For months, one question has lingered over the prospective presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and that is: Who will play her on “Saturday Night Live”?
Impersonations of the former first lady and secretary of State have been a staple of the show for more than two decades, with some of comedy’s best donning blonde wigs and misfitting blazers in service of our political giggles. (“Do I really laugh like that?” the real Clinton asked her comic avatar Amy Poehler when she guested on the show in 2008. “Oh, uh, yeah, well. . .” replied Poehler.)
Now, SNL has signaled that Kate McKinnon — a 31-year-old cast member most recently lauded for her impersonation of Justin Bieber — will fill that well-worn pantsuit. Many SNL observers had expected Vanessa Bayer, who has occasionally played Clinton in recent seasons and is still on the SNL cast, would be tapped for the role.
But McKinnon debuted in the role this past Saturday, in an episode-opening skit that was SNL’s first major Clinton riff of the 2016 cycle, portraying a frontrunner smugly confident this whole private-email controversy will blow over.
“Nice try,” she says, lounging on a floral sofa. “Those e-mails are clean as a whistle. This is not how Hillary Clinton goes down.”
How does she compare with her predecessors? We can’t go much further without praising just how masterful Poehler was in her performances. This site of SNL archives counted 17 Poehler-as-Clinton appearances, many alongside Tina Fey’s unforgettable impersonation of Sarah Palin.
In her 2014 memoir “Yes Please,” Poehler said she loved playing Clinton as a “highly focused and slightly angry woman who was tired of being the smartest person in the room.” Clinton seemed to like the portrayal; when Poehler’s son Archie was born, she wrote him a letter, signed, “Sincerely yours, Hillary Rodham Clinton*.” Next to the asterisk she wrote, “Otherwise known as your mother’s double!”
SNL’s first Hillary was Jan Hooks. When Hooks died in October, her impersonation of Clinton as first lady was praised as one of her best impersonations in a diverse portfolio that included Nancy Reagan, Sinead O’Connor and Tammy Faye Bakker. In one memorable sketch, where she tells Bob Dole (played by Dan Aykroyd), “I happen to be the co-president of the United States,” Hooks set the tone for SNL’s image of Clinton as a woman who has always known she was born to be more than a powerful man’s wife.
Few probably remember that Janeane Garofalo played the Hillary role during her ill-fated single season on the show. It wasn’t particularly distinctive; she wore a wig, she spoke sternly, not really a career highlight.
Ana Gasteyer had better luck, playing the then-first lady in several sketches, generally as a sparklingly confident Hillary outshining Bill in everything from discussing health care reform to addressing their sex life.
McKinnon has kept the Poehler laugh and the Hooks eye contact but added a more manic edge, comically clawing the air to show her ferocity. All of which she’ll have time to perfect if 2016 goes as the real Hillary Clinton plans.