours between dusk and dawn when decisions never seem their strongest. As the representative barstool denizen for the pathetic, Sovage has appeared in several sketches where she woos (if one can call it that) an equally bizarre character played by hosts like Vince Vaughn, Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle. The seductive and sketchy dance Sovage does with her potential one-night lovers leaves an indelible mark on any viewers’ brain that feels as though it’ll take an acid bath to remove.
As the talking head that spent much of Donald Trump’s campaign defending his actions, his speech, his policies and more, Conway doesn’t exactly come across as a redeeming figure in the political landscape. But McKinnon plays Trump’s right hand woman with an air of self-deprecation and regret, adding a layer that—while it doesn’t seem to exist in real life—ends up reflecting how much of SNL’s viewers feel at the thought of his presidency. Her staid, almost quietly mundane, delivery picks up on Conway’s essence and twists it into a new perspective that shines a light on the behind-the-scenes horror many would like to imagine took place in her meetings with Trump.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.