The Women of SNL: Kate McKinnon

It was October 1st, 2016, and Kate McKinnon was about to make Saturday Night Live history. The long-running satirical comedy show was about to parody the rocky first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (played by McKinnon), and Republican nominee Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin), with Lester Holt (a deadpan Michael Che) as the moderator.

“Let’s bring out the candidates,” Che announced as Holt, “First, she’s been battling pneumonia and we hope she’s feeling better tonight. It’s Secretary Hillary Clinton!” 

Dressed in Clinton’s trademark pantsuit and pretending to lean on a cane, McKinnon hobbled onstage as the former First Lady to raucous applause from the audience. The audience’s cheers grew louder as a wobbly McKinnon let go of the cane before completing a cartwheel and landing soundly on her feet. “I’m better than ever,” McKinnon declared as Clinton, “Let’s do this!” 

Thanks to McKinnon, SNL was certainly better than ever. According to the LA Times, that episode drew the “highest overnight rating” for a season opener on SNL since Tina Fey first appeared as Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in 2008. While the show experienced a popularity boost with its 2016 presidential parodies, McKinnon became its MVP.

Born and raised in Long Island, New York, McKinnon (full name Kathryn-McKinnon Berthold) graduated from Columbia University in 2006 with a B.A. in theater. Only six years later, the actress and comedian joined the cast of SNL after the departure of longtime cast member Kristen Wiig prompted producers to find new female talent.  

In an interview on Ellen, actor and comedian Bill Hader recounted the impact of witnessing McKinnon’s comedic ability for the first time at her 2012 audition. Hader, who was an SNL cast member from 2005-2013, remembered how “When Kate McKinnon came on, she started her audition, and I started laughing so hard that [the show’s producers] were like, ‘Get Bill out of here.’”

From 2012 to the present day, McKinnon has continued to make audiences laugh with her zany impressions of politicians such as the disgraced former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and feminist icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In addition to politicians, McKinnon has portrayed celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres. For McKinnon, who is SNL's first openly gay female cast member, DeGeneres’s own public coming out story was life changing. 

“She risked her entire life and her entire career in order to tell the truth, and she suffered greatly for it. Of course, attitudes change, but only because brave people like Ellen jump into the fire to make them change,” McKinnon said when she presented the talk show host with a Carol Burnett Award at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, “And if I hadn’t seen [Ellen] on TV, I would have thought, ‘I could never be on TV. They don’t let L.G.B.T. people on TV.’” 

With two Emmy awards for her work on SNL, McKinnon, like DeGeneres, has changed the game for members of the L.G.B.T. community in the entertainment industry. At the time of publication, McKinnon is the longest serving female cast member on the show, where she continues to create eccentric, larger-than-life characters with her unique brand of wit and heart.

Sources: 1, 2

Photos: Her Campus Media