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Kate McKinnon's Most Memorable SNL Moments Ranked

With the close of its 47th season, "Saturday Night Live" said goodbye to some series regulars: Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, and Kate McKinnon. As the four comedians exit in order to tackle new creative pursuits, "SNL" loses a treasure trove of talent, but no loss will hit harder than that of McKinnon, the show's comedic anchor for an entire decade.

Upon joining the cast in 2012, McKinnon hit the ground running, delivering one memorable performance after another. After ten years of non-stop excellence, her writing, impressions, and character work earned her an impressive nine Emmy nominations, twice winning for Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy Series. On top of her critical success, McKinnon is a comedian's comedian, drawing laughs from her fellow cast members almost as often as she did from the audience. With her exit, "SNL" has the near-impossible task of replacing her sweeping, dynamic talent. In celebration of McKinnon's long, jam-packed tenure and the many contributions she made to our collective entertainment, here are her most memorable "SNL" moments, ranked worst to best.

She played Penelope Cruz in her first episode

It's not often that an "SNL" cast member knocks it out of the park at the first time of asking. Even all-time greats like Will Ferrell and Eddie Murphy took a full season or more to blossom into the beautiful, infantile, debauched flowers they would eventually become. The series has a notoriously stressful shooting schedule, just as its iconic creator/showrunner Lorne Michaels has a notoriously demanding expectation of his would-be stars. Many new cast members take considerable time adapting to the pressure and evolving into their final forms, and many never evolve at all. But McKinnon was like a shark — her form was effective from the beginning and so she barely had to evolve in order to stay on top of the food chain.

In her very first sketch, McKinnon played Penelope Cruz opposite Sofia Vergara, with the pair taking turns reading lines for a shampoo commercial. The bit became obvious quickly, as the duo were tasked with pronouncing increasingly complicated and lengthy chemical terms. Instead of the easy laugh at Vergara's expense, McKinnon's Cruz character takes all of the most difficult words, increasingly complaining about having to pronounce things like "Arteriovenous Plexus," while Vergara is given words like "Yay."

The super-powered smooch

Kate McKinnon has never been shy about her sexuality, becoming the first openly gay "SNL" cast member when she joined the show in 2012. Likewise, she was never one to hold anything back in her sketches — sexuality included. It's precisely for those reasons that her 2017 sketch "Themyscira" hits extra hard. Alongside Aidy Bryant, McKinnon plays a lesbian who finds herself shipwrecked on the mythical all-female island of Themyscira, the famed birthplace of Wonder Woman. Among all the beautiful Amazons (including host Gal Gadot), McKinnon and Bryant unsurprisingly think that they are in heaven.

The bit becomes apparent when the two realize that the island is not a lesbian paradise as they had hoped, but rather a platonic community of sister-warriors, which Bryant describes as "a huge let down for us." The let down wouldn't last long, however, as the sketch quickly steers into a kiss between Gadot and McKinnon. Leaning into the audience's extra-vocal reaction, Gadot and McKinnon stretch the kiss into a long, passionate make-out, and McKinnon — as only she could — heightened the laughter even further by pretending to feel absolutely nothing throughout.

Her version of Hallelujah was a rare emotional moment

Kate McKinnon is a comedian and "SNL" is a comedy series. By default, the vast majority of her most memorable moments are comedic. Fans remember the strangest characters, the wildest moments, and the biggest laughs. But occasionally, "SNL" swaps the comedy mask for its tragic counterpart and delivers a moment built from pure emotion. In the modern era, none have been more memorable than the way McKinnon opened the post-election episode in 2016.

Though dressed as her Hillary Clinton character, McKinnon was entirely herself. The first shot of the night faded up to McKinnon's fingers, deftly playing a grand piano, alone on the "SNL" stage. She played and sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and did so masterfully — despite the tears welling up in her eyes throughout. Her goal was to address not only the death of Cohen just a few days earlier but the tumultuous presidential election and its divisive result. After concluding the piece, McKinnon looked out to the millions of viewers — many of them thoroughly heartbroken — and said, "I'm not giving up and neither should you." As Esquire said of McKinnon and the show's producers: "Though the show had almost never opened with a song in its forty-plus-year history, this was the right way to go."

