Cecily Strong kept Saturday Night Live viewers on their toes until the end. She spent two successive season finales looking likely to pack it in, most memorably in a 2021 Weekend Update appearance where she played Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, singing “My Way” and dunking herself in a giant box of wine; she also took time off from the show last winter and this past fall, to star in New York and Los Angeles stage revivals of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. But her actual departure this past weekend was a midseason surprise; just a few hours before this year’s Christmas episode aired, word hit the internet that it would be Strong’s last. The episode confirmed this multiple times, first with Strong bidding a coded farewell as her Weekend Update character Cathy Anne, and then as she sang a duet of “Blue Christmas” with host Austin Butler. In both appearances, as well as the end-of-show goodnights, she was visibly holding back tears. (Unlike one of her earlier recurring characters, she did not systematically roast each of her co-workers one by one.)
Strong ended her time neck-and-neck with Kate McKinnon for the title of longest-serving female cast member in the show’s history. They spanned the same number of seasons (11), spent a similar amount of raw time as cast members (10 years plus a few months), and appeared in a near-identical number of episodes (by my count, subtracting their respective absences to work on other projects, McKinnon was in 204 and Strong was in 203). Anyone in search of a tiebreaker could point out that Strong spent slightly less of her time as a supporting “featured” player than McKinnon did.
Yet Strong never seemed to attain quite the same legendary status as McKinnon, who was the de facto star of SNL for much of her time there and parlayed that status into some major film and TV projects. Strong’s extracurriculars — the Search for Signs revival, where she stepped into roles originated by Lily Tomlin, and the Apple musical series Schmigadoon — were more in line with her image as a dedicated theater kid.
That term is sometimes meant as a pejorative, especially in the world of comedy, where a Bill Murray-style blasé detachment can still make a comedian look cool (see Strong’s longtime castmate Pete Davidson, whose whole deal was his refusal to exert himself). For Strong, though, it signifies an unusual level of dedication to her craft. She often appeared to be approaching sketch comedy as an actress, not as a zany comedy performer scanning for punchlines. This is probably why she made such an odd fit during her brief tenure at the Weekend Update desk, cracking wise under her own name. She seemed more comfortable embodying characters, like the discombobulated but ultimately reasonable Cathy Anne, the immortal Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At a Party, and Heather, a “one-dimensional female character from a male-driven comedy.” She had the peculiar, uncanny ability to make the kinds of caricatures that thrive as Update guests pop off the screen without resorting to catchphrases or full-on mugging. Her best moments almost feel like tiny one-act plays.
Strong’s theater-kid bona fides, touched upon in her memoir This Will All Be Over Soon, also made her one of the cast’s big singers; it was hard not to think of her various musical moments when fellow long-hauler Kenan Thompson described “a power and a joy to her performance” on Saturday (especially because it was just moments before she powered through her obvious emotion to sing “Blue Christmas” alongside Elvis star Austin Butler). Cabaret singers, washed-up Broadway wannabes, nasal-voiced teen pop, or vacant British speak-singer: Strong made all of their voices carry.
But moreso than her genre-shifting pipes, Strong earned her place in the SNL pantheon with an ability to play the reality of even the most ridiculous characters or sketches, something even McKinnon could struggle with as she became aware of her power over the crowd. Strong admired Phil Hartman, and while she shared some of his range — able to play straight parts, weirdos, political figures, parents or deadpan announcers with equal aplomb — some of her sketches have unexpected warmth, as if little rays of her own personality are shining through the characters. It’s natural light, and not always easy to trace. As Butler alluded in his rendition of “Blue Christmas,” Strong semi-regularly appeared in sketches performing opposite dogs, sometimes caught helpless in the face of their non-acting adorableness; another one of her best sketches casts her as a repentant pet owner freaking out over how long she fed her dog an inferior brand of food. There’s a rawness to her performance that makes it both funnier and weirdly affecting; her spiraling is absurd, punctuated by a howl of rage, but it has a ring of truth. After I read This Will All Be Over Soon, where Strong diaristically describes her open-hearted insecurities as she mourns a death in the family, freaks out over the pandemic and frets over an uncertain new relationship, I flashed to a relatively obscure pair of SNL sketches where Strong plays a woman who brings a weird friend to a baby shower. In both sketches, her character’s friend goads her into a near-breakdown over minor perceived social slights. This material probably doesn’t come directly from Strong’s personal life, but the way she describes her own neuroses on the page did convince me that she understood these characters and the teetering emotional states she renders so vividly and hilariously. This sincerity was also key to her stealthily soul-baring routine as Goober the Clown, where she more consciously blurred the line between committed performer and real person underneath. Not that we’re keeping score, but it plays a lot stronger than McKinnon’s similarly themed Dr. Wenowdis.
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As McKinnon demonstrated, that kind of character-breaking self-reflexivity can become cloying if a performer can’t keep a straight face. Strong’s final episode tested her in that regard, yet in between teary farewells, there she was in the rest of the show: as a brassy grandmother enthusing over “Jewish Elvis” performing at her retirement home, as an off-key Kimberly Guilfoyle, as another straight woman in a sketch about a White Elephant gift-swap. There was no grand, multi-sketch curtain call for Strong’s roster of recurring characters — not because she didn’t have her share of great ones, but because she didn’t produce many dominating SNL mascots. Maybe Strong struggled with when to leave the show because she didn’t see it as a springboard, but as a production she could remake every week, an end in itself. Whatever her process, she did the kind of work that keeps the show running, giving theater kids everywhere a good name.
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