In an astounding feat of comedic versatility, the comedian Kate McKinnon brought Saturday Night Live back from the brink of irrelevance this weekend, with her brilliant impressions of US attorney general Jeff Sessions and education secretary Betsy DeVos.
The sketch comedy show has struggled to stay relevant in its 43rd season, coming off a banner year in which we saw Melissa McCarthy’s brutal Sean Spicer impression and Tom Hanks’ turn as “David S. Pumpkins” become an instant internet legend. As David Sims in the Atlantic noted, the political humor especially has felt forced, overused, and ineffectual, as the outlandish reality of American politics routinely upstages the humor meant to satirize it. The show’s signature impression, Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, is wearing out its welcome, and the veteran comedian has hinted that his days guest-starring at SNL are numbered.
But the show still boasts one bright spot, and that’s McKinnon. Her two political impressions in the March 17 episode were the most effective comedy SNL has created in ages. And that’s due to McKinnon’s rare talent as a performer.
McKinnon, an Emmy-winner and one of SNL’s longest tenured players (only Kenan Thompson has been on the show longer), has lampooned a number of prominent political figures, including Hillary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But her impressions of Donald Trump’s attorney general and education secretary are her most formidable.
What binds them together is that neither even attempt to directly mirror the subject. Like McCarthy’s aggressively funny Sean Spicer, McKinnon’s approach takes one essential characteristic of her subjects, or a psychological through-line, and magnifies it.
For Sessions, it’s his Southern, boyish innocence, masking a history of deeply discriminatory policy-making. When put through the McKinnon comedy machine, the effect is essentially, “racist Keebler elf.”
For DeVos, it’s her utter lack of qualifications and preparedness. Based in part on a disastrous 60 Minutes interview in which DeVos failed to competently answer basic questions about her work, McKinnon’s appearance as the US secretary of education during this week’s “Weekend Update” segment was both incisive and hilarious:
“Hello the audience, hello the man,” McKinnon’s DeVos beams as she enters the stage, an uncanny grin fixed to her face. Asked about her troubles in the public eye, she delivers a clear analysis: “I think the problem is the words that were coming out of my mouth were bad,” she says, still smiling. “And that is because they came from my brain.”
It’s a clever line to begin with, but McKinnon plays the moment as someone who almost relishes her incompetence, at once aware of it while also weirdly proud of that ignorance—which can easily be read as a lampooning of the US president’s entire administration.
DeVos’ ideas get progressively crazier (“a school for bears,” “red-hot door knobs”), and her grammar and syntax subtly begin to break down, the longer she speaks. “I do like visiting good school,” she says towards the end of the segment, smile intensifying.
It’s scary to imagine a Saturday Night Live without McKinnon involved, but for the time being, at least, we don’t have to.