Her study buddy teen was hilariously awkward

It's a testament to her prowess as a character actor that one of the most accurate and hilarious depictions of a straight preteen boy in recent history was given by Kate McKinnon. The character, a "nerdy teen" named Josh, appeared multiple times, and McKinnon always nailed his awkward attempts at romance. But it was his appearance alongside host Carey Mulligan when the character shone brightest.

In the "Study Buddy" sketch, Josh finds himself alone in the bedroom of his project partner — a young girl who inexplicably seems attracted to him. McKinnon's nervous, overly-formal interactions are funny enough on their own, but the sketch opts to heighten the comedy by having Josh literally phone a friend (played by Aidy Bryant) in order to talk him through the potential flirtation. Despite his situational misreadings and errant instincts, Josh ends up doing well.

Typical of so many McKinnon/Bryant sketches, everyone involved descends into laughter, in particular when McKinnon and Mulligan stare eye to eye while McKinnon narrates their every action to Bryant on the line. Honestly, it's impressive that Mulligan made it as far as she did.

Madame Vivelda predicted a terrible 2020 for Adele

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic dominated news cycles, it's no surprise that it also led to a multitude of "SNL" sketches. The pandemic managed to infiltrate and influence every major pillar of "SNL" sketch-writing: The political cold-opens, the absurd fantasy sketches, the never-ending game show variations. Despite the seemingly infinite competition, one pandemic sketch's cleverness and glee made it stand out from the rest — Kate McKinnon's "Madame Vivelda."

When a group of friends (led by host Adele) decide to visit a psychic, they find themselves in the presence of Vivelda. The sketch's effortlessly brilliant premise rears its head when it becomes obvious that the friends are asking about their upcoming year — 2020 — and that Vivelda is no fraudster. Though the group hopes to hear premonitions of romance and travel, Vivelda relays to them the truth: 2020 will be dominated by lockdowns and daily life will be far from ideal.

In yet another example of McKinnon causing the host to break, Vivelda warns Adele's character that her 2020 will be nothing but days alone with adult coloring books. "Monday: coloring. Tuesday: coloring. Every day: coloring!" (Cue horror movie thunderclap).

McKinnon's Last Call sketch never failed to impress

The final sketch slots of the night on "SNL" have long been reserved for the more experimental, riskier ideas, as well as those pitches meant more for cast entertainment rather than that of the viewer. Though McKinnon spent years as a show lead, dominating cold opens and fan-favorite sketches, she also had the range to get loose and wild at the end of the night, especially with her aptly-titled recurring sketch "Last Call."

Every incarnation of "Last Call" saw McKinnon's character (a trashy sot with standards that got lower by the second) pick up the last remaining person in the bar (an equally trashy sot with the same "Well, I guess this is my only option" energy). That second sot was played by the host of the episode, and the result of their desperate pairing with McKinnon's character was hilarious 100% of the time. At one point, she and Louis C. K. snogged hard enough to practically meld into one being. John Goodman flung whipped cream from his beard as he air-motorboated her. In the most-watched incarnation, she and Dave Chapelle tongue-lashed each other while inhaling Axe Body Spray. The sketch truly was a gold mine.

She lampooned Justin Bieber in a series of memorable sketches

It's time to turn to Kate McKinnon's "SNL" celebrity impressions, as they are arguably her greatest asset — and were perhaps the show's greatest asset during her tenure. One of her most popular subjects was Justin Bieber, and, like "Study Buddy," the impression proves McKinnon's uncanny ability to encapsulate the essence of a teenage boy. The difference between Josh the nerdy teen and Bieber, however, is the latter's almost inhuman amount of confidence despite his relative inexperience, which McKinnon captured perfectly.

One of her peaks as the Biebs came when she lampooned the young pop star's Calvin Klein ad, recreating his desperate attempts to lose his public perception as a child. She absolutely nailed his persona during the ad, a perplexing mixture of egotist, Lothario, and naïve schoolboy. As she put it during another sketch, this one an interview with CNN, "I think I'm 40. Maybe I'm five. I don't know — my brain is broken." Even better than the rest is McKinnon's Bieber on Family Feud, when Steve Harvey flat-out dispels Bieber's attempts at sex appeal by saying: "I got some bad news for you player — that don't work on women that's grown."

