With a manic glint in her eye, Hillary turns toward the camera and grins so wide her teeth practically vibrate with determination.
“I will rise from the ashes like a phoenix — nay, like a Hillary Clinton,” she declares, raising her arms above her head, “and I will ascend to the high office of president and claim my rightful place in HISTORYYYYYYYYYYY.”
Emphasis Kate McKinnon’s.
Since that bombastic sketch in early 2015, Saturday Night Live has thrown McKinnon headlong into the role of impersonating Clinton. In this time, the former secretary of state has announced her second candidacy for president, become the Democratic nominee, and faced off against Donald Trump in one of the most bizarre campaigns in memory. It’s been so fraught, so exhausting, that by the time SNL got to its final episode before Election Day, even McKinnon and Alec Baldwin (as Trump) had to stop mid-sketch and marvel at just how awful portraying this election has been for them.
In parallel, McKinnon’s impression has launched her from being one of the show’s most reliable weirdos to an indispensable asset. Earlier this year, she even won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy — the first SNL cast member to do so, ever. And a big part of her win was undoubtedly thanks to her enthusiastic impression of Clinton as the presidential race continued to escalate.
The thing is, McKinnon’s Clinton impression isn’t all that good. It’s frenetic and wild, portraying Clinton as less like the cautious politician she is and more like an eccentric aunt letting loose after three too many margaritas.
The other thing is, it doesn’t matter.
In this election — one of the most contentious in history, defined by Republican aggression and Democrat restraint — exhausted Clinton supporters don’t care if McKinnon is accurate. They want to see Clinton untethered from the expectations that come with being both a Clinton and a woman. If McKinnon’s impression is the closest they’re going to get, so be it.
To understand what makes McKinnon’s Clinton so unusual, you have to understand SNL’s commitment to grounding impressions in reality
Nailing an impression of a celebrity or politician is a tricky task. On the one hand, you want it to be recognizable; on the other, you don’t want it to be boring.
SNL has always taken pride in packing its sketches with larger-than-life versions of high-profile people. And it tends to double down on this approach for politicians, whose job is to maintain personas that please their electorates. Deconstructing those carefully crafted images requires some finesse, as well as gleeful enthusiasm for tearing them apart and putting them back together in slightly weirder shapes to make them easier to laugh at.
Still, SNL has typically taken pains to make its political impressions accurate; players focus on getting the voice/affect right first and finding the comedy second. When executed well, an impression can transcend basic parody into something more familiar and — at least theoretically — more effective in conveying exactly what they want you to laugh about.
Sometimes this quest for accuracy falters, resulting in an impression like Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama. Armisen — a non-black man cast in the role of our first black president — strained so hard to capture Obama’s voice that he usually ended up reading cue cards in a monotone with wide, vaguely panicked eyes, like he knew things weren’t going his way.
Other times, it yields inspired results like Darrell Hammond’s eerie Bill Clinton impression, or former cast member Tina Fey returning to the show to play Sarah Palin after people couldn’t stop comparing the two women’s appearances.
Of course, neither Hammond nor Fey stopped at looking the part; they painstakingly recreated their marks’ voices, so if you closed your eyes, you’d think you were just hearing Bill Clinton and Palin drawling loopy jokes of their own. Tellingly, both Hammond and Fey performed these impressions on SNL long after they’d left the regular cast, which says something about how much the show prizes precision.
Hillary Clinton is a tough target. Looking back at SNL’s history of impersonating her provides a pretty stark reminder of how hard it is to spoof a person who mentally drafts everything she says before she says it.
Jan Hooks was the first to take on the role when Bill Clinton became president, portraying Hillary as a smiley know-it-all. Ana Gasteyer then took on the role when Hillary was the first lady, before she became a New York senator. Gasteyer hinged her impression on the idea of Hillary as stoic righthand woman, usually ceding the spotlight to Hammond’s Bill hamming it up around her.
Once Amy Poehler took over in 2003, she didn’t exactly go wild, but her impression was a little looser, especially when portraying the Hillary who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007 and 2008.
But Poehler was still calm, collected, and even-toned. Breaks in that routine were rare, exceptions to the rule of portraying the meticulous brand Clinton adheres to in real life.
McKinnon doesn’t exactly phone it in when trying to mimic Clinton. She deepens her voice, slows her speech, jerks her hands around in that stilted doll way politicians seem to love.
But for the most part, McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton is a version of the comedian’s go-to SNL specialty: a wide-eyed woman with a fiercely weird streak whose bark is just as sharp as her bite. Through this filter, McKinnon is far less concerned with emulating how Clinton looks and acts, choosing instead to portray Clinton’s pragmatism and poise as a mask hiding the real, roiling emotions underneath.
People love McKinnon’s impression because her version of Clinton says all the things the real Clinton can’t
Hillary Clinton simmers; Kate McKinnon erupts.
And while McKinnon’s Clinton impression may not be accurate, in an election defined by the extremes of Clinton restraining herself while Donald Trump does anything but, it’s cathartic as hell.
As Trump likes to point out, Hillary Clinton has been in politics for a long time — more than 30 years. One of the few consistencies of her career is how judiciously she’s had to balance all the different aspects of her personality and ambition.
Whether as a first lady with designs beyond baking cookies and peddling pleasantries, a senatorial candidate, the secretary of state, or a presidential nominee, Clinton has spent years honing her skills in navigating the treacherous obstacle course that is getting what she wants while keeping politicians and voters alike on her side.
And like it or not, a large part of her balancing act is part and parcel of being a woman.
Gasteyer and Poehler’s versions of Clinton touched on this, often diving into the bottomless well of frustration their Hillarys felt at being sidelined and attacked as a supposed extension of Bill.
But as McKinnon stepped into the role in 2015, Clinton’s real life was becoming a sort of funhouse mirror version of itself. She threw her hat into the Democratic ring just as Trump threw his into the Republican one, ultimately turning this election cycle into a hyperactive mess of mythically ugly proportions.
In the months since, every ounce of precedent and decorum has evaporated, largely thanks to Trump’s incendiary language and behavior, from kicking off his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants rapists, to calling Clinton a “nasty woman” during the final debate, to bragging — as revealed by a now-infamous Access Hollywood tape from 2005 — about he could “grab women by the pussy.”
McKinnon’s Clinton couldn’t have come at a better time.
Even though Clinton is running against a man whose entire platform rests on a foundation of stoked anger, she still has to be cool, controlled, steady. She has to navigate a political system entrenched in hundreds of years of exclusion and sexism. She has to keep herself contained, lest the electorate decide she — a woman, in case you haven’t heard — is acting too aggressive, too authoritative, too “nasty.”
And while it may be maddening to watch Clinton grin and bear it, as we saw in the debates, that’s one of the only ways she can counter Trump’s embrace of rambling fear-mongering.
But in McKinnon’s hands, Clinton is openly drooling for the presidency. She’s furious that someone as dishonest and unfit to serve as Trump has become a real competitor, and she’s ready to pounce on whatever opportunity to get ahead comes her way. She routinely snarls in Trump’s face and embraces a wicked smirk whenever she lands a verbal blow. She’s unafraid to unleash her emotions when she feels them, whether she’s expressing frustration, joy, anger, or lust for power.
McKinnon’s Clinton is, in other words, all the things Hillary Clinton absolutely can’t be without sparking potentially disastrous waves of backlash about her phrasing, her gender, the daringness of her basic desire to be president.
Clinton still has to play a painstakingly diligent game — but McKinnon doesn’t, and it’s made her version of Clinton so much more satisfying.
Corrected to reflect that Jan Hooks was the first to play Clinton on SNL, not Gasteyer.