After each earning Emmy noms for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, the ladies of ‘SNL’ dish on working on the scariest and goofiest season amid the pandemic.
Saturday Night Live has been off the air since May, which has allowed its stars time to reflect on what they’ve ultimately concluded was one of the most powerful seasons in their collective tenures at the show — which is not to say it was easy or even fun. Zooming in from different locations, Emmy nominees Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon opened up about the complexities of being funny during a global pandemic and how they think about what’s next, at SNL or elsewhere.
Let’s start easy. Finish this sentence: Looking back on the last season, I can’t believe …
CECILY STRONG I can’t believe we didn’t get shut down once.
AIDY BRYANT I can’t believe we made comedy through all of it.
KATE MCKINNON And I can’t believe that I had the most meaningful season I’ve ever had. I thought it was just going to be, “Well, if we manage to physically get through it, it’ll be something,” but it turned out to be … “favorite” is not the right word but definitely the most meaningful. I certainly felt the most connected to everyone in the building, despite the distance and the masks, because of the enormity of what we were trying to pull off together.
Cecily and Aidy, can you relate?
STRONG No. It was meh for me. (Laughs.) Yes, of course, every interaction we had felt a bit more precious and special this year. Even after the show, getting to creep into the hallway and see if any friends were down the hall in their mask and we could check in with each other; those moments were just as important to me.
BRYANT I agree. Emotions were so high behind the scenes, often just pulling off a silly sketch felt like we tricked everyone, in a really nice way — because that wasn’t always the vibe backstage.
Did you worry about whether you could be funny during this period, and what would constitute funny?
BRYANT Part of it was just how different it all was, especially for the three of us. We’ve been doing it one way for damn near a decade. So to suddenly have half the audience, or not be able to write in a room with the people we’ve been writing with for so long, it was like trying to reinvent the wheel, and you’re like, “The wheel is such a good way to do it. Can’t we just keep using the wheel? No?”
STRONG And it’s a lot harder to be able to jam and riff over Zoom where you’re just interrupting each other and no one can hear anyone. It was also like, “Does every sketch have to be about COVID? And if people aren’t in masks, do we have to now explain why they’re not in masks?”
MCKINNON But so many people I’ve spoken to since it ended have said, “Thank you. It was such a bright spot in a dark time.” And I didn’t think of it that way at the time. It just felt like, “Oh, we’re doing our show and we have masks on and it’s weird.” Then to hear that it meant something to people … and it meant something to me, too. At the final show, we had a full audience for the first time all year, and the three of us were just sobbing when we saw it. And you couldn’t see this at home, but the audience was standing during the entire cold open. (McKinnon gets emotional.) Sorry, but it was so beautiful, and really this mutual recognition of what the entire world had gone through. Honestly, that was the best moment I’ve had in my entire tenure at the show, just realizing how much the audience gives to us and how much we had been missing the normalcy of it.
BRYANT I feel like the whole pandemic I fantasized about this moment where there would be an announcement of “It’s over!” and we’d all step out and hug people in the streets. And in a lot of ways, that particular moment was as close to that as maybe we’ll ever get. It felt wonderfully normal but also thrillingly different in the face of how we’d been doing it.
Cecily, you’ve written a memoir about the anxiety and depression you struggled with the past year. What is it like to then turn around and be expected to make comedy?
STRONG I certainly felt like it was goofier [this season]. We got to throw our hands in the air, like, “What the fuck, it’s 2021. Talk like a turkey. Get into a jug of wine.” And it was absolutely catharsis, having had so much anxiety for so long — every day taking these tests and wondering, “Is this the day I’m going to have COVID?” After the finale, I’d say the moms coming for [the Mother’s Day episode] was my second-favorite moment. Just hugging our moms on TV in front of everybody who really needed to hug someone that they loved and hadn’t been able to see for months was really special.
I’ve heard the table reads have been compared to U.N. meetings, with everyone masked and seated far apart. What was it like to try to figure out what was funny in those conditions?