Kellywise the Clown was creepy and funny at the same time

Another of Kate McKinnon's standout parodies was Kellyanne Conway, the controversial campaign manager turned senior counselor to former president Donald Trump. McKinnon expertly recreated — and very much amplified — Conway's public flubs. Like the Biebs, McKinnon's Conway had a turn on Family Feud, in which she attempted to rewrite Steve Harvey's perception of reality. The best incarnation of Conway, however, was when she was mashed up with Pennywise, the monstrous clown-demon from "It," to create "Kellywise."

When Kellywise first appears, the moment is played for screams instead of laughs, and the same is true for the moment when the monster suddenly grows a mouthful of fangs and rips Anderson Cooper's arm off. The sketch's commitment to drama and tension throughout makes the comedic moments hit even harder, like when Keenan Thompson pops up as a cop and points out a major issue with the entire "It" franchise. "Don't talk to her," he warns Cooper. "Every day, she drags somebody into that sewer. Down there where the doodies are."

Her Hillary Clinton has become iconic

Undoubtedly, Kate McKinnon's most popular impersonation was Hillary Clinton. The character starred in dozens of cold opens, most of them during the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. A consummate impressionist, McKinnon took every facet of Clinton's personality and exemplified it exponentially. Her rigidly competent Clinton paired superbly with frequent guest Alec Baldwin's bumbling Donald Trump. The pair reenacted the multiple presidential debates to great effect, each of them garnering tens of millions of views on YouTube.

From the onset, McKinnon had an uphill battle topping "SNL" alum Amy Poehler's Clinton impression, and a lesser performer could certainly have failed. But McKinnon delivered, and her Clinton became so iconic that it impacted the real deal — after McKinnon's final episode, Clinton took to Instagram to share a picture of her and the comedian side by side, with McKinnon in costume.

It's also worth pointing out that, among the cold opens from the time that didn't feature McKinnon's Clinton impression, the "SNL" star still anchored almost every one — as Anthony Fauci, or Laura Ingraham, or Rudy Giuliani, or, as we mentioned, Kellyanne Conway. It remains to be seen how the cold opens of the future will change in a post-McKinnon world.

We will never forget her first Close Encounter sketch

It's hard to argue against the "Close Encounter" sketch being the most iconic of the modern "SNL" era. The original "Close Encounter," which aired during Ryan Gosling's 2015 turn as host, became an instant classic. Even seven years after its initial broadcast, it remains (as of this writing) the sixth most-watched video on the official "SNL" YouTube channel, with almost 54 million views. At this point, it almost goes without saying that McKinnon caused Gosling to break during the sketch, but if anything, everyone's laughter only heightened the comedic experience.

Like its many, many spin-offs, "Close Encounter" follows Cecily Strong and the host of the episode relaying their life-changing interactions with benevolent, omniscient alien beings, while McKinnon is left with the extraterrestrial scraps, being ogled and prodded by a swarm of little, perverted gray men. The contrast between Strong and Gosling's cosmic nirvana and McKinnon's tawdry, one night stand-like encounter is funny enough as written, but the way in which she delivers her lines, staring into her cigarette with a hard-earned resignation, makes the sketch a masterpiece. Eager to re-bottle the lightning, "SNL" used the same formula for more close encounters, ghost encounters, near-death experiences, and even a "Christmas Miracle."

Final Encounter was a fitting send off

To open the final episode of "SNL" Season 47 — the last of McKinnon's celebrated run — the show chose to recall the "Close Encounter" sketch one last time. This version, tellingly dubbed "Final Encounter," saw Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong reprise their roles as alien abductees, this time joined by host Natasha Lyonne. Unlike the other encounters, "Final Encounter" opened the show, accomplishing the twin tasks of placing McKinnon front and center in viewers' attention throughout the episode and also giving McKinnon the chance to say "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night" one last time.

Like all of its numerous counterparts, "Final Encounter" saw Strong and the host attempting to put into words the sublime revelations gifted to them by some unseen, otherworldly beings, while McKinnon spent her time in space as a circus attraction. This time, however, McKinnon ends the scene by joining the aliens aboard their spaceship permanently. As she says shortly before her exit, "Well, Earth, I love ya. Thanks for letting me stay a while." As her character presumably flies off for a thrilling (if possibly demeaning) life in space, McKinnon herself flies off to her new life. Despite her tremendous success at "SNL," McKinnon is likely to fly higher than ever now that she is in charge of her own fate.