“Yikes,” a visibly flustered Kate McKinnon said as she grabbed her second Emmy statue for her work on Saturday Night Live on Sunday. “Being part of this season of Saturday Night Live is the most meaningful thing I will ever do. Congratulations to our incredible cast,” she added. But just as McKinnon started to thank Hillary Clinton for her “grace and grit,” the orchestra kicked in—prompting McKinnon to hastily switch to thanking her mom. Which is a shame, because McKinnon’s incredible work as Clinton is just one part of how the women of S.N.L. made the show great again last season.
McKinnon’s win may have felt as close to a sure thing as we had in a crowded year, where Oscar winner was pitted against Oscar winner in one category and co-star against co-star in others. McKinnon may have won for gracefully carrying her popular Clinton impression through a tumultuous (and at times emotionally devastating) election season alone. But the way in which she pivoted, post-election, to nimbly skewer other members of the Trump administration, like Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos, and Jeff Sessions, proved that, imported talent like Alec Baldwin and fellow Emmy winner Melissa McCarthy aside, McKinnon remains the show’s most valuable player.
Her back-to-back wins also makes some Emmys history for S.N.L., which has actually seen very few of its regular players nominated (let alone win) in its 42 seasons on air. McKinnon’s double win joins single wins for previous cast members Chevy Chase (1976), Gilda Radner (1978), and Dana Carvey (1993). And that’s it for the permanent cast! The show usually fares better in the star-studded guest acting category, where hosts like Justin Timberlake and Betty White have picked up statues. In recent years, with the exception of back-to-back nominations for Bill Hader in 2012 and 2013, it’s been the women of S.N.L. representing the cast on Emmys night. Former cast members Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig scored three and six nominations, respectively, but this year, the supporting-actress category was crowded with three female S.N.L. players: McKinnon, her fellow Ghostbuster Leslie Jones, and departing cast member Vanessa Bayer. Not bad for a show that once had to make light of its lack of female players during a 1990 Twin Peaks sketch, in which the only two women in the cast—Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson —had to breathlessly play every female character opposite guest host Kyle MacLachlan. “There’s only two women left on Saturday Night Live,” Kevin Nealon ruefully admitted in character as Sheriff Truman, “and we already used them both up.”
That was during the season where featured players Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Farley, and Rob Schneider joined existing stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to usher in S.N.L.’s most frat-boy-friendly era. It’s been a few decades since that particular lineup, but last season, S.N.L. took a very conscious step away from that brand of humor. Removing somewhat controversial cast members Taran Killam and Jon Rudnitsky (as well as Jay Pharoah, who recently claimed he refused to wear a dress in a sketch under any circumstances), S.N.L. hired Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider as head writers. The team of Kelly and Schneider represented not only the first openly gay and the third female head writer in the show’s history, respectively, but also the perfect opportunity for the women of S.N.L. to take an even more central role in the cast as McKinnon was eager to note in her speech: “Thank you to our amazing writers. It’s all about the writing guys. Especially Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, I love you guys so much.”
While it’s true that imported talent Baldwin and McCarthy, as well as rising star Mikey Day (“David S. Pumpkins”), deserve credit for this brilliant season, the unabashedly progressive politics of the show overall were its most recognizable calling card. And even before they became head writers, Kelly and Schneider used their positions on the writing staff to showcase female talent. In a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the writing duo cited Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon as their most frequent collaborators, and Schneider said, “We like to write for women and the cast of women that we currently have is incredible. It feels fortuitous for us that we get to be here at a time when the people we like to write for are really killing it on the show.”
During their tenure on the show, Kelly and Schneider were responsible for a string of hit girl-band music-video sketches “First Got Horny 2 U,” “Back Home Ballers,” and “(Do It on My) Twin Bed”—and, this year, added the enormously popular “Melanianade,” featuring guest host Emily Blunt as Ivanka Trump, Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway, Sasheer Zamata as Omarosa, and Vanessa Bayer as Tiffany Trump—to the list.
The women of S.N.L. were also deployed throughout the season to occasionally skewer and shred the perspectives of their own male co-stars like “Weekend Update” hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che. It’s true that Baldwin’s Trump was something of a lynchpin this season, but S.N.L.’s renewed role as the comedic voice of the left wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without a cast full of women ready to react to his antics with shock, dismay, and, snarling disdain. Having significantly improved diversity among its cast these last few years (though it still hasn’t announced a replacement for Zamata), S.N.L. was perfectly primed to be more gay, female, and viral-friendly under the stewardship of Schneider and Kelly. As it turns out, that was exactly what the country needed.