It didn’t come right away. Saturday’s episode opened with a sketch imagining several medieval men coming up with the first abortion law. “We should make a law that will stand the test of time, so that hundreds and hundreds of years from now, they’ll look back and say, no need to update this one at all — they nailed it back in 1235,” says guest host Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, the nobleman who suggests outlawing abortion. Later, on “Weekend Update,” co-anchor Michael Che said: “I just don’t get why Republicans are so against this. Maybe don’t think of it as an abortion. Think of it as a patriot storming a uterus to overturn the results of an unfair pregnancy.”
McKinnon then appeared as guest commentator Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who told co-anchor Colin Jost that she doesn’t understand why people are upset about the potential ruling. “Just do your nine,” she said. She adds, “Give it to a stork and the stork will give it to a lesbian. I would think that lesbians would be happy because now there’s more babies for them to adopt. Until we ban that, too.”
In her 10th year on SNL, McKinnon has become arguably the most vital cast member when the show tackles the often surreal 21st-century version of national politics. She’s portrayed everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to … well, you get the point. (To be clear, McKinnon doesn’t only lampoon politicians — she’ll take on anyone, such as Justin Bieber, Jodie Foster and Shakira, to name a few — but politics have become her sweet spot.)
To many, she can do no wrong. To some others, her shtick is wearing thin. On Twitter, as always, she’s “a genius” who “totally killed it,” as she always does. On Reddit, SNL has a “Kate McKinnon problem” and she takes valuable screen time from her fellow cast members and featured players.
As is often the case when she debuts a new impersonation, McKinnon’s take on Barrett was fairly benign. If the character becomes a mainstay of the show, it might likely evolve into something far more outlandish.
When McKinnon began portraying Giuliani, she played him relatively straightforward (at least, straightforward for her): All wide eyes, pinched cheeks and rigor-mortis hands — and a penchant for putting his foot in mouth on national television. Months later, the impersonation’s evolution found her playing him as a literal vampire with bat wings, who says things like, “I was hanging upside-down under the balcony.”
The characters that she became known for, of course, were the more idiosyncratic ones. Her most famous — and beloved — impersonation was arguably that of Ginsburg, whom she portrayed with swagger and the catchphrase, “And that’s a Gins-burn!,” a version of which found its way onto sweatshirts and tank tops.
Rather than mock the justice, the impersonation celebrated her — and delighted the real Ginsburg, who once said, “I liked the actress who portrayed me, and I would like to say ‘Gins-burn!’ sometimes to my colleagues.”
What shined through McKinnon’s take on Ginsburg, and what so many connected with, is how much she admired the justice. As she said in a statement following Ginsburg’s death, “For so many of us, Justice Ginsburg was a real-life superhero: a beacon of hope, a warrior for justice, a robed crusader who saved the day time and again. … It was one of the great honors of my life to meet Justice Ginsburg, to shake her hand, and to thank her for her lifetime of service to this country.”
Often, though, her impersonations — or, maybe more accurately, the political viewpoints they usually portray — can be divisive. That’s generally expected of any political satire, but at times, there’s no satire to be found. The best example came after the November 2016 death of Leonard Cohen and the election of Donald Trump, which occurred in the same week. McKinnon, dressed as Hillary Clinton and sitting at a piano, kicked a show off by earnestly performing “Hallelujah.” While some praised the cold open, it was generally derided by those on both sides of the aisle for being both exceedingly partisan and slightly jejune.
McKinnon is now in her 11th season on the show, putting her in a club of only five other cast members who were on the show for more than 10 seasons: Al Franken, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Darrell Hammond and Kenan Thompson. It seems likely she’s nearing the end of her run. And as likely to be expected, there’s increasing chatter online wondering if her talents would find better use in other projects.
And yet, SNL needs her, whenever a major political story breaks — especially now that it’s generally moved on from the parade of celebrity cameos that defined the show in the Trump era.
Which was clear on Saturday. James Austin Johnson, a master impressionist, is poised to replace her at some point as SNL’s reigning impersonator, but he tends to create true-to-life portrayals of real people, particularly Presidents Trump and Biden. If you merely heard him in character, you might think you’re listening to the actual person in question.
McKinnon, meanwhile, tends toward the absurd. As Barrett, she explains that these days, “You see a girl whose pregnant, you’re not going to stone her anymore. You’re just gonna be like, ‘Hmm, okay.’ Like if you get pregnant and you’re not married, you don’t have to go to a spooky convent anymore. You just give a baby to a panther, ‘Jungle Book’ it, and that’s your nine.”
“Arby’s. We have the babies,” she later adds in a final touch of inanity.
Maybe McKinnon has landed on a new sendup, which SNL will use as the dagger to poke at the court’s conservative rulings. Maybe next week, she’ll be someone else entirely.
You never know who McKinnon will be next.