Saturday Night Live's 2012 cast was packed with standout talent. With veterans like Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis on their way out, the show brought on rookies Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong, who would become integral to the backbone of the show for years to come, as well as Tim Robinson, whose time with SNL was limited but who has since flourished on shows like Detroiters and I Think You Should Leave. But it's Kate McKinnon, who joined the show midway through spring 2012, whose trajectory to stardom has been the most rapid and exciting. In addition to fast-rising icon status, thanks to her gift for impersonation and the absurd and a handful of hit movie roles, she shares rarified air with Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner as one of the only regular cast members to have won an Emmy for their work (and she's the only one who's won twice). It's a well-deserved honor when you consider the sheer versatility of the characters and impressions in her portfolio.
With Season 45 well underway, and McKinnon continuing to deliver killer characters every week, we're taking a moment to recognize the ten that stand out as the most iconic.
Pathologically unable to remember people's names (instead labeling them things like "Mustache" and "Big Boobs"), this whimsical-sweater-clad mom of someone, we're not sure who, flirts awkwardly with Colin Jost while gamely attempting to recap prestige television, whether she's actually seen the show in question or not, all while shoveling in some strange variety of leftovers from ancient Tupperware. If you've ever spent any amount of time trying to tell your parents about your gig writing feature articles for a website that covers television, you can definitely relate.
It's been a minute since we've seen Weekend Update's favorite Russian peasant (probably because she was at her best playing off of then-anchor "Set" Meyers), but Olya's Catskills-flavored jokes about the misery of life in her village were a staple of McKinnon's early days on SNL.
The Bieb's transition from fresh-faced tween to virile fully-grown man has not been entirely seamless, a premise which McKinnon has mined successfully on many occasions. The best of these is a set of digital shorts spoofing Calvin Klein ads in which McKinnon-as-Bieber, clad in a comically unsexy pair of tighty whities, alternates between sultry mugging and puerile, teenage-boy antics. It's twice as funny when you remember how this kind of marketing pivot has treated every young female star on the cusp of adulthood.
There's definitely more than one eccentric old lady character in McKinnon's canon (in fact, there are at least three on this list) but the most biting and topical of the bunch is this ex-starlet from Hollywood's golden age. Ostensibly Debette's there for a roundtable discussion with whichever A-lister is hosting that week, to discuss the evolving profile of women in film, but generally she steers the conversation around to some comically appalling trauma from her own past. It stretches #MeToo to the point of absurdity, but the grain of truth in Debette's wild anecdotes, coupled with McKinnon's deranged delivery, makes this a particularly incisive piece of satire.
McKinnon is a veritable chameleon when it comes to impressions, although there is a particular family of them that embody the same throughline of self-satisfied feistiness. We yearn to hear certain political women clap back at the administration with the same level of sass she imbues, and we secretly hope that this is how their actual inner monologues sound. McKinnon's Elizabeth Warren and Angela Merkel are particularly solid examples of this, but let's be real: nobody dunks on idiots quite like RBG. You just got Gins-BURNED, baby!
The most incredible facet of McKinnon's Kellyanne Conway impression is the fact that she can bring something entirely different to it every single time she does it without losing a shred of believability. Whether defending the administration's doublespeak with wide-eyed ardor; lurking beneath the sewers to terrorize Anderson Cooper; or exhausted, put-upon, and fantasizing about leaving it all behind, all the Kellyanne variations seem possible when embodied by McKinnon.
No conversation about McKinnon's versatility as a performer would be complete without noting her ability to descend into bizarre grotesquery. As an ill-advised, Momo-esque fast-food mascot, she conveys volumes with a simple eyebrow raise and creepy grin. "Bok Bok" definitely had to be shot as a digital short because there's no way anyone could have gotten through a single take without collapsing into helpless giggles, helpless terror, or maybe both. (Honorable mention in this arena goes to Shud, McKinnon's disgusting — yet oddly educational — half-human, half-blobfish mermaid.)
After decades of watching the men of SNL stuff themselves into bad wigs and XXL pantyhose to play real-life women, from Dan Aykroyd's Julia Child to Tracy Morgan's Star Jones, it's nice to see a woman get the chance to totally disappear into a male role, especially one as weird as the Sessions that McKinnon has envisioned. He pops out from beneath desks, confers with his dead father's spirit inside a taxidermied possum, and refers to the passage of the Civil Rights Act as "a childhood trauma," all with weird, impish glee. (Now that Sessions has departed the Trump administration, McKinnon brings a similar ghoulish energy to her Rudy Giuliani, but it has yet to rise to the same levels of absurdity.)
In the hands of a lesser performer, Colleen Rafferty would be one of those recurring SNL characters that would make viewers roll their eyes and grumble, "this again?". Indeed, it's becoming more and more of a stretch to concoct new supernatural encounters to frame the sketch. But two things elevate these segments into genius: one, the anticipation of which other actor will entirely break in the face of McKinnon's sublimely ridiculous delivery; and two, the anticipation of finding out exactly how she lost her pants this time (not to mention what she's going to toss out there as far as weird, poetic new metaphors for her undercarriage).
McKinnon's earnest, try-hard portrayal of Hillary Clinton was an instant classic, but her best moment in the role was also the most difficult. Faced with the conundrum of how to be funny on television the week after the unfunniest election outcome in U.S. history, McKinnon opted to not even try, instead letting her Hillary deliver a totally earnest and straightforward performance of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in the cold open. It shouldn't have worked, but it did, and her final line of "I'm not giving up, and neither should you" was both poignant and reassuring.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.