BRYANT Bad? (Laughs.) No, it was a mix of feelings. Normally we’d see each other on Monday and Tuesday, and in this scenario Wednesday was our first day coming into the office. So it was very nice to be in the room with other people and to see people perform. That felt like a privilege. But it also is a bad version of what it used to be. And Wednesdays used to be my favorite day of the week — more so than Saturday. You see everybody go so hard on these big ideas, and a lot of them don’t make it, but you perform them 150 percent and it’s thrilling.
STRONG Yeah, those table reads were the hardest. I felt like I kept forcing laughter a bit because I’m trying to support people who are doing comedy right now, and we can’t see or hear each other. It’s like, the mics are breaking, and I’m trying to not be distracted by the mics breaking. And the fact that we’re all like, “Who’s here? Who’s not here? Is everyone OK today?” That’s all going through your head. It was one of those times where it was really blatant what we didn’t have anymore — as opposed to Saturdays, where we were reminded of what we did have and the show that we get to make.
MCKINNON For me, I felt like I had a real job. A big gray room. Tables, microphones. It felt like the government in a fun way that I’ll never get.
Looking back, what was your favorite performance?
BRYANT This is part of my SNL amnesia, I lose it all when it’s over. I think so much more about the experience of doing or writing or rehearsing or whatever. But I always like the stuff that I don’t expect to do, or I didn’t write for Wednesday. Like Ted Cruz is a good example …
STRONG I was hoping you were going to say that.
BRYANT I didn’t know I was doing that until Saturday, and then it was like, “Oh no.” I mean, Kate can testify to this. I definitely went to her and was like, “How do you do an impression?” I was so scared. But those are a good thing to kind of shake you out of your thinking about COVID. So, really, I was appreciative for those kinds of weird challenges just to get me out of my head.
STRONG Aidy in those braids is the hardest I laughed this season. I was losing my mind.
Cecily, your rendition of “My Way,” as Judge Jeanine Pirro in a giant box of wine, from the season finale was a real standout. Writer Bryan Tucker has said he’d written it as a sendoff, which makes me wonder: If it was not your last time doing it, how do you top that?
STRONG Well, I couldn’t tell you because then I couldn’t do it. I’d blow it. But clearly that one was more special because it was that show and that audience and just the magic of the night.
Cecily and Aidy, you both missed portions of this season as you were off shooting other shows, a kind of flexibility that didn’t used to exist at SNL. How has the ability to pursue other projects and still come back to SNL impacted your relationship with the show?
MCKINNON I’m going to Australia [for three months] to shoot something now, and so I’ll see what it’s like to come back. But in the past, it’s just a beautiful counterpoint to every other thing. I love working in other venues, and then I love coming back to a family and to the immediacy of thinking of something on a Tuesday and shooting it and airing it a few days later — there’s just nothing else like it. And you can do things that you couldn’t do in any other format, and you can speak directly to the people in a way that you can’t with other formats. It’s so, so gratifying. This season I did a “[Weekend] Update” where I broke character and just talked to the audience about how messed up I felt, and you can’t have that kind of connection with such a large audience in any other venue.
STRONG And I’d say the fact that SNL changed a little is what meant so much because they made it feel like we were coming home and we could go home — that we were welcome to leave and welcome to come back, which makes it more like a home.
The three of you have yet to reveal whether you’ll be returning to the show this fall. Does that flexibility to go and come back make you more likely to stay? And when will you decide?
BRYANT Tell me if you disagree, gang, but I feel like SNL makes you incredibly good at not banking on anything. You’re able to take it minute by minute by minute, and you almost realize how foolish it is to do anything else. So, at least for the three of us, I feel like that’s become our approach on coming back or, really, about anything. Just take it minute by minute and see.
STRONG Beautiful, Aidy.
STRONG What do they say? How do you make God laugh? Show him your plans.
BRYANT OK, I should’ve just said that. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.