The Curious SNL Return of Kate McKinnon

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Written By Pinang Driod

When Kate McKinnon departed the Saturday Night Live stage in May 2022, along with a slew of others including Pete Davidson and Aidy Bryant, the clock immediately began counting down to her return. Davidson had the honor of being the first among that departing cohort to host, earlier this season, but McKinnon got her chance last night, closing out the year with SNL’s annual Christmas episode. As she discovered, it’s one thing to steal the scene and quite another to steer the show.

“I’ve always felt more comfortable in a weird costume,” she admitted in her opening monologue, referring to the many oddball personalities she played on SNL. Since leaving, she jokingly confessed, she’s been struggling to figure out who she is apart from those roles, quipping, “I’ve been trying to assemble a human personality.” (Her spin as Weird Barbie in the blockbuster Barbie film perhaps complicated that effort.) Indeed, McKinnon’s turn—well earned after 11 seasons that made her one of the show’s longest-running female cast members, and easily one of its most popular—revealed the disparity between the spotlight of hosting and the camouflage of ensemble comedy. McKinnon didn’t seem entirely comfortable breaking away from the unity of the cast to assertively claim the audience’s attention. It made for a night that was less a victory lap than a reminder of the delights of collaborative live performance.

Perhaps to soften the responsibility of hosting, the SNL alums Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig joined McKinnon at the end of her monologue to sing a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” its lyrics altered to express the joy of coming back to 30 Rock. Yet, rather than confine their surprise appearance to that sentimental moment, they returned twice more: for the filmed music video “Tampon Farm,” and the night’s standout scene, “ABBA Christmas.” The duo’s ongoing presence diverted attention away from McKinnon and at one point almost stole the show.

On “Tampon Farm,” an Indigo Girls–esque take on a group of women who grow and harvest tampons, McKinnon adroitly took on the role of the sexually charged lead singer and detailed the various women of the titular farm, which included Rudolph, Wiig, and the former SNL writer and comedian Paula Pell. But it was on “ABBA Christmas,” a fake ad for the Swedish supergroup’s Christmas album, where the goofy mayhem that Rudolph and Wiig are so adept at instigating reached pitch perfection. During one track teaser, the foursome depicting ABBA (McKinnon, Rudolph, Wiig, and Bowen Yang) broke into pairs and parodied the “standing close, facing different directions” shots stitched throughout the band’s music videos. While McKinnon and Yang held tight to their placement, Rudolph and Wiig pushed the conceit further, until at one point their mouths smushed together as they sang. That choice made them break and in turn nearly cracked the cast member James Austin Johnson as the professional announcer. It was a revelrous moment, and one McKinnon couldn’t match in terms of spontaneity or energy.

Wiig notably didn’t appear in the night’s one nod to McKinnon’s catalog of recurring characters, “Whiskers R We,” even though she’d done so years ago. In the bit, McKinnon plays Barbara DeDrew, an employee at a local cat-adoption agency who films its promo spots with winking sexual overtones, and is regularly joined by a rotating co-host. Last night, the musical guest, Billie Eilish, portrayed DeDrew’s new intern (and possible daughter) Pawbry Hepburn, delivering showstopper lines like “A cat is a dog that’s a bitch.” The two together exuded a lively warmth, reminiscent of Eilish’s time hosting SNL’s Christmas episode two years ago, when she partnered a couple of times with McKinnon.

Although hosting might’ve seemed an ideal opportunity to highlight McKinnon’s trademark weirdness, it really only appeared in a broadcast-news spoof from the North Pole, where a pod of killer whales has broken through the ice and eaten a bunch of elves. Playing a survivor of the attack, McKinnon kept bobbing in and out of the live shot to question Santa’s response to the tragedy. Her wacky conspiratorial interruptions, delivered in a thick Scottish accent, injected the familiar remote-location setup with unexpectedly screwy touches (including wielding a harpoon in self-defense) that heightened the comedic chaos of the fictional disaster.

SNL instead mostly gave McKinnon host-type characters, the ones who have to lead the sketch and don’t always get an opportunity to break free from that stricture. She gamely leaned into them, turning a self-deprecating mother who apologizes for her Christmas gifts as her children open them into a seething ball of self-hatred. Those bits didn’t take full advantage of her talents, but then, McKinnon seemed perfectly content to keep herself hidden among the cast. There’s something sweet about her impulse to share the spotlight with everyone else onstage—if only it didn’t come at the cost of the eccentricities that have made her so captivating to watch.